We’ve never met a marketing or communications manager who wasn’t looking for ways to save time, money or frustration — and usually all three — when it comes to content creation. Well, what if we told you it’s possible to achieve all three with one simple exercise? 

If you’ve ever blown your budget on rework, worked late to get an off-the-rails project done on time or felt your blood pressure rise when a piece of content still isn’t where it needs to be, it’s time to reconsider your creative direction. 

What is creative direction?

It’s not uncommon for creatives to receive assignments like “write an article on cloud computing” or “design a brochure on breast cancer.” Such requests leave a lot of room for interpretation, which can be time-consuming and costly when what’s produced doesn’t hit the mark. 

To avoid these situations, it’s important to communicate with your creative team about the purpose of each project and what exactly you’re hoping to see in a deliverable. This is where strategic and creative direction comes in. 

From a strategic standpoint, as a marketing manager, you should have a sense of the business need for any piece of content you’re asking to be created, whether a white paper or a banner ad. What you need to ask yourself is, “What is it we are trying to accomplish with this work?”

Next comes the creative direction.

Now that you know why you need a piece of content or an entire campaign to be created, you need to convey what it is you want from your creative team. A well-thought-out creative brief should include not only the strategic goal(s) you’ve outlined, but also key pieces of information your creative team will need to be successful. This includes information on your target audience (maybe even personas), key messaging, deliverables and how you plan to measure success. 

If you have specific ideas for how you’d like the content to be executed or an outline, include them in the creative brief, too. There are lots of ways to format any one piece of content, and your team might have a very different vision for, say, a video or article than you do. These are things a team member simply cannot intuit (as much as we try!). Sometimes we get lucky with a guess, but that’s all it would be without specific instruction upfront.

An alternative approach

Upfront vision is important, but sometimes it’s just not there. That’s OK. Dive into the creative brief anyway. Often, going through the exercise will help you organize your thoughts and spur a vision. 

If you’re still drawing a blank, consider a more collaborative, iterative approach. Pull your creative team together for a brainstorm or have your writer submit an outline or a very rough draft so you can provide input before a great deal of time is invested.

We recently worked this way with an organization on a 5,000-word project. The information provided upfront was only enough to get us to 2,500 words in the first draft. The client then was able to identify other key messages that needed to be included and provided additional source material. We added those pieces of content and collaborated with the client in real time to make sure everything was working the way she wanted.

We didn’t feel set up to fail. And she didn’t feel we failed to deliver in that first draft because we all acknowledged that what we were doing was a work in progress, and we all had shared responsibility for the final product.  

Get what you want the first time

You won’t get what you want unless you provide direction or work collaboratively. At least not the first time. If your team has to guess at your vision — and guesses incorrectly — you’ll spend the editing process providing input that you should’ve provided from the beginning. This means more work for you and, depending upon how you are paying your creative team, a higher cost.

Most creative project contracts include one round of minor revisions — think word-choice changes and new image requests — and don’t include reframing a story or rejiggering a layout. (See examples of varying degrees of edits.) In other words, if a writer or designer has followed your direction, you’ll be shelling out for the second draft. 

When I worked in magazines, I always tried to provide my writers with clear instructions regarding my expectations. If I knew I wanted a personal story, or a quiz approach, or a sidebar that was a glossary or a chart … I spelled out those requirements in my assignment letter. And, believe me, I could tell the difference between projects I assigned with adequate direction and the ones in which I wasn’t as clear.

Adequate direction = good team dynamics

Regardless of the timeline or budget implications, there is a consequence of morale. Nothing is more frustrating for a creative team than writing and designing a piece and then hearing they need to start over. No one likes to feel like they’ve wasted their time. And if their time was wasted because a creative leader failed to provide adequate direction upfront, that can have a direct impact on team dynamics.

On the other hand, when expectations are set, communication is open and everyone works collaboratively, you’ll be able to produce work faster and more cost-effectively, not to mention maintain a happy, productive workforce.