Pretend you work for an ice cream company. You’re the one who comes up with the flavors, and you’re pretty set on Oreo Cookie Dough as the star of your spring lineup. Everything’s set for success when you get a note: Please include M&Ms in the season’s star flavor. They’re working the Mars account pretty hard, and the inclusion of their most prolific candy is a smart move. You accept the feedback and press on; both are chocolate, so it’s not a stretch.
Then, more feedback. “Rainbow” flavored ice cream is in right now, and it’d be foolish not to jump on the hype train. You grimace. Rainbows are typically fruit-centric, and clash with your very chocolatey spring star. A few more notes in, you find yourself adding Skittles to even the fruit-to-chocolate ratio, and some kale to get the FDA vote. It’s an unfocused, unpalatable mess, but hey—at least everyone had their voice heard.
If you’ve ever been involved in a project bloated beyond recognition, you’ve encountered the Scope Creep. And make no mistake, the Scope Creep will kill the soul of a project unless it’s tethered.
The Scope Creep is a nefarious beast. Five rows of teeth, ten large talons, and a clipboard with a growing list of increasingly less relevant requirements. Not that you’ll ever see it, of course. The Scope Creep lurks in the shadows, behind every new feature request, every new add-on, every “what if”. In its final form, it takes the shape of whatever bloated, ineffectual project it’s latched on to as its host.
In creative marketing, it has a cute haircut and a HubSpot account as well. On a technical level, scope creep is subtle deviation from a project’s initial intentions; usually by way of incremental changes that serve the original plan less and less as the project grows. It’s often the result of having too much input from increasingly disparate stakeholders (the “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem), which is often the result of an unruly or non-existent design operations process.
It can be difficult to discern Scope Creep from honest, constructive ideation. It’s why so many projects fall victim to it. Yet, there are some telltale signs that thoughtful suggestion is unknowingly harboring the Scope Creep.
Seems obvious, but apparently not obvious enough to stop it from happening every day. Look at your project mandate. Do you have a project mandate? Write one up now if you don’t, and remind yourself of the primary goal of the project. Does what’s been suggested directly serve this goal, or is it a “nice to have”? One or two of these little tidbits can be excusable depending on the scope of the project, but any more than that and you’ll see that scope start creeping. You work in creative marketing, and you know it better than most: A message lands best when it’s simple. Bells and whistles distract.
Does this project need 10 different voices to shape its outcome? While conventional wisdom suggests that more input should equal more power, you’ve seen enough compromised projects to know it’s not always the case. You wouldn’t use every spice in the pantry to make your dinner, because the job of your spaghetti isn’t to offer every possible dinner experience under the sun. Look at who’s chiming in, and judge accordingly: Does this project hinge on this person’s input? If not, are they offering anything that serves the original goal (that hasn’t already been said)? Excluding outliers like company-wide projects, does the number of people offering feedback strike you as surprising? Listen to your gut.
The Scope Creep is now almost undeniable. When suggestions and/or requests are at odds with other suggestions and/or requests, there’s nowhere left to turn. Voices are competing in multitudes, and there’s little you can do to satisfy all involved. Strap in for a long, bumpy road unless you do something about it.
So you’ve got Scope Creep. It’s got its talons deep in your project, and it’s going to keep pulling until your project is an unrecognizable jumble of ideas. How do you shake it off?
People get antsy when you throw modern corporate lingo around. No one wants to be caught doing the thing you’re not supposed to do, so regain some footing by calling it out as it is. Be diplomatic, of course… some of these folks may be your direct reports. “I feel like the scope of this project has grown significantly from its original intention” is pretty defensible, and may help rein things in a bit.
If you have the power to do so with relatively little pushback, pull it back in. Set up a meeting to talk about why you feel the current project has gone off the rails, and see where common ground can be made. If it’s primarily in your ownership, this may not need much more explanation than that. Be willing to listen and empathize, of course. There may be good reasons for the change of scope, so be open to having your mind changed.
If the power for the project lies outside your jurisdiction, find time to talk to a decision-maker one-on-one. Lay out your case for why the scope needs to be pulled back. Include the time you’ve spent on back-and-forths, redos, revisions, and of course, the unfocused state of the current product. Your time can be counted in marketing dollars, and it’s dollars that are currently being spent on running in circles with little promise of payoff.
Finally, if it’s simply not possible for you to regain control of the project, let it go. Your job isn’t to agree with every decision made. It’s to do the thing you’re paid to do, and to do it as well as you reasonably can. Yes, that sounds harsh, but it’s freeing. Once you remember that your job is just a job, you can manage the emotional investment you place into certain projects. Relax knowing you don’t have to be the god of every world.
You’re lost, and your best bet is to retrace your steps. How’d you get here? For most creative marketing professionals, the catalyst for scope creep can be traced back to either A) gaps in the design operations (design ops) process, or B) a lack of design operations altogether. An airtight design ops system is a necessity for keeping projects on track and within scope, yet many businesses assume a more freewheeling/lax system owned by designers themselves will suffice. It’s this assumption that leaves room for the Scope Creep.
Since the absence of clear guardrails is what causes most scope creep, it follows that their presence is the solution. Think of what you can do to better manage the creative marketing processes that led to the whole thing getting blown out of proportion. For most creative marketing teams, this depends on the presence of design ops.
The best defense against Scope Creep is to instill processes that don’t allow it to exist in the first place. As it may become clear, the Scope Creep doesn’t pop up out of nowhere. It grows in the gaps left by many creative marketing processes, which leave too much room for error.
Or lack thereof, frankly. In creative marketing, the biggest culprit is often inefficiency in design processes. The creative request comes down the pipeline, and due to A) a lack of centralization in digital asset management systems (or another part of the design team’s tech stack), and B) too many stakeholders with easy access to/equal sway over a project’s outcomes.
Both are the result of poor or nonexistent design ops. The solution to scope creep in creative marketing is to prioritize processes that leave creative teams properly managed, centralized and accountable without letting things stray from the path.
Conversely, the capacity to maintain sustainable design operations is the key to scaling with creative. The stories of success with fast, reliable, properly managed creative teams are as varied as the flavors in your theoretical ice cream. Here are a few ways businesses have leaned on their design partners’ operational capabilities to drive provable ROI.
AEI Consultants enlisted CaaS (Creative as a Service) partner Superside to add creative capabilities, extra capacity and an injection of fresh ideas. Despite having only one designer on their team of 400, AEI used their design partner’s streamlined workflows and world-class design talent to complete nearly 1,000 hours of design work across print, merch and digital channels.
The legendary online retailer’s creative team found itself unable to keep pace with marketing demands. When they made purpose-built design support a priority, they began enjoying the head space (and work space) that only simplified design operations yields. Today, they’re using that space to save hours, dollars and sanity—post-Superside, the hours an average Amazon graphic designer works per week is no more than 40 hours.
Seeing an opportunity to fill a staggering gap in the health sector, Brio realized they needed a creative marketing revamp. Knowing they didn’t have the headcount and mindshare to pull it off alone, they paired with their CaaS team to develop and implement a new brand, design a new website, and refresh packaging and marketing materials to scale quickly across the U.S. Simplicity was the name of the game here: With only three users on Brio’s creative team, they used their partner’s streamlined design processes to push creative development to new heights.
Scope Creep is the killer of many good ideas. But in creative marketing, it’s more than a cartoonish ghoul tugging away at the seams of your project. Persistent scope creep—the literal kind—is indicative of a greater issue with how creative marketing teams operate. If you’re watching projects get away from your team with relative consistency, it means the current design operations model isn’t working for you.
It’s almost inevitable. With the need for creative increasing and budgets shrinking, many businesses are struggling to get a hold of the processes that keep projects in line and on target. It’s what makes the always-on, purpose-built nature of CaaS so valuable to businesses who prioritize it: Having a full-stack design team that includes a design ops manager streamlines these unwieldy processes for chosen creative projects. Every creative asset is delivered on target, within timelines and up to code with the brand without exploding budgets or heads.
No pushback, no Skittles, no kale. Just scale.
David is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at Superside. A former journalist with bylines too numerous to enumerate, he brings his love of storytelling and semantics to the marketing world. Recognizing the sizable gaps in the creative-as-a-service (CaaS) sector, he jumped at the chance to fill the creative void for ambitious brands. In his off hours, he enjoys loud music, making vegan meals and being made fun of for making vegan meals. He’ll gladly talk to you about any of the above on LinkedIn.
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