When Is Creative Good Enough?

In a Second Wind Online Member Forums discussion, several members shared thoughts on the delicate balancing act of striving to do great creative—within the constraints of tight client budgets.

“…how [do we] balance the creative department’s desire to make things great and perfect (and spend the unlimited time and resources to get there), vs. the client/account manager’s desire to limit the total time/dollars spent while getting great and perfect work on time and proofed… how do you determine when good is good enough? ...when to overspend, when to pull the plug? How do you bind the investment of time and money into the creative process?” asked a member.

Building Budget Sensitivity into the Creative Process

One member recommended teaching creatives about the financial side of the agency business.

“For us, educating our creatives on the business side of the ad business has been part of the solution. Once they understand the actual value of their time, and how they can impact everything from agency income to the client relationship, they seem more willing to work to reasonable time parameters… if they are developed at the start of the project. When [creatives] go over their allotted time, they realize that they are costing the agency money in that their ‘overtime’ cannot be billed. That’s money that will not be passed along in bonuses or raises.

“That seems to resonate pretty well. But—it all has to be done without squelching the creative spirit or output. It’s a delicate walk, especially when the challenge is to do great creative.”

Another agency principal made a number of valuable suggestions for achieving the business/creative balance.

“In an annual review with our creative director, a seasoned professional who had worked for several large agencies before coming to us, she shared that she felt it was part of her job to push back against financial constraints, so that she and her team could provide the best possible creative.

“She also used to say that she needed to provide enough freedom to the art director and copywriter so that they would stay with the agency. The desire for award-worthy creative drove some of this, as well. It helped that we took on occasional pro bono work where [creatives] could push the envelope. Good enough doesn’t work for them.

“One real benefit…we had a remarkable production manager who would overhear (based on our open office setting) the creatives discussing some fabulous idea that would require an equally fabulous price tag to produce. Her quiet intervention was critical.

“We also realized, early on, that frequent checking in was important. Typically, we scheduled interim looks at creative development, based on the one real debacle we had; an entire campaign was fleshed out that I knew was FAR too edgy for that client. By the time I saw the campaign (cool as it was), it was too late to go in another direction. The client nearly fell out of his chair. We risked losing the account. Lesson learned.”

A third member argued in favor of spending as much time as you feel is necessary to make the idea “great.”

“When is creative good enough? NEVER. That is, creative in the sense of the concept, the concept being what makes your agency different than your competitors. So, it can never be ‘too good.’ The concept is what keeps your clients coming back. Where we [tend to] kill the budget is in the implementation. The other respondents make great points—monitor the progress and educate the art department about their rates in relation to time. But when we have a big project, or new client, we go all out, all night, without the costs in mind.

“That said, we are a small firm and we’re constantly yelling back and forth, ‘it’s good enough,’ which translates to ‘we have other work to do!’

The Role of the Creative Brief

Here is another tip strongly recommended by Second Wind: institute using a creative brief for all projects. A creative brief can greatly help to focus creative thinking and pare down time wasted on ideas that are off base or unlikely to fulfill client objectives. See and download some sample creative briefs in Second Wind Online’s Forms and Templates library (Form Type/Creative Forms), and use our samples to develop your own brief.

The other very important tactic for managing creative time investment is to insist on thumbnail sketches before committing to a creative idea for client presentation. The creative director, production manager and account executive can meet to review ideas in sketch form, identify the ones that best align to the creative brief and are also potentially “great,” then direct staff to fully develop the one or two “best” ideas. The production manager can provide feedback or do some spot estimating to ensure ideas fall within budget parameters before too much time goes into a concept. S/he may also be able to suggest ways to execute the idea within budget. All of these steps help to avoid the excessive investment of time on ideas that are unsellable or too expensive to produce.

As your agency builds its own great creative reputation, the principals, production manager and yes, the creatives, all need to be conscious of billing and budgets. Budgets, however, should not be viewed as constraints, but as “mental focus tools.” Meeting the challenge of a tight budget should be part of the fun of creating great ideas. It is hugely satisfying to achieve a great campaign that moves the dial for a small client with a tiny budget. So, ladies and gentlemen, embrace the boundaries, and start your concepts.


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