Many in-house creative services and communications groups grew organically as a result of an organizational unit deciding to hire a few people to do more cheaply (and perhaps more quickly) what the company was paying external agencies to do. The overwhelming majority of such groups start small with informal roles and processes. If there are only three or four people working in such a group, anyone can call up one of the designers and ask for work. This initial contact person becomes, by default, the requestor's account manager and traffic manager. Such informality works well if it's a small group of people who all sit together.

With growth comes the need for clarity in roles and responsibilities, but often the informality in roles continues even after a group reaches a moderate size (e.g., 15 people). Clients continue to use the personal relationships they have built over time and, even if roles are defined within the in-house creative or communications group, the defined roles are freely violated because "that's what the clients want." Management sometimes ignores the inherent inefficiency and inconsistency of client service resulting from continually violating established roles or in having different roles and processes for different clients.

Larger groups tend to codify their processes, implement systems to help manage workflow, leverage the specialization of certain staff and create a dedicated client-interface organization. All these things further increase the need for clarity of roles, the lack of which can become highly problematic. Typical challenges we've seen include:

  • Non-client-interface staff performing intake on projects from clients, resulting in specialized staff (e.g., writers, designers) taking time away from their specialty and doing a task for which they are less qualified than others in the group
  • Project information being captured inconsistently in systems as a result of project intake being done in different ways
  • Client-interface staff serving clients in different ways, resulting in inefficiency; for example:
    • Spending extensive time customizing standard reports for a client just because a certain client is used to a certain format
    • Selecting the members of the project team to attend client meetings based on prior practice rather than the needs of the project
    • Structuring reviews of output based on historical precedent rather than the needs of the project

  • Lack of a single point of contact for clients, resulting in clients having to "project manage" creative or communication resources themselves
  • Widely varied results of internal client satisfaction surveys resulting from markedly different service levels for different clients
  • An inability by staff within the group to steer clients in the right direction based on their needs
  • Clients being unaware of the full capabilities of the group since they only deal with the piece of the group they are familiar with

Clarity in roles and responsibilities can solve many, if not all, of the above problems. Clarity of roles doesn't mean lengthy job descriptions for each person or a process so inflexible that creativity is squashed-- and it certainly doesn't mean that non-client-interface staff can't be helpful to clients. But it does recognize that certain behaviors should be codified and enforced; for example:
  • Handling project intake and reviews of output in a consistent manner
  • Offering clients a consistent level of service, not dependent upon which person in the group they are dealing with
  • Freeing up the time of specialists to do the work in which they specialize
  • Ensuring that work calling for a specialist is routed to a specialist
  • Using systems and reports in a consistent manner
  • Capturing a consistent set of information about projects
  • Institutionalizing non-project-specific work, such as client surveys, training and maintenance of brand standards

Companies do need to be wary of over-defining roles and responsibilities, especially if they risk giving staff the impression that following the defined roles in any way substitutes for business judgment or providing excellent client service. As such, roles should be defined at a relatively high level with a focus placed on ensuring that roles do not overlap with each other (or, if there is an overlap, that the overlap is well managed). In general, we recommend defining each role with no more than 10 or 15 dot points and being as specific as possible with each dot point (avoiding general platitudes such as "committed to operational excellence").

The entire effort of defining roles doesn't need to be onerous or highly time consuming. It requires understanding the current situation in terms of processes and roles and then applying best practice principles of organizational design and process improvement to define future roles.

Once roles are defined, they shouldn't just be put into a bound copy that sits on some director's shelf gathering dust. But rather the roles should be publicized across the group (as well as to clients). It does little good to define roles and not let people know what they are. Few things institutionalize someone's role better than making it public. Sometimes we hear from clients that they don't want to make roles public within the organization due to certain sensitive tasks done by certain people. If such a situation exists, we suggest leaving sensitive tasks off public roles, but it is generally counterproductive to make such a person's entire role a mystery to the rest of the organization.

For creative or communications groups with unclear roles, we often find role clarity and definition is their #1 problem to solve; and a problem that is far more readily solved than most other operational problems. It's often a good place to start to achieve operational improvement and better client service.

For information about how Cella can add value to your business through consulting, coaching, and training, please email [email protected].

Jackie Schaffer has more than a decade of experience optimizing creative teams. Most recently she directed an international team of 80 creatives. During her tenure, she spearheaded the launch and development of the group's India-based team, built an interactive media division, and executed against a new visual identity. Jackie's management competencies lie in workflow, technology, and talent management, and she has a deep passion for balancing the creative and business needs of in-house shops while providing fulfilling opportunities for the team.