Our partners from Chase-a-Cloud started an interesting project, which I have been thinking for myself, but never actually managed to write it down. The closest we’ve gone in my previous company was to design some funny mocking posters of agency-client relationship/communication in the meetings room. They were very handy to break the ice now and then.
Anyways, when Stani Milev from Chase-a-Cloud contacted me to review what they’ve synthesized and possibly add more to the “guide”, I was eager to put in some extra bits here and there. For the last 15 years since I’ve been working in media, advertisement and marketing I’ve found myself in quite peculiar situations and the creative business relations experience I now have is definitely worth sharing, especially if it helps us, and the industry in general, to may be have some less stressful work process.
So, here it is… I present to you the “How To Survive a Creative Project” guide, mind it is still work in progress and can, and most likely will, be amended or/and appended with time. You can also see and share it from the SlideShare link.
SET YOUR GOALS
You may not know how to draw a sheep in a box but you do know your business goals. Why you need that project? What should be the final result in means of quantifiable business (e.g I want a new website design to increase my online conversions, or may be you want to increase your market share with X per cent.) Having a rock-solid goal in the beginning will help you in defining your project setup and most importantly will help you judge the outcome of a project in a meaningful way.
DO A RESEARCH
The very first thing to do is to check around you and collect some wisdom on what others do. Start with the cutting-edge companies you like and follow. See how are they doing things. They should be setting the trends right?! Then check your competition…? Can you beat them on quality or functionality? Collect samples and references (lots of them). You will send that information later to your experts.. this will help them understand your vision and needs.
ASSIGN ONE DECISION MAKER
A common case is that a lot of people will claim some relevance to the project. If you do a logo, your marketing team will have some ideas, but, hey, your boss wants a piece of the action too. This means one thing only, the more people are involved in the decision-making process the less responsibility can be expected, and no man knows it all. How do you take meaningful decisions if you don’t see the whole picture? – Well, you don’t! Best chance is that you will work for months on something and then people will just come around and make comments based on various factors, even their mood that day.
It is absolutely crucial that one person, and one person only communicates with your experts and your team members. Suggestions and recommendations are welcome by your team but that one person should decide which to embrace and which to ignore. Working closely with your experts will help you understand their approach, the process and why things are done the way they are done. This turns decision making into a smooth and meaningful process.
TRUST YOUR EXPERTS
Your experts are not there just for the work, they know things, because they do it all day long, all the time. They can help you with options, budgets, schedules and share the wisdom of previous projects with you – usually at no cost at all. If it is a video – should you go for a 2D or 3D or live shooting? If it is a design – do you want a clean vectors or fancy rasters? A closed event for few or an open air party? The experts you hire should be able to tell and explain which is a more viable option for your budget. Your best approach is to send them the references you like and ask for ballpark figures and rough timing. These will help you navigate through the universe of possibilities out there and keep sanity in the same time.
First, you have to decide when you need this done. Consult with your experts. Pick your dates according to your expectations of quality. Once set, your deadline should be dread dead! Deadline is as important to you as it is to your experts (they are most likely paid by the hour). Overdue and you will start paying more. Underestimate and rush through the project will only lead to a crappy outcome. Upcoming event is a solid base for your deadlining.
The better results you want, the more time you and your experts will have to invest in the project… that means more money spent. Plan what you want (step 1), what time you have and how much you can afford to pay. Consult with your expert what is the best mix for your case.
Creative experts are paid by the hours they work on your project. The more time you estimate for your project the more money you have to designate for it. Budget can be spent on either speed or quality. Choose carefully between those. Your experts can either go fast or go smart… they can’t go both, but either way this will cost you money. What are your priorities? Do you need it fast but not so great, great but slow? Of course, there is always the option of fast and great but at the cost of chopping your head from the ankles (because, remember, that will mean extra workforce, extra work hors – most likely weekends and late-nights… be aware )? So, what can you afford comfortably? Also always plan a contingency… hurricanes, blown computers, ebola.. you never know what will stand your way. Better be prepared than sorry.
GIVE PLENTY OF INFORMATION
The Brief is a simple bullet point text file that outlines your project setup, your expectations, the result you need and the specifics of the task. It is important for you to clear out your vision about the whole thing and it is crucial for your experts to understand you as close as possible. Bias between you and your experts here will result in terrible gaps later on, due deadlines, overboard budgets and a lot of pain and misery for everyone. In that line of thoughts – NEVER lie or exaggerate about business status information. Although showing-off may be somewhat motivational to your experts of choice, it can (and most likely will) trow them in an unwanted direction. Be honest. Always try to be as objective when explaining the state of things. This is especially vital when writing the brief. Here is a sample of what a brief is good to include:
Who is the client?Describe your company (are you b2b, b2c, what is your industry, your business field, relevant policies, etc.)
What is the reason behind the project?What problem do you want solved? (e.g. boost sales, launch new product/service, achieve better brand awareness, etc.) What results do you expect at the end?
What is the subject of the project?Describe your product/service. If you have presentations, market researches or any other relevant information – include them. What is the history of the product or service, what are its unique selling points, how is it better than competitor products, market share, usage/sales frequency, awareness, user attitude towards the product/service, etc.?
Who is YOUR client – the target of the project?Describe your target group if you can (demographics, interests/way of life, habits towards the use of your products/service or its class of products/services), what do they think of you? Any sociological research you have done comes very handy here.
Who are your competitors?Describe them as companies and policies. How would they react to your actions.
What are the competitor products like?Do they have advantages over yours (quality, price, distribution, ease of use, etc.)?
Do you have any specific preferences?Like tone of voice – do you insist we be formal or may be more playful? Anything that concerns the communication style goes here.
What are your/our limitations?Describe anything we have to pay strict attention to like budget frame and deadlines.
Will talk about money first! Will not provide any details or arguments to their quote. Will promise too much for less money. And will give you no clue on how they plan to execute what they promise.
Will either go too cheap or promise you heavens. In both cases they will not deliver to expectations Check their previous projects. Ask to speak with previous customers.
Will focus on final result and won’t give you a lot of milestones. Try to ask them questions about technical approach to check the level of their expertise.
Will tell you what can’t be done.
Will promise anything to get the job.
Will BS you about stuff.
Will talk a lot and say nothing.
Will insist they cover it all.
Will argument every single line in their quote. Will talk about work-flow. Will suggest various options. Will talk about what suits you best rather than what is the most expensive feature. Can provide a success project history and happy clients testimonials.
Know their price and why it is what it is. That doesn’t necessarily means expensive or cheap. But don’t expect a good expert to sit all they long wasting time on random task explorations. You get what you paid for. Use it wise and fly high!
Will provide you with exact plan on execution. Ask them any question you want.. they know the answer. Great experts keep their core skills in-house.
Will give you solutions/options.
Will say if something is out of their scope.
Will be straight honest with you.
Will give examples and visualization.
Will have strong/USP points!
UNDERSTAND THE WORK-FLOW
Make sure you know the work-flow of your experts. Ask them to provide you with a brief plan on how they will approach the task. What are the milestones? When and how you will be involved? When and what will they send for comments and approval? Talk to your expert until you clearly understand the whole process.
PARTICIPATE IN THE PRE-PRODUCTION
Pre-production is usually the most exciting stage of the creative project. This is when the magic happens, things become conceptualized, sketches are made and ideas are explored. Make sure you are invisible participant in this stage. You pay for your expert’s expertise, let them roam free. Adjust if necessary (see step 6: Giving feedback before you do). By participating in the pre-production you can see where the ship is going. No awkward surprises at the end of the run. If your boss wants to approve the final work.. make sure you send short but frequent reports on the progress (nothing gets more creative than a boss taken by surprise).
LET EXPERTS LEAD
You know how designers mock at their clients who get creative on color schemes and alignment. Don’t become that guy! Experts are experts for a reason. Let them lead the parade and just be there to observe what’s going on. Ask questions. Interfere only if it is obvious they didn’t understand the goals and the suggestions they make are completely out of hand.
ASK FOR ITERATIONS
Look for small but frequent updates rather than rare and big ones. Be agile about it and develop through iterations. This way you’ll have more control over the direction of the project and your experts will get less random comments to laugh/cry upon. Make sure that iterations don’t eat a lot of your designated time (they usually do). For example if you do video, every time you want to check the progress, your experts will have to render/calculate a video file, that takes a lot of time which can be used for something better. Plan your iterations ahead. Ask your experts on possible ways to provide updates at lower time cost.
Giving feedback seems easy job but let’s not kid ourselves.. it is a nightmare. This is where all the pain and misery is unleashed making experts lives hell, your karma bad, your projects crap and fill all those hate-your-client websites with colorful content. Here are few tips how to minimize waste and maximize effectiveness when you give feedback.
ALIGN YOUR COMMENTS WITH THE BRIEF
Your comments are as good as they relate with the original brief. If you wanted to have a green rhino but ask for a pink panther instead.. that doesn’t make sense at all. On the other hand if your expert is out of the original assignment and can’t argument it rock-solid than it is time for you to step in remind them the goals.
AVOID ABSTRACT COMMENTS
It is not edgy enough… too animated… those doesn’t tell much to your experts. Always try to be specific on what you like or don’t like. If it is hard to describe, use examples. “This one is edgy, and yours is not” makes hell lot more of a sense. It also gives your expert ground for discussion/argument. Avoid suggesting exact changes – this should be the expert’s job you pay for. Give them directions instead and let them explore on their own. Discuss, see what they think and agree on changes before they apply them. This will save huge amount of time for both parties. Bullet-point and structure your feedback.
SINGLE POINT OF CONTACT
Make sure your experts receive comments just from you and no one else. If your colleagues want to participate, collect their opinion in advance and send it all in one (see section 1:PREPARATION).
Discuss comments rather than send them one way. There is a good chance that together you and your experts will come up with much better decisions. When you make sure that all the changes are aligned to the brief, the budget and the timing, the final results will be much more predictable. Remember that the knowledge of your business/product/service combined with their knowledge on how to influence an audience and are the most powerful combination to draw upon.
We all hate this but truth is it might make the difference between pleasure and pain when working with subcontracted experts. Here are few main points how to ease life for everyone:
Always have some kind of a contract. That should include, what you order (your brief), what they will execute (their quote), budget, terms of payment, timing, special situations and copyrights transfers. That helps everyone stick to the original plan.
Ask for invoice. Don’t overdue your invoices if you care about your deadlines, most experts won’t commence work without receiving an advance payment. A good thing is to link payments to milestones. This will keep expert motivated to follow the original plan and you will have strings to control the process. Mind overseas wire-transfer fees could be hard to digest. Elaborate on different payment methods (PayPal or other payment platforms sometimes prove to be a better choice).
The artist (the company of creative experts) is, as a creator of the artwork, the respective owner of the copyrights. The most common situation is that by commissioning, and respectively paying, the work you acquire the right to use it. Options depend on the local law or the provisions of the contract you sign with the experts you chose. The right of use usually covers specific territory and period of time. Of course, you can always ask to buyout the copyrights from the creator (legally you become “the creator”). Note that the later is much more expensive. Ask about this in advance and make sure you have enough budget. You don’t want to get prosecuted on something like this! Everything in the artwork should be originally copyrighted to the creator prior to the copyrights transfer. Make sure that your experts have arranged third party rights in advance (fonts, images, video footage, live models, etc).
EXPERIMENT Vs ELABORATE
Your budget pays a certain amount of your Experts time. How you use it is totally up to you! Most of people would ask for couple of different designs to choose from. Now, having to pick from is great but it means that you pay 3 designs and will use only one. By any business sense this is terrible waste of money! Doing your homework in step 1 will render that nonsense obsolete. Ask to iterate on a design instead. Elaborate on details and fine tune them. Explore the meaning of words and tones.
PERSONAL TASTES Vs. BUSINESS GOALS
Creative work is all about personal taste! Just because you don’t like something that doesn’t mean it will not do the work. Ask clients/users/people. Show them samples, ask them simple questions. Collect results and do not process them yourself. Give them to your Experts instead… their job is to extract the patterns and figure out what needs to be changed and how. Your colleagues are already too biased, so treat their opinion with extra caution. Collect more than a few. Remember, the goal is not the boss to like it (unless it is) but to achieve pre-defined ROI.
COLLABORATE WITH YOUR EXPERTS
You might be tempted to fire-and-forget your project. But the truth is that if you are about to get any better results than you should do better. Try to work with your experts instead. Ask them questions on how things work, and why they do this or that. Participate, especially in the preplanning phase. If you don’t understand what they do or talk about, listen.. you will get it eventually. Ask stupid questions!!! Discuss steps and iterations. Ask them to argument their actions. The best working scenario ever is to blend your knowledge of the business, clients and products with expert’s creative knowledge and experience.
STICK TO THE PLAN
Great creative work starts with concept exploration. If you change the plan too often, you start exploring the horizontal rather than the vertical. Try to stick to the plan unless you have a very good reason not to. If you deviate too much from the original brief, be prepared for additional costs. Sticking to the plan will get you something good 8 out of 10 times, while random change in direction will result in 100% crap. And it will be the most expensive crap you have ever paid for.
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