Making creative work that matters — a guide to creative operations
Consumers spend an average of nearly 500 minutes per day interacting with digital media and may be taking in dozens of ads and pieces of branded content during that time. So, how can brands ensure that they’re capturing consumers’ attention?
Brands must be more creative than ever to stand out. Unfortunately, coming up with a creative idea and executing on it is a road often filled with potholes. Between content bottlenecks, miscommunication, deadlines, budgets, and resource and platform constraints, creative projects can be notoriously difficult to nail down — and amazing ideas get left on the chopping block.
The good news is that a smooth creative process is entirely possible when you enable a creative operations framework — a set structure, game plan, and measurement tools for every step of the creative process. Creative operations are becoming an increasingly popular solution for businesses looking to calm the chaos that often comes with creativity and content creation. And with a good creative operations strategy, teams can get back to doing work that truly matters.
In this guide to creative operations, you’ll learn:
- What creative operations are
- The benefits of creative operations
- The roles within a creative operations team
- How creative operations work
- The difference between creative operations and project management
- Getting started with creative operations
What are creative operations?
Creative operations — also known as “creative ops” — bring structure, process, and measurement to creative work. There’s a chance that operations flowing upstream and downstream from your creative team already work smoothly. But there’s also a chance your team spends too much time on administrative tasks, struggles with ad hoc requests, and generally lacks the structure needed to prioritize work based on a real strategy. The purpose of creative ops is to manage the entire creative workflow, starting with all the information coming to the creative team and ending with all the work the creative team produces. Leaders look for ways to optimize each step to produce more high-quality work with the same — or sometimes fewer — resources.
Think of creative op as a supply chain. A typical supply chain details all the steps, people, and resources needed to get a product from point A (a company and its producers) to point B (the final buyer). A successful supply chain ensures there’s no delay in production or delivery, resulting in lowered costs, boosted profitability, and customer expectations being met. By investigating and detailing creative processes in a similar manner from point A (project requestors) to point B (creative work in market), you can start to see where the “potholes” are. It’s all about gaining visibility into what’s not working early on so your company can avoid issues and set realistic expectations further down the road.
The rise of big data, access to more complete customer profiles, and consumer expectations for personalization in marketing have also amped up the demand for creative assets. Creative ops — where creativity meets optimization meets scale — is how that demand can be met.
A large part of creative operations is also making sure teams stick to brand guidelines, stay compliant, and, of course, hit deadlines. After all, much of what a creative team produces gets posted for the world to see. No team member wants to have to explain to the legal department why assets were posted to social media that failed to comply with typical standards or why a deadline was missed for a major product launch. Creative operations ensure corporate and brand standards are met while giving the creative team the freedom they need to create effective work that captures consumers’ attention.
Use case: creative operations for improved customer experience
Let’s see creative ops in action.
Due to increased media spending and content needs, global insurance company Liberty Mutual’s in-house agency, Copper Giants, received a major uptick in creative development requests. Describing its intake process as a “deli counter” and its collaborative efforts as a “mosh pit,” the agency knew an infrastructure upgrade was non-negotiable to keep up with production demands. Copper Giants built out a creative operations framework to drive its teams to organizational excellence.
The team members began by outlining three functional requirements: project workflow, prioritization, and operational reporting. Then, they searched for and found an end-to-end platform to help them manage it all.
With the tech and infrastructure upgrade, Copper Giants:
- Centralized where the team worked
- Served up a customized experience for each team member and partner
- Created transparency and alignment with stakeholders
- Communicated their team’s value across Liberty Mutual
“Operational data has helped us grow as a team over the years in more ways than one. It helped us quantify resourcing needs when requests were on the rise. It prepared us for the ebbs and flows of work throughout the year when we had more seasonal-type work. It highlighted an opportunity area to shift resources when we were allocating our time to less important priorities. But most importantly, it has continuously helped us communicate our value to leadership and showcase our accomplishments to our stakeholders.”
Michael LaBerge, Director of Strategic Operations, Copper Giant
Creative operations ensured Copper Giant had everything needed to produce effective content at scale. And today, the in-house agency supports personalized products and 80% of Liberty Mutual’s active creative in the market.
The benefits of creative operations
No matter what pitfalls your creative team is currently facing, the right creative operations framework can help your company see the operational upside. From increased efficiency and effective cross-department collaboration to consistent resourcing and project management, creative ops can be beneficial to marketing teams of any size. Here are eight specific benefits:
- Efficiency. Process inefficiencies are unfortunately a large issue in the creative world. Creative ops can help teams move faster by optimizing each person and process and by closing technology gaps.
- Collaboration. Great work can often be sacrificed due to disparate platforms. By centralizing where you work, you can get everyone on the same page no matter where or when they’re working. And that’s a must for today’s remote-first teams.
- Customization. A seamless operation shouldn’t come at the expense of the creative process. The best part of building a creative ops framework is that every team’s work style can be considered. Creative ops help build out dashboards customized to each team member’s preferences within an overarching workflow that solidifies standardization.
- Accountability. No more last-minute requests or half-baked intake forms. With a centralized intake process and standardized form, creative teams have all the relevant information needed to kick off a project and hit realistic deadlines.
- Security. Compliance is everything, especially in heavily legislated industries like finance and healthcare. Creative operations can provide additional oversight to creative work, ensuring compliance is met if an audit ever comes up. They can also provide structure for following brand standards — so creative teams can focus on producing quality and compliant work every time.
- Data-driven decisions. Creative ops should enhance, not stifle, the creative process. Luckily, reporting functionality and operational data can move your team from reactionary to ahead of the curve. See areas to improve prioritization, quantify resourcing needs, and communicate your team’s value to leadership.
- Consistency. Inconsistences in workflows can lead to administrative burnout. By leveraging a single creative work platform, you can streamline your intake and assignment process to create consistency and improve speed to market.
- Forecasting. A lack of clarity about the future can be detrimental to resource planning. With creative operations, you can access the data needed to accurately forecast how much money, time, and resources will be needed to complete a project. Aligning projects to statements of work has never been easier.
Use case: creative operations empower remote teams
Hybrid remote work is here to stay in some form. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the benefits of working from home also came with new uncertainties about how to adapt dispersed creative teams to continue delivering standout campaigns. The solution? Creative operations powered by technology.
Telecommunications giant CenturyLink’s globally based creative team is a prime example of creative work being able to flourish anytime, anywhere. By integrating a system of record for work with its team operations, CenturyLink creatives could create, deliver, and measure their work in one place.
“We found that small projects often take as much time as large projects, so [as part of our creative operations], we really look to take a lot of small projects and layer them together to create a larger deliverable.”
Shane LaBounty, Former Marketing Operations Leader of Brand, Creative, and Digital, CenturyLink/Lumen Technologies
After months of focusing on planning and standardizing creative work processes, effectively collaborating across the world became even more effective. With creative operations, the CenturyLink creative team was transformed from a request-led, reactive operation to a powerful, planning-led digital force.
The roles within a creative operations team
Creative directors, copywriters, designers, photographers, videographers, and producers are all common creative roles — and all are considered part of creative operations. But there are a few roles specifically focused on creative ops as a unit that ensure process and organization are an integral part of the creative process. Let’s walk through what those roles entail.
- Creative operations director
People in this role typically have 10+ years of operational experience in a creative background. As natural planners, they not only know what makes great creative, but they also serve as the business and operating mind for the creative department. These operational spearheads develop systems and improve processes in partnership with inputs from account leads, finance teams, and other stakeholders. Creative operations directors lead the charge for establishing creative efficiencies, strategic planning, project management, and, most importantly, creating an environment for creatives to thrive and grow.
- Creative operations manager
Creative operations managers live for efficiency and help the ops director drive effective change across creative departments. With typically 5+ years of experience on their resume, managers in creative ops must be incredibly collaborative and have a deep understanding of brand, marketing, and product design lifecycles. This deep knowledge is leveraged to address common roadblocks, maintain clear cross-department alignment, and keep projects running smoothly. They partner with creative leadership to advance team initiatives and support decision-making for the best possible creative setting.
- Creative operations coordinator
At the coordinator level, people are typically newer to the creative operations unit, but they bring an eagerness for new challenges and a fresh perspective to the organization. Under the direction of the manager and director, the coordinator evaluates and tests current creative processes. Coordinators typically oversee timekeeping for staff and freelancers to ensure accurate reporting. They also help coordinate reporting of daily operations, prepare materials for operations meetings, and maintain the organization of projects, records, and resources. With so much work in data, creative operations coordinators must have strong analytical and debugging skills and be able to effectively communicate numbers and ideas with multiple departments.
Use case: creative operations for faster results
Each month, the New Jersey Lottery introduces new games that require in-store point of sale and promotional materials, advertising support, web and social pages, retailer newsletters, and more. Deadlines to complete and deliver the items are tight.
A few years ago, the Northstar New Jersey Lottery Group was tapped to handle the lottery’s sales and marketing. But the team struggled with tracking projects without a centralized system.
“It was difficult and time-consuming to track everything going back and forth in email. Requests or comments would occasionally be lost or misfiled, and we caught errors too late which required reprinting. Reprints added time and cost to the job. I realized very quickly that managing projects this way wasn’t going to scale.”
Laura Antos, Senior Manager of 360 Marketing Operations, Northstar New Jersey Lottery Group
To improve project communication and management, Northstar deployed end-to-end creative operation tools. Once the tools were adopted widely, the effects were swift and impressive across departments — 360-degree visibility, project turnaround time improved by at least 24 hours, and reporting became 90% faster and more accurate. Today, Northstar teams spend their time coming up with the next big lottery marketing idea instead of searching servers and email folders for files.
How creative operations work: key elements and your current workflows
The benefits of deploying a creative operations framework are clear, but getting started is no small task. These three key steps can help you move from convoluted processes to building out successful creative operations.
Step 1: Map your current creative workflow
You can’t drive effective change unless you know exactly what you need to adapt. Start by mapping out every detail of your current creative workflow from start to finish to get a complete picture of your operations.
- Understand what currently happens. What is your intake process like? Is a creative brief created used to kick-off meetings with your creative team? How do reviews and revisions work? Determining the answers to these questions is an important part of this first step.
- Get lots of input. You’re undertaking a wide-scale initiative. Make sure you interview team members in varying departments, from stakeholder to executive, to get a clear picture of what it currently takes to get creative projects to the finish line.
- Observe and take notes. What you hear from team members may not line up with how they actually work. Sit in on meetings and observe workflows from afar to ensure you have an accurate understanding of everyone’s work styles.
- Document the workflow. Once you have all the details of what happens in each step, write down or illustrate the workflow in a clear, easy-to-follow (and easy-to-change) format.
Step 2: Identify problems
Now that you have a clearly illustrated workflow, it’s time to start breaking it down and determine what works and what must change.
- Start with the upstream: Take a hard look at your intake system and process. This is where the entire creative process starts and can be “make or break,” depending on how you capture requests. There should be a singular place where requesters can input their inquiries in a standardized intake form. The form should detail every single piece of information needed from the requester to get a project kicked off.
- Review timelines, resources, and deadlines: How often does your creative team miss deadlines? It’s crucial to pinpoint if it’s a resource issue, a technology issue, a communication issue, or perhaps a combination of more than one issue. Determine which steps in the workflow take the longest and why.
- Review technology gaps: Creatives often have to use multiple tools and legacy platforms to get their work done, and that often means wasted time jumping from window to window and tab to tab. Conduct an audit of every piece of tech that creatives have to use to build, manage, and deliver their content. Identify where the gaps are and which tools could be dropped to streamline creative efforts.
Step 3: Start finding solutions
With the root causes of problems in your creative workflows identified, now comes the hardest part: finding solutions. Follow these points to help you take on the work one issue at a time.
- Document your ideal workflow: Based on all the information at hand, define what your ideal process looks like for creative projects, starting with the end goals. From there, you can work your way backward to determine what needs to happen to reach each step of your ideal process.
- Find solutions, bit by bit: The problem-solving process takes upfront time, but the end dividends are worth it. As you work your way backward, you’ll find that solving some problems is a bigger undertaking than others, and that’s okay. Take it detail by detail until you arrive at your ideal solution.
- Enlist software or tools to help: You and your team don’t have to do this alone. Powerful software and tools exist to help you make creative operations a reality. Productivity platforms can help you get visibility into every piece of your operations to increase team output, reduce bottlenecks, and fill technology gaps. Digital asset management software also gives you one place to upload, store, manage, and track your digital assets, which is crucial for delivering campaigns with lots of files involved.
- Enlist a third party to help: If needed, experienced consultants and agencies also exist to help you work your way toward the right creative operations framework.
Creative operations vs. project management
Perhaps you haven’t heard much about creative operations until now. And you may be wondering how creative ops differ from project management — an initiative you’ve likely already invested roles and resources in. Let’s break it down.
Creative operations and project management have a lot in common. In fact, you’ll find that creative ops use some common project management best practices, like developing project briefs, creating project plans, maintaining a schedule and cadence, closely monitoring for scope creep, and more.
Project management is a broader practice for keeping projects running smoothly across any department or any team. Creative operations exist to fit the needs of a creative team and are designed to help creatives efficiently intake, produce, deliver, and use the best creative work possible. Project management is one piece of creative operations.
The scope for creative operations goes much deeper than project management. Creative operations teams are often the owners of projects and key decision-makers in creative leadership, and they help to implement strategy and standards. Creative ops manage intake and make sure every request aligns with company strategy and brand standards.
Getting started with creative operations
Overhauling your creative workflows and processes can feel overwhelming for companies of any size. But the benefits are worth it. By integrating a system of record with your team operations, creatives can create, deliver, and measure their work in one place. Stakeholders get their requests completed sooner, customers connect on a more personal level with your brand’s work, and your company saves time, money, and resources.
With a work management platform like Adobe Workfront, you can gain visibility into and manage complex workflows and measure everything in your creative operations.
- Deliver content faster. Workfront connects seamlessly with solutions like Adobe Creative Cloud so creatives can spend more time creating and less time navigating platforms.
- Communicate team value. Collect operational metrics so you can extract actionable insights and communicate your team’s value to the company.
- Reduce project failure. Get real-time views into project progress and resource workloads.
There you have it — a complete guide to creative operations. Now you know what creative operations are, how they work, and what it takes to get started with building a robust creative operations framework of your own. Ready to get started?