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Trust Me: How Marketers and Designers Work Together

Hal Conick and Sarah Steimer

We asked two marketers and two designers for insights on how they collaborate: the pain points, communication styles and success stories​​

Though marketers and designers seem to fall on different ends of the spectrum, they can have a great working relationship. Those partnerships are on full display when a campaign is visually pleasing and backed by all the right data.

Marketing News spoke with two marketers (Rebecca Sears, CMO of Plantation Products, and John Lewellan, senior director of marketing operations at Informatica) and two designers (Amy Brusselback, principal of design at B&B Responses, and Trish Olives, creative freelancer and consultant​) about how they can ensure a great working relationship. These conversations have been edited for clarity and length. 

How is communicating within your discipline different from communicating with a marketer or designer?

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Sears: Regardless of who you’re speaking with, it’s always helpful to put yourself in their shoes. How does their brain work? What does this person care about? How are they rewarded? When you understand what makes someone tick, you’re more likely to connect. For example, with a previous design colleague I found it worked best to communicate ideas via visual mood boards versus a written brief because that’s how they processed information best.  

Brusselback: One surprising difference in communicating with designers and marketers is how tactical conversations vary from strategic conversations. When a marketer talks about a color choice, they’re often talking about their personal preference. When a designer talks about a color choice, they’re usually commenting on strategy. Designers speak in shorthand with each other because they assume the receiver knows the “Why?” behind the choice: “The yellow isn’t working.” But when a designer is communicating with a marketer, it’s critical to connect the design choices to the strategy and user: “The yellow lacks the sophistication needed for this consumer and price point.”

Lewellan: Everyone is sensitive to criticism of their work. For marketers, you can point out that they missed an audience segment, that timing a launch during a holiday week won’t drive the results they want, or that they didn’t look at the data of a previous campaign that would inform them on improving this one. Communicating with designers should be no different: If there are data or best practices that the piece doesn’t meet, if there are branding guidelines they didn’t follow, or if they didn’t read the creative brief, point it out. There shouldn’t be hard feelings. Where conversations get heated or people feel attacked is when the feedback they are given is “I don’t like that picture” or “Green isn’t my favorite color.” When your colleague from product or sales approaches you in the hallway and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a campaign,” we bristle. The same thing happens when marketers approach designers with a bag of personal preferences. 

Olives: I find that designers often approach their work thinking about the full experience the audience has while taking in the marketing and advertising. Marketers are more driven by the end effect said experience has on the audience. Most of the time, that means: Will they open their wallet? This difference in thought process seems to be even more relevant now as data-driven marketing takes over. Creative leaders need to understand how to balance art and science.

Tell me about a time you had great communication with a designer or marketer. What went right? 

Sears: I got to know the designer first before presenting “the ask.” Team performance and ability to meet objectives is ultimately about people and the trust between them. 

Brusselback: Across the board, the best communication with marketers is when there’s a shared vision of the problem being solved and we see each other as equally accountable for getting the best solution. Recently, we were hired to design a new brand and kicked off the project with a working session with the cross-functional team. It was very effective, as each of the team members brought their knowledge of the project as well as their assumptions about the right solution to the branding needs. Together, we looked at mentor brands and current competition and spent our time strategizing different approaches. Having the marketing partners show up with what inspires them allowed us to understand where stakeholders’ minds were before beginning the work. Many designers are opposed to bringing the marketers into the creative process; we feel the exact opposite. Making design the work of the entire organization and bringing in more diverse viewpoints at the inception of the work makes the solutions more robust, holistic and consumer-centric.  

Lewellan: Every 12 to 18 months, marketers get tired of the email templates they use and will put in a creative brief to create new ones. It was during a meeting about developing new templates when a designer asked about the results we were getting with the current designs. She asked which were being used and which had better results. She reminded the marketer of the research and testing that had gone into the current set and asked what had changed since then. This all showed that the designer was willing to do the work, but also wanted to make sure she understood the reason behind the change. She was trying to be a partner and deliver what the team wanted, but also what was going to drive better outcomes. 

Olives: Sometimes, it just clicks. There are some people you have great chemistry with and when that happens, cherish it. But over the course of your long and storied career, that’s going to be the one-off, not the norm. My successful partnerships have come from having high empathy, as well as a lack of fear and self-consciousness. When I haven’t been afraid to say what I don’t know and ask questions from a curious place, the barriers break down quickly. Not only does the work become easier, but the end result is better.

What about the opposite, a time where communication went wrong? In retrospect, what changes would you make? 

Sears: A junior designer “yes’d” me often but never seemed to bring anything new or innovative to the table. I later learned that they didn’t think they were “allowed” to bring up new ideas. This shocked me at the time, but now I make it a point to tell designers that I want them to challenge my thinking and bring their ideas to the table. 

Brusselback: Communication that falls apart often starts with a common thread: Marketers approaching design as something to evaluate versus a problem to be solved together. We had a working meeting with a client where they’d requested a preview of the work before the formal review. Generally, we love this approach, but everything went wrong this time because the entire session was criticizing what wasn’t working, much of which we already knew because the work was unfinished. It felt personal and unnecessarily harsh to the designers and left the marketer nervous and afraid. In retrospect, we should have managed the dialogue more specifically, starting with close-in options and asking for what’s working and where we should double down. We should have also set up the session to include some “tissue” work, meaning giving the marketer an opportunity to create solutions themselves versus only evaluating in-process design work.

Lewellan: I learned to get along with the creative team early in my career, which is why I’ve been able to manage creative teams from an operations role. But as a young marketer, I had a head full of ideas on how I thought something should look, but not enough reason or words to properly explain why. I breezed through the creative brief—it’s long and I’ve got so many other things to do—and hadn’t taken the time to develop a thoughtful strategy. When the first draft was completed, it looked nothing like what I expected and when I approached the designer about it, she pulled up the creative brief. Sure enough, what was on the page I was looking at met the requirements set forth in the brief. I really learned from that experience; the more information you can give the creative team up front, the less time is wasted in multiple rounds of revision. 

Olives: My No. 1 strategy in collaboration is to ask a lot of questions and to be as transparent as possible in my thought process. This is not an easy thing to do, especially when your brain juices are flowing. When I was younger, I expected people to be able to read my mind when it came to why I made the creative choices I was making. I have to remind myself constantly that those connections my brain makes are why I became a creative in the first place, but not everyone works that way.

How can you avoid tension when working together?

Sears: Tension tends to occur when there is either lack of clarity or misaligned objectives. If you are disciplined about clearly communicating the project vision and objectives, you’ll spend less time on and be less frustrated about revisions. In the end, you should have a positive outcome for the project and a good working relationship with the designer. 

Brusselback: Spend time at the beginning of every project, no matter how small, to get very clear on three questions: What does success look like? How will you measure it? Who is the decision-maker and who are the inputters? Then, bring them along for the entire journey. Share work in development. Give your partners a peak behind the curtain. Get their point of view outside of official presentations and milestones. Ask for their ideas. Lastly, let your partners know what to expect. If you’re showing something that will scare them, tell them they’ll be scared by this work and tell them why you’ve pushed the boundaries. Tell them if you’re starting close-in or far-out. Tell them what’s working and not with each direction. Despite popular belief, surprise is not a friend of great design reviews.

Lewellan: Stick to the facts. If your A/B tests show that the form needs to be at the top of the page and overlap the header image to produce a lift in form fills, tell them. Show the data to inform them of the scientific reason to change the design instead of pushing a personal preference. Also, listen to the designers. Many of them are doing their own research now and looking at best practices for page design. Designers are just as invested as marketers in their work performing well. Finally, give them time to do it right. In every organization I have been in, there is a focus on speeding up the creative process. In today’s agile world, we look for process improvements to reduce time to market. That is fine if there is a bank of preapproved header images and headlines that just need to be married together. But if you need an original, creative campaign developed from nothing, give your team time to go through the creative process. Don’t get upset if you walk in and the creative team is playing a game—it might be what it takes to come up with the next award-winning idea.

Olives: It’s important to keep a healthy distance from your work. I am not telling you not to care about your creative work, but it’s necessary to check yourself every so often and remember that what you create at work is not who you are. You will always have another great idea. There is no shortage of great ideas in that big brilliant creative brain of yours. If you are working with a marketer who isn’t into what you presented, do not take that personally. That is a them problem and not a you problem; now you get to come up with another dope idea. And when it comes down to it, getting to come up with ideas is why we’re in this game, is it not?

What recommendations do you have for working closely together as marketers and designers? 

Sears: Empathy is important. Don’t treat your agency or design team like support staff. They are your best strategic thinking partners in a world that is ever more dependent on visual and tactile communication. 

Brusselback: Remember only one direction will be used. We often spend the bulk of our time with marketers talking about why most of the design solutions aren’t quite right. Focus your energy on what is working and how to maximize the best direction. Also, have a co-creation session with your marketing partners before design work begins. It will provide the designers with the clearest understanding of the marketers’ assumptions, needs and desires in the work. And get to know your marketing partners as people. It’s just easier to work well with people you know. As a side benefit, the better you know your partners, the better you’re able to read between the lines, identify potential road bumps before they arise and provide the stimulus they need to evangelize your design solutions within the organization.

Lewellan: Treat them as a partner. You both are in it together. There is a symbiotic relationship between marketers and designers—you can’t go to market without both. And the best campaigns will be a collaborative effort between the two.

Olives: Tap into that same empathy you use when you approach your creative work to understand the motivations of the marketing folks. Even if they’re not able to do the same initially, you’ll be modeling great behavior and, unless you’re working with an actual sociopath, your actions will rub off on them. It’s all about that long game. And it helps to never forget that you’re on the same team and working towards the same end goal.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.

Sarah Steimer is a staff writer for the AMA's magazines and e-newsletters. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.