You often hear that planning a creative project upfront is both pointless and counter-productive. Creative process by definition is something fuelled by inspiration. Yet, in a commercial environment - if things are not thought through and pre-planned, you are almost definitely destined to lose money. Especially when the final result should be innovative and inspired.
I’ll be focusing on something that’s close to my heart – having worked in some top digital marketing agencies, I have managed many creative projects. The client briefs always called upon a unique and ingenious final result but had a strict time and budget constraints. How do you ensure you deliver something the client would be happy about as well as make money for the company along the way? Your best bet – clever phasing of the project and constant monitoring. Based on my experience the below 4 step process helps you create your project plans and will get you closer to project success. This way you will deliver to client expectations, on time and on budget.
Allow enough time for the creative team to get together and do what they do best – generate ideas. One crucial caveat – you must set a rule: At least 50% of ideas need to come under budget. Your project team will have a rough idea of the required resource to bring their ideas to life but don’t rely on the creatives to know all the intricacies of project estimation. You as a PM should be supporting them, in a constant estimation mode. Focus on the effort required from different resources – don’t worry about project plans for now. Tools like Price&Cost are great for this sort of exercise – allowing you to create multiple versions of estimates and see your financials straight away without delving into the detail.
As a result of the creative concepting phase, you are likely to get more than one idea. Some ideas would be on-brief and over-budget, other will be a moonshot with an unknown budget. It’s fine to present a choice to your client. They will sometimes be conservative, but every now and again – go for that big, bold idea. Whatever the circumstance – make sure they’ve chosen at least one and only one route even if they wanted a lot of changes to the presented concept.
Once the choice is clear, there’s still work to do. Concepts are called that for a reason. They need a lot of polishing before they become tangible. At this point, you need to involve other disciplines – get your designers, copywriters, developers, etc – anyone who will be involved in the implementation and ask for their input. You will be surprised at how valuable this is. The things you are looking for are any known constraints, potential risks and feasibility of the idea. Chances are – you’ll need to adjust the chosen idea ever so slightly to ensure it’s achievable.
It’s also wise to pick up those ballpark estimates you’ve created during concepting and ask the team to verify the estimates still make sense. It comes with experience, but you’ll find your draft estimates are becoming more and more accurate over time.
Present the refined concept with a more confident estimate to the client. Get ready for at least one round of amends. Factor this into your estimation.
Once you have a sign-off on the concept and your estimate – it’s time to make it happen. As much creative as your concept may be – it will surely have some pretty down-to-earth task involved – UX design, asset production, copywriting, development, etc. Ensure you’ve allowed plenty of rounds of internal reviews and amends as you produce your final creative product. It’s beneficial to involve team members who were involved in previous phases as well as those who are yet to get involved in the project in those reviews (e.g involve your developers in one of the internal reviews of asset creation sub-phase) – this way you will avoid nasty surprises later like “Oh, but we’ve actually needed this asset in retina quality as well as low-res”.
Be prepared to showcase your progress to the client (or project sponsor), but be careful there. Be clear on what you want them to review and make sure you capture their feedback – I have seen clients all too often change their minds and “forget” their previous feedback or agreed project scope altogether.
There will be someone in your team or organisation who are ultimately responsible for the quality of the creative product (Design lead or Creative Director) – they will rarely do the work themselves but they need to oversee and sign-off. Factor their time in and make sure those sign-off points are clearly communicated to your team (this is where a project schedule becomes really useful).
As you progress, constraints set at the beginning of the project planning process will not disappear. Don’t ignore them. Embrace them. Check your individual tasks are completed on time – then your overall plan will also not be delayed. Same goes for your budget. As thoroughly as you’ve planned upfront, things will change – tasks will take longer to complete, the more junior resource will get interchanged for more senior (and thus more expensive) and so on. Read my previous blog post for some practical tips on managing project budget.
There are plenty of tools to help you track where you are against your set projects success criteria (be it project timeline, project scope completeness, or financials). The crucial part here is to seek out for things that start ringing alarm bells and act fast. Definitely check out Price&Cost for proactive project financial tracking.
Planning the project is all about modelling the sequence of events – the above should give you a good head-start. Just try playing out the full lifecycle of the project in your head. Thinking about some potentials pitfalls, but don’t be too risk-averse. Be sure to leave in some buffers and account for all the necessary resources and their time. Don’t be afraid to make assumptions. After all – we all fail at first but then learn from our experience.