When your organization is juggling a hundred priorities at once, deciding who takes point on a visual communication project can be more about bandwidth than job titles. The person to connect with a vendor might be a C-level executive, a director, a junior, or even an intern. They might be in marketing, content, creative, biz dev, or project management. But unless they’re a project manager, they might not be well-versed in the procedural steps that make a creative project successful.
Strong vendors will take on the project management role so that the client can focus on feedback — but it helps for the client to understand the essentials for a successful project as well. This ensures they are confident in the reasoning behind each step in the project process, allowing the strategic and creative processes to move smoothly to completion.
In this post, I’ll review 5 key elements that any visual communication project needs in order to be successful.
1. A Kickoff Meeting
Ideally, a kickoff meeting won’t be the first time that a client interacts with a design firm or designer. Before the kickoff, there should be preliminary conversations around schedule, pricing, process, and working relationship before diving into the full details.
Yet even if a client has had the opportunity to converse with a sales rep or a designer, their project is likely to start off on the wrong foot if they skip a formal kickoff meeting.
A creative project is driven by human producers, for human clients to share with their human audiences.
Whether in person, over video chat, or on the phone, a kickoff meeting serves a different purpose than a sales call or an email. This meeting is the chance for the client and the vendor to dive into detailed background information on the project, ask relevant questions, and ensure everyone is on the same page with goals, timing, and more.
But beyond all of that, it’s simply a chance to meet one another and connect as humans.
In particular, clients who are working with a creative agency should have open lines of communication with as much of their vendor’s team as possible. A kickoff meeting places the full team executing on the client’s creative project all in the same room (real or virtual) with the client to ideate, learn, and reach a shared understanding.
The kickoff is an irreplaceable step that will help to:
- Avoid misunderstandings
- Generate buy-in
- Gain assurances that both sides of the project team — client and vendor — are working toward the same goal
In essence, a creative project is driven by human producers, for human clients to share with their human audiences. Ignoring that element by treating your creative partner or client as just a business transaction can cause roadblocks early and often. You’ll see examples of what those roadblocks might look like in other fundamentals later in this post.
2. Frank Conversations about Project Management Process and Schedule
Your organization has routines and processes in place for a reason. In the early days of a company, most people are still trying to figure out the best way to complete everything from everyday tasks to complex initiatives. All that exploration takes time, but it’s a worthwhile investment that should help inform best practices for your team for the future.
Working with a vendor on a creative project is no different. To some degree, you’ll need to learn to work together. To do that most effectively, you should know as much as possible about each others’ organizations and processes.
The client must be fully transparent about deadlines, and the vendor must inform the client about the lengths of production cycles and other scheduling requirements. As Tom Roach put it, “…[y]ou need a clear sense of what work you have, how much time it will take, and why you’re doing it.” Be clear about your needs and everyone will benefit.
3. Timely Finalization of Background Materials and Content
Let’s say you don’t have all of your background materials collected by the time the kickoff meeting happens. That’s okay! Having the foresight to plan a project well ahead of your deadline is what will make the kickoff meeting successful.
With that said, to make the best use of your time and your budget, your vendor should receive that content from you before production starts. It simply reduces the risk of backtracking when new information comes to light that changes the plan.
Think of it this way. Someone asks you to bake a cake for their birthday party tonight, and they say, “I’d love a bundt cake; other than that, whatever you choose will be great.” You buy ingredients, prep your kitchen, preheat the oven, and start mixing. Then the phone rings. It’s the lucky cake recipient.
“I’m pretty sure I mentioned this, but I’m allergic to eggs. Oh, and to be honest, I can’t stand chocolate. I think that’s it … can’t wait for the cake!”
You look down at the eggs half-mixed into your chocolate cake batter, then up at the clock. Better hurry back to the store!
When a vendor starts work without all the information they need to make informed choices, they’re in the same situation. They can’t take the eggs or the chocolate out of the batter, so they may need to start over on the content phase of your project when they’re given new information midway through. And once your project moves into design, the impact of these changes is even greater.
Let’s say you approve the content for your project, and your vendor begins designing. You can equate that to tasting the batter and putting your cake in the oven.
As design moves ahead, you decide to change a few key concepts in the script. In our cake metaphor, whether those changes are as minor as trimming the edges into a different shape or as major as mixing more ingredients in, you’ve gotten pretty far at this point and it’s tough to change the plan.
When it comes to creative projects, strong paperwork is everyone’s best friend.
Either of these scenarios could impact timeline and budget. No one likes to face adjustments to a project plan, but a strong project management process will at least ensure that a client knows when and why changes like that could occur. Thankfully, timeline and budget can usually both stay intact if your vendor has all the details before they start “baking.”
4. A Creative Brief and Other Project Paperwork
Paperwork can seem like a lot of obscure language and unnecessary clauses best left to your legal team. Yet when it comes to creative projects, strong paperwork is everyone’s best friend. That’s because it’s proof that everyone’s actively listening to each other.
In any creative engagement, both the client and the vendor might have their own sets of required paperwork. What you should expect from a creative vendor’s paperwork is a reflection of the key details you discussed across initial calls and kickoff.
A creative brief should describe your goals and key messaging. The rest of the paperwork should include any mandatories for the project (like dimensions or brand guidelines), and deadlines.
By reviewing and signing your vendor’s descriptive paperwork, you see evidence that your vendor understands your intentions for this project. You also have an opportunity to go back to the vendor and correct any misunderstandings before signing.
As a client, you can avoid starting your visual content project over by getting buy-in from all of your stakeholders at each stage in the process.
That peace of mind is the reason why, even if you’re used to presenting a brief and your own paperwork to vendors, you should take care to review the same from your vendor.
5. Full Stakeholder Input
Your boss is busy. Really busy. That’s why they’ve entrusted you to find a vendor and get this new visual campaign moving. And maybe they said something like, “I don’t need to see it until it’s in final proof.”
Your vendor understands all of this — they have bosses too, after all! But you might get some pushback if you explain that your boss, who has the final say on this project, doesn’t want to see the visual content you’re producing until the final draft. Why? Let’s go back to our birthday cake metaphor.
It’s likely that your boss gave you more details than “I’d like a bundt cake.” And hopefully they even gave you more than, “I’d like a bundt cake, no eggs, no chocolate.” You also probably know them well enough to anticipate a few other wants and needs — for instance, that strawberry-lemon is their favorite flavor combination and they’ve got a weakness for streusel topping. So your vendor “makes the cake” and you bring it to your boss for a taste test.
The more a client and vendor know about each other’s processes, the more likely the project is to be successful.
But once they taste that delicious cake, they might decide they’d like a swirl of raspberry jam in the middle. Or they just tried a boysenberry cake and have a new suggestion: boysenberries instead of strawberries. So it’s back to the store for you and your vendor — and back to the drawing board for your campaign.
As a client, you can avoid this scenario by getting buy-in from all of your stakeholders at each stage in the process. If that’s not possible, your boss should at least be aware of your vendor’s policies on changes in direction and how those changes impact budget and schedule, so that they know what to expect if they want to make some alterations to the project.
Project management for creative work is a robust and multifaceted task, and in an ideal situation, your vendor will be doing the bulk of that work to carry your campaign to the finish line. That said, the more a client and vendor know about each other’s processes, the more likely the project is to be successful. And this can help a single visual campaign blossom into a long-term partnership.
Originally posted on the Killer Visual Strategies blog.