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The reactive vs. proactive approach to managing a creative team

10 min read
Katie Oberthaler

Managing a full team of designers, copywriters, marketers, videographers, and other creatives is challenging under normal circumstances. Even the most efficient, collaborative creative teams are often constantly putting out fires behind the scenes.

However, during times of economic downturns and layoffs across the marketing and advertising industries, the reactive nature of the creative process can get ramped up to an unmanageable degree.

What we'll cover


In a recession, a number of challenges can derail productive creative teams, such as:

  • Budget constraints: During economic downturns, businesses often cut back on budgets and resources, which can impact the creative team's ability to produce high-quality work. Creative teams often have to downscale expectations for creative production costs, ad spend, and more. With budget cuts, creative teams may also have reduced access to new tools and technology that are necessary to produce high-quality work, respond to urgent deadlines, and meet client expectations.
  • Reduced staffing: During economic downturns, businesses may need to reduce their staff, which can result in a loss of institutional knowledge and experience. When key team members leave the team and take their project knowledge with them, this brain drain often means remaining or new team members are playing catch-up at the start of a new project.
  • Greater workloads: With layoffs and downsizing, remaining team members may be tasked with taking on additional responsibilities, resulting in higher workloads and increased pressure to deliver quality work. This can lead to burnout and decreased morale, which can further impact a team's output. 

The traditional "reactive" approach–where creative teams are constantly reacting to shifting deadlines or new feedback–quickly falls apart when brands and their marketing and design teams are faced with these challenges.

By anticipating changing resources or economic conditions in advance, creative leaders can ensure that their team produces high-quality creative work and maintains a proper workload with minimal disruptions.

Here are our top tips for creative managers to take a proactive approach to shepherding their creative teams to success.

4 tips to proactively manage your creative team

Have a flexible creative workflow in place

The first step in managing a creative team proactively is to have a standard creative workflow in place. 

A creative workflow is a process that outlines how creative work is produced, reviewed, and approved. By having a clear process in place, creative leaders can ensure that their team is working efficiently and effectively, even with fewer resources.

A creative workflow should include:

  • A detailed outline of a creative project brief and objectives
  • A timeline for each stage of the project
  • A collaborative review and approval process that enables different reviewers to be involved at different stages and versions of creative production
  • A system for tracking progress and keeping stakeholders informed

Having a creative workflow in place will help creative leaders anticipate potential bottlenecks and identify areas where their team may need additional support. It also puts the focus less on on who is doing the work or creating a particular asset but rather how that work is getting done and progressing. For creative teams facing a lot of changing circumstance, the process of how work gets done is just important as the project itself.

A flexible creative workflow allows for iteration and refinement. By breaking down projects into smaller, manageable tasks and allowing for feedback and collaboration, teams can improve their workflow as they go. This approach allows teams to make adjustments and course-correct as needed.

Ultimately, your team's creative workflow should enable you to plug in different people (and production systems) into creative review without disrupting or holding up an entire project. Even if your team members, clients, and projects change in size, you'll have a scalable framework for getting projects done.

Have a detailed file management system for creative assets

Creative work involves endless types of files, from images and videos to design files and copy. With multiple people working on a project across dozens of applications, it's essential to have a good file and project management system in place to keep everything organized. 

A good file management system becomes even more imperative to the consistency of your creative team when you may be losing team members, supplementing with freelancers, or needing to collaborate with new people outside of your organization, such as new contacts or reviewers within your client accounts.

You don't want to be stuck in a situation where projects come to a halt because key design files are stored in someone's personal Google Drive or live within an previous employee's Figma account.

To be prepared, your team should have:

  • A central location for all project files 
  • A naming convention that makes it easy to find files
  • A system for version control
  • Access controls to ensure that only authorized team members can access files
  • Regular backups to prevent data loss
  • A history of past projects, including approvals, changes, and decisions.

Having a good file management system in place ensures that your team, at a bare minimum, has access to the files they need to get work completed on time and can reference past creative work to reduce confusion during creative production.

Track the stats of your creative production 

Creative teams are usually most stressed about if their work is producing the right results: Is the brand growing? Are the images and videos your team is producing receiving intended engagement levels once published across your brand channels? Are your clients happy with your design direction?

Rarely do creative team managers track how that work is produced. However, we recommend tracking the creative production statistics across your projects, such as:

  • How long it takes (on average) for different stages of creative work. Does it take your team weeks to arrive at an approved project brief with a client? How long does it take to get a new asset or version approved? 
  • How many reviewers typically need to sign-off on a project before your creative team can consider it complete?
  • How many versions or iterations do different types of creative assets go through throughout a project lifecycle, and how long does each version take? Are you creating 20+ cut of a video asset, and is that normal for your team or line of work?
  • How many projects is your team is actually working on at any given time?

Monitoring these benchmarks over time (especially before times of extreme workload) will help you determine your team's actual bandwidth and creative capacity–a must when you're constantly adjusting to new demands within the business and having to set expectations of what your time-and resource-strapped creative team can realistically accomplish. Knowing your team's creative capacity helps determine which projects are truly worth the production time and costs. 

Continually recognized completed projects 

There's no bones about it: in a recession, employee morale suffers. Your creative team is doing even more with less, and pressured to produce even more workload while maintaining the same (or better) quality of work. Proactive creative leaders take steps to boost morale and keep their team motivated no matter the circumstances.

Here are some ways to boost employee morale:

  • Celebrate project successes. Closing the loop by showing appreciation for creative work and completed projects serves two purposes. First, it creates an environment of success and recognition for hard-working creatives that are under pressure. It also pulls back the curtain on your creative processes and demonstrates to those higher up the food chain that your creative team is constantly producing great work. 
  • Provide opportunities for professional development. Perhaps you have a junior designer wants to try leading a project or experiment with a design software they are't familiar with, or your copywriter wants to test out a new ad campaign idea. You may not have the budget for full-fledged training courses, but creatively using the unique talents of your team members while helping them develop their knowledge and career skills is a win-win for cost-strapped businesses.
  • Encourage open communication: Addressing chaos in the creative process breads frustrations, and your creative team should have an open forum for not only identifying bottlenecks or problems  but also for their ideas of how to improve the creative process. Bonus: with a creative review workflow in place, your team will already have one location to collaborate and discuss their opinions on creative projects. 

By boosting employee morale with these methods, creative leaders can ensure that their team remains productive, engaged, and appreciated.

Benefits of proactive creative team management

Creative teams are often holding on for dear life, especially when it seems like business upheaval or poor job security is right around the corner. Pausing to put new processes in place can seem like a luxury in the fast-paced world of creative work. 

However, getting ahead of roadblocks that impact your creative team pays dividends when times of stress arise. Here’s why:

You'll diffuse roadblocks in the creative process before they arise

By taking a proactive approach to team and project management, creative leaders can anticipate and mitigate challenges before they become major problems. For example, by anticipating high workloads and disruptions to the creative process in advance, leaders can ensure that their team isn't drowning in constantly shifting requests and overwhelming deadlines when morale is at its lowest.

Additionally, by having a good file management system in place, leaders can prevent data loss and ensure that their team has the resources they need to work efficiently.

You'll maintain team efficiency and productivity

By having a creative workflow in place, leaders can ensure that their team is working efficiently and effectively, even with fewer resources. Additionally, by providing opportunities for professional development and encouraging open communication, leaders can help their team stay engaged and motivated, which can increase productivity and quality of work.

You'll retain talented employees

By recognizing and celebrating successes, showing appreciation for hard work, and providing a positive work environment, leaders can ensure that their team remains productive and engaged, even during challenging times. This can also help prevent burnout and turnover, which can be costly for creative teams that may already be working with a skeleton crew. 

You'll demonstrate the value of creative work up the ladder

Creative work is often seen as a cost center for businesses looking to downscale their operating dollars. With advertising budgets slashed, the “shiny” work of creative and marketing teams is often the first on the chopping block. 

By remaining flexible and adaptable–and being willing to adjust creative processes and strategies as needed–leaders can ensure that their team is able to not only respond to new business goals but also produce work that makes an impact on a brand's bottom line. This can help creative teams (and their brands or clients) remain competitive and agile in a rapidly changing business environment and demonstrate that creative teams are a driver of brand and business value. 

Get ahead of creative chaos

Budget constraints, high workloads, reduced staffing, reduced access to tools and technology, and uncertainty and instability put a stress test on creative teams that operate well under normal circumstances. By taking steps to mitigate these challenges within your creative workflow, creative leaders can help their teams produce high-quality work that meets business goals, even during challenging times.

It's essential to have a workflow that is flexible and adaptable to meet changing business needs. By taking a proactive approach, creative leaders can not only weather economic challenges but come out stronger on the other side.

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