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How to optimize the review and approval process in your creative team: a complete guide

17 min read
Aaron Marquis

Here’s a sentence you’ll never hear: “I don’t think this Super Bowl ad needs a second pair of eyes.” Or, “I’m sure those medical disclaimers are fine, print it.”

The review and approval process is inseparable from creative work, and if you’re reading this, you want your process to be the best it can be for your creative team (you’ve come to the right place, by the way).

An optimized review and approval process is what makes exceptional work possible. You experience fewer delays, increased productivity, superior creative output, delighted clients, and a highly motivated team. 

Below, we'll take you through the steps of building a well-structured review and approval process, from setting clear expectations to managing feedback and ensuring timely sign-offs. You'll also get some practical tips and tools that can help you streamline your creative review and approval process and avoid potential roadblocks.   

What we'll cover

What is the creative review and approval process?

The creative review and approval process is how organizations ensure their designs, artwork, ads, videos, and other content meet quality expectations before going public. This system brings together everyone who matters—creative teams, clients, managers, and sometimes even legal or compliance teams, depending on the content. Creative feedback software like Ziflow and project management tools like Jira and Asana help streamline this process, ensuring that all stakeholders can easily collaborate and give their input.

The goal here is to consistently produce an end product that is top-tier, checks all the requirements for industry regulations, meets what everyone agreed to per the creative brief, and finishes both on schedule and within budget.

How to design a successful creative review and approval process

Before you can start designing a creative review and approval process that can be applied universally to all of your creative projects, you need to:

  1. Understand and plan for the creative environment you are operating in (internal or external clients, types of campaigns, types of content, compliance requirements, etc.) 
  2. Map the processes and workflows required to meet those creative requirements.
  3. Put the tools in place to support those processes and workflows.
  4. Manage the people and culture to deliver.
4 solid foundations to ensure that the process is successful and high quality

Let’s look deeper into each element and examine how they contribute to building a creative review and approval process that works for your organization and your clients.

Understand the creative environment

Every approval process needs to reflect the feedback requirements of the team and stakeholders. Which team members from your internal creative, marketing, legal, and compliance teams need to provide feedback on assets? Are there any external stakeholders that need to provide feedback, and who are they?

You’ll also need to consider compliance requirements for the sector(s) you work within. For example, the healthcare and finance industries are highly regulated. If you have clients that fall into those verticals, you’ll need to make sure any process you design has compliance requirements clearly outlined and checks for them baked in.

It’s also important to think about the type of content you create. Are the assets your organization creates more product-focused, like digital ads for PPC campaigns that cover promotions and sales? Or are they part of softer-sell campaigns that focus more on brand awareness or engagement on social media?

Knowing what you’re working with (literally and figuratively) ensures that you’re optimizing your processes around your unique needs from the start.

Map processes and workflows 

A structured workflow outlines every step of your organization’s processes — from the initial draft all the way through final approval. This includes timelines for each stage, who is responsible for what, and your team’s processes for feedback and revisions.

It’s common for creative teams to use software for at least some aspects of their workflows, and they can be highly beneficial in keeping things manageable (we’ll touch on this more in the next section). If you use software, be sure to consider how it incorporates with your workflows.

Put the right tools in place

Good technology underpins efficient review and approval, and today’s creative environment requires a tech stack that can help automate processes and make it easy for teams to collaborate.

First, consider the tools you already use. Are you happy with them? If not, why? Too many creative teams rely on a patchwork of tools that may or may not integrate, increasing the potential for miscommunications and hampering the review and approval process overall. 

It’s also worth asking creative team members directly to see how they feel about the software you’re using within your team. If you identify consistent performance gaps, it may be time to reevaluate your tech stack. 

Incorporating collaborative proofing software is an excellent way to keep the review and approval process organized and efficient. Rather than using multiple disparate tools, online proofing software centralizes the feedback process and eliminates the need for disconnected back-and-forth emails. It also provides version control, making it easy to track changes and revisions to creative assets. And the best software will have robust integration capabilities with your entire tech stack.

Effective people and culture management 

A robust review and approval process is nothing without your team and a solid culture that backs up your processes. When you're shaping up your review and approval approach, make sure your team is in the loop. Getting on board with new processes means winning over the people who'll be living them out day-to-day.

Just like you'd spot missing pieces in your software setup, your team members can offer their own insights on what's hitting the mark and what's missing it—and why. Smart people management ensures everyone's voice is heard and shows clearly how these fresh processes are a win-win for the team.

This is a great opportunity to foster an environment of giving constructive feedback focused on the creative — not the individual. As you’re designing your review and approval process, be sure to incorporate post-project reviews. This is another great opportunity to elicit feedback from your team, leveraging their unique expertise and perspectives to iterate and improve the process even more.

Why you need to optimize your review and approval process

Without an optimized system for approval, complex projects can go off the rails quickly. And that means:

  • Project delays: An optimized process helps ensure that feedback is gathered and implemented efficiently. Without it, you’ll need to keep track of feedback across multiple systems (email, Slack, comments across other project software, etc.), which results in time-consuming back and forth.
  • Inefficiency: A seamless review and approval process cuts out unnecessary steps, such as reaching out to each team member for feedback to push a project ahead. With online proofing software, you cut the manual hassle, thanks to automated alerts that nudge team members when it’s their turn to give feedback.
  • Poor productivity: Greater productivity is a natural byproduct of a more efficient review and approval process. As an optimized process lends itself to a smoother feedback system, creative teams can spend less time on revisions and rework.
  • Low quality creative: In an optimized review and approval process, feedback is clear and actionable, leading to higher quality outcomes. Without a solid system for feedback that specifies what type of comments are constructive and helpful, there may not be enough clear and helpful direction to produce a high-quality creative.
  • Dissatisfied clients: Because optimized review and approval processes lead to better communication between clients and creative teams and produce better quality assets, they’ll create happier clients. This can strengthen relationships, which can lead to repeat business and long-term engagements.
  • Demotivated colleagues: A review and approval process that’s all over the place can lead to tension among team members and between your team and clients. It's easy for feedback to slip through the cracks or get taken the wrong way. After several rounds of tweaks, you might find your team feeling like they’re chasing an ever-changing goal. But, crafting a clear and structured process clears up these communication hitches, giving everyone a solid path to follow so projects keep rolling smoothly.

The benefits of optimizing the creative review and approval process through automation

The Slack State of Work 2023 report finds that teams that leverage automation in their workflows are 71% more likely to exceed manager expectations. This can easily apply to stakeholders, too, meaning that optimizing the creative review and approval process with automation can be an easy win for leaders that saves hours.

Ziflow proof details and workflows settings-1

An automated creative review and approval process will streamline content creation by improving collaboration. It directly impacts the efficiency and productivity of your creative team and improves the quality of your creative projects. Here’s why you should consider optimizing this process:

Improves the quality of creative work

A structured and efficient review and approval process ensures that feedback is thorough, constructive, and aligns with your objectives. This leads to higher-quality deliverables, which naturally leads to higher client and stakeholder satisfaction. 

Helps your team scale

With an optimized approval process, it becomes easier for your team to manage more (or more complex) projects without a change in stress or workload — which is crucial for growth-focused organizations.

Mitigates compliance risks

A structured review and approval process helps identify potential compliance issues early in asset development, allowing for adjustments to be made. This is especially important in highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance.

Improves collaboration and communication

Optimizing the review and approval process with automation streamlines workflows and reduces manual tasks. For example, automatic notifications make it easy for team members to see when tasks are assigned, when deadlines are approaching, or when changes are made to an asset. This keeps everyone informed, up to date, and ensures that everyone works from the same, most current version of an asset.

Eliminates time spent tracking down feedback

A solid review and approval process puts all the feedback from stakeholders in one spot where it's easy to find. Version control tools let you jump back to earlier versions of your work to check out the feedback it got. This setup lets you track who said what and when, ensuring no piece of advice gets left behind.

Accelerates project delivery timelines

Tightening up your review and approval steps means projects finish faster. An efficient process enhances the accuracy of feedback and teamwork. With version control and all comments centralized, you dodge unnecessary do-overs and get to the final version quicker.

The perks of speedy project completion are clear: saving time means saving money and keeping everyone—from your team to your clients—smiling.

Streamlines client project management

Managing how clients weigh in on projects can get tricky. Clients might not get the ins and outs of creative workflows, potentially stretching the scope or causing hold-ups without meaning to. Setting clear review and approval guidelines and sharing them with clients helps make managing the entire project smoother.

Best practices to optimize your creative team’s review and approval process

These best practices may seem like minor adjustments, but when multiplied over all the projects and creative work happening at your organization, the time and cost savings can really add up.

After implementing best practices, our users have seen a 50% reduction in the manual effort in content approval. Studies show that many employees could save around two hours each workday with automation.

To establish a review and approval process that optimizes your team’s workflow and results in the best possible deliverables, keep the following best practices in mind.Arrow in the middle of the cart board

1. Set clear objectives and guidelines      

Clear, measurable goals form the foundation of your creative project, giving the entire creative team and your stakeholders a clear direction to follow. A good creative brief guides the creative review and approval process and includes important criteria about the intended messaging, audience, and purpose of the asset.

Beyond giving all stakeholders a clear idea of the project’s creative direction, you also need to define your review and approval process. This gives each team member and stakeholder an outline of their expectations, role, and responsibilities within the project to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks, and that there’s no confusion about what’s needed from who—and when.

2. Streamline communication

Clear and timely communication, including feedback, can make all the difference in a creative project. While many teams communicate in a few different ways (email, Slack, PDF comments, etc.), this leaves a lot of room for miscommunication and missed information.

Streamlining communication and feedback with creative collaboration tools is an effective way to ensure that communications stay in one place, attached to the asset they relate to. Some creative collaboration software, like Ziflow, takes things a step further, including tagging features and automated assignment workflows to reduce the human error in the communication process.

But great software will only get you so far. Consider your communications at the most granular level: the language you use. Use clear language free of jargon and be specific—and encourage team members and stakeholders to do the same. This will reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings and friction amongst stakeholders.

3. Implement a structured review process

A well-structured creative review and approval process not only streamlines project workflow and efficiency, it also produces higher quality deliverables and maintains consistency.

Two common review methodologies include sequential and parallel reviews:

  • Sequential reviews: Reviewers look at an asset one at a time. This is a great approach when thoroughness is the priority, as it allows each reviewer to build off the last’s feedback.
  • Parallel reviews: Reviewers look at an asset at the same time. While this method is faster, making it ideal for projects with short turnaround times, it typically isn’t as comprehensive as sequential reviews.

Regardless of the review methodology you choose, it’s a good idea to have a system in place for consolidating feedback efficiently. While it’s always an option to designate one person on the team as the “consolidator,” it's much more efficient to use software. Using collaboration tools that allow for real-time editing and commenting can streamline the consolidation process and help ensure that all feedback is captured and addressed effectively.

4. Leverage technology and tools

We’ve touched on it a few times now, but it’s worth repeating: Technology is your friend when it comes to a creative project’s efficiency and effectiveness, whether you’re generating a banner advertisement, video, or complete web design.

There are several digital tools that can centralize, automate, and streamline the creative review and approval process, including collaborative proofing software. Collaborative proofing software allows project stakeholders, including designers, project managers, and clients, to review and provide feedback on creative assets. Collaborative proofing software usually includes: 

  • Markup tools for annotating directly onto creative assets
  • Version control for tracking changes and revisions
  • Comment and tagging functionality for leaving detailed notes and feedback 
  • Workflow management tools like automated task assignment to ensure projects progress on time

While digital tools can be hugely helpful on any creative project, it’s important to ensure that they integrate with your existing tech stack. Your systems should work together seamlessly to simplify project management — not complicate it.

5. Manage timelines and deadlines

Eighty percent of marketers told us they encounter issues getting feedback on time — delays that usually multiply when you start including any external reviewers. 

Setting clear, realistic due dates upfront keeps everyone on the same page from the outset. Using management techniques and clear boundaries can prevent wasting time on chasing down reviews. For example, you could make clear to a client that work will pause on a project until they return a review.

Realistic deadlines also allow you to predict project timelines and allocate appropriate time for each team member to complete projects. This prevents employees from getting overwhelmed, resulting in drawn-out project timelines and potentially lower-quality deliverables. Ziflow supports deadlines for feedback with automated alerts and reminders for reviewers and project managers.

However, you’ll notice that we said realistic. As you’re establishing timelines, make sure you plan ample time for each stage in the creative process. For example, if an asset needs to be almost completely reworked from scratch and you know your designers are already juggling a few other projects, you may not want to assign a 24-hour turnaround timeline!

6. Foster a collaborative environment

In creative projects, involving all the relevant stakeholders is key to producing something truly great. Doing so ensures your review and approval process is rich with diverse opinions and gets the entire team on board. Valuing the range of perspectives in decision-making makes everyone feel listened to and respected.

Another important piece is how you interact with your reviewers regarding their feedback. For a truly collaborative atmosphere, you've got to champion feedback that's geared towards making things better, not just pointing out faults.

This means setting up some ground rules on what makes feedback useful, clear, and aligned with the project's objectives. Alternatively, it's just as important to call out what doesn't count as constructive feedback. Providing these pointers helps guide your team and stakeholders on how to offer insights that can genuinely elevate the project when it's their time to chime in.

7. Continuous improvement and adaptability

Revisit your review and approval process periodically — ideally after each completing each deliverable — to identify what worked well and what needs improvements. 

Do you need to adjust deadlines? 

Do more team members need automatic notifications to remind them when their approval is needed? 

This continuous improvement mindset allows for adjustments that can make future projects even more efficient and effective. As projects evolve and those adjustments are made, it’s important for the process to remain dynamic. This ensures that the process will remain relevant, effective, and flexible — even as circumstances change. 

8. Legal and compliance considerations

Making sure your review and approval process considers legal and regulatory compliance standards is a must to keep your organization out of hot water. This could include copyright laws, industry guidelines, and privacy regulations that not only affect your company’s bottom line in the form of fines, but it could also damage your reputation. 

Baking legal and compliance considerations into your review and approval process mitigates the risk of potential legal trouble and makes sure your creative assets are ethically and legally sound. 

Documenting approvals is also critical in the creative review process. This creates a layer of accountability and ensures that all stakeholders are aware of the decisions made during the review process. Keeping a documented record of approvals can also serve as a future reference in the event of a dispute.

What types of teams should use review and approval software?

Creative design team brainstorming in an industrial office

The short answer is any team with deliverables that require approval by multiple stakeholders. Whether your deliverables are creative or technical, automating workflows can save time, reduce frustrations internally and externally, and boost productivity and profitability.

Let’s look at a few creative groups who stand to benefit from review and approval software.

Creative teams

Creative teams are the perfect example of a team with complex review and approval processes. Creative teams may be creating designs and illustrations, writing copy, crafting web pages, and more — and it’s usually customer-facing. That means that a large number of stakeholders (from executives to legal) want to offer their feedback.

Creative teams need collaborative deliverable markup, efficient methods for collecting feedback, and version control. Review and approval software can help keep things organized, manageable, and trackable.

Creative ops

Creative operations teams are often in charge of the efficiency of creative processes. Review and approval software can be a vital piece of creative ops systems to ensure fast turnaround times and prevent bottlenecks. More streamlined processes translate to quicker, higher-quality deliveries — which ultimately translates to happier clients and the potential for repeat work. 

Design teams

Design teams, similarly to creative teams, often have a large number of stakeholders who must approve a deliverable. Designers specifically often work in iterations, making review and approval software key to moving through versions efficiently and consistently.

Need to refer back to a previous version of a design to replace an element the client requested? You can easily trace it back to an earlier stage in the workflow.

Marketing teams

Marketing teams can include creative team members, but are often in charge of putting together entire campaigns that span time. Some campaigns may even be ongoing, and each campaign could have different stakeholders involved. Review and approval software simplifies the process of managing a mix of stakeholders and getting their feedback on time.

Product teams

Product development, especially in software, involves collaboration across departments. Quality assurance is also a major piece for product teams. Review and approval software can deliver the kind of structured review and approval process needed to ensure quality control of finished products.

Learn how to optimize your team’s reviews and approvals with Ziflow

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creative review and approval, but creating a clear, well-managed review and approval process is critical for effective communication between stakeholders and faster deliverable turnarounds.

Automation through review and approval software has reduced the logistics required to get feedback from stakeholders. It also makes the review and approval process visible, keeping everyone on the same page.

Webinar: Creative review and approval best practices

Learn even more by watching our webinar “Creative Review and Approval Best Practices

Looking for more insights on optimizing your creative review and approval processes?

Download our free ebook, “The top 10 best practices for optimizing your review and approval process”.

Looking for more insights on optimizing your creative review and approval processes? 

Download our free ebook, “The top 10 best practices for optimizing your review and approval process”.

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