You can’t timebox the concepting phase. Or can you?

Written on 
November 21, 2022

Recently I had a conversation with someone in the creative ops world about tracking creative team members productivity and time to market. That can be all fine and understandable when it comes to performance marketing-an example being “How did a Facebook ad for X-Brand perform?” But what about when it comes to a larger, integrated marketing campaign? Or a totally undefined project where a marketing team has approached their creative partners to develop a solution? This brings into play the concepting phase but demand for faster turnarounds can make this challenging to invest time in. How can a team balance getting creative out faster but needing time to develop a concept they believe will be the most successful? There are live dates that need to be hit and project managers are responsible for workback plans that put key milestones in place, often including when concepting needs to be done. So unfortunately, timing will almost always come into play and that means putting a due date on concept development.

Approval before execution can be necessary.

In my past professional lives as a project manager and producer, I have timeboxed creatives on both sides - quicker turn-around small projects and larger ones that require the concepting phase. Often times for a big project, we’d need sign-off on the visual concept/high level direction before moving on to executing the final deliverables. There’s no point in starting with those deliverables if your key approvers haven’t yet blessed the direction you are proposing to move forward with. Let’s say you have an integrated marketing campaign to push sales of women’s blouses. There are countless visual/verbal executions of how to do this. As a creative or as a project manager, how do you balance making time for ideation, then execution with looming deadlines and increased demand on quicker turnarounds?

Two schools of thought - keep it quick and dirty, see how it performs and iterate from there. Or the opposite - invest time in a well fleshed out concept, execute, then see how it performs.

Consider the tactical vs the strategic needs.

Let’s dive more into the larger project need for concepting. In one of my past roles, I worked on packaging with a great crew of creatives - designer, art director, copywriter. Sometimes on packaging, we had quick turn requests for updating the current experience, i.e. “can you tweak this copy to mention this new product?” “Can you add a QR code so we can start tracking if people read this far?” Or we received larger briefs - meaning the ask was more about “How can we reimagine the customer experience with our packaging?” The brief posed to creative was more centered around “How can we reimagine it to better engage customers” (creative strategy) and less about “Add in copy about women’s blouses” (straight to tactical execution.)

Like I mentioned above, this reimagining could have so many different solutions. The creatives may develop concepts that add components, remove components, tweak boxes, add in new tape, on and on-many different paths could be taken. In this real example, we needed various layers of approval before moving onto execution - was the visual/verbal look and feel approved? Budget-wise can our company afford to add the new components? How can we justify it so people feel it’s worth the cost?

As the project manager of this work - I time-boxed my creatives. Yes! I’m guilty of trying to force great ideas to happen, but I tried to give space. If I knew the goal handoff date of final deliverables, I could work back from that with typically 1 concept review and then 2 reviews of the deliverables. But sometimes; things didn’t go smoothly. Sometimes, the creative team came to me and said “we need more time.” You can’t rush this work; you can’t force great ideas.  Or if the concept wasn’t approved in that single, allocated concept review, we’d need more time, a second round and possible considering condensing all future milestones or pushing out the handoff date. And it was often worth it. Especially if a lot of money is at stake (this example-purchasing a lot of physical packaging components) so we had to get it right.

A counter example to that is producing growth marketing assets. Produce them quickly to get faster results that can inform the next round. Constantly use data to inform your feedback on creative. Keep it quick and experimental. Concepts may be quickly developed but they are also more easily evaluated on success.

My recommendations:

  1. Manage expectations on timing - two concept reviews may be necessary for an important initiative. Prepare for that in your plan and prep the entire working team on this.
  2. Educate your cross-functional partners on their options especially if their deadline isn’t concrete and if the creative team has bandwidth. If urgency is the ask, remind them that speed can be counterproductive to great ideas. But if time can be allotted, discuss having the creative team do a phase of concept development.
  3. Speed can happen and todays creatives are prepared for this. But remember to share what success metrics are and follow up with how creative performed. Closing that loop will keep creative team members informed and ready to tackle the next problem in a new way.

Curious to hear from you all - do you feel a longer concepting phase will result in higher performant work? Or is quick/iterate later the model plan of today and beyond? What are projects you worked on where you needed a long concepting phase?

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