Recently, there was furore over a couple of companies which pressed for “unlimited revisions” in their creative briefs, which some media published and sparked lots of debate, especially in the creative industry. The good thing was that the companies revised their briefs and took away the “unlimited revisions” clause. Happy ending?

No business is easy, especially in today’s global economic meltdown. This applies to clients as well as service providers. The creative trade is certainly a tough business, with big agencies trimming employees in sizable numbers, and consolidating worldwide. Many small agencies have folded, or swallowed by others while founders sailed into the setting sun. The creative trade is often maligned, misunderstood, even belittled.

The creative heartache

Some clients, admittedly unfamiliar with the hard work that goes on behind the creative scene, may inadvertently believe that creative work is easy. However, it is one of the most heart-wrenching jobs in the world. It is not easy.

A creative worker needs to grapple with trying to produce creative output as consistently as possible, on schedule and on budget.

Yet, dreaming up a creative campaign or product is not like typing, turning on a switch, or turning a key. There will be moments when no creative idea would spring to mind. And such vacuous times may last longer than comfortable for the creative worker, and press him ever closer to the deadline, adding undue stress and making the creative process even more difficult.

And then there is the “revision” demanded by a client or peer. While revisions are necessary to refine a creative product ever closer to the final goal that everyone can agree on, there must be finite revisions because ad infinitum revisions will not move the creative product to conclusion.

How finite should revisions be? One? Two? Three?

Unfortunately, there are clients, even some in very large organizations that one may forgivably imagine to know the rational and humane limits of creative revisions, to demand “unlimited changes”.

Unlimited changes simply mean a couple of things:

1) Vague brief.

The original brief was too vague and the creative team and the client did not hash out the deliverable carefully together. There is no reason to create a brief too vague, with deliverables that cannot be intelligently comprehended by both parties. Before starting work, the more difficult work for the client should be to get a team of people who can define a project to define the brief properly. And if there is no in-house expertise who can sufficiently and precisely define the brief, engage an independent outside team to help (who should obviously not be allowed to pitch).

2) Lean and agile.

To every work process, whether creative, administrative or industrial, there should be a beginning and an end. And to be convergent with the modern world, the terms “LEAN” and “AGILE” should spring to mind. Every work process should have a beginning and an end, and the in-between steps should be as few as possible. Therefore, a good project manager should lead the client team as there should be an equivalent one from the supplier/agency-side. Both teams should respect the deadlines (the beginning and the end), and should be knowledgeable about LEAN and AGILE methodologies to ensure the project will stream along efficiently and promptly along every step, with as few steps as possible. That also means as few revisions as possible.

3) Define revisions.

Revisions mean different things to different people. To a client, completely re-doing a logo may seem easy, but the reality is that it may take 2 days to a week to do a good one. Sure, you can use some template tools to hack a logo together, but that would share some shades of similarity with the template elements such that such a logo would not be creative, and would not be unique enough to make the logo stand apart from other logos out there, and worse, may trigger some legal actions due to its similarity to other logos. The process of designing a logo can be both a creative process as it is a laborious legal process. It is not just a fancy sketch by a designer. Likewise, writing a news release draft is not simply hacking some technical specifications of a product together with an opening paragraph and ending with a corporate backgrounder. The creative team needs to do background research into the product, study the existing and emerging competition, talk to the client executives on many management and developmental perspectives, talk to experts on technical performance and other factors, examine available image and video assets and discern if more or proper assets should be developed, run through iterations internally before finishing with a finished draft suitable for the client. It is a laborious process that often mask its complexity when the client sees the finished news release draft. A client needs to understand every creative process, and the more experienced the client, the easier the collaboration.

4) How many?

There are no fixed rules to how many creative changes before the client needs to be charged. The typical practice would be a maximum of two or three changes, with 10% of content changes. So if there are more than 10% of content changes over three changes, a pre-determined additional cost should be billed to the client. All such factors should again be defined in the original brief, and properly signed off by the client.

5) Signed approvals.

For any change, when both parties agree, there must be a formal sign-off. This is not a matter of trust, but a matter of mutual accountability. Teams and members can change (through attrition, resignations, or even firing), and so every approval process must carry mutual signatures from whoever is assigned as project lead at that point in time. This is to avoid any misunderstanding in some future time, especially before the project is concluded. This protects both parties, and gets easier as more work is done together.

Mutual respect

The customer is not always right, but the customer is 100% still the customer.

Think Ritz-Carlton’s service motto “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”. The customer service process is a mutual tango of respect. There will be that rogue few customers who will need to be relinquished from time to time – those “breakups” will be akin to our ordinary human relationships.

But for most of the customers we come to work with, it will be like a marriage – we need to work on it laboriously to keep the relationship, and we would also expect the customer to contribute the same. And these relationships can last a long time.

I know, because we have served customers not in matters of months (there are those), but in matters of years or even decades (yes, plural, 20 years to be exact). It was never easy. We always toed gingerly and labored relentlessly, because we treasure all those relationships. The relationships after all, are with people.

It may help everyone, to think of creative workers like a surgeon. Would you press a surgeon to make many “revisions”? After all, a surgeon is a professional, and will only want to create the best outcome for the patient. Nobody wants a failed procedure or worse, a dead patient. Likewise, a creative worker is a professional, and also will only want to create the best outcome for the client. The creative worker certainly does not want a failed campaign or project.