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How-to Manage Creative Agencies

How-to Manage Creative Agencies

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

When working in any form of business or marketing, more than likely, you'll have to manage a creative agency. Being a Marketing Director for the past 6 years and working in the industry for over ten, I've worked with many and I've narrowed down these key strategies for both parties to get the most out of the relationship. And like all of my posts, take what you like and leave the rest.

Let's dive in! 

1) Get clear on your Creative Brief

Right off the bat, you might be asking, "Jacq for real, what is a creative brief?"In fact, I asked my mentor the exact same question when I was first starting out.

A creative brief is a document used to explain the objectives, deliverables, timeline, and vision for a creative project. 

There is no wrong way to create, design, write, code or layout a brief. The process can truly be tailored to your organization, brand or project. I will stress the fact that it is hella important that you create this document. It provides your agency an idea of what's going on upstairs in clearly laid out way. It would be fantastic to stare longingly into your PM's eyes and transmit your vision to them through the ether, but I'm afraid that's just not going to happen. #realtalk #yeahisaidether

If you work in a team setting I suggest working on your creative brief collaboratively. 

For instance, when I develop a brief for the creative direction for the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, staff and board members are invited to send over ideas and inspiration. As the Marketing Director and dedicated marketer in the office, it's my job to organize the ideas, incorporate my own into the mix, and bring clarity to the vision. I would then create the brief, fire it around, make the necessary edits, and send to my agency. Here’s the gist of what your brief should include:

  1. Introduction - Include a brief overview of the company/business, explain a bit about the project and key objectives.

  2. Project Details - Give the general details of the project. For example, if it’s an event project you should list the event name, dates, talent (if you know, otherwise speculate), and mention your budget here too. Basically this section should include the who, what, when, where, why, and how.

  3. Audience and Target Market - Talk about who your people are, including demographics, psychographics, buying patterns, and expectations.

  4. Brand - Explain any specifics about your brand and the energy of your business. I find defining images, words or evergreen vision boards to be helpful with this. As well, I would include examples of past campaigns that represent your brand effectively.

  5. Theme and Inspiration - Explain where you’re headed with this creative project, like defining or inspiring images, words, quotes, phrases, colour palette ideas, articles, clippings, or fonts ideas. If there is a strong theme associated with this project talk in depth about that.

  6. Deliverables - Define what pieces exactly you are needing, their dimensions, and end use (i.e. Facebook ad, web poster, print poster, banner, etc.). Also, be sure to include deadlines for artwork and build in a buffer in case of unforeseen issues coming up.

  7. Summary - This final section should touch briefly on everything you’ve discussed and how it all comes together. You should touch on your project objectives again and include your contact information.

This is only one way to create a Creative Brief and once you begin the process you will likely tweak this format as needed.

2) Schedule a meeting with your agency to review the creative brief

For this next step, I'm assuming you've interviewed and met with many agencies and a hired a winner.

When your brief is created, edited and ready for external eyes, email it over to your agency with a complete and thorough explanation. Make no assumptions that your brief is crystal clear. People will look at your work through their "experience filter" (as I like to call it) and interpret all kinds of things. #purplemonkeydishwasher 

To complete your email I would ask for a meeting - in person if you share a city or Zoom/Skype/etc. Once they have the chance to digest the direction it's important to sit down prior to any work beginning to ensure you're all on the same page. Setting a tone for clear, respectful, and timely communication is very important for both of you. #communicationisking

3) Confirm direction, deliverables, timelines and your budget 

During your creative brief review I would suggest the following agenda:

  • Creative brief review directed by YOU

  • Open discussion and questions on the objectives, direction, and theme

  • Discussion of deliverable details, deadlines, launch dates, usage of deliverables

  • Points of contact and which people you should be dealing with specifically for billing/admin, project management, editing, and feedback

  • Budget review and estimated costs

  • Recap

Following this meeting, I would ensure to get a contract in writing, sign off on the budget and payment schedule, and set-up a project management system or software. Basecamp or Asana are good options, then again so is plain old Excel.

4) Be direct, yet generous with feedback

The fun part of the project is finally here! All the creative work is starting to flood in - yasss! You get an email in your inbox, you're so excited to see your creative vision come to life, then... 


You thought they totally got you and saw the vision, and they didn't. But guess what? It's all good! Don't stress. The project is totally salvageable and your money will not be wasted. All that's required is a positive attitude and an inquisitive nature to sort this out asap and get back on track. My suggestions for how to handle this: 

  1. Compliment what you like first, there would have to be something you like about what they've produced (Tip: Never attack the work. That approach just won't help.)

  2. Point out any direct edits you would like (i.e. I'd like to see a larger font, can we try less contrast here and more there, etc.)

  3. If the general concept is just not what you were expecting I like to ask questions to have them re-evaluate their direction. For instance, "Would we better serve our audience if _______?" "Does this colour choice or layout align with our creative brief discussion?"

In my experience, designers can be sensitive souls and when you think about it, that makes sense. They are putting their creative work out in the world and that can be a very personal process. However, when dealing with agencies and designers remember this... 

The reason this is so important is that designers are hired to solve problems, they would be artists if their sole job was to share their creative inclinations. This is incredibly important to remember. 

So, when the time comes to provide feedback always, always be generous and kind, yet stick to your vision and ask questions to get the designers to better understand your point of view. You created the brief and you know where you want to take the project.  

After providing honest and kind feedback you're still not happy, I would discuss with your team and make a plan accordingly. That said, if you were very clear in your creative brief and you believe in the talent of your agency, it likely won't come to this. In most cases, thorough pre-planning will ensure your agency delivers what you expect. And when they do (which I know they will) be sure to batch your feedback for maximum efficiency. This means you provide all feedback at one time. Never (or avoid at all costs) sending email after email to your agency with minor edits. This will only waste their time, your time, and your budget. 

To wrap up this section here is an example of when an agency literally crawled into my brain and extracted exactly what I wanted. To drive my point home, this video project had a clear creative brief!

Track: Juniper by Begonia Listen here: https://youtu.be/LkFASH7cTjQ

5) Know your budget and make sure your agency does too

Budget management is crucial to any project. The last thing we want is for you to be surprised with a massive bill you weren't expecting. #beenthere #itsucked #neveragain

My strategy to keep this in check is regular progress updates. Many agencies will provide this, but it's always best to be proactive. Also, right at the beginning of the project make sure they estimate what their administrative work will cost and it's outlined in your contract. Those kinds of expenses have the habit of sneaking up on you and you want to have all costs explicitly outlined.

And that about wraps things up! I do hope you found this blog helpful and informative. Please leave a comment and fill me in on how you like to manage projects. When you change the way you look at something, that thing usually changes! 

And because you're a rockstar for making it to the end, here's a vid for you! 



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