Quite often your in-house clients, account managers, brand strategists or business analysts are trying to adjust the color of a graph, kern your typography or change the structure of a sentence. I call this "backseat creative direction" and, as creatives, we like to control what we do best so it can be frustrating when clients get too involved in the creative process. While it's important to get their input, client interference should be minimized. So rather than whine about it or get defensive (which ultimately hurts you), there are steps to take throughout the creative process that will help both you and your client be more effective and happy.
Step #1: Aligning Expectations
Set the table at the project kick-off by establishing expectations for the project. Every assignment has unique objectives and understanding what you're personally being asked to do is important to keep the process under control. Some assignments require pushing conceptual boundaries, while others are simply down and dirty. If you present an abstract Picasso-like illustration and the client expected a simple headshot, you've missed the boat. Knowing when to stay "in the box" is often more important than getting outside of it. Having good dialogue with your client before the creative work begins gets everyone on the same page.
Step #2: The Briefing
By now everyone has heard how important the brief is, how to write the perfect brief and when to throw one out. All true, but as a creative, you need to be engaged in the brief in any way that you can. Having input or being part of its development enables you to be strategically aligned with your client. But often that's not possible, so you must read it thoroughly and ask all the relevant questions before you embark on the assignment. Too often the brief is assumed and creative work begins without asking smart questions, dumb questions and seeking to remove ambiguity. This is your chance to have your marching orders crystal clear to greatly improve your chances of keeping creative direction in your camp.
Step #3: Sneak Peeks
As you begin drafting rough concepts, share them early and often with your client. Too often creatives like to keep the work under a hood until they are ready for a dramatic reveal. There are times for that, but I've found that especially for in-house agencies, you can and should feel comfortable giving early peeks. The work may not even be illustrated yet, but you can share the concepts in written form, chicken scratch or just have a quick chat. If you are not aligned, it is easier to course correct your creative strategy now instead of redoing tons of mandated copy and design revisions. Once your client supports your approach, they're more likely to stop picking on execution tactics and direct your creative. It's an investment that also helps build a collaborative relationship instead of a reactive one.
Step #4: The Creative Review
Now you're ready for presentation to the client with fully developed creative. Regardless of everything that you've done to this point, invariably you will get feedback, input, direction and lots of red marks. That is part of the process and any client has to ensure the work meets all the demands of the marketing objectives. But be prepared to provide your rationale for everything you've put into the work. If you can't logically defend why you've executed something, you're doomed. You've just opened up the door to subjectivity and the client will naturally step in and provide design or copy direction. Remember, it's just as important to know "why" you've designed something, as it is "what" you've designed--everything should have a purpose.
Step #5: Problem Solving
During the creative review, you'll encounter several design or copy directives from the client like "move, add, colorize, resize, change this word to that, etc." Many of these are no-brainers that need to happen, but many are subjective and don't necessarily add value to the work. This is where you have to ask the question "why?" Your objective is to understand the root problem so you can take control as the designer or copywriter and make suggestions or go back to computer and provide a solution. Any good client should provide you that opportunity. If they can't articulate the reasoning behind their comments, often you can strike the change and move forward assuming you've got your act together. Now you're back in control of the creative process and your client will begin to trust your expertise and allow you to do your job.
Now there is no magic bullet to keeping backseat creative directors at bay. However, if you tactfully and diplomatically employ these steps, over time your client engagements will improve and you'll be respected as the creative owner. If things don't improve, it might be time to look in the mirror and see if your work is up to snuff and do what you need to do to improve your skills.
And finally, most marketers consider themselves creative at heart. So throw them a bone every now then and let them own a few creative ideas, you'll be glad you did.
Don't forget to invest in your professional development--join us in Chicago April 24 & 55 for Beyond the Creative 2!
Cella consultant Tom Klug has more than 25 years of experience in building and managing creative teams for agencies including; his own shop, a Fortune 200 in-house group, and national marketing organizations. With creative roots, Tom truly understands the nuances and realities it takes to lead creative teams with strategic planning, personnel development and organizational design.