Marketing is a creativity-meets-systems discipline with many moving parts. Unlike journalism, every blog post, infographic, guide, and social media strategy has an underlying sales and revenue objective. As brand marketers, we’re hard-pressed to move our audiences—slowly and steadily—to the point of transaction. Along the way, we’re bound to CAN-SPAM laws, FTC compliance policies, and product positioning guidelines that reinforce our verbal and visual messaging.

In our hearts, we want to position our brands as storytellers and strong creative forces. But often, we find ourselves stuck with lengthy approval queues, esoteric style guides, lists of competitors from whom we can’t source information, and lawyers who squash our tweets before they see the light of day.

Barriers, however, are in the eye of the beholder.

With upfront planning, constraints can make us more creative. Here are three tips to guide us.

1. Establish managerial processes that allow creativity to flourish

We tend to think of creativity as a force related to arts and original ideas. The term ‘creative’ calls to mind writers, performers, and artists whose role it is to express ideas in subtle, original, or less-than-obvious ways.

Harvard Business professor Teresa Amabile points out that in business, however, that creativity takes on a different form. The goal is simple—across teams, we want to bring new ideas to market in ways that support the needs of our customer bases.

“To be creative, an idea must also be appropriate—useful and actionable,” write Amabile. “It must somehow influence the way business gets done—by improving a product, for instance, or by opening up a new way to approach a process.”

Through her research, Amabile has found that there are two key variables that influence creativity in business:

  • Extrinsic motivation – work environment, performance incentives, rewards, praise
  • Intrinsic motivation – passion, interest, internal desire

To that end, marketing leaders will want to pay close attention to the environments that they’re creating while ensuring that team members are tackling initiatives that make them feel passionate. Based on research from hundreds of organizations, Amabile explains that across teams—among marketers, especially—business creativity comes from managers prioritizing the following:

  • Challenge – Ensure that individuals are matched with projects that align with their skills and passions
  • Freedom – Give people autonomy to set their own direction regarding ‘how’ to complete their work
  • Resources – Provide team members with the time and money that they need to see projects through
  • Team design – Pay careful attention to the creative teams that you’re building, with a clear division of roles and effort
  • Encouragement – Reward successes through positive reinforcement
  • Support – Ensure that systems and processes are in place to make creative work a top priority

To avoid killing creativity, marketing leaders need to invest in processes that allow creative ideas to process. From there, it’s possible to choose complementary tools, software, and workflows.

One example to consider is Toyota’s ‘Total Market’ approach to multicultural marketing. The automotive leader has committed to reaching multiple demographic segment through one consistent brand message. To achieve this goal, Toyota has integrated its previously separate multi-cultural operations. Toyota’s agencies — Saatchi & Saatchi LA, Burrell Communications, Conill, InterTrend Communications and Zenith Optimedi — are operating as equals in collaborating on “one brief, one set of directions, and one target.”

With one approval process and set of goals, Toyota is well-positioned to build upon this creative visions. Agencies have the team that they need to successfully reach this ‘Total Market’ target, freedom to pursue their creative visions, and support to bring their ideas to reality.

2. Be thoughtful about your creative brief or brand guidelines

The idea of a creative brief is as timeless as marketing itself.

As this AdAge article explains, creative briefs have been the “fuel” for campaigns ranging from “Got Milk” to Volkswagen’s “Drivers Wanted.” While these guidelines are essential for success in marketing, however, they’re often challenging to develop.

“They also have been the whipping boy for unhappy creative teams desperate for inspiration,” writes Phil Johnson for AdAge. “Account people defensively cling to them when clients trash brilliant concepts. And clients may sign them like free checks, forgetting that they’re launching teams of people on weeks of late nights and bad takeout meals.”

One way to avoid these shortcomings is to return to your brief’s core mission and purpose. Rather than creating rules for the sake of rules, focus on providing team members with clear guidelines regarding brand messaging, compliance, competitor lists, and any other moving part to the marketing equation.

When introduced to the marketing process as an ‘after-the-fact FYI,’ these constraints can cause disruptions. Brand managers, content marketers, and creatives end up in an endless cycle of back-and-forth iterations—all of which can be avoided by establishing clarity ahead of time, before anyone dives into a potential project. Johnson from AdAge recommends the following tips to support the process:

  • Conor Brady, chief creative officer at Critical Mass, recommends that the brief should be a verbal rather than written process in which the client can openly shape the brief in real-time.
  • Greg DiNoto, former partner and chief creative officer at Deutsch encourages brands to create a ‘brand ecosystem’ rather than a brief. He explains that briefs should focus less on expressing values and “more about programming a brand for its own behavior in, and relationship with the world.” He also encourages teams to stay connected through this core vision through daily briefings and updates—microinteractions that can help reinforce the ‘big picture’ and goals.

When working with freelancers, especially, it’s important to establish guidelines upfront. Brand guidelines should address the brand pillars of both visual and written communication—outlining every last detail from messaging and tone to colors, look, and feel.

That way, creative team members will all be on the same page.

For inspiration, take a look at LinkedIn’s brand guidelines portal. From product screenshots to visual identity basics, a clearly articulated mission statement, and downloadable logos, information is clear, to the point, and centrally located. Information is as relevant to PR as it is to design.

These organic processes will empower creatives to achieve their best best work. By understanding brands’ unique strengths and potential dead-ends, they’re better positioned to forge the ‘right’ path forward.

3. Create defined feedback loops

Brands reflect the creative visions of many different stakeholders including marketers, engineers, c-level executives, in-the-trenches specialists, and even customers. That’s why the feedback process is so important to the marketing process—particularly around content, social media, visuals, and campaign copy.

While it’s important to gather this feedback, there’s a very real opportunity for processes to break down for a number of reasons:

  • The addition of new ideas can present new choices for creative teams can pursue. With this freedom of choice comes option overload. According to psychologist Barry Schwartz, this pattern can result in decision paralysis—potentially stifling teams in their creative processes.
  • Studies show that two out of every three people are introverts, which means that it may be difficult for them to express feedback and ensure that their ideas are heard.
  • Groupthink has the potential to make individuals less creative. Despite being over 50 years old, the 1958 study of undergraduates at Yale University, still holds today, showing that solo students came up with twice as many solutions as brainstorming groups. Numerous studies have shown that group processes can inhibit creativity.

Marketing leaders can prevent the potential for gridlock by setting expectations early, creating guidelines for the delivery of feedback, and establishing a priority system for how feedback will be evaluated and incorporated.

The best place to start will be our creative briefs from Step 2. We can use this resource as a starting point to identify which pieces of feedback help in brand-building and which don’t. We can then focus on our core objectives and move initiatives through our internal approval workflows faster.

Final thoughts

The heart of creativity is process, and single most important investment that we can make is in the beginning stages. With clearly defined management workflows, brand criteria, and feedback loops, we’ll be better positioned to move initiatives through the approval process. We’ll have a more refined lens to evaluate our decisions and always ensure that we’re moving forward to build the most impactful brands possible.