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3 Takeaways for Marketing Leaders From a Study of Creative Teams

3 Takeaways for Marketing Leaders From a Study of Creative Teams

Russ Somers

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As we emerge from the pandemic into the Next Normal, marketers and business leaders are rethinking everything.

That’s a sweeping claim, but I think it’s true.

Many of us are redesigning our offices and work culture. Marketers are redesigning performance marketing models in the face of fast-approaching privacy changes to third-party cookie handling. We are redesigning business models to focus more on tactics like product-led growth—and less on a traditional marketing mix—to drive better outcomes.


When faced with such sweeping changes, Design Thinking—a process that starts with user insights, challenges assumptions and redefines problems—is a powerful tool that every marketing leader should be using.

And if you want to understand Design Thinking, there is no better place to start than by understanding your design and creative teams. How have creative teams evolved during the pandemic, what are they focused on now, and what can we learn from their approaches?

Research shows that creatives are faced with fewer resources and greater demand. They helped their businesses pivot to remote work last year by improving productivity and learning new technical skills. Further, and in contrast to the trend of bringing design talent and work in-house for the past several years, in-house creative teams are more inclined to partner with outside creative agencies and freelancers.

That’s according to key findings in a new report based on a survey of 400 creatives and marketers. The fourth annual Creative Management Report by inMotionNow and InSource, a professional association for creatives, identified industry changes stemming from the pandemic, along with creative trends to watch over the next year.

These findings demonstrate just how much creative teams have evolved. More importantly, it underscores why marketing and business leaders have become increasingly reliant on creatives for that vital Design Thinking—not just for design and deliverables.

Below are three takeaways for marketing leaders.

1. Providing Strategic Value Is Now Table Stakes for Creative Teams — Balanced with Speed, Resource and Volume Constraints

The study identified the top three challenges facing creatives as follows:

  1. The speed at which they are expected to work (73%)
  2. Too few resources to accomplish the work (61%)
  3. High demand for more creative content (59%)

While those are all familiar challenges to most creatives, what they did not identify as a top challenge is of equal interest: Respondents didn’t identify “being seen as a strategic contributor” as among the top three—for the first time in the four-year history of the survey.

“We have a seat at the strategic table, but that’s because we’ve earned it and we continue to earn it every day and raise the bar on what we can contribute,” said Hank Lucas, head of creative services at global life sciences organization MilliporeSigma.

Lucas was one of five outside experts who contributed written analysis about the survey’s findings to the report.

“We’re not just here to make some pretty stuff,” he said. “Tell us what you’re trying to achieve and let us help you move the needle.”

2. Creative Problem-Solving and Adaptability Were Crucial to Remote Work

In subsequent questions, respondents were more precise about the specific resource constraints presented as the pandemic unfolded. While 58% said their workloads had increased, about one-third said their teams experienced layoffs and furloughs. In addition, another 31% faced budget cuts which eliminated some of the technology tools that facilitate the creative process.

Despite the adversity, creatives rose to the occasion and brought their problem-solving talents and adaptability to bear. Most creatives (57%) claimed they “became more productive” despite cuts to budget and staff. Another two-thirds of respondents learned new skills such as video, livestreaming and podcasting, all of which proved pivotal to business continuity during remote work.

The resource constraints may have also prompted creative and marketing leaders to rethink the in-housing trend—that is, bringing design talent and work in-house rather than using external agencies—that’s unfolded in recent years.

While in-house creative teams still manage much of the work, the majority (86%) reported that they currently partner with agencies and freelancers. Further, in 2021 about one-third of teams are planning to increase the work they send to outside resources. This creates new opportunities and demands for tools and processes for collaboration.

When prompted why they hire outside agencies, respondents stated that their top reason was in order to access specialized skills (64%). Subsequent responses were a need for increased capacity (44%), assistance with strategy development (24%) and quicker completion of work (20%).

“The beauty of working with freelancers is that you don’t have to go through this whole hiring and onboarding process,” says April Koenig, founder and CEO of Creatives on Call. “You can find people who have the targeted skill sets that you need and get them in and get the work done quickly.”

She notes that approach may also help with fatigue and burnout, which have become critical leadership issues over the past 12 months. “This really helps alleviate some of the physical and emotional pressure that teams face when the organization is so reliant on them,” she says.

3. Creatives Speak Data as Fluently as Marketers Do, with Powerful Reporting and Metrics

Don’t be surprised if your creative leader starts your next meeting with data. Creatives have steadily turned to analytics and reporting to better understand—and justify to business leaders—their needs to greater resource allocation. Respondents indicated that the focus on metrics had clear objectives, including:

  • Manage team capacity and resources (57%)
  • Plan for future needs (51%)
  • Foster continuous improvement (51%)
  • Promote the value creative delivers (44%)

Similarly, some of the top metrics creatives are tracking include:

  • Total projects completed (68%)
  • Total projects requested by a person or department (42%)
  • Rounds of review to final approval (39%)
  • Average time to complete by project type (28%)

“Creative teams should focus on intelligent use of data to find real insights. Getting to those insights is not separate from the creative process, it is intrinsic to it,” Alex Blum, founder of Blum Consulting Partners, Inc., reported in his commentary. “Use the raw data and metrics to generate insights to develop a virtuous cycle that leads to more creative solutions. Building on that cycle over time is how you get to interesting and creative work.”

Indeed, we believe the next step is to expand creative metrics from measuring outputs to measuring outcomes. In other words, adding the efficacy of creative content in market in addition to measuring the efficiency of the creative process.

The New Creative Organization

Individually, each of these three takeaways are interesting for creative and marketing leaders. Collectively, they point to a transformation that’s underway in many creative organizations in terms of what they produce and how they produce it. They underscore how marketing leaders can learn from their creative teams in applying design thinking to the challenges we face.

As Matthew Rayback, creative director at Adobe, wrote in the report, “The creativity that was needed in the past is not the creativity that is needed today.”

Using a car factory as a metaphor, he describes how “creatives used to be the assembly line to make a single car. But now we’re asking creatives to produce huge volumes of cars, and we need them all personalized, and we need to keep iterating on the car, constantly making tweaks and adjustments. The assembly line we built can’t accommodate that speed or volume.”

As a results, he notes, creative organizations are evolving. “We need to ideate and get stuff out there fast, test it, and do it again,” he wrote. “We’re not designing cars, we’re designing a factory that can make multiple different kinds of cars, at any given time.”

Russ Somers is chief marketing officer of Lytho, which builds software that helps creative and marketing teams drive better content outcomes. The company’s flagship products include creative workflow and digital asset management (DAM).