How to Avoid Creative Crash and Burn

A well-known publishing firm once hired me to create a direct mail package for one of its products. The control was seriously fatigued and despite several attempts, they couldn’t devise anything that improved results. I agreed to the project and we began … but it went downhill fast because they had no idea how to work with outside talent.

First they asked for lots of concepts so they could choose the one they liked best … and naturally they chose the worst. Then they wanted to approve all headlines in advance and discouraged any changes even if I had better ideas later. They also specified the number of pages, size, folds and colors because they didn’t want to change print specifications. And despite my protests, they submitted the final work to a committee and incorporated all the suggestions from each member whether I agreed with them or not.

So how did this direct mail piece perform? Like the Hindenburg … crash and burn. Whose fault was it? Hmm.

I’m forever preaching about how to do better creative work. But I probably don’t say enough about how to deal with the people you hire to do creative work for you. Even if you hire the best creative minds in the country, you won’t get the results you want if you don’t manage this valuable resource properly. Here are just a few tips from years of experience:

· Decide what you want. Sort out the facts ahead of time. Be clear about your goals, budget, deadline, etc. Provide a creative brief outlining the situation, your expectations and the parameters of the project. Don’t expect a copywriter or designer to solve a problem if you don’t know what the problem is. And don’t think that you’ll figure it out as you go. There’s a rich vocabulary devoted to the cursing of clients who change directions mid-project. When in doubt, talk with an experienced consultant who can help you define your situation and set a course before you begin creative work.

· Discuss fees upfront. Top creative pros are some of the best-paid, most-sought-after talent in the industry, and they don’t do what they do for kicks. After you’ve outlined the project, take the initiative and ask for an estimate. This not only signals that you’re serious, it also helps avoid misunderstandings and wasted time if you can’t afford what they charge. Just remember that though fees vary widely, if you think you’re going to get the best work from someone charging $15 an hour, you’re smoking the wrong pipe.

· Put it in writing. Yogi Berra once said that a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. A written agreement spells out the exact nature of the project, fee, deadline and other particulars. This will help avoid simple misunderstandings, which can permanently screw up a good relationship. My policy is to ask for a signed contract for new clients and for large or long-term projects. Others require a contract or letter of agreement for every project. If you have your own contract, that’s OK, too.

· Provide background material. The majority of what creative people need to complete any project is in your files right now. Brochures, letters, memos, ads, order forms, catalogs and other printed material probably will have most of the raw data needed for a project. Good copy and design begin with solid information and plenty of it. Gather it up and hand it over.

· Stay out of the way. If you want to do the work yourself, do it. If you want to hire someone to do the work, do that. Just decide. You can’t hire someone, micromanage the creative process and expect great results. Though it may be necessary to get approval from a variety of people, don’t let the review process take over. I guarantee that anything created by a committee will lack spirit, focus and persuasive power.

· Give specific feedback. Saying “this copy needs more oomph” or you want “a bit of tweaking” isn’t very helpful. If you’re unhappy about some aspect of the work you receive, say specifically what you don’t like and how you want it revised. And if you have expectations beforehand, share them upfront. Don’t keep it a secret, then pitch a fit when the person you hire turns out not to be a mind reader. Even more important, when you do like something, say it. Positive feedback is good for the ego and helps creative people understand what you like.

· Pay on time. What would you say about a copywriter or designer who consistently delivered work late? Probably the same thing they say about you when you pay their invoices weeks or months after the due date. Late payment is the No. 1 complaint of consultants, copywriters and designers. And it’s a one-way ticket to the bottom of their priority list. You’ll get less attention, lower-quality work and less cooperation. Worse, professionals who are in high demand simply won’t put up with it and will drop you off the client list. So cut those checks pronto.

In the end, it’s simple: treat a pro like a pro. Give them the same respect you give to your doctor, lawyer or accountant. They’re worth their weight in gold. In fact, they’re worth more. My weight in gold is presently worth about a million dollars, but I’ve earned my clients many, many times that amount. Think about that the next time you start a project.

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