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Are You in Control of Your Creative Work?
by Tom Klug

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". 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, you should also minimize interference by clients. 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

It is important to establish expectations for the project from the very start. Every assignment has unique objectives, so it is vital that you understand fully what you are being asked to do. It's the only way to keep the process under control. Some assignments require pushing conceptual boundaries, while others are simpler and more straight forward. 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

I'm sure you've read how important a good brief can be, and learned how to write a good one and recognize a bad one. As a creative, however, you need to be engaged in the brief in a much deeper way. Having input or being part of the development of the brief enables you to be strategically aligned with your client. If that's not possible, you must read it thoroughly and ask good questions before you start the assignment. Too often a brief is developed then set aside and creative work begins without asking the right questions – both smart ones and dumb ones – to remove ambiguity and ensure that your marching orders are crystal clear.

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 wraps until they are ready for a dramatic reveal. There are times when that works, 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, show rough sketches or just have a quick chat. If you and your client are not on the same wavelength about the project, it is easier to change direction at the earliest stages than at the later ones. Once your client supports your approach, they're less likely to quibble about execution tactics and try to 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.

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.

This article has been written by Cella consultant Tom Klug. Tom 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.