Creative approval – How to get creative work through your business

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Snapshot : A successful creative approval process manages the trade-off between risk reduction and customer impact. It reduce risks like legal challenges, brand inconsistency, budget overspend and damage to the company reputation. But it also drives customer impact with creative work that’s bold, unpredictable and takes some risks. Learn from our experiences how to find this balance between risk and impact.

At some point with creative development work, you move from creative evaluation to creative approval.

At the evaluation stage, your options are still open. But at the approval stage, you make firm decisions. You commit to what creative work will actually go in front of customers. 

Approvals can be a complex area to manage.

In a simple world, you approve the idea that best meets customer needs. But, the reality is often more complex. You need to include expert input from internal business teams. 

For example, legal and regulatory teams. They want to make sure the creative complies with relevant laws and guidelines. 

Marketing and sales teams want to ensure creative is consistent with brand identity and customer plans. 

And of course, leadership teams often get involved. They want visibility of the objectives, the investment and to make sure the creative doesn’t negatively affect the company reputation. 

Creative approval as a control mechanism

Businesses usually put creative approval controls in place to make sure that all creative work meets pre-agreed standards and objectives. But, these standards and objectives vary wildly depending on the business context. 

In small businesses, the approval might be to just be sure the owner likes it and agrees to the money being spent. In larger businesses, it might a much more formal and organised system. 

Either way, it’s a system designed to pull in different opinions about the creative work, and the combination of those opinions acts as a control mechanism to minimise risk while driving customer impact. 

Creative approval opinions are normally gathered from three areas :- legal and regulatory, marketing and sales and the leadership team.

Legal and Regulatory approval

Creative work that goes out to customers needs to comply with industry and government guidelines about acceptable practices.

These guidelines are not always black and white. How you interpret them brings a degree of risk to your creative work. Interpret the guidelines the wrong way and you risk legal repercussions. 

For example, these guidelines often aim to prevent creative work which customers might find offensive, misleading or derogatory.

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

But opinions can differ about what people might find offensive, misleading or derogatory. Creative approval controls ensure these different opinions get aired, you discuss them, and then you move forward with a collective shared opinion. 

Advertising regulations

Advertising is the most strictly controlled area of creative work. 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 are also rules on specific industries such as alcohol, gambling and motor vehicles.

Woman sticking up one middle finger to the camera - the non-verbal way of swearing

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

This ambiguity means you often need expert advice on the interpretation of the guidelines. You get this advice from legal and regulatory teams.

Their role is to prevent lawsuits, fines and reprimands from the relevant authorities. The approver judges the level of legal and regulatory risk. 

They advise on absolute risks (we’ll get sued), relative risks (we might get sued) or no risks. Though they advise, they rarely make the final approval decision.  It’s important there’s an overall approver who’ll take a more holistic business view, weighing up the legal advice with the impact on customers and sales.

When the legal team says there’s an absolute risk, most businesses will call a halt to the creative work. But where there’s relative risk, then there’s debates about whether the risk is acceptable. 

You may consider it an acceptable level of risk for example to push create work through which backs up your company values and principles, but which might also lead to complaints.

These conversations are an important part of the creative approval process. 

Marketing and Sales approval

Another important conversation comes when marketing and sales team get involved with creative approval. They’re often the initiators and managers of the creative work, but they also need to represent the views of customers and the brand.  

Marketing and sales teams make sure the creative work fits with the marketing and customer objectives and lines up with customer insights and brand identity guidelines. They also need to make sure there’s no clash with any other brands in the portfolio, or the way the brand is set up in other markets.  

Brand book - brand identity guidelines

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

This includes intangible assets like your essence, values and personality and tangible assets like logos, colours and typography

These define what the brand stands for and how it thinks and acts. They ensure consistent delivery of brand identity

You normally share or reference the brand guidelines as part of your creative brief. 

Brand identity book contents

The work should follow the standards set in the guidelines. Exceptions to this are rarely a good idea. 

Marketing approvers need to be experts on these brand guidelines. The advise the creative team to make sure the work stays consistent with the brand.

Consistency is important. Repetition makes creative work more memorable for customers, and creates a stronger brand identity.

Consistent brands repeat key elements of their identity like their brand essence, values and personality. The role of marketing approvers is to ensure this consistency and repetition is reinforced by the creative work. 

Brand portfolio strategy

The brand book can also detail the company’s brand portfolio strategy. This is where a company has multiple brands which go after different segments. This can be in one market or across many markets. 

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.

A senior marketing approver weighs up the needs of each brand in the portfolio and make sure each sticks to its specific market position. 

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. This is where sales teams get involved in creative approvals. 

If your creative work highlights a particular retailer for example – say “our product is exclusively available at Woolworths”, that impacts the relationship with other customers.

Sales teams need to manage this.

If your creative highlights prices or sales promotions, again there’s an impact on the relationships with other customers. 

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

Senior Leadership Approval

The final creative approval usually comes from the senior leadership team. They’re interested in budget – the cost of the creative work, and protecting the company’s reputation.

The bigger and more visible the project, the more involved they’ll be in the creative approval process. 

You want your creative work to lead to a positive customer action – a sale, a booking, a question, a social media like and so on. But you don’t know what the customer reaction will be until they see it. 

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

You want your creative work to lead to a positive customer action – a sale, a booking, a question, a social media like and so on. But you don’t know what the customer reaction will be until they see it. 

It’s always possible the creative work will have a negative customer reaction. That hurts the company reputation and that’s what senior leaders aim to prevent.

So, for example. Pepsi had to withdraw advertising featuring Kendall Jenner because it appeared to trivialise the Black Lives Matter movement. Gap launched a new logo but had to go back to the old one after only 6 days, as customers hated it. 

Company reputation is hard to control. Customers only tend to think about company reputation when companies do something really good, or really bad. 

Examples of challenges to company reputation

  • Product quality recalls if something goes wrong, often there’s no choice but to issue a product recall for safety reasons. These happen relatively regularly in categories like food, children’s toys, electrical goods and cars industry. They can affect perception of quality and impact future sales.
  • 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.

However, company reputation issues usually involve bigger issues than just creative work. Creative work can have short-term impacts on customer reputation, but customers have short-memories on creative work.

They just don’t care. Why would they?

Pepsi and Gap for example have no long term company reputation issues from their bad creative choices. 

What the leadership team should focus on is not just protecting the company reputation, but enhancing it. They should make sure the creative work reflects the values of the company.

The challenge with creative approvals

These reasons to add more complexity into creative approvals all make sense. Prevent legal issues. Ensure brand and customer consistency. Manage the company reputation. Clear business benefits. 

But as we said, there’s a trade-off with creative approvals. Because those benefits also create challenges.

Challenge 1 – The best creative work pushes boundaries

Safe, predictable creative work is easy to approve, but has the least impact with customers. To get noticed, your creative needs to stand out and take more risks.

However, only marketing and sales teams seem to get this. And even then, not always. Legal and leadership teams don’t like risk. This leads to a situation where you have to question whether the role of the approvers is to “police” or “coach” creative teams.

Police vs coaches

The “police” approach to approvals takes the point of view that approvers are there to stop bad ideas getting through. There’s a need to protect the business. 

But the “coach” approach sees the role of approvers as to make creative ideas better so they helps deliver the business objective. 

Unsurprisingly, in our experience, businesses who manage approvals with a coaching approach tend to deliver better creative work.

Creative and approval teams should have common goals. They want creative work that stands out and delivers the business objectives. This means taking appropriate risks, that meet the needs of customers.

Being a creator is tough

So, how do you build this coaching approach?

Well, a lot of it comes in the feedback you give the creator of the work. Remember it’s easier to give feedback on someone else’s work, than to be an actual creator. 

Creating work from scratch is tough. It’s the hardest part of the creative process. Takes the most skill. The most effort. And it exposes the creator to feedback and criticism. 

Approvers need to bear this in mind, and make sure their feedback coaches creators to make the work better.

Separate the creative work from the creative team

One way to do this is to make sure they feedback on the creative work, not the creative team

Approval feedback should be on the work itself, not the people who did it. Feedback should be constructive comments and questions that help improve the creative idea.

Approvers should be objective and ask open 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. Believe us, the open question approach gets you much better creative work. 

Solution 1 - Define the boundaries in the brief

You can usually trace disagreements between creative teams and approval teams back to bad planning, time pressure to get work out the door, or a lack of communication.

A clear brief can help reduce or eliminate some of these challenges. Vague, unclear briefs (e.g. see our article on graphic design resources for example) cause many problems with creative approvals.  

A key part of the brief for creative approvals is the mandatories, that are linked to the brief. This is where approvers set standards and expectations that prevent future issues.

Marketing Communication brief - blank template

For example, mandatories often include compliance with industry, brand and trade customer guidelines.

Creative teams should be clear about the meaning of mandatories from the brief. If they aren’t, they should ask questions. Early conversations with approvers prevent future issues. It’s much easier to change creative earlier in the process than later.

The overall business approver has final say on what mandatories to include and how to interpret them.

Challenge 2 – Opinions and approvals are not the same thing

Everyone will gave an opinion on the creative work. But while listening to opinions are part of the process, opinions are not the same as approvals. 

It’s important everyone involved knows the difference.

Opinions are individual and optional. 

In the context of creative approvals, opinions are beliefs about what works (or doesn’t) about the creative work.

They are usually subjective. Not all opinions will be right and not all opinions have the same value. It’s up to the creative team which opinions they use to improve the creative work, and which they ignore. 

Approvals are collective and mandatory. 

Approvals on the other hand are decision based, usually from a more objective and collective point of view. They are not optional, they are mandatory.

They’re usually based on an understanding of the facts. Approved work needs to fit guidelines, be within risk tolerance and deliver the business objectives. If it doesn’t do those things, it’s not approved and the work doesn’t move forward.

Use opinions selectively to improve the work

For any piece of creative work, the only opinions that really matter are customer opinions. But getting opinions from inside the business before your customers see it, should help you make the improve the work before customers ever see it. 

The creative team will clearly have a biased and subjective view of the work. It’s their work after all. But the creative approval team can take a more unbiased and objective view of the work. These views should be fed back to the creative team so they can decide what, if anything, to change to improve the work. 

These act as proxy for customer opinions. You’ll get people’s first impressions – whether they understand it, think it’s relevant and if they actually like it. These give you a steer on what the customer reaction might be. 

They can also add extra expertise to the creative work. Legal teams can prevent work going out that’ll lead to complaints. Marketing and sales teams can provide additional insights about customers. Leadership teams can make sure there’s enough budget. 

To gather these opinions and expertise, you need to have good quality conversations between the creative team and the approval team.

Solution 2 – Manage the conversation appropriately

Creative approval team feedback should be objective and constructive. They should explain their opinions, and make recommendations about how to fix any issues. These recommendations should be based on their expertise (legal, marketing, sales etc) but also bear in mind the expertise of the creative team.

For example, recommending changing the wording of a claim to make it more legally acceptable is good feedback. But they approval team rewriting a headline because they think they have a better idea ignores the value of the creative team’s writing skills.

Recommending a change in colour because it’s outside the brand colour palette is also good feedback. But suggesting a new colour because they just don’t like the proposed colour, ignores the value of the creative team’s graphic design skills. 

There’s a couple of ways to help manage these challenging conversations. 

Bring it back to the customer

Remind people that it’s the customer’s opinion that matters most. Remind them of the three key questions used in creative evaluation.

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

Use these questions to remind internal approvers to be more objective and less subjective. They don’t have to like the creative themselves, only have a view on what the customer will think of it.

Ask for evidence and substantiation

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

For specific legal issues for example, ask to see the actual written legislation. Ask for examples of how it’s been interpreted with other companies in a similar position. This often helps clarify the issues. 

How strong is the opinion?

We’ve already mentioned that opinions and approvals are not the same thing. 

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

So, work with this. When you hear an opinion, check how strongly the person really feels about it. It may be deeply held, or just a flippant throw-away comment. Ask them how fixed their opinion is, and what they would need to change it. 

Often, this sort of open conversation is all you need to get the creative approval process back on track. 

The opportunity with creative approvals

Often, it’s easy only see 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” comes from proving something. This implies a lack of belief in something from the approver, that you need to persuade or influence them to change their mind. 

But what if, instead of this negative start point, approvers started from a more positive place?

Creative approval example - Pixar

One company who do this well are Pixar. Recognised as one of the world’s most creative companies, they manage creative approval in a more positive way. 

For example, they recognise good creative work takes time. Early ideas can be rough. They take time to become good ideas. Pixar call this the ugly baby syndrome, i.e. early creative ideas are ugly babies.

They work hard to protect rather than get rid of these ugly baby creative ideas. Instead of an approval team for early creative, they use what they call a Brains Trust team.

Toy doll Woody from Toy Story lying on the floor

This is a team of their most experienced creative leaders. They give constructive 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 about Pixar for more on this).

Creative approval example - Amazon

Amazon’s creative approval idea of the Institutional Yes is also worth looking at.  

This gist of this is that when most business think of new ideas, approvals start with the idea of saying No. But what if they started with the idea of Yes

It proposes you assume every proposal is already approved. If someone wants to stop it, they need to propose why it shouldn’t go ahead. Rather than having to always justify the “yes”, approvers have to justify the “no”. 

Amazon logo on phone

This helps Amazon make faster decisions and get more done. It’s helps them experiment more with customers and outperform the competition. Approvals are set up to drive actions and results, not prevent risk.

They trust their teams not to take unacceptable risks. 

Managing creative evaluation with approval teams

As a final point for how to manage creative approval, you also need to plan how you set up and manage the approval team itself. 

Communication about the approval team

Communication about the approval team is important. Make sure everyone knows who’s on the team. Write down their roles and areas of expertise. Tell people how the approval team works and how best to work with them.

The approval team should share all relevant documentation. Legal guidelines. Brand identity guidelines. Any policies on budgets or company reputation.Think about how to train teams in the approval process, and consider setting up checklists to make the system run more efficiently. 

The better creative teams understand the approval process, the better that process will run.

Everyone on the approval team is empowered

Often senior approvers will delegate approval duties to a junior member of their team, but then not empower that delegate to make decisions. Try to avoid this at all costs. It frustrates everyone involved and makes the process inefficient.

By all means use delegation to manage workloads and availability. But delegation involves transfer of decision making power and accountability. If your on the approval team, you should have the power to approve.

Keep the approval team small

Another creative approval frustration is when approval teams contain large numbers of people. Approval teams should be kept small, three people is ideal.

The bigger the team, the longer it takes to approve. Bigger teams mean more compromises to keep everyone happy, but rarely end up with better creative work. 

Three is a good number, with one person with overall responsibility for the approval, plus two specialist expert advisers where needed. 

Conclusion - Creative approvals

Creative approvals mean making trade-offs. Those trade-offs can be a challenge. 

On one side, there’s risk reduction.

There’s a clear need for control mechanisms to prevent legal issues, ensure brand and customer consistency, manage budgets and protect the company reputation.

But this prevention approach often holds back the boldest and brightest ideas that have the biggest customer impact.

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Creative approval should be about improving not preventing ideas. Follow the lead of creative businesses like Pixar and Amazon with a bias towards yes rather than no. Be a creative coach, not the creative police.

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

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

Photo Credits

Legal scales : Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Woman giving the finger : Photo by engin akyurt 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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