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How do you set up a next-level creative department?

Published: May 13, 2014

Author: Adrienne Abrams

Sure, having great designs and being cutting edge are keys to a successful creative department. However, if my years in the industry have taught me anything, it’s to be a good listener. It’s probably the single most important skill needed when starting somewhere new. I was recently charged with leading a small but growing creative department. While I have very big plans, I knew that I had to start small and be smart. So, how did I begin? 85H

Step 1 – Get a lay of the land

-Talk to anyone and everyone.
-Ask a lot of questions; try to understand the process, the people, the relationships, the client work, etc. Also, ask multiple people the same question. You’d be surprised what you learn and how a point of view can differ – a lot.
-Don’t assume anything. That seems pretty basic, but it’s really important. To that end, have an open mind. While you may come in with an idea, you should be open to new ones. You may think you know what to do, but every situation is different so it’s best to treat your new engagement as a blank slate. Let it evolve organically. If you force things, it’ll feel, well, forced.

At the end of the day, you need to understand how your company operates.  Learn what’s working today, what’s broken, why people are frustrated, happy, sad… Really, really listen to what people are saying. It will give you your cues on what’s next and how to prioritize.

Step 2 – Evaluate & Review

So you know a few people and you have a basic understanding of the process, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

-Learn the tools – how does your company get stuff done? Is there a project management system? How does work get prioritized? How are assets delivered? How do you present creative concepts? So many questions… I took a look at multiple creative projects (from start to finish) to really get an understanding of how things worked.
-Is there any process documentation? Do some digging and ask around. If you get a handle on what’s out there, it’ll make your life a lot easier. You definitely don’t want to recreate the wheel as you shape process.
-Look at the current creative deliverables:

-What type of work is your agency doing? -Evaluate it critically. -Look at creative performance. Are there any testing results or white papers you can review?

-Evaluate your team’s skills, wants, and needs. Again – basic, right? But still – get an understanding of who’s on your team. What can they do? What do they like to do? What’s their vision for the department? Your best resources and answers are often right in front of you.

At this point, you still aren’t ready to make any changes, but you should have a clear idea of what’s next.

Step 3 – Process and Implementation

While process isn’t the sexy part of Creative, it’s critical. In order to do the best design work possible, you need to get the noise out of the way.

-Design (redesign) an easy process for engaging with the creative team. How do you ask for a new Landing Page or new banner concepts? What about Social assets? How about internal projects? Should the process be the same for everything? (Possibly.) You’ll only know if you try, and I recommend starting small. You can always tweak things as you go along.
-Find a project management solution. There are tons of project management systems out there. I strongly recommend using one. Creative projects have many moving parts; in order to scale, project management will be critical.
-Document the process. Again, not super fun, but key. People need to know what to do and how to do it. Make sure the process docs are easily accessible and that you are open to questions.
-Don’t overcomplicate things. Good process is meant to streamline things and improve the workflow.
-Be okay with some pushback. People don’t like change, and a few people will be resistant to the new process.

Remember: you don’t want your designers wasting their time trying to decipher a request. If the process is clean, they will have more time for the fun, creative stuff.

Step 4 – Evaluate

Take stock of what you’ve implemented. Is it working? What do people think?

-Have you attained your goals? Think about what you are trying to accomplish. Are you able to better keep track of the projects? Are you meeting deadlines? Are the end-users able to navigate the process? These are all items to consider. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a place to start. Remember, the process should be fluid. You can make changes – just don’t make them every day, or it’ll get confusing.
-Are you able to better measure the work? This is key! If you ever want to grow your team, you have to be able to quantify your output.
-How’s productivity? Are you getting more work done? How’s the quality of the work? This is something you’ll need to evaluate ongoing. However, it’s especially important at the get-go.
-And if you aren’t reaching your goals? It’s okay. You are allowed to change things!

Step 5 – What’s next?

Now that things are in motion, there’s one big question to answer: are you positioned for growth? You need to think about this both from an internal and an external perspective. Can you adequately support your clients’ needs…and can you go above and beyond with the client? While you may be able to meet their needs, are you adding value?

-Do you have the right tools to scale the business?
-Do you have all the documentation you need? Creative briefs? Timelines?
-What about supporting tools? Do you have a tool to review creative?
-What about creative testing? Do you have a POV? What about a testing design?

There’s a lot to think about, and this is just a start. I think the biggest thing to remember is that you don’t have to do everything at once. Start with a plan and then keep revising it. Get the process out of the way so there’s room to be creative.

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