How to build your creative workflow

Whether you work for an international creative agency, or within a centralized internal brand team, being part of the creative process brings the ability to create innovative campaigns, spark joy and create a lasting impression.

As with any project however, the best results always come when everyone is aligned on goals and have a sound creative workflow management system in place. But as any creative will tell you, the process is not always smooth sailing. Challenges arise when communication is lost, deadlines are missed and instructions are unclear. This is even more true with the rise of remote working and the globalization of team structures, agencies and businesses are no longer restricted to working with local collaborators and clients. Team members work from home, from central offices or from locations around the world, allowing lots of room for new inspiration and ideas. This flexibility opens up huge opportunities but it can also present some common hurdles for teams working across multiple time zones.

Managing roles, tasks, progress, deadlines, approvals and corrections can cause significant amounts of stress and interpersonal friction if the communication and project management structure aren’t handled well. So what’s the answer to this? For many businesses, it’s a creative workflow management system. This is what we’ll explore further in this article.

What is creative workflow management?

Creative workflow management systems refer to project management structures and tools that help teams:

  • Allocate tasks effectively
  • Manage tight timelines
  • Track progress at a glance
  • Finalize approvals with ease

With digital advancement, there are many software platforms now dedicated to this process. Some of them manage the creative workflow from start to finish, while others focus on a particular aspect of the project.

Over the past few years, there has been a boom in the development of software as remote working and globalization have pushed teams to find easily accessible solutions that keep them aligned and productive.

The benefits of an effective creative workflow

So why are teams focusing on streamlining processes? The need for visual content is increasing rapidly as consumers expect to be connected to the brands they love, on every touchpoint, at any moment. To meet this need, brands are turning to innovative agencies for their creative and strategic expertise. But how do agencies deliver high-quality, on-brand content at speed, without the friction? An effective creative workflow.

The ultimate goal of a creative workflow management system is to define and create a project, allocate roles and tasks, and keep the team track — and on budget — to meet deadlines.

This might sound simple enough but the truth is that projects that have many team members and stakeholders can become incredibly complicated, incredibly quickly if no-one keeps an eye on the overarching objectives and maintains a bird’s eye view of all the moving parts.

Breakdown of roles within a creative team

Creative teams are made up of everyone from account managers that deal with the clients, to marketing managers that work on product and service delivery, to production managers coordinating specific projects.

Then there’s the creative team, from the art directors, graphic designers, copywriters and web designers. There can also be brand strategists, communication, PR and social media practitioners and a range of other specialists including technical writers and UX designers.

A creative team is usually formed to meet the specific needs of the project, but sometimes entire business units including legal, finance, engineering and management are deployed to weigh in on a project.

Project management tools

There are hundreds of project management tools on the market so how do you choose the right one for you?The easiest way is to break it down into what you actually need.

  • Project management tools - Jira, Slack, Smartsheet, Filestage, Trello, Asana and Slope.
  • Time trackers - Toggl, Harvest, Timely, Hubstaff, Everhour, TimeCamp and ClickTime.
  • File sharing - Canva, Dropbox, Sharepoint, Google Drive, WeTransfer, Wipster, InVision,, Hightail, Acrobat Pro DC, Frankie, GoVisually and ProofHub.
  • Invoicing and billing - Xero, Wave, Zoho Books and Curdbee.
  • Design, visualization and diagrams - Canva, Powerpoint, Google Sheets, Visme, Visio and Gliffy.
  • Scheduling - Calendly and Smartsheet.
  • Video conferencing - Zoom, Google Meet and Skype.
  • Communication - Slack, email, Canva for approvals
  • Forms and surveys - Typeform, Survey Monkey
  • Customer Relationship Management - MailChimp, Campaign Monitor, Nimble, Dyspatch, Canva for approvals
  • App integration - Zapier

Common blockers in the creative workflow process

Lack of a clear brief

Ask any creative team what their biggest bugbear is and it will be a long conversation, usually starting with the brief — or lack thereof.

If a client can’t clearly define what they want, and why, you have no chance of figuring out the what, how and when of the project. The end result is only ever going to be as good as the brief so if the creative direction is vague, confusing, unrealistic or just plain inaccurate

Expectations that exceed the budget

Another major stumbling block is when a client’s expectations and their budget don’t align. This is a point in the process where things can strain the client-and-agency relationship if not managed effectively.

Unclear approval and feedback processes

Beyond the initial scoping out of the project, approval and feedback processes cause a lot of grief. After all, who has the final say? If you have multiple people making conflicting decisions around feedback, the creative team will waste a lot of time making changes that are ultimately rejected.

How do you avoid this? Work out from the beginning who has the final say and how internal review and client-side feedback will work.

‘Death by committee’ is a surefire way to make sure that what started out as a solid concept is diluted down into something feeble, uninspiring and inoffensive.

Confusion around roles is an absolute deal breaker for creative teams. If someone doesn’t know they’re supposed to do something, it’s unfair to get annoyed at them when they haven’t delivered. Clarity around roles and the tasks associated with them is essential for team harmony, productivity and efficacy,

The final soul destroying element in a failed creative workflow is when people are sitting around waiting for other team members to finish their part of the project before they can get started. This is especially problematic if work is delivered downstream close to deadline, meaning that the people at the end of the workflow drown in a last minute deluge and ultimately do work that is not as good as what they would have done had they been given enough time.

How to create an effective creative workflow

There are a number of elements that come together to form an effective workflow. Like with a recipe, it’s a good idea to define all the ingredients and the order in which you will need them. So what are they?

Create a clear brief

The brief is the most important part of the creative workflow because it sets the expectations and objectives for the entire process. The main elements to include:

  1. A project summary that gives a clear and comprehensive overview of what the project is.
  2. An understanding of who it is for and why it is being created.
  3. Next, there needs to be a project timeline that includes submission dates for the first concepts, approval rounds and the final deadline.

The best briefs include clearly articulated goals, strategies for achieving those goals and key project milestones (ie internal launch, soft launch, consumer launch, etc). One critical aspect of a brief is the budget that details how much there is to bill or spend, as well as a breakdown on where the funds ideally need to be allocated.

From the client side, it’s important to identify who the team members are that are working on the project and what their roles and contact details are. You can also include who the key approvers are for particular items.

Start with a brainstorm

Once the brief has been accepted, the fun — and work — begins.

A brainstorming session allows for your team to start inspired, and think about all the possible executions for the upcoming project. The ideas need to be captured and then matched against the brief to figure out what best serves the client’s instructions.

Once the best ideas have been identified and fleshed out, a project scope can be drafted for submission to the client.

Brainstorming tip: With new ways of working, it’s essential to adapt brainstorming to a remote-friendly environment. An effective way to do this is with real-time collaboration presentation templates.

Refine timelines and responsibilities

Once the project scope has been approved, it’s time to assign roles, tasks and responsibilities.

This is also the point where a project pipeline is developed in order to create a workflow that takes into account all the necessary deadlines.

Project management tools and supporting tech

The easiest way to manage a complex project, by far, is to create it in the appropriate project management software, ensure that all team members have access to the platform and are trained in how it works.

You can also use workflow diagrams and more manual processes like regular work-in-progress meetings where notes are taken and distributed with the team afterwards to keep everyone on track.

The work

Once the project has been scoped, staffed and set into motion, team members get to dig in and deliver on their key competencies. At this point, it’s important to ensure that team members have access to the necessary tools, support and even mentorship to help them deliver work that meets the project requirements.

Tracking the project

When many people are working on a multi-disciplinary project across numerous locations, it’s critical to keep a handle on where everyone is up to and ensure that they have the support they need to proceed.

This is the point where collaboration tools and transparency amongst team members becomes a major focus. People need to be able access shared files easily, make updates and provide feedback in real time.

In-person staff meetings aren’t always possible or practical but video conferencing technology makes it easy to talk through the project as a group so that team members have the opportunity to ask questions, share suggestions and provide input.

Internal review

Internal review can be an ongoing process, broken down into stages or done once the first iteration of the project is completed. The main thing to decide is who has the power to make the final call, and to ensure that the project that has been created marries up with the project that was scoped.

Client approvals

The most exciting - and also most nerve wracking - part of the workflow is to send the piece of the work to the client for corrections and approvals.

There’s a lot riding on this moment because most budgets don’t allow for a full redesign. If the client has extensive changes, the service provider can wind up out-of-pocket for hours if the changes are the result of a misinterpretation of the project scope.

On the plus side, if the project has been handled well, the client will most likely be delighted and it’s almost time for the best part - project completion.

Final submission

The day of reckoning - and hopefully rejoicing - when the project is delivered, invoices are submitted, the team can debrief on how the project went and celebrate the completion of a piece of excellent work.

Final feedback

This is when the client has a chance to debrief with the project leads and supply testimonials and feedback to share with the team.

Selecting and implementing the right creative workflow process can be the difference between a project that runs smoothly, on time and on budget and a project that results in wasted time, resources and doesn’t deliver the desired end result..

Beyond the productivity and management aspects, smart project management can also help retain talented team members because they are more fulfilled, enjoy their team dynamic and are ultimately happier at work.

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