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  • The Quality Communication Equation

    Many corporate marketing and creative teams struggle with relationship and project-related communication challenges. Often, everyone blames the project brief/initiation form. However, if one digs deep enough, it becomes clear that the tool in and of itself is not the problem. Rather, it’s the lack of attention and focus on relationship building and communication between the requester and the creative team that’s the culprit.

    Project initiation processes, the foundation of which is a one-size-fits-all template, have a tendency to enable a corporate version of the childhood game of telephone tag. However, the corporate version of this game does not begin with face-to-face communication. Instead, it begins with project-related information that is input into pre-determined fixed fields based on the project requester’s own knowledge. Requesters fill out these project initiation forms without understanding the larger context and the end goal. They provide information that is only meaningful to them and not to those who need to use or understand the information. Compounding the problem, information is provided in writing without much thoughtful consideration of the intended audience (the creative team) and their more visual way of thinking.

    The motivation, perhaps subconscious, for this type of communication is to hide stakeholders from one another and/or protect either the requester or user from the project’s final outcome. Ultimately, it serves as a sort of CYA (cover your ass) document. In corporate telephone tag, everyone retains ownership of their own piece of the puzzle, but few people are enabled or even empowered to see or own the bigger picture. If you simply flip the term “stakeholder” and use “collaborator” instead, a whole new world of opportunities and solutions are available.

    Based on the consulting I’ve done for hundreds of marketing and creative teams across the United States and Canada, defined communication strategies have emerged as an effective means for alleviating this corporate version of telephone tag.

    Owning the big picture

    Generally the biggest component (or puzzle piece) missing in evaluating how clients/requesters and the creative/design team communicate is communication itself, and, specifically, communication at various interaction levels. Face-to-face communication is often lacking or in the form of inefficient, lengthy and tactically focused “turn-in” or “category” meetings. The focus of these meetings, inevitably, is on the current priorities and not on the bigger picture. Rarely are marketing and creative teams collaborating at the planning stages. This is a recipe for disaster and the beginning of the corporate telephone tag game.

    An innovative approach that is tremendously successful is the creation of a new role: “Relationship/Collaboration Manager.” In a mid- to large-size team, this is often a separate stand-alone role. However, in smaller teams, this role may be one of the many responsibilities of the department leadership. The role or responsibility of the Relationship/Collaboration Manager is much more focused on the bigger picture and on the up-front planning, relationship and communication aspects of the client-designer relationship. It is vastly different, in both reality and perception, from the more traditional roles of a project or account manager.

    Relationship/Collaboration Managers are experts on creative/design resources and advocates for the company’s business priorities. They build relationships and facilitate interactions between clients and internal and external creative resources. They also advise on integrated creative solutions by balancing client objectives with overarching business priorities. Most importantly, the Relationship/Collaboration Manager attends and actively participates in yearly or quarterly strategic marketing meetings with their clients to build relationships and help plan initiatives. They work with creative operations to set up and manage the overall relationship model for working with clients, from project coordination through project close out, to ensure a consistent experience for anyone seeking creative solutions.

    This role is primarily responsible for owning and nurturing most face-to-face strategic communication opportunities, ensuring successful approaches to interpersonal communications, meeting strategy, planning, and shaping many other aspects of client-designer relationships. Laying the foundation, through up-front communication, will ensure more fruitful projects and relationships.

    Building out the details

    Another effective solution to this communication dilemma is related to defining the “who, what, where, when and how” of any client-designer relationship, specifically those related to project planning, initiation and approvals. This strategy is about defining the points of communication, in terms of role clarity and collaboration. The best teams focus on working with their clients to identify collaboration opportunities, particularly for higher-level more strategic and complex projects, between the clients and design team.

    One impactful collaboration opportunity is the development of project initiation forms for high-level strategically important or complex projects. This usually revolves around identifying important face-to-face meetings. In these project-specific meetings, clients and the design team meet to have the sometimes tough but much-needed conversations that result in the definition, alignment and understanding of both business and creative strategies and objectives. Essentially, gathering all the pieces of the puzzle to better understand the bigger picture. In this situation, the creative team collaborates with their clients to gain everyone’s collective input and requirements on the specific project. Together they also define and better understand who is involved in the project (the project stakeholder), why they are involved, what knowledge and expertise they bring to the relationship, when and where do they get involved, and how.

    Overall, when evaluating communication challenges in the future, rather than simply focus on the form, focus on relationship building, being more involved in up-front planning, and spending more time on the collaboration and communications points in the relationship. Those strategies will go a long way to unravel and define a seamless and more successful project development process.

    About the Author: 

    Emily has consulted with design firms and in-house corporate creative departments for over twenty years. During this time, she has provided confidential, best-practice insights and advice on staff, client, and process-management strategies, conducting client surveys and writing winning proposals, creative briefs, RFPs , and contracts. She helps creative teams improve operational effectiveness and helps companies build efficient teams and processes. She served on the board of advisors of InSource, on the AIGA In-House task force and as Secretary for the AIGA/NY Board of Directors. Emily has also taught classes and conducted seminars for many leading design schools and organizations. Emily is a frequently-requested speaker on business-related issues for the creative industry and has spoken at The Association Of Registered Graphic Designers Of Ontario (RGD Ontario), HOW, MYOB, Design Business Association (DBA) and InHOWse Conferences, as well as at numerous AIGA conferences and events. Learn more at www.emilycohen.com and www.cohenmillerconsulting.com.

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