Or, How to Get the Best Out of Your Agency

The Creative Process

by Elizabeth Davidson & Tim Chapman

People often ask us how we come up with our ideas. So here it is, our creative process unveiled.

Little in this world is idealized like creativity. Some creative agencies like to perpetuate the myth of a bunch of talented hipsters wafting around casually plucking brilliant ideas from the air like ripe peaches.

We don’t. We're all a bit nerdy to be hipsters. And also, cute as this image is, it devalues the rigor of our creative process, and the hours of research, preparation and hard graft that go into each project. Clients often ask us how we come up with our ideas. So here it is. The TimeZoneOne creative process unveiled.

Phase 1: Brief

As a client this is where you can really make a difference. A great brief is a rich resource for the creative process, and a road map to keep us all on course.

Tell Us About Your Customers

The more we know about your customers the better we can communicate with them. Understanding your customers helps you answer their questions and meet their needs more effectively than your competition.

When deadlines are tight, and budgets are small, doing the legwork required to understand your customers can feel too challenging. It feels easier just to try some stuff and see what sticks. But remember every penny and every second spent understanding what makes your customers tick is a wise investment.

Outline Why They Choose You

To make your key messaging resonate with your customers, you need to identify the emotional hot buttons that make them choose your product, or service over the others available to them. Answering this question requires a strong customer focus. Not all companies have invested in research in this area.

Identify Measurable Goals

You can’t judge success without measurable goals. Goals focus the project process and provide clear criteria to review progress and measure success.

Getting a consensus on goals can be hard. Unrealistic goals are difficult to meet and can make your efforts feel futile, so it’s important to research ROI and results for similar projects before setting goals.

Review Your Competition

You can learn a lot from reviewing your competitors’ marketing material. You can learn who they are targeting, what works, and what doesn’t and get inspiration. But beware, sometimes it can be hard to resist copying successful competitors. Find ground you can call your own.

Identify Challenges that Impede Your Success

Share your potential stumbling blocks. Forewarned is forearmed. We can help you overcome hurdles and address objections from your customers, but you need to make us aware of these challenges before we start work. It can help to arrange interviews with key internal stakeholders aware of these issues.

Discovery Meeting

This face to face meeting should include your project champion, and your key decision makers. The TimeZoneOne team will include key team members like a brand strategist, creative director, digital strategist and content strategist.

The goal of this meeting is to:

  • Establish relationship between all people working on project.
  • Review goals, competitors and target market.
  • Identify credentials, competitive advantage and reasons why customers choose you.
  • Discuss initial and ideas, and any internal creative suggestions and preferences.
  • Discuss voice, content strategy and structure for campaign.
  • Review digital campaigns from SEO and SEM perspective.
  • Review key challenges that may stop you reaching your goals.

It’s vital that your key stakeholders attend this meeting, so they’re able to place their thumbprint on your project at the beginning of the process.

Define Project Scope, Budget and Timeline

Create a detailed checklist for the project with budget allocated to tasks. Key deadlines can influence scope of work, and timelines. A consensus on project scope and allocation of budget prevents project and budget creep.

This requires high-level approval and buy in from your entire project team, as changes to project scope can have knock on effects on your timelines and budgets.

Phase 2: Creative Research, Ideation and Development

Phase 2 is the heart of our creative journey, where big ideas are generated.

  1. Creative research. We review all the resources you have provided, your competitors’ activity and your past marketing material. Then we cast our net wider and look at similar campaigns, examples of best practice and inspirational material from many sources. At this stage, we may create customer personas, mood boards, copy compilations, comparative matrixes and scrapbooks of initial ideas to refer to as we design and write. This initial preparation phase is social, collaborative and playful. Each creative team member brings different influences to the process. We get together and share our ideas, and at this stage all ideas are welcome. We may present this initial creative research and ideation to our clients for discussion. Not all clients enjoy being involved at this exploratory stage, preferring to wait for more fully realized ideas in the first formal creative presentation. Others relish this stage, and enjoy seeing the volume of research and thought that contributes to their campaign.
  2. Mulling it over. This is the stage we put your project aside for a few days to mature like a fine wine. It may not look like we’re doing much on your project at this point. But our minds are busy processing research, refining and generating ideas. This is where the creative magic happens, and it’s the only part of the creative process that is difficult to precisely define. Because of its nebulous nature this step can be crowded out with tight deadlines, but it is a vital part of the mix for quality creative. That first flush of initial ideas in Step 1 might contain gold. But why settle for the first decent idea that comes along. Let things mature, and you get more depth and value.
  3. Creative ideation. After incubating your project for a while, we go back to our initial ideas with fresh eyes, distill them down and add new ones to the mix. This part of the process is one part inspiration to nine parts perspiration.
  4. Selection. This is where we rigorously evaluate our creative ideas to see how well they achieve your goals. We select the strongest ideas and extend them to fulfill the scope of the project. At the end of this stage we have your initial creative presentation.
  5. Refinement. Typically (although not always) we present two or three creative routes for a major campaign. These options often evolve incrementally from your current brand platform, with one option being a subtle shift, the second option a bold step forward, and the third option a dramatic metamorphosis. This can be a useful exercise for an organization in gauging internal appetite for change.


Refining Creative Ideas

We work with you to refine one of the creative ideas to become the platform for your campaign. As a client you can help make this process smooth, enjoyable and productive by remembering these simple guidelines.

  • Have a tight project team. Try to resist the temptation to consult too widely on your creative. Design by committee usually ends up a pale shadow of the original, and is less effective for it.
  • Nominate one or two key people to handle communication with TimeZoneOne.
  • Discuss feedback internally and reach a consensus, before presenting feedback to TimeZoneOne. Our estimates include a finite number of rounds of edits (usually two) and additional exploration may incur additional costs. If you keep your feedback focused, your project is more likely to stay on time and on budget.
  • When you give feedback:
    • Remember your goals and what you are trying to achieve. Ask yourself, how do we make this campaign more effective?
    • Try to identify issues that need to be addressed, and tell us the reasons why. Please try not to solve the challenges for us. It’s our job to present you with different ways to achieve your goals.
    • Try to avoid ambiguous terms like edgy, quirky or classy. These mean different things to everyone. Specific design references are helpful, as are reasons why you like or dislike something.
    • Be full and frank. Now is the time to change things, not two months down the line when your website is about to go live. And TimeZoneOne welcomes frank feedback. There are no precious creative egos here.
  • And lastly, try not to be paralyzed by a quest for perfection. If a campaign meets your goals better than your current marketing material, it’s a win. Get your campaign out there, then refine based on results.

Phase 3: Production

In this phase we roll out the campaign and create all your campaign elements.

Review Deliverables and Timeline

Meeting your timeline is important. If creative development takes longer than projected it may have an effect on this timeline. In addition, the elements for the campaign may change during the creative development process.

Checking in on your list of deliverables before we start rolling out your campaign ensures your budget is accurately allocated, and everyone is working towards the same milestones.

It’s important to take timelines seriously and ensure you do all you can to meet your internal deadlines, as delays will have a knock-on effect on our ability to deliver key milestones.

Review Your Goals for all Campaign Elements

This ensures that each communication piece is aligned to your KPIs and keeps everyone focused on the goals for the campaign.

Measuring results can be challenging for certain media, so while we try to be granular as we can with our reporting, we will also work with you to set overall metrics for success for your campaign.

Content Development

Good content is key to the success of your campaign.

It’s easy to underestimate the time and effort needed to create quality content. Ideally content development should commence at the same time as the creative development, to allow for research, writing, third party contributions and edits.

Design follows content, so it’s inefficient and ineffective to start producing campaign components with placeholder content.

We provide content strategy and content creation services, including video production, so talk to us about all your content needs.

Reach a Consensus and Consolidate Feedback

We work collaboratively with our creative partners, so we aim to ensure that you never end up in a situation where you see work and get a nasty sinking feeling, that it isn’t at all what you wanted. We’ve all been there. It’s horrible.

The other benefit of working collaboratively is that it helps keep edits to a minimum, sticking to your budget and timeline. Project estimates include a finite number of rounds of edits (usually two). We aim to deliver creative options so on target that they require minimal refinement.

If you keep your feedback focused, your project is more likely to stay on time and on budget. Making time to meet for feedback is always productive.

Large project teams can make consolidated feedback challenging. If you are leading a project, ensure key decision makers give feedback with everyone else. Additional rounds of exploration may incur additional costs.


Phase 4: Proof & Test

This phase is often the most arduous of the campaign. It’s not exciting like the creative development and production phases. It requires painstaking attention to detail, discipline and a collective will to push on together to launch a polished campaign. We recommend you consider this checklist of tasks.

Proof with Fresh Eyes

People often underestimate how much work goes into this final phase and fail to allocate enough time for thorough proofing and testing. Don’t be that person. There’s nothing like a typo to undermine the polish of your lovely shiny new campaign.

Proofing large projects takes time. Consolidating feedback from multiple people in a timely fashion is hard-work. We’re here for you, and our QA processes are robust, but you need to do your bit.

User Testing

User testing helps you validate your campaign. It can improve your results by optimising your conversion processes and your user experience, based on real feedback from real customers. How awesome is that!

It’s much easier to resolve issues during development, than when your campaign is live. So, we recommend that if you do have time and budget for user testing you factor this into your plan. You’ll end up with a better result. Remember if you do user testing, a further round of edits will need to be factored in, to address any issues identified.

Content Management Training

We offer full content and social media management services, however if you prefer to manage these yourself, we can empower you to manage elements of your campaign. This requires you to have internal resource to manage content and social media, and to be able to commit to the time required to create quality content.

Phase 5: Assess & Evolve

Your campaign is live. Congratulations. But don’t sit back and relax. Now we start tracking and measuring results and tweaking your campaign to perform more effectively.

Regular Reporting

This is primarily effective for the digital component of your campaign. It helps you keep on track with results, and make sure everyone is in the loop on the progress of the campaign. It also allows us to respond quickly and refine elements of the campaign to optimize results.

Three-Month Review

This is your big picture review. We assess progress and ask whether campaign goals are being met. Opportunity to review direction of campaign and establish milestones and goals for the next phase. Requires preparation and participation of key decision makers to be meaningful.

5 Tips from Our Creative Director

We asked Tim Chapman to give us his top five tips for getting more out of your creative agency.

1. Nominate a Project Leader

Creative projects are subjective. Everyone has different tastes and biases. A challenge we often run into is managing opinions that don’t align with the objective of the project. We’re delighted when people share their opinions with us, but problems occur when those opinions come into the project mid-flight and are not aligned with your original goals.

It’s important to get your key decision makers involved early in the process so that they can understand how the creative decisions map back to the project’s objectives. Bringing stakeholders in late in the project is a recipe for frustration and delays.

It’s also important to assign a project leader to collect input and feedback from your team and distill this into concise feedback for us. 10 people giving their subjective opinions on an email thread is inefficient and confusing. Having a single point of contact ensures that we have clear direction. This frees us to spend more time making your project great.

2.Take Creative Risks and Dream

No communications should be boring. Sadly, so many are. If you want to stand out in a crowded market place, it’s time to shake it up and be brave. So how do you introduce innovation?

First, clearly define the objective of your project. There will be many ways to achieve your goals, so tell us what you want to achieve, and let us come back to you with a range of solutions. Free us to offer you creative thinking.

Then earmark some budget for experimentation. Best practice is all very well, but best practice is simply what worked in the past. It’s not a guarantee. And it doesn’t leave room for innovation. If you never try something new, you’ll never get better results. So, throw some shapes.

But be prepared to fail. In fact, aim to fail, because if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough. Facebook’s mantra in their early years was “Move fast and break things.” Look how that worked out!

And establish safe parameters for failure. If you earmark a budget for experimentation that you’re prepared to write off as learning and development, then you’ve created the perfect circumstances for effective innovation.

Right, so, you’re ready to experiment. Let’s mix it up. Don’t just do what your competitor is doing! Looking outside of your industry for inspiration can be effective. Looking at what’s going on in culture can also be an eye opener. Are there social phenomena taking off or new styles of video, design, or event experiences that might enhance your project?

The key thing is to have an open mind and be willing to pitch bold ideas to your team. And, if you do end up going a tried and tested route, at least you know that you explored all your options, and that you’ve challenged yourself to think differently.

3. Communicate Collaboratively

We do our best work with organizations who share our values, respect our considerable expertise, and treat us as true partners. If you’re looking for an agency to produce cookie cutter work to templates, we’re not your guys. If you want a partner who will challenge you, share knowledge and add value, we should talk.

See your agency as a partner rather than a vendor. They will view you the same way and your project will benefit greatly. We like to work in an inclusive way, so be ready to bounce ideas around, share work in progress, and have open creative conversations.

If your goal is to get the best possible project you can within your budget, effective communication can help you get more value out of your budget. Keep in mind that different feedback benefits from different methods of communication. In person feedback almost always works better in the initial stages of a project. Feedback in writing that we can check edits against is helpful once we get into detailed production.

4. Make it Short, Sweet and Snackable

This could mean producing a 90 second video instead of a three minute epic, releasing an infographic instead of a white paper, or hosting a series of local roadshows instead of  a behemoth of a conference.

With so much media competing for your customers’ attention, simplifying your message and delivering it in snack size bites is a sure-fire way to catch and keep their attention. Keeping things short and sweet leaves your audience wanting more, which means that they’re more likely to follow your call to action.

Keeping things bite size also helps make it more affordable to create variations targeted to your different audiences. Big, expensive marketing pieces often try to address everyone and end up connecting with no one. Keep it simple and keep it relevant.

5. Set Realistic Expectations

The number one thing that you can do to help keep your project’s cost down and quality up is start early! Waiting until the last minute to begin a project will cost you more in money, and stress, and there’s a strong chance you’ll end up with sub-optimal results.

Sometimes last-minute projects can’t be avoided. So if you find yourself scrambling, make sure you set clear and realistic expectations around what you consider to be success for this project.

All creative people want to do great work. No one comes into studio and says, “Hmmmm, I think I’ll be thoroughly mediocre today”. Setting realistic expectations is the key to a strong working relationship which, in turn, delivers the best results for you and your business.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Davidson

Elizabeth Davidson

Director of Content Strategy & GM New Zealand

I’m a strategist and storyteller, helping you focus in on your customers’ dreams and needs to create a marketing strategy and brand story that will connect with them emotionally.

Tim Chapman

Tim Chapman

Creative Director

Based in our New Zealand office, I work as Creative Director, collaborating with partners both in NZ and in US on a daily basis. I specialise in bringing your stories to life through fresh, engaging, intelligent design.

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