You might think this is an odd title for a post from a Creative Director.

But successful creative work requires constraints and a process in order to flourish, and I’m writing today to discuss how clients and agencies can best set up the conditions to drive business and brand-building success.

The Mexican Standoff

During the early stages of project proposals, there are three distinct forces at hand, with a certain amount of tension between them:

  • Clients are often looking for as much cost and process certainty as is reasonably possible
  • Agencies are often looking for as much time and resources as possible to create the best work they can
  • Project budgets and/or deadlines are not always all that flexible

These are three perfectly rational sets of needs, and I would argue that the goal of this stage should not be to fully resolve each tension, but instead to find the right balance amongst the three. Done well, this sets up the best chances of allowing good work to happen while respecting the client’s investment of cash, the business & project goals, the bigger-picture story of the brand, and everyone’s time.

While the journey to balance these needs is typically focused in these early discussions, there is a single document that brings all parties together with total clarity of goals, metrics, and the steps to be taken.

The Humble Brief

The briefing process is a crucial phase, and there are typically at least two variations of a briefing document:

  1. The client brief that’s brought to the agency to scope out the project
  2. The creative brief that distills what’s been agreed to between the agency, its strategy department, and the client, which is used to kick off the work.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, it’s all too easy to fill these with more information than what’s necessary, combining a laundry list of tasks, deliverables, and dates with the full brand history, last year’s key message, and a series of reference documents that are not always relevant to the specific ask.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as the brief should simply do what its name indicates — to set up the goal and provide the agency the core, crucial information it needs to get there.

At Stack, this is why we’ve moved away from having two sets of briefs, and simply have one project brief. Our Discovery phase is therefore spent on questionnaires, calls, and discussions of scope and strategy, a collaborative process that removes the burden from solely resting on the client’s shoulders to have everything figured out beforehand, while also fostering a shared responsibility for the project’s success.

But What About The Magic?

Ultimately, the service industries of advertising, branding, and design exist to amplify somebody else’s business. Our job, no matter how creatively expressive or technically breathtaking it may be, is to tell the best story we can in a way that will move the most people, encouraging them to dive into the brand with interest.

This is as much true for the nitty-gritty of UI animation within a clear and joyous UX flow as it is for the biggest brand-building campaigns that millions view on TV.

But there’s an inherent tension between telling a compelling story while also saying what needs to be said, because our clients’ clients are our actual clients: their customers.

The balance between what’s best for the audience — with their subjective needs & wants — and what’s best for the client — considering both brand-building & sales objectives — is what creates great work.

The trick is to not let business metrics override the emotional needs of the work, nor to let the creative depart from what fits into the broader brand-building picture in order to score a quick win.

Easy to say, but hard to do when there’s a fuzzy brief or a scoping process that leaves too much up to chance during the creative & review process.

So How Can We Fix This?

There are a few key steps that we as one collective team — CMOs, marketing directors, account directors and managers, creative directors, tech leads, strategists, et al — can take to better set up the conditions for joined-up success:

  1. Scopes and estimates should be oriented around budget ranges, an overall objective, a shortlist of “must-haves”, and key dates — and that’s it, without prescribing certain solutions or technologies at this stage.
  2. If the same old way of approaching a project has led to the same old results, then take the opportunity to think of a new way, using some of the process models kicking around (JTBD, sprints, etc) to truly focus the project plan on not just the business goal — but the right methodology to serve that goal.
  3. Recognize that there are phases where the project is best served by having the team go away and experiment for a few days or weeks — just as there are times where the project is best served by rapidly turning around iterations. Plan a timeline that accounts for the different headspaces that are required by all parties at different times.
  4. Be as ruthless as possible in editing down the project brief. Use this as an opportunity to not simply copy-and-paste preexisting information, but to evaluate what may have changed since previous briefs were written, and what else could be taken away or tweaked that would clarify things further.
  5. It’s impossible to discuss a creative decision if there are too many “ands” in a brief. Narrowing down the focus of the brief so that each section has a singular point makes the job of creating the work smoother, and makes the job of evaluating what’s correct or not less about personal opinion and more about what’s actually right for the consumer and the brand.
  6. Allow for ample back-and-forth Q&A time in the project briefing stage. The less we depend on assumptions and “this should work itself out”-type thinking, and the more we truly get to the heart of the matter in the up-front stage, the fewer circles we’ll run in during presentations and evaluations, and the more invested we’ll all be together in the outcome.
  7. Frame up every presentation or conversations in the context of the immediate step before, and the immediate implications of any decisions made in the room. Don’t leave out the context in terms of what should be evaluated at each touchpoint, and what we should be evaluating the work against

What It Means to Operationalize Creativity

I love the creative process. The rush that comes from taking a clear brief and thinking through 30 different ways of how we could answer it is what got me into the industry in the first place, and it’s a thought process that we use every day in our practice at Stack.

But there’s a responsibility in pursuing creative work well, as we need to ultimately take often-significant sums of money from our clients and turn it into results that far outstrip that investment.

While work inevitably expands to fill the time allotted to it, the optimal conditions for success strike a balance between too little time and too much — with clear goals, insights, messages, and support references universally beneficial.

But getting to that balance requires all of us as the client and the agency to step outside our own worldview a little bit more than usual and embrace the bigger picture — with its inherent tensions and contradictions — as we’re all in service of a market bigger than ourselves.

Our customers.