Deadlines are looming, expectations are high, the scope is's the perfect time to create a service level agreement (SLA) to ensure that everyone has a clear definition of ownership and responsibilities.

What exactly is an SLA? It's a contract between two internal departments or between one internal and one external team. In either case, it's a conflict-prevention tool where scope and priorities are defined so misunderstandings can be calmly addressed. It's a living, breathing document that has a set foundation. But since creativity is an evolving process and marketing trends can shift quickly, an SLA has pre-set milestones for the team to meet and negotiate any required or requested adjustments. The ultimate goal is to have an objective foundation for gauging quality and effectiveness so both parties use the same evaluation criteria.

The process of defining and negotiating an SLA is as important as the content itself. It's about communication between the two parties, and that's the key to any functioning relationship.

First, you need to define the stakeholders, the senior personnel who will influence the direction of the relationship at a high level. Second, select an SLA manager on both teams. The SLA managers are the center of the SLA wheel. They get buy-in from the team and top management; they educate so all involved understand the purpose, implications and contents of the SLA; they're the diplomatic negotiator to find approaches that benefit both parties and they ensure constant steady communication to avoid surprises. The SLA manager needs to be able to allocate time to this process, so consider this in your selection and seek ways to delegate some of their responsibilities to another associate during the SLA process. Being an SLA manager is an excellent opportunity for someone on your team to develop leadership skills and allows for s a more junior team member to take on responsibilities temporarily--two latent benefits of SLAs.

The SLA Team is the support team; these are representatives of the roles required to deliver the end product. It's important to include about 6 members maximum (too big and it's unwieldy, too small and it's exclusionary) and to remember that dissent is healthy. Different opinions open up alternative approaches, as long as the opinions are shared in a respectful manner.

As mentioned previously SLAs can be used to govern internal and/or external relationships. They can also be created for a single project or as an ongoing relationship management tool. Or SLAs can be so generic that they are hung in the creative team's space as their pledge to and asks of clients. Thus, there is no one format that fits every department's/company's Service Level Agreement needs. That said, there are specific elements present across the most effective SLAs:

  • Service provider--this would be you for an internal agreement or your vendor in an external agreement
  • Client--the internal business partner you are serving, or you if an agreement with an external provider
  • Effective dates--for a project, this would likely be from the kick off through to launch date; for an ongoing relationship, it would likely be effective immediately and ongoing or you may wish to make the period one year so there is an impetus to discuss the relationship annually
  • Purpose--provides clarity as to what is the intention of this document; for example, an internal agreement may state the purpose as "to create a common understanding regarding services, expectations, responsibilities and priorities so that the teams can work together in the most efficient and effective method possible to ensure smart resource utilization and the best product for our shared end-customer."
  • Creative Services Details--outlines what services your team provides, setting realistic expectations
  • Client Responsibilities--what and when clients are responsible for contributing and delivering; this is vitally important to define now in order to eliminate future squabbles about deliverables
  • Escalation Resources--a listing of point people and their contact information on both teams; when team members know to whom they can reach out, the situation can be resolved diplomatically and quickly
  • Client Critical Problem Resolution--identifies who to escalate critical challenges to outside of standard business hours; this gives everyone a sense of calm even if they never have to use's the 911 of SLAs
  • Signatures--a step to ensure shared and equal accountability; I suggest requiring stakeholders and SLA managers on both teams to sign the final document

Adding other components may be necessary depending on the scope. For example, if it's a one-project agreement, the number of revisions, schedule and budget are crucial. "Three rounds of revisions" in a document is compelling and sets expectations in the right direction. Also, defining who will manage and share budget status (budget, estimate, actual, variance) and how frequently it will be shared takes the surprise element out of the picture. Eliminating surprise is the way to ensure trust and communication.

When working with an outside vendor, be sure to include legal in the discussion and get their sign off. And be clear about the ownership of creative content and deliverables such as final files.

As a reminder, an SLA is not a substitute for a creative brief and is not the document to identify creative requirements. This is a separate process and likely requires different leaders, such as your creative director and account manager.

Launching the SLA should be a celebration and a kick off of a new relationship. Pop the bubbly, even if it's sparkling apple cider and laugh with both teams in one room. That sets the tone for a friendly and fun way to partner. And, with a one-project agreement, wrap it up when completed with another celebration. Partnership needs to be celebrated repeatedly to reinforce that value of it.

Remember, an SLA is a creative's best friend. Defining formal client expectations is essential to avoiding staff burnout and client dissatisfaction...a win-win for all.