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Creative approval – How to get creative work through your business

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Why read this? : We look at how to build a balanced creative approval process. Learn which roles and checks you need to push creative boundaries but stop your creative going too far. Read this to learn how to get great creative work approved.

Every creative project, at some point, moves from evaluation to approval. From “How to make it better” to “Should we do it?”. Different functions come together to decide. Yes or no. We go with this, or it needs more work. You run into different perspectives, which raise barriers to creative thinking

On one side, some approvers worry about risk. They want to check you don’t break any rules, or harm the company’s reputation. For them, creative approval is a control mechanism. A risk prevention tool. 

On the other side, you have approvers who look at what the work needs to do. How it engages customers and builds the brand identity. They see creative approval as a quality check. An idea-enabling tool. 

It’s often hard to find common ground between these different perspectives. The key functions you normally have to manage are :-

  • legal and regulatory.
  • marketing and sales.
  • the leadership team.

Legal and Regulatory

Before creative work goes live, you usually check it complies with industry and government guidelines.

These tell you what you can (and can’t) say and do.

However, they’re not always 100% clear. Often, they’re open to interpretation.

This subjectivity is a challenge. You might think your creative meets the guidelines, but regulators disagree. There can be legal consequences if you get it wrong. No one wants to be sued and / or fined for their creative work. 

Small metal statue of lady of justice holding scales

For example, the guidelines will say you can’t show work that’s offensive, misleading or derogatory. But how do you define what these are? They mean different things to different people. Creative approval often involves many conversations about how to interpret guidelines. The most obvious example is in advertising

Advertising regulations

Advertising is one of the most regulated creative areas because it has such a wide reach.

In Australia, the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) run the Advertising Standards process. This sets the guidelines on what’s acceptable and intervenes when there’s a 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 clear and unambiguous. However,  others like the ones on swearing in advertising are more subjective and ambiguous. 

This ambiguity means you often need expert advice to interpret the guidelines. That’s when you call in legal and regulatory teams.

Their role is to prevent the business from running into lawsuits, fines and reprimands. In the creative approval process, they advise on the legal and regulatory risks. They’ll tell you about :-

  • absolute risks (we’ll get sued).
  • relative risks (we might get sued). 
  • absence of risk (it’s good to go). 

When there’s an absolute risk, most businesses will change the direction of their creative work. But where there’s relative risk, then there’s a debate. This usually boils down to “Is the risk at an acceptable level, or is it too much?”.

The answer usually depends on the context. You may argue some people are too easily offended. Your company purpose or values might mean being provocative is part of your brand identity. 

Often it comes down to how you think the resulting publicity will play out. If you think it’ll be bad, you may decide the risk is too high. Your legal and regulatory team help you decide on acceptable risk. 

Marketing and Sales

Next up in creative approval are the marketing and sales teams. They’re often the initiators and managers of the creative work. They represent the views of customers and the brand in the process. 

Marketing and sales teams make sure the creative work fits with business objectives. And that it fits with customer insights and brand identity guidelines. They also make sure there’s no clash with other brands in the portfolio, or how the brand is set up in other markets. 

Brand book - brand identity guidelines

Your brand book collates and defines how to use your brand assets. It’s your brand identity guidelines.

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

These show what the brand stands for. How it thinks and acts. They ensure consistency in your brand identity by setting rules on what your brand looks, feels and sounds like.  

You normally refer to the brand guidelines as part of the brief. 

Brand identity book contents

The resulting creative work must meet the guidelines unless there’s a clear reason not to. 

Marketing approvers check the creative work against these guidelines. Their role is to ensure consistency. Consistency is important as it makes it easier for customers to recognise and recall your brand. (See our design psychology article for more on this). 

Brand portfolio strategy

The brand book often also outlines 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. 

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

These premium brands go for the top end of the market. They push hard on their engineering excellence and performance. That’s their positioning

But the core Volkswagen brand is more mid-market. It has to make sure its claims are distinct from its more premium cousins.

A marketing approver should weigh up each brand’s positioning and keep them distinctly apart. 

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. 

For example, if your creative work highlights a particular retailer that impacts the relationship with other customers. “Our product is exclusively available at Woolworths” will have an impact on Coles. 

Sales teams have to manage this.

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

When this happens, you include a sales team approver in the creative approval process. They help you manage the dynamics of retailer relationships. 

The Leadership Team

The final creative approval usually comes from the senior leadership team. They’re interested in the impact and cost of the creative work. They also want to protect the company’s reputation.

The bigger and more visible the project, the more involved they want to be in the process.

You want your creative work to lead to 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

Negative customer reactions

It’s always possible the creative work will have a negative customer reaction. That hurts the company’s reputation, which doesn’t sit well with senior leaders. 

For example, Pepsi had to pull 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.

Other examples of negative customer reactions include :-

  • Product quality recalls if something goes wrong, there’s often 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. They can affect quality perceptions and put customers off buying again.
  • 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 go beyond creative work. Creative work can have a short-term reputation impact, but customers have short memories about creative work.

For example, Pepsi and Gap 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’s reputation, but enhancing it. They should make sure the creative work reflects the company’s values.

The challenge with creative approvals

So, it’s clear why you need to involve different functions in the creative approval process. Prevent legal issues. Ensure brand and customer consistency. Manage the company’s reputation. Clear business benefits.

But that doesn’t make the process any easier. There are several challenges you need to work through to pull these different opinions together to get approval. 

Challenge 1 - The best creative work pushes boundaries

Safe creative work is easy to approve but has the least impact on customers. Bolder work has more customer impact but is harder to approve as it takes more risks. 

That’s an approval dilemma. 

Legal and leadership teams usually prefer the safer option. Marketing and sales teams are usually more risk-taking. This leads to 2 different views of what approvers do. Are they police or coaches for creative work?

Police or coaches?

The “police” approach thinks approvals are to prevent bad ideas. There’s a need to protect the business. They do this by enforcing the “rules”. 

But the “coach” approach sees approvals as making creative ideas better. There’s a need to grow the business. They do this by building on ideas. 

In our experience, the coaching approach almost always works out better. It’s not that policing isn’t important. But rules are usually a barrier to creativity

Being a creator is tough

So, how do you build this coaching approach?

A lot of it comes through feedback you give the creative team. You have to remember, being a creative 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. The feedback should always be about making the work better.

Separate the creative work from the creative team

One way to do this is to make sure the feedback is 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. It should be comments and questions that improve the work.

Approvers should be objective. They should ask open questions about how the creative work relates to the brief and the target audience

Compare these 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 and approval teams back to :-

  • bad planning.
  • time pressure.
  • lack of communication.

A clear brief helps a lot. Vague, unclear briefs cause many problems with creative approvals. (See our graphic design resources article, for example).

A key part of the brief is the mandatories. This should relate to the legal, regulatory, marketing and sales guidelines approvers will use. 

Marketing Communication brief - blank template

Setting these out in the brief helps the creative team avoid basic mistakes which hold up approvals. 

Creative teams should be clear on what the mandatories mean. If not, they should ask questions to clarify before they start the work. Better to do this earlier than later in the process. 

Challenge 2 - Opinions and approvals are not the same thing

Everyone will have an opinion on the creative work. Listening to opinions is part of the process. But opinions are only that. They’re not approvals.

Everyone should know the difference.

Opinions are individual and optional 

In the creative approval process, opinions are beliefs about what works (or doesn’t) with the creative.

They’re usually subjective. Not all opinions will be right. Not all opinions have the same value. It’s up to the creative team which they listen to and which they don’t. 

Approvals are collective and mandatory 

Approvals on the other hand mean making a decision. It’s a yes or a no. They’re usually more objective. The creative team need all approvers to approve before they can move forward.

Approvals are based on understanding the facts. Approved work should fit guidelines, be within risk tolerance and deliver the business objectives. Do those things and it’s approved. Fail to do those things, and it should be reworked. 

Use opinions selectively to improve the work

For any piece of creative work, customer opinions are the ones which really matter. But internal opinions from others in your business gives you a useful sense-check of the creative work before it goes public.

The creative team will clearly be biased in favour of the work. It’s their work after all. However, the creative approval team can be more unbiased and objective. Their feedback should help the creative team improve the work.

As the approval team isn’t so close to the work, it’s a chance for the creative team to see how customers might see it. You’ll get the approvers’ first impressions, for example. Do they understand it? Is it relevant? Do they like it? Plus all that expert advice on whether it meets legal, brand and customer guidelines.

You just have to work out how to best manage all those conversations. 

Solution 2 - Manage the conversation

The approvers’ feedback should be objective and constructive. They should explain their decision, and recommend how to fix any issues. These recommendations should be based on their expertise (legal, marketing, sales etc.). They should avoid trying to be too creative themselves. The creative team are the experts in creativity. 

For example, the legal team recommend re-wording a claim to make it compliant. That’s good feedback. But the legal team suggesting a new headline they think sounds better? Not so good.

The marketing team ask for a colour change because it’s not in the brand colour palette. Good feedback. But asking for a colour change just because they don’t like it. Not good feedback. 

Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about the customer. 

Bring it back to the customer

Remind people it’s the customer’s opinion that matters. Remind them of the 3 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 approvers to stay objective. They don’t have to like the creative themselves, only help make sure it’s something customers will like. 

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 opinions. 

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 already mentioned opinions and approvals aren’t 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 to 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 meetings. 

It’s not hard to imagine where this comes from. After all, the origin of the word “approve” comes from proving something. You need to prove something to the approver to persuade them your idea will work.

But instead, what if approvers started from a more positive place? Where they want your idea to succeed, not to prevent it from succeeding. 

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 more positively. 

For example, they recognise good creative work takes time. Early ideas can be rough. They take time to become good ideas. Pixar calls 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 ideas. They don’t have that power. The Brains Trust act as creative coaches, not creative police. (Check out our article on Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull for more on this).

Creative approval example - Amazon

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

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

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

Amazon logo on phone

This helps Amazon make faster decisions. It’s helped them get more done. Approvals are there to drive actions and results, not prevent risk. They trust their teams not to take unacceptable risks.

Managing creative evaluation with approval teams

Finally, you should also 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. Share 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 delegate approval duties to a junior team member. But often, they don’t empower that person to make decisions. This is no good to anyone. 

By all means delegate to manage workloads and availability. But when you delegate, you transfer decision-making power and accountability. If you’re on the approval team, you should have the power to approve.

Keep the approval team small

Another frustration is when creative approval teams have too many 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 these rarely lead to better creative work. 

Three is a good number. One person has overall responsibility for the approval, with 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. You want to prevent legal issues, ensure brand and customer consistency, and protect your reputation.

But this prevention approach often holds back the boldest and brightest ideas which 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 be a more creative company and easy creative ideas articles for more ways to promote creativity in your business. Or get in touch if you need help with your creative approval process. 

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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