Balancing Bleeding Edge Creative Ideals with Client Project Objectives

This post is part of a broader conversation called The Shift, started by Dayton web design company Sparkbox. To read more posts in this series, browse the #startYourShift hashtag on Twitter. This month’s topic: Compromise. Balancing Project Needs with Internal Ideals.

We tend to forget that we’re on “budgets” when working on client projects.

You’ve taken on a basic website project and the team has an idea to implement a series of beautifully animated storylines within the website. Unfortunately the site is on a small budget and only requires four sections of basic content. Every fiber of your being wants to try and complete this effect, but you know it will take double the time to execute and cost. Now what do you do?

Having a very talented and driven team can cause problems when you are a business trying to limit time losses in pursuit of perfection. Since creative companies operate in a world of exploration, evolving technologies, and shifting trends we tend to forget that we’re on “budgets” when working on client projects. This brings about the debate to pursuing bleeding edge ideals in the work or staying within the client’s budget and main project objectives.

In my role as a business owner at LUMINUS, a branding and digital production studio, I wrestle with these opposing forces often. Having come from a creative role as a programmer I understand the need to seek out better options, but now as a manager I am more cautious in allowing for this to happen too often. If we work beyond the scope of the project to try something new we’ll learn and grow from the experience, but we’ll eat the cost of the time spent on executing that idea. I don’t believe this has to be seen as a clear black and white issue. There should be a compromise since both factors contribute to the growing success of a creative company.

Stable Business Relies on Being Within Budget and Scope

Every project budget serves two purposes by setting the financial commitment owed for the work to be done as well as setting the limit for the work that is able to be done. Yes, we should all be actively pursuing the next big trend, but remember that this is also a business and what we’re really being paid to do is produce the best work we can within the client’s budget.

I sat down with Andy Donovan, Owner at dPost a production, editorial, & motion graphics company in Buffalo, NY to pick his brain about the struggle between creativity, scope, and budget. He encourages his team members to think of new ideas when putting together a project strategy. He also admits, “We can’t give away a Cadillac for the cost of a Toyota. You can go out of business doing really great work. We strive to always provide the best creative concepts possible. Give the maximum to the project and not put their talent on auto-pilot.”

“You can go out of business doing really great work.”

Too many times we as creatives forget that time really does equal money. When you spend more time on a project than you agreed to be paid for, you are in fact losing money. To Andy’s point, no business can survive when it is constantly losing money doing really great work. That’s when the reality of the situation needs to be understood. Our work is not a hobby, but a way of life. It’s how we support our businesses and in turn ourselves and our teammates.

The client has given a specific set of tasks to accomplish within a budget, which is the first objective. We exist to help clients accomplish goals that they can not. As good services providers we rely on the clients to give us insight into their business and feedback regarding the work to ensure that they are satisfied. Every project requires this understanding and following this process.

Once the practice of producing quality work within budget is mastered, you can look into folding in new and experimental techniques in new projects with opportunities that align with both the client objective as well as your pursuit of knowledge. As Andy puts it, “We still have to justify the dollars, whether it is a relationship opportunity, terrific portfolio piece, or non-profit involvement.” If these projects offer you a chance to gain exposure or develop a reputation within a niche in an industry, they have a higher probability of producing a long term return for you. If these types of projects are expanded sparingly, you can afford to put the extra time into the project at no additional cost to the client while avoiding straying from the client’s main goals.

Yes, we should all be actively pursuing the next big idea, but remember that this is also a business and what we’re really being paid to do is produce the best work we can within the client’s budget.

Creative Teams Thrive on Testing the Boundaries

It’s fairly safe to say that most creative team members have the trait of being learners and forward thinkers. Creatives always believe the grass is greener where they haven’t thought to look yet. This keeps them fresh, up to date, and in some case makes them trend setters. Industry leaders rarely settle into the rhythm of standard practices. That’s how we in the creative industry fall behind the times and potentially end up out of work.

Be careful not to allow for too many of these types of projects at one time.

Business owners and managers love having team members with a driven personality. There is no better motivation than the excitement of successfully implementing something that the team hasn’t tried before. The high associated with that accomplishment will last for weeks.  A business owner recognizes the importance of this aspect of growing a culture that inspires teamwork through learning. A learning culture contributes to better work, happier team members, and business growth.

Be careful not to allow for too many of these types of projects at one time or you will risk imploding under your own desire for equity growth rather than financial growth. As it is risky to assume too much debt on a credit card for an individual who cannot pay it back, it is equally ask risky to allow too many internal scope creeps beyond the budgeted amount of time allowed.

To fulfill this need Andy and dPost find opportunities when potential high visibility projects align with a new technique that the studio is seeking to dive into. This allows dPost to diversify the studio’s portfolio, create new avenues for business, and have happier, better employees.

Remember to be transparent to the team when you allow for extending efforts beyond the time budget. This will let them know that you trust they can accomplish the task, but also remind them that this is a special circumstance and this exploration is costing the business money.

Finding Value in Going Beyond Scope

Understand that it will come at an immediate cost of “time” which will result in a gradual long term gain.

The question becomes, “How do we try new things without losing money?” The easiest answer is to recognize opportunity within project scope for trying a new skill set. These opportunities are rare, but are a budget friendly way to grow as a creative service provider. In most cases you will have to justify the work spent implementing this stretch of your imagination and understand that it will come at an immediate cost of “time” which will result in a gradual long term gain.

In an email exchange with Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz a highly regarded content marketing platform company, he explains how he utilized his passion for content and digital interaction to build an entire business model. Speaking to the extra time he put into client work early on, “I invested in it not because we always saw positive ROI we could measure, but just because I love to share and I crave positive feedback and attention. That ended up building Moz as a powerful content brand, but it was far from an intentional, business-driven goal, and we didn’t really put direct dollars against it.”

As Moz’s example shows, a company can grow when a new skill set becomes billable time. You can almost count on creative teams always being able to brainstorm ways they would like to go beyond scope to integrate a new technique into a current project.

If you aren’t sure when or why you should invest time into a project without compensation, consider looking back at project bids you did not win. This may present you with an area of opportunity for business growth that you have yet to tap into.

Some companies purposefully set time aside for just this reason. Google has used the famed “20% Time” policy, offering one day a week where employees can work on any ideas they want to explore. It’s led to many of their product offerings like Google Drive. Google’s policy is an example of a company using the creativity and intellect of the team to expand business opportunities and grow. It’s important to remember they weren’t just an offering of a four day work week to make everyone happy, but offering actual time to come up with new ideas that would in turn benefit the company.

In any case, pursuing these new skill sets should be considered only when the current project bandwidth allows for it, the client’s goals will still be met, and it can potentially contribute to your business’ future growth. This will protect you from spending time on new skills that will not benefit you now or in the future.

Compromise

Keep in mind that in business time really does equal money.

It is impossible to be a successful and growing business without seeking knowledge in expanding our creative talents. Knowing when and how to work these opportunities into your budgeted time schedule will protect you from putting yourself out of business. There is long term value in allowing yourself to seize opportunities occasionally, but keep in mind that in business time really does equal money.