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September 17, 2019

Must Go Faster: 5 Lessons in Fast-Tracking Creative

Georgia Thunes

@Sterling

September 17, 2019

Must Go Faster: 5 Lessons in Fast-Tracking Creative

Things are moving fast these days—just ask anyone who fights traffic to the office, jumps relentlessly from one meeting to the next, manages a side-hustle and a social life, makes time to whip up the occasional meal kit, and stays on top of the latest breaking news via an ever-shifting array of social channels. With information, ideas, and trends moving around the world at an unprecedented pace, we’re all under pressure to simply keep up.

Brands are feeling the same pressure. Those born into the world of digital commerce have the undeniable advantage of never having done things differently. Fast fashion innovators Zara and H&M set a new bar for speed-to-market, and industries from cosmetics to subscription snacks have followed suit. Amazon Prime revolutionized delivery and inspired a wave of businesses offering near-instant gratification—whether it be meals from Uber Eats, cannabis from Eaze, or helpers-for-hire from Task Rabbit. Facebook continues to set the expectation for product iteration, meeting customer complaints with real-time tweaks to the platform. It’s no wonder Mark Benioff of Salesforce calls speed “the new currency of business.”

For those of us who make brands our business, “can we go faster?” has become a common refrain. Our start-up clients are in a race to get to market faster than the next equity-backed challenger, while established companies like Nestlé are revamping their business models and launching incubator units to develop new products with lean designs, fast prototyping, and quick in-market testing. In a fast-paced world, it’s evolve or die.

So, how do we embrace speed without risking quality (or sanity)? At Sterling, we recognize that speed can be both friend and foe. Over the past few years, we’ve reassessed our approach to brand building to unlock ways to get to big ideas faster. We’ve pulled apart our accepted processes and put them back together again. In fact, we’ve embraced the reality that “the process” is always a work in progress. And along the way, we’ve learned a few things about how to harness speed to meet deadlines and produce great work.

1. Speed can unlock creativity

Speed is often presented as a necessary evil that sacrifices depth and quality. Yet, counter-intuitively, it can lead to some of our best work. Why? Because it loosens us up, like an illustrator sketching or a figure skater taking those first relaxed laps around the rink. Speed is liberating because it forces us to condense raw instinct and deep expertise into the present moment of creative action. It helps us tap into the flow of the world around us. It creates infectious momentum. It allows for a certain level of ‘messiness’ where the greatest ideas may be hiding. And, frankly, it can be a whole lot more fun. The trick is embracing the mess, the fun, and the fact that there will be a lot of ideas that end up on the cutting room floor.

2. Speed is a learnable skill

Those of us who work in brand strategy and design are taught to be rigorous, thoughtful, and precise. But, much of our traditional training undersells the importance of speed. Today, we live in a world where thinking (and designing) on our feet has become the norm, and people who embrace the pace are leading the way. The good news is it’s possible to learn by doing. At Sterling, we’ve instituted a prototyping approach, where we create in sprints—shorter cycles of ideation that produce a broad range of ideas. This forces us to work fast and loose and to not be overly precious about our work. With a new approach, there’s a learning curve, but, like anything, it gets easier with doing.

3. Speed has to be a shared vision

Aggressive timelines are nothing new, and we’re always working toward due dates that dictate our process, our speed, and, yes, our stress levels. When it comes to making speed work for us, it’s important to know what’s driving deadlines. Transparency makes us feel like we’re contributing to a vision, not just spinning the hamster wheel. But, what’s more important is aligning the working styles that will get us to the finish line. We’ve found that speed requires a shared commitment to working the work together—letting go of the ‘big reveal’ and arriving at creative solutions via a series of work sessions where we share, react, and co-create with our clients. This means creatives letting go of the drive to present only highly finished work, and clients getting comfortable with seeing the potential in ideas not yet fully fleshed out. By establishing clear expectations and criteria for each session, we’ve been able to streamline the work in powerful ways. 

4. The big idea rules, at any speed

Going fast has to be in service of great creative, not just cranking out ‘more work.’ It’s all part of mining for that elusive ‘big idea’—the one that will synthesize all the juicy insights and inspire the most profound outcomes. At Sterling, speed has helped us institutionalize the belief that big ideas can come from anywhere. As we’ve broken down team silos to move faster—getting designers, strategists, and client services in the same room to ideate—we’ve seen fresh thinking, more collaboration, and a reduction of the pressure on the same creative players to always have the answer. It also builds trust and connection across teams. Sounds like a win-win to us.

5. Speed is not always the answer

We’ve talked about the benefits of speed, but it’s important to note that there’s no one pace for success. Different parts of the process require modulation. When we’re immersing ourselves in a category, talking to consumers, connecting with a brand’s DNA, it’s tough to rush—you can’t listen fast. Likewise, there’s a time for the craft of design—when the big idea is baked and must be realized in all its beautiful details, when the designer, the copywriter, and the production artist must work their well-honed magic. Speeding all the time is not sustainable. Our business starts with people, and that means acknowledging that we all have our fast, firing-on-all-cylinders days and our wading-through-the-muck days. In order to nurture our brain power, our creativity, and our pride in our work, we have to know when to ease up on the gas.

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As we’ve made speed our friend, the team at Sterling has benefited from the shift. Our new approach to building brands has strengthened our relevance with clients and resulted in a deeper level of partnering. It has expanded our areas of expertise as we’ve fast-prototyped brand experiences across digital, social, retail, packaging and beyond. And by making us reevaluate many of our assumptions and processes, it has energized our team and invited new thinking. When an agency learns to work at speed, a culture of speed naturally forms.

As to where speed takes us next, nobody truly knows, but it’s safe to say that the influence of technology and data will continue to transform our business in everything from how we arrive at design solutions to how we gather consumer insights and measure our successes. One thing we know for certain is that great creative will still rule the day. Powerful storytelling will still help brands connect to the hearts and minds of real people, going about their incredibly complex, busy, and fast lives.

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