Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are powerful tools, but like any tool, they can be dangerous if used poorly -- and in a creative agency, they need to be used very carefully. The last thing a creative agency or marketing director wants to do is create an army of robots who pump out bland, identical copy or design work. After all, you hired these people because of their talent and originality. You shouldn’t be stifling that creativity.
So let’s talk about what SOPs are and more importantly, what they aren’t.
An SOP has one basic role: to ensure consistency of quality outcomes. That can be by helping to organize to make sure nothing falls through the cracks, or it can take the form of process documents to help creatives or strategists maintain quality from project to project, neglecting nothing. It’s ultimately about making sure that your team has everything it needs to do the job right.
Now, this is true in any company setting, but in a creative agency setting, an SOP moves beyond merely organizational models and into how to craft effective marketing campaigns. And that’s good! You want to have standards or ways to make sure that your agency is putting out quality work on a consistent basis, but the risk is in the overplanning -- building something so detailed that there’s no more room left for the creatives to do what they do best.
You didn’t hire people to man your assembly line. You hired writers and artists. Your agency's SOPs need to direct, not dictate. They should offer best practices, not mandate templates. In other words, their role at an agency is to make sure your creatives know what the standards are while ensuring they have the freedom to meet those standards using their unique energy and talents.
For example: A manager develops a SOP for an email campaign that would dictate the steps it should follow, outlining the email flow, delays, and calls-to-action in a lockstep way. The person would claim that it should be done this way because previous tests and campaigns launched in the past have worked with this formula. Marketing becomes little more than a Mad Libs game: fill in the blank for the desired result. The end product ends up being stifling, cold, and inhuman -- a paint-by-numbers process that drains your team rather than energizing them.
At Hudson Fusion, we believe that a better and more human process would ensure that the writer of a campaign understood what does and doesn’t make campaigns work. An email campaign, a landing page ... these are genres with their own rules and best practices. Marketing can be an art. Craft a document that educates instead of dictates. Have a set of standards that helps a writer put together a great campaign according to their own talents and invention.
Think of it like this: It’s the difference between virtue and rule.
Virtue, according to Aristotle, is that which makes it easy to do good. It’s a built-in set of habits that make a person naturally inclined to be brave or generous. And virtuous people don’t need the rules to act in an appropriate way; they simply do it naturally. This is different from the Rules, which enforce conformity to a standard instead of helping to form a person who naturally sets out to meet it.
What you want are creatives who don’t need a bunch of strict rules and requirements to do good work. You need people who you can task with a job and trust that the end product will be excellent. The right kinds of SOPs help them build the habits that lead to great work independently produced. It takes longer, and it requires more oversight and hands-on professional development, but it yields a better creative project completed by people who love what they do and love doing it.
Originally published Feb 3, 2016 7:00:00 AM, updated February 01 2017