How a re-engineering of the people, processes and technology among Minnesota’s NBA and WNBA marketing teams led to better creativity and business results
A few seasons ago, a marketing analyst for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx noticed that creative choices made a difference in ticket sales. Controlling for seasonality and team performance, the marketing analyst started to see a clear trend—creative work that included the Timberwolves or Lynx logo outperformed creative that featured player imagery.
Linking a specific creative choice to sales is the sort of bottom-line impact that in-house creative teams aspire to achieve. Making these sorts of connections involves more than just one-off A/B tests. It’s the result of a work environment that excels in the three interrelated elements that encompass creative operations: people, process, and technology.
Keeping Pace with Velocity, Volume and Variety in an Age of Content
Getting to that level of organizational maturity—where someone is evaluating creative in market and feeding the data back to designers—wasn’t quick or easy. To be clear, it’s not that the organization was deficient; it had basic processes in place and invested in technology. However, the exponential demand for creative caused the Timberwolves and Lynx to outgrow the system they had in place.
The sports business is fast-paced and competitive; the creative team at the Timberwolves and Lynx are not alone in this challenge. Survey research shows that velocity, volume and variety (V3) are among the top five challenges facing creatives and designers across organizations of all types. In other words, the speed at which businesses need creative in this age of content continues to accelerate. At the same time, they need more of it across an exploding variety of channels and formats. For the Timberwolves and Lynx, that meant juggling demands for everything from signage to digital elements, even graphics shown in the arena on game day.
Their existing creative operations model simply couldn’t keep pace. As the old adage advises, “work smarter, not harder.” It was time to start looking for a better solution.
Pinpointing Areas for Creative Operations Improvement
Like many organizations, creative requests at the Timberwolves and Lynx used to come predominately by email. Designers would work through concepts and proofs and send them back out for review and approval by email. This worked effectively at lower volumes, but when demand for creative projects began to grow, it became untenable.
This reliance on email for project intake and management is common for creative teams, but it is an insufficient collaboration tool. For example, gathering enough information to start a project can easily take several exchanges where details get lost or overlooked, which is already an industry-wide problem for creatives. Nearly nearly-three quarters (72%) of creatives say obtaining the necessary information to get started on a project is the biggest administrative task that detracts from their primary business purpose: being creative.
The administrative burden on designers at the Timberwolves and Lynx didn’t end there. With any creative request, the designers were also implicitly tasked with reaching out to vendors for printing, gathering specifications and due dates. Again, this isn’t unique to the Timberwolves and Lynx creative team, since industry wide, 48% of creatives spent about one day per week, or 20% of their time, on admin tasks.
The Timberwolves’ and Lynx’s overreliance on email led to other process pitfalls. Different departments started reaching out to the designer they were most familiar with, or who had worked on the project the previous year. When multiple departments asked for things directly, no one looked at the overall impact or prioritized projects based on business goals. At the same time, because everyone was reaching out to specific designers whenever they wanted, there was no balance to the design team’s workload.
Other parts of their creative process, such as review and approval, were affected by this too. Review and approvals done by email tended to be ad hoc and conjure out-of-sequence comments and approvals. At one point, creative work was going out to sponsors for review before the marketing team had signed off. This meant sponsors would approve creative, and then marketing would come back and say “Nope, this is not approved.” It looked as if the organization wasn’t communicating internally.
As the demands on the creative team accumulated, the email-based system began to break down and manifested in organizational stress and confusion. Projects that should be done in one or two rounds would take four or five, which also delayed other projects, and caused unnecessary frustration for all involved. Things got done, but the team was not running at peak efficiency and certainly not with the agility to implement analytical feedback for optimal creative.
Re-Engineering the Creative Process
The remedy called for a re-engineering of the people, process and technology that facilitated the creative work in our organization. Marketing leadership hired Courtney as a creative project manager to standardize the entire process using creative workflow and project management software. The software by inMotionNow helped structure and streamline creative briefs, reviews, edits and approvals.
Email was no longer permitted and all requests—no matter how big or small—were required to be made in the system. Similarly, nothing was approved until it was approved in the software first. This bought transparency and better collaboration to the process.
There was another benefit too: the accumulation of data for reporting. The creative team could report to the business leadership, with precision, on the number and type of projects requested, which department was requesting them, the status of those projects, how many were “rush jobs,” and how many had been completed and how these aligned to organizational goals.
Over time, the team also gleaned trend information that allowed it to make better decisions about how to best allocate creative resources overall. The organization began to understand, empirically, how much time different projects would take, the time of year where it was the busiest and needed to prioritize, and when was the best time to experiment or take on extra projects.
The improved process enhanced management’s ability to allocate creative resources efficiently while giving designers the space they needed to be creative. It enabled designers to produce creative projects more efficiently and established greater trust across the team. Ultimately, this facilitated a more collaborative, data-driven culture and nurtured an environment that can analyze the performance of creative projects in market and turn those insights into creative action that improve business results.
Photos courtesy of Minnesota Timberwolves, Minnesota Lynx and inMotionNow.