After six amazing years, the founders of Hexanine have moved on to other independent design work and creative endeavors. Read more
Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

Lie #1: Great ideas always die a slow death in the approval process.

(This is part of an ongoing series of posts, “50 Lies About Clients”, revealing the truth behind some of the sacred cows designers and marketers hold dear. )

Shepherd your ideas through the approval process

Originally, I had titled this post “Protect your ideas through the approval process”. And with that, I unintentionally revealed a tension designers and marketers face when working alongside clients. Underneath the talk of strategic partnerships and client service, many of us still harbor an “us versus them” mentality. We walk into presentations skeptically trying to figure out how the client will mess with our babies, our beautiful designs and airtight concepts.

Sure, that happens. But in our experience at Hexanine, most client requests to “make the logo bigger” are not simpleton directions from meddlesome non-designers. Instead, the fallout from such feedback really reveals that we as marketers haven’t done our job in communicating our concepts and shepherding our ideas through the process. There are ways we can help guide the process to eliminate distracting feedback and lead to the best outcome: excellent, on-target work that surprises, delights and over-delivers for our client’s organizational needs. So, here are some ways we’ve found to smooth out the path from great idea to finish line.

Turn your ideas into our ideas. If a concept only belongs to you, it will be hard to find other champions throughout the process. Creative people rarely love mechanically executing the ideas of others. So, it’s important to find meaningful ways to allow others to seize ownership of a concept. That means being open to feedback—and not just listening to it, but implementing the best parts, regardless of where they come from. This is your chance to prove the value of your “flat hierarchy” and give everyone a voice. Copywriters have good color ideas. Account managers come up with great headlines. The hardest part is cultivating an environment where everyone feels freedom to contribute in avenues that don’t necessarily line up strictly with their job descriptions. This requires a humble set of people, and as a project leader you can set the tone with good facilitation of the brainstorming process. The bottom line is this: Others will go to battle for great ideas if they have a personal stake in them, if they feel ownership of what is being presented. Throughout this journey, spreading the deserved credit around to all involved parties also lets everyone know they are a valuable member of a great team.

This also applies to your client partners. It’s crucial to see them as they are: wellsprings of information and knowledge to tap–and treat them as such. Explain that their expert input is important at specific points in the process. When they can see nuggets of their feedback in the final presentation, they will feel like valuable parts of your team. You’ll have gained another powerful ally as your concepts step up to the plate.

Seek out and include the Top Dog. This is likely the single most important thing you can do to smooth the way for your excellent campaign, brand concepts or creative effort. Everything we do as marketers stands or falls on this person’s approval. Sure, any marketer worth their salt probably has stories about how a project got butchered because the boss’s husband didn’t like the color orange. But pet peeves aside, the reality is that direct, unfettered access to the final decision-making person (or body) is the best way to save time, money, revisions and headaches. Who wants to muck around with the superfluous feedback of gatekeepers whose opinions won’t seal the deal? Of course, it’s important to get sign off on a project all the way up the food chain–but at the end of the day, if the CEO or President doesn’t get on board with what you’ve presented, it’s back to the early stages. It costs everyone time and money. So, instead of wearing out our shoes on the approval treadmill, it’s important to go to the source right at the outset.

How can you do this? Find out who has the final say on your project. It’s important to do this without going over the head of your assigned mid-level staff person, as well. It can be as simple as asking a question: “Who else needs to be involved in this process?” or “After you and I have passed the initial stages, can we meet with the to discuss their needs on this project?” Pull that person into the meeting. Pay special attention to their desires and and goals for this project. Keeping those Top Dog desires in mind can also give you ammunition when dealing with middle managers looking to put their own personal stamp on a project at the expense of quality. If you run into a roadblock with these people, it’s easier to reference the Top Dog’s feedback as confirmation you’re heading in the right direction.

Make the mid-level people look good for their bosses.
In some projects, it might be impossible to get access to the true decision-makers. In those less-than-ideal circumstances, you’ll be working with managers, assistants and others. Sometimes these mid-level staffers are more concerned with safeguarding their jobs, and delivering what is best for a project falls to a distant second.

To some clients, judging and evaluating creative work can seem like a nebulous, subjective black box that makes them uncomfortable. You need to help your associate feel good about what you’re presenting, by allowing them to embrace your ideas as theirs own (though not taking credit for them!). A great way to create this shared buy-in is to provide your would-be advocate the tools (and words) to sell your ideas/concepts up the chain. This could be a ready-made presentation, bullet points, or explanations that are written in the language of their role and company. Your best bet at “remote success” in this arena is to frame the communications in ways that will help your advocate look good for their superiors. After all, isn’t this what everyone wants? With that in mind, your goals (getting the best work approved) and theirs (coming out smelling like roses) can easily overlap with some thoughtful planning.

When faced with questionable feedback, dig down to its roots. Instead of just agreeing to a piece of input (“Can you make the logo bigger?”) make sure to ask some clarifying questions about where your client is coming from. Why do they want to do this or that? Is the desire to change colors a question of hierarchy or emphasis? Is it part of a new focus on the corporate tagline? Get at the underlying concerns, then help answer these legitimate issues with better solutions.

Learn to do the committee dance. Sometimes you have to learn how to dance, because playing well with others really isn’t an option. So when responsibility for a project is spread around, you might find yourself in the midst of the dreaded committee. If you can, at the outset, be clear on what nature of input the group should provide. In larger group meetings you can set the tone (and create a more productive time) if you spell out what sort of feedback you’re looking for, and at what steps in the process their input will be crucial. This last part is important, because you need to let people be valued partners in your shared journey, or you risk making apathetic partners, or at worst, saboteurs.

How do you minimize the negative behavior of group members? Be proactive by soliciting their input during the discovery phase as to the business goals for the project—who is the market? How will success be measured? What efforts have come before, and how did they fare? Are there known pitfalls to avoid? Getting concrete answers to these questions at the beginning will help elevate the discussion above personal taste and the whims of group members. As long as you can show and explain how your work meets business goals (the ones that members themselves have provided!) you will find it’s a much smoother path to the promised land of final approval.

What have we missed? What other ways have you been able to carry your concepts safely through the approval process?

Oct 22 2009

Bookmark and Share

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply