How to Build a Successful Creative Workflow


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Establishing and following a well-planned creative workflow can do wonders for an organization. Here, we discuss the different creative workflow phases and how to make the workflow work.

I was once a member of a team that created content for a client in the education/e-learning space. After a trial run consisting of a few pieces, it’s safe to say that the customer’s point person was pleased with our performance.

As a result, another website was added to the account. But along with it was another client representative who expected faster turnaround times. Agreeing to work under extremely tight deadlines was courting trouble, and although I had misgivings, the team worked doubly hard to accommodate the client’s schedule.

Things started to go downhill as soon as we received feedback on the first submission. The brief the writer worked with was missing important information, information all the other briefs didn’t have as well. We asked the writers to revise their content using the updated briefs. Everyone obliged, except for one who asked for extra payment for the additional effort and time -- understandable considering the scope creep.

That wasn’t all. The client expected the pieces to be turned over to them the same day the writers submitted them, which meant practically no time for editing or internal review. Because we were a remote team working in different time zones and handoff roles weren’t particularly clear-cut, one unedited assignment slipped through the cracks and went straight to the client for approval.

Long story short, the client was very unhappy.

Things can go sideways a number of different ways for creatives, and the above is just one scenario. What might have prevented the situation from spiraling out of control was a carefully thought-out creative project workflow.

Overview: What is a creative workflow?

A creative workflow is the process a marketing or design team follows when producing creative deliverables -- from idea generation to content development and, finally, to campaign or product launch. Although creative workflows are different for every team or organization, the goal is the same across the board: to streamline the process in a way that doesn’t stifle creativity.

That’s not to say that once a workflow has been set up, it’s set in stone. Hiccups will crop up at one point or another, and having a foundational process in place can prevent the project from derailing.

A creative workflow, which should be documented and readily available for all to see and reference, may include the following:

  • The different creative process steps -- or flow of work -- that team members must observe throughout the project, specifically who does what and when
  • Who’s in charge of approvals and when
  • How to track and measure progress
  • The necessary tools and technology to complete work successfully, such as project management software for managing workflows, storing files and documents, and centralizing team communication

The phases of the creative workflow

Whether you’re redesigning a website, launching a new product, or creating promotional videos, the creative workflow process typically follows four phases, namely:

1. Definition

The goal of this phase is to define the project’s scope using information provided by the client, such as the type of product or deliverable they’re looking for, the goals the product aspires to achieve, its target audience, the client’s budget and timeline, and other relevant details.

Actions that may occur during this stage include:

  • Developing the creative brief
  • Defining team members’ roles and responsibilities
  • Setting milestones to track project progress
  • Identifying potential risks and creating an appropriate action plan
  • Researching how to differentiate the client’s product
  • Clarifying what the client can expect from the final output

2. Creation

Creation is the stage in which the product is actually developed. Tasks or actions expected during this phase include:

  • Brainstorming to generate ideas and documenting them
  • Taking a close look at similar products and figuring out how to improve them
  • Creating product prototypes -- or website wireframes, if applicable
  • Developing a work schedule for the entire team and making sure team members have easy access to it
  • Conducting regular team meetings to discuss updates as well as setbacks and how to overcome them
  • Encouraging team collaboration through constant check-ins and the right online collaboration tools
  • Creating status reports
  • Tracking the time team members spend on tasks, which may be needed for invoicing later
  • Ensuring team members meet their deadlines
  • Communicating review and quality expectations to the team
  • Updating the client on the project’s progress so they know what’s going on
  • Obtaining the client’s feedback to confirm that your team is doing exactly what’s expected

3. Review and approval

This phase involves getting internal approval on the product or content your team has created and then sending the deliverable to the client for review. The feedback you receive from both internal approvers and the client will be used to make changes to the final product -- until the client or their authorized representative finally signs off on it.

Tasks or actions that are likely to occur during this phase include:

  • Get final product approval internally, then forward the product to the client for review.
  • Use reliable data-transfer tools for sharing large design or video files with clients.
  • Use review software to consolidate feedback from different sources.
  • Evaluate whether the type and level of feedback you receive fall within agreed-upon terms and guidelines -- and then determine if you need to charge extra.
  • Implement the predetermined limits on the review process so you don’t get stuck in endless revision cycles.
  • Secure final product approval from the client.

4. Product or campaign launch

This is the final stage of the process, which deals primarily with handing over the completed product to the client, which may mean sending them the printed materials or files in certain digital formats, publishing content online, or releasing a video.

Other tasks you may have to do include:

  • Invoicing the client
  • Continually communicating with the client to ensure they’re satisfied with the finished product

How to organize a successful creative workflow

“Chaos” and “creativity” are two words often said in the same breath. But for a project manager overseeing creative projects, “chaos” isn’t particularly enticing. Deadlines have to be met, and teams must follow a specific set of steps to come up with the desired outcome.

Process doesn’t have to crimp your creative team’s style, so to speak, and the pointers below may help make your workflow stick:

1. Clarify team responsibilities

This is extremely important, especially for creative agencies with many different roles. Right at the get-go, each role has to be clearly defined, with every team member understanding where their responsibilities begin and end. This way, you avoid confusion and unnecessary duplication of efforts.

Questions to ask include:

  • Who will perform specific tasks?
  • Who will conduct reviews?
  • Who, if anyone, must be consulted during the review process?
  • Who is responsible for final approval?

2. Determine how the creative process will flow from beginning to end

Creative processes will differ from organization to organization, but the idea is to establish the workflow steps team members will follow from project initiation to completion.

For example, a content writing agency working with freelancers may have the following workflow:

  • Send the client an intake form.
  • Bill the client.
  • Create a project brief.
  • Assign the project to the best-fit writer.
  • Assign the writer’s submission to an editor.
  • Send back to the writer if revisions are necessary.
  • Share the content with the client for review once final internal approval is obtained.
  • Revise the content based on the client’s feedback, then send it back to them for another round of review.
  • If the client is happy with the final output, send them the digital files and related materials and pay the writer.
  • Archive the project in the workflow management system.

A freelance writer may have a slightly different process:

  • Set up a discovery call. (Or if working with an agency, accept the assignment and go straight to producing the content.)
  • Create a brief.
  • Produce the content.
  • Send to the client (or an editor) for review.
  • Revise as needed.
  • Obtain final approval and tie all loose ends, i.e., send the files and invoice the client.

3. Emphasize that revisions are necessary to produce the best possible output

The review process is vital to getting the product or content right, but many creatives aren’t especially enamored of the process. Another person critiquing your work and asking for revisions isn’t exactly fun -- some might even consider it a blow to the ego -- but if team members understand why revisions are necessary, friction can be prevented.

4. Make communication a priority

For the final product to align with the client’s expectations and what the team has committed to do, constant communication is a must. For example, project managers are responsible for updating the client on the project’s progress, while team members must regularly provide updates on the tasks assigned to them and if there are any hurdles to address.

Although email has specific uses, for best results, choose software with built-in communication features such as team chat, private chat, one-and-one and group video, and @ mentions to collaborate.

4 tips for creating the perfect creative workflow for your team

When working on your creative workflow, keep the following best practices in mind.

1. Visualize your workflow

Project planning and implementation are best done using visual aids, such as the work breakdown structure and Gantt charts.

Similarly, take the time to visualize your creative workflow from start to finish using a flowchart or workflow diagram. Doing so allows you to check for bottlenecks that may cause problems down the road and then streamline the process even further. For example, you may have to remove certain steps in certain stages or reduce the number of approvers to prevent delays.

A colorful map showing the different steps in a creative services workflow.

Here’s an example of a creative workflow in visual format. Image source: Author

2. Use templates

For recurring tasks, consider using templates. These can be templates for the client brief, team schedule, and invoice, as well as checklists for approvals, website security audit, video content management, and so on. For actual examples, CoSchedule has downloadable creative brief templates here.

3. Automate task handoff

Establish a system for alerting team members that the task is ready and waiting for them. Doing so manually via Slack or email may work for small teams but can easily become problematic for growing teams.

Task management systems like Trello and Asana send out automatic notifications once a task has been handed from one team member to another.

4. Optimize the review and approval process

You don’t want approvals, such as those for content and design, to be the reason for project delays, so it’s crucial to optimize the process by establishing:

  • The number of revisions a client can request per project
  • The number of days a client has to provide feedback

Also, don’t allow just about anyone on the team to jump in with suggestions or recommendations during the review process. Even before you begin work on a project, make it clear to everyone involved who gets to have the last word on approvals.

Final word on creative workflows

For some creatives, “process” and “creativity” are two words that don’t go well together. But whether you’re using project cycle management or the agile approach to manage projects, if you’re a marketing or advertising agency tasked with completing creative projects within a prescribed time frame, a streamlined workflow that includes tools and processes has to be in place.

Done properly, the workflow should institute standards that ensure work gets done on time while allowing creativity to blossom.

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