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An Unexpected Path to Strategic Partner

Monday, October 4, 2010 

We had just returned to work from our Creative Director’s Riverbend home after a relaxing and refreshing creative retreat. Our department (at two different locations, including two account executives, a copy manager, a creative manager, a traffic manager, six designers, one Web designer, one developer, five writers and two traffic coordinators) was teeming with creativity. It seemed like, for once, we had everything we needed and wanted in order to finally be a strategic partner. Everyone was pumped to finish the year-end’s onslaught of projects while setting new goals for 2011. 

Fast forward one week later— 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 

Our department was asked to assemble for a video conference. When we arrived, we were met by our boss’s boss and HR. Not a good sign. While the exact events of that hour are still a blur to me, our department was divided into two separate departments—and what remained in mine was a creative manager (me), a senior writer, a copywriter, a traffic manager and a developer—with no creative director, no account executives and no designers. So much for becoming a strategic partner—or so I thought. 

For the next few months we did what we do best—we brainstormed, problem-solved, compromised and developed a new plan for how to survive. We eliminated what was unnecessary. We prioritized. We sought efficiencies. But most of all, we struggled to let go of the way things were. Eventually, a very short list of priorities rose to the top: 

  1. Provide creative strategy—not execution. 
  2. Own the brand. 
  3. Become a technology advisor. 
  4. These became our mantras. 

So, one by one, we began to attack our list. 

We started outsourcing all kinds of projects, even the ones that would be quicker to do ourselves. We spent a lot of time developing “freelance packets” with the requirements for every project: branding guidelines, logos, templates and other assets. What we learned was that it required more assets, more communication, more effort. We took for granted our biggest asset: our company insight. So we began developing creative briefs for campaigns with sections for company history, marketing history, audience history and, most importantly, the creative strategy for the campaign. We provided this to our marketing partners as a way to help them understand our role, while helping our agency partners focus on creative execution. We knew we were headed down the right path when we started hearing things like “I don’t know how we’d get anything done without you!” from our clients. 

Next, we revisited our branding. 

We listened to our clients’ complaints about the constraints and confusion the brand guidelines provided. We evaluated the feedback we received from our vendors. And we weighed in, too. We rewrote the messaging guidelines as only internal creative could. We reorganized our brand identity into a system of elements instead of a set of inflexible templates. We expanded the brand by reaching outside our marketing structure to find brand supporters on the product development side of the business. And slowly but surely, we became the group that was called on for consultation every time a logo was needed, a product was being developed or designed, a site was launching and so on. We had become the brand leaders. 

While working on branding, we were also looking for opportunities to get involved in any technology initiatives. We listened to our clients’ frustrations with other departments and volunteered to come up with better solutions where appropriate. We also invented projects such as a “self-serve” interface where sales could generate a branded PDF flyer instead of asking our marketing clients to produce them. These projects were not quick wins, but they were big wins. Marketing now seeks our advice before beginning any technology project. 

As we began to really focus on our short list, and let go of trying to do everything, we found we actually had time for the things that really mattered. We could participate in marketing initiatives, planning meetings, strategy meetings and any spontaneous collaboration that ensued. 

So, a year and a half later, although we still feel the void of our former department, we also feel the strange success of moving away from a cost-savings value proposition by becoming the indispensable, strategic partner we always wanted to be! 

Our efforts have even been acknowledged. 

Our department is now made up of an Executive Creative Manager, a Senior Creative Manager, a Creative Manager, an Operations Manager, a part-time Traffic Coordinator and a Developer. It is not the plan I envisioned when dreaming of leading a creative team, but isn’t that the beauty of being in creative? Turning problems into amazing results! 


Tracy Sullivan

Tracy is Executive Creative Manager at Elsevier NHP Creative Services.

Creative Directors by trade use their background in effective design, writing and strategy to lead their teams in producing captivating work that motivates their target. She describes her situation: “With my five-person department, however, it takes a little more to keep our 3,000 yearly projects afloat—more hat wearing, more compromising and a lot more chocolate. So, while I could list all of the awards we’ve received in my nearly 20-year career, it’s the terms of endearment such as ‘you’re my creative Pepto-Bismol’ that truly make me feel accomplished.”