Creative approval – How to get creative work through your business

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Snapshot : Businesses use creative approval controls to prevent legal issues, ensure brand and customer consistency and manage budgets and the company reputation. But, these controls often work against breakthrough. They provoke differences of opinion about business risk. This article covers how to turn these challenges into an opportunity to create better work. 

Last week, we shared three simple creative evaluation questions that keep you focussed on external customers, their needs and your business goals. 

Who’s it for? What do you want them to think and feel? And what do you want them to do about it?

Simplicity and focus are what you want. But, the reality of many businesses is complex and includes factors beyond meeting the customer’s needs. The creative team also often have to manage internal customers – those who need to approve creative work before it goes out the door. 

For example, legal and regulatory teams who want to check for compliance with relevant laws and guidelines.

Then there’s marketing and sales teams who want to make sure creative work is consistent with brand identity and customer plans. 

And of course, creative work is rarely free. There’s usually a leadership team sign off for the budget, and a check to make make sure the creative work won’t harm the company reputation. 

Why and where do you need approvals?

In small businesses, the approver might be the owner of the business. That at least makes things simpler from a creative approval point of view. But even if that’s the case, it won’t stop other people offering an opinion on the creative work. Because that’s what creative work is designed for. 

It’s supposed to provoke opinions. 

The challenge in approvals comes with managing these opinions. In bigger businesses, there can be many different opinions. Each can have a different frame of reference for how they see the creative work, so it’s important to work out what that frame of reference is, and how much it matters. 

Bigger business use creative approvals as a control mechanism. They prevent the risk of creative work going out unchecked, and potentially causing an issue or damaging the business.

 Those control mechanisms generally cover three specific areas – legal and regulatory; brand and customer consistency; and leadership team concerns – budget and company reputation. 

Legal and Regulatory approval

All creative work comes with some degree of risk. The challenge is what level of risk is acceptable for your business? 

For example, there are laws and regulations to prevent companies putting creative work out which customers might find offensive, misleading or derogatory.

But, the specific interpretation of these words can be hard to define. What’s offensive to one person might be perfectly acceptable to another.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

It’s often about making a reasonable judgement on how most people with view a price of creative work.

Advertising regulations

Advertising is the most strictly controlled of the different creative and marketing skills. In Australia, the Australian Association of National Advertiser operates the Advertising Standards process that sets the guidelines for what’s acceptable, and gives rulings on areas of dispute. 

These include broad ethical standards such as advertising to children, and avoiding discrimination, deception or exploitation. There’s also rules on specific industries such as alcohol, gambling and motor vehicles.

Some guidelines are very specific, while others – like the ones on swearing in advertising – have more open interpretations. 

What this means is that you often need expert advice on these laws and regulations. Someone needs to validate that the creative work doesn’t go against these laws and regulations. 

This protects your company from lawsuits, fines or reprimands from regulatory authorities. The legal / regulatory approver has to judge the level of risk against the laws and regulations. They shouldn’t approve unless this risk is at or below an acceptable level. 

What’s an acceptable risk though can be a matter of debate. 

Your brand may a clear purpose and principles that challenges existing rules. To stand by those principles, you may put out creative work that pushes the boundaries. While this might have a positive public relations impact, you need to be prepared for any legal consequences that come from that decision. 

With these types of decisions, it’s important there’s an overall decider for the business. Someone needs to take responsibility, even if this means choosing not to follow legal advice. That person needs to decide what the best option for the company is. This may not always be the safest option. 

Marketing and Sales approvals

The next creative approval need involves marketing and sales teams. Often it’s one of those teams who lead the creative work anyway, but there can be the need to involve the wider team depending on context. 

Maybe the creative project leader is relatively new or inexperienced? They may need a more experienced manager to check the quality of the work. 

But even where the project leader is experienced, there are still other marketing and sales complexities to manage. 

If your business has multiple brands or operates in multiple countries, you often need to work out how your creative work will impact on those other brands or on the set-up in those other countries. Marketing approvers need to validate that creative work meets brand identity guidelines and / or fits within a country portfolio strategy. 

Brand book - brand identity guidelines

Brand identity guidelines are a detailed description of all the assets associated with the brand.

They define what the brand stands for and how it should think and act.

Brand guidelines ensure consistent delivery of brand identity. This includes intangible assets like your essence, values and personality and tangible assets like logos, colours and typography

Creative teams should have access to the brand guidelines, and they usually accompany all briefs.

Brand identity book contents

The work should meet the standards set in the guidelines, unless the creative team can provide a strong reason to go outside them. 

Marketers on the creative and approval teams need to be experts in these brand guidelines, so they can make sure the creative work enhances rather than detracts from the brand identity

Consistency is important. Consistency reinforces the brand identity, making it easier for customers to remember. It builds up over time.

Consistent brands repeat key elements of their identity like their brand essence, values and personality. This repetition creates strong connections with customers. The role of the marketing approvers is to validate those brand – customer connections are being reinforced. 

Country portfolio strategy

A country portfolio strategy is where a company has multiple brands in a country, but which go after different segments

So, for example, the Volkswagen group globally also own Audi, Porsche and Lamborghini.

The core Volkswagen brand needs to work alongside these more luxurious and exclusive brands.

That means it can’t contradict claims made by its more expensive sibling brands.

This sort of check normally requires a senior marketer to approve. 

Front on image of the bonnet and grille of a black Audi car

Trade and retail customers

Similarly, creative work often involves or impacts trade and retail customers.

If you choose to highlight a particular customer for example – say “our product is exclusively available at Woolworths”, then this obviously has an impact on the relationship with other customers. (Coles in this case). 

If your creative message highlight prices or sales promotions, this again can have an impact on relationships with other trade customers. 

In these types of cases, a senior sales approver who understands the dynamics of the different customer relationships needs to be involved in the approval. 

Budget and the company reputation

The final creative approval hurdle usually is a double whammy from the senior leadership team. It covers budget – the cost of the creative work – and the company’s reputation.

How much the leadership team get involved depends on the scale of the creative work.

The CEO is unlikely to be signing off regular social media posts for example. But, they will be interested in national advertising campaigns with high media spends behind them.

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

Your creative work always says something about your business to customers. You obviously want that something to be positive – a sale, a booking, a question, a social media like – but until the customer sees it, you don’t know how they’ll react. 

It’s not unknown for creative work to have a negative impact on customers. And that means a negative impact on the company’s reputation.

So, for example. Pepsi had to withdraw advertising featuring Kendall Jenner because it appeared to trivialise the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Gap had to kill their new logo and go back to the old one after only 6 days, such was the outcry from customers about the new logo.

Company reputation is tricky. Customers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about companies. Company actions only tend to capture their attention if they do something really good, or really bad. 

Examples of challenges to company reputation

  • Product quality recalls – these happen in many industries like food production, children’s toys, electrical goods and in the car industry. They can affect perception of quality and impact future sales. Check out these examples of product recalls
  • Negligent or risky behaviour that impacts customers – examples include oil tankers running aground, or financial institutions crashing such as in the GFC crisis of 2007/08.

But these type of issues tend to arise from bigger actions than just creative work. Creative work has an impact, but it’s only part of the wider company reputation. And generally, customers tend not to care too much, or remember bad creative for long. Why would they? Pepsi and Gap for example both recovered well after some bad creative choices. 

With that in mind, the leadership approval team should push for creative work that enhances the company reputation. It should bring out the company values, so customers feel more positively towards them.

The challenge with creative approvals

To recap, approval systems usually exist as a control mechanism for the business. They protect the company from regulatory and legal challenges. They ensure consistency with brand identity and help reinforce trade customer relationships. And they add due diligence checks on budgets and company reputation? 

These are all valid controls in a business, but these controls also create two major challenges for the creative work.

Challenge 1 – The best creative work pushes boundaries

Most creative people argue that the best creative work pushes boundaries. Safe, predictable creative work that offends nobody is the easiest to approve, but often the least impactful with customers. Creative work needs to provoke some sort of reaction with customers. 

However, this goes against the way most approvers typically think. Safe, predictable and inoffensive are often seen as positives by internal approvers. This leads to poorer creative work and is clearly not a good thing. 

Police vs coaches

Those on the approval team need to be clear on their role as approvers. Are they there as “police” to stop bad ideas getting through, and project the company? Or are they there as “coaches” to help make good creative ideas even better? 

For us, it’s pretty clear the coach role will deliver better creative results. 

Great creative needs to stand out and persuade customers to buy. This overall goal should be clear to both creative AND approval teams. 

Creative teams usually get this. That’s why they’re typically bold and provocative with creative work. They tap into customer emotions and highlight benefits to persuade and influence them. 

Approval teams need to recognise the value in this approach. They need to not just focus on a logical assessment of the creative work, but understand the wider context of how the customer will see it.

The job of being a creator is tough

In general, it’s an easier job to give feedback on someone else’s creative work, than to be the actual creator. 

Creating work from scratch is tough. It takes the most skill and the most effort in the creative process. It exposes the creator to feedback and criticism on their work. 

The feedback can often feel very personal. That’s why it’s better if the approval team see themselves as coaches and not police. 

Separate the creative work from the creative team

An easy approach for the approval team is to make sure they separate the creative work from the creative team

Comments and feedback that sit behind the approvals should be on the work itself, not the person or team who did it. Feedback should be open ended questions that build on the core idea, or constructive comments that help improve the creative idea.

The approval team should be objective and frame questions about how the creative work relates back to the brief, and the target audience. 

Compare these two approaches. 

  • “Can you talk me through how you see (target audience) reacting to this?” (open question and refers back to the customer)
  • Is this the best you could do? (closed question, and a personal attack)

We’ve heard both in creative review meetings and believe us, the former is much more constructive to get good creative work. 

Solution 1 - Define the boundaries in the brief

Often the cause of bad conversations between creative teams and approval teams come down to bad planning, time pressure to get work out the door, or a lack of communication.

Many of these creative challenges can be overcome with a clear brief. Vague, unclear briefs such as we cover in our article on graphic design resources for example can kill creativity. 

In terms of creative approvals, a key part of the brief are the mandatories. This is where approvers can set standards and expectations that prevent issues further down the line.

Marketing Communication brief - blank template

For example, these can include compliance with industry specific regulations or codes of practice. Consistency with brand guidelines, or with specific customer plans are also often included as mandatories. 

Any questions about the meaning of mandatories should happen up front. The answers can prevent many issues later in the process. It’s much easier to change direction earlier in the creative process than later.

Ultimately, there should be one final decider who decides where the boundaries on mandatories lie. This could be the business owner or a senior leader. This final approval role should be clear to everyone involved.

Challenge 2 – Separating opinions from approval decisions

While everyone is likely to have an opinion on the creative work, it’s important to make clear the difference between opinions and approvals

In the context of creative approvals, opinions are beliefs about what works (or doesn’t) about the creative work. They are usually subjective, and not all opinions hold the same weight. It’s up to the creative team which opinions they take on board, and which they ignore. 

Opinions are optional. 

Approvals on the other hand are a more objective factor in creative decision making. They’re usually based on an incontrovertible fact. Breaks that regulation. Doesn’t fit the brand guideline. Too much risk for the company reputation. Whoever’s accountable for the company’s legal status, brand and customer plans, budgets and company reputation makes the final approval. Permission is needed for the creative work to proceed. 

Approvals are mandatory. 

You should use opinions to help you improve the creative work. Creative teams will always have a biased view of the work, because it’s their work. 

Opinions from outside the core creative team provide a more unbiased view. It’s a view that’s closer to the view the external customer will have, because they’ll also be seeing it for the first time, without all the detail of how it’s been done. 

Getting a first impression opinion is hugely helpful to spot things you’ve missed or overlooked. If people in your business don’t get it right away, what are the chances your customers will?

Getting expert opinions from approvers also helps – say they have market research about the customer, or specific creative skills like writing or graphic design. These help improve the creative work. 

Where it often goes wrong though, is when non-experts feel the need to give their opinion anyway. They tell you they don’t like it. They don’t like a particular word or a choice of colour. You’ll hear comments like “can you just make it a bit bigger / longer / shorter / more blue?” for example. 

Creative people face this all the time. It’s not a good thing

Solution 2 – Manage the conversation appropriately

If you get creative approval feedback that looks like it’ll block or throw off your creative work, the first thing to do is to take a deep breath. Don’t jump to conclusions. Often, you will put more though into the feedback than the person giving it did. 

Ask the feedback giver to clarify what’s an opinion – a subjective belief that you can use or ignore – and what’s an approval decision – an objective fact that there’s some sort of legal, brand, customer, budget or reputation issue. 

Ideally, this feedback will be clear to all – it breaks a rule, it’s not consistent with the brand or customer, it’ll cost too much or it’ll have a negative impact on the company’s reputation. 

But often it’s not clear to all. Feedback can be subjective and up for debate. In these cases, there are easy ways to manage that type of conversation more effectively.

Bring it back to the customer

Firstly, go back to those three questions we covered in our creative evaluation article last week.

Who’s it for? What do you want them to think and feel? What do you want them to do about it? 

Ultimately, the most important creative approver is the external customer. This forces internal approvers to be more objective and less subjective, as it makes clear that it doesn’t matter if they like the creative, it’s only important that the external customer likes it. 

Ask for evidence and substantiation

You can also make the conversation more objective if you can bring in specific facts, market research and data. These are harder to argue against than subjective opinion. 

If there are specific legal issues, ask to see the actual written legislation. Ask for examples of how it’s been interpreted in the past. Ask if there are case studies from other companies in a similar position. These often help everyone understand the issues better. 

How strong is the opinion?

There’s a common saying that opinions are like arseholes. Everyone’s got one, and they’re usually full of shit. 

So, recognise this. 

When someone gives their opinion, it could be based on deeply held thoughts, or a just a flippant throw-away comment. Where the person’s opinion is on that spectrum can make a big difference.

Ask them how strongly they believe in their opinion. How open to discussion are they about finding another way to solve the problem? 

Often, just having the conversation helps you get the creative approval process back on track. 

The opportunity with creative approvals

Often, it’s easy to get focus on the negative side of approvals. To see them as a challenge to overcome. In some businesses, the approval stages are even referred to as hurdle or barrier meetings. 

It’s not hard to imagine where this comes from – after all, the origin of the word “approve” means to demonstrate or prove. These words make you think of salesmen and lawyers. Approving implies persuading people to do something they don’t currently agree with or want to do. 

But, what if that wasn’t the case?

Creative approval example - Pixar

For example, take Pixar. They’re one of the most creative companies in the world, and they take a very positive approach to creative approvals.

They recognise that creative ideas in the early stages are not yet fully formed (they call them ugly babies). It’s easy to kill them off prematurely. 

So, instead of an approval team for early stage creative work, they use what they call a Brains Trust.

This is a team of their most experienced creative leaders who review early stage ideas.

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

They give feedback to the creative team on the idea. But importantly, this team cannot veto or kill off any ideas. They don’t have that power. The Brains Trust act as creative coaches, not creative police. 

(Check out our article on the book Creativity Inc by Pixar head Ed Catmull for more on this).

Creative approval example - Amazon

Amazon are another creative inspiration. They famously championed the idea of the Institutional Yes

This gist of this is that most business, and in particular approval teams start with the idea of No. But what if they started with the idea of Yes

What if you assumed every proposal was approved, and if someone wants to stop it, they need to provide a plan or a proposal why it shouldn’t go ahead.

Rather than you providing the rationale for why it should go ahead. 

Amazon logo on phone

In other words, justify the no. If you can’t then consider the work approved to go. 

This helps Amazon make faster decisions and just get more done. It’s a big part of their culture, and it’s why they’re able to experiment more and outperform the competition. They do that because approvals are set up to drive actions and results.

Shift the emphasis of creative approvals to how to make it better (the Institutional Yes) rather than how to prevent risk (the Institutional No) changes the approach to approvals radically. 

It’s no longer creative VERSUS approval teams, but creative AND approval teams working together. 

Managing creative evaluation with approval teams

There’s three final creative approval principles we want to cover before we close off this article. These relate to how you set up and manage the approval team itself. 

Everyone knows who’s on the team and what their roles are

Write down who’s on the approval team and what their roles are. Communicate how the team will work to everyone who needs to know.

For brand identity approval for example, the marketing approver should share and reference brand identity guidelines. The legal approver should make clear which legislation or regulations apply.

The approval team need to make clear what they’ll approve or reject against what they’ll have an opinion on. Approvals and opinions are not the same thing as we’ve already covered.

The more informed the creative teams, the smoother the approvals process works. Consider training everyone on approval requirements. Set up checklists that creative teams can refer to before they submit work for approval.

Everyone on the approval team is empowered to approve

There’s nothing worse for creative teams than when one of the approvers says they need to check it with someone else more senior. 

Disempowered approvers are a frustration. 

It’s important to manage workloads and availability, but in principle, if you’re on the approval team, you should only ask for a more senior opinion by exception. The approver should be empowered – senior and expert enough not to require second opinions. 

Keep the approval team small – three people is ideal

The only thing that’s worse than disempowered approvers are large approval committees. 

The more people who have to approve creative work, the longer it takes. There’s more compromises to keep everyone happy, but you rarely end up with better creative work. 

If we had our way, approval teams would be not more than three people. One person with overall responsibility for approving – probably the marketing lead, and no more than two specialist expert advisers where needed. 

Any more than three approvers is usually a bad thing. 

Conclusion - Creative approvals

Creative approvals are undoubtedly a challenge for most businesses.

The need for control mechanisms to prevent legal issues, ensure brand and customer consistency, manage budgets and the company reputation means companies is clear.

But such control mechanism often turn the creative approval process in a negative direction. 

The focus turns to prevention and not creation. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

We believe the purpose of the approval process is to improve rather than prevent ideas. Successful businesses like Pixar and Amazon lead the way with a bias towards saying yes, rather than saying no. Towards coaching rather than policing creative work. 

Pick your approval team carefully. Everyone should know who’s on the team. They should be empowered to make decisions. Keep the team small, with one ultimate decision-maker. 

Check out our guides to creative thinking for more ways to promote creativity in your business. You can also check out some of our previous articles like how to be a more creative company and easy creative ideas for any business. And of course, you can contact us if you need help with your own creative approvals set-up and processes. 

Photo Credits

Legal scales : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Audi Car Bonnet : Photo by Velito on Unsplash

Money on fire : Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Toy Story doll photo by Melanie THESE on Unsplash

Amazon on phone : Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Three people working around a laptop : Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

Thumbs (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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