If you are a creative business owner then it's more than likely you submit work to your clients for approval. Depending on the complexity of the project and of the approvals chain, which can sometimes run into personnel numbering double figures, then it pays to have a workflow that makes the entire approval process as smooth and pain-free as possible.
With some of your clients, it will simply be just you and them, no one else. In other cases, things will be more complex, with multiple departments and even external stakeholders, such as record companies or other brands involved, so the effectiveness of your management can make or break a project.
With this in mind here are some simple tips for a creative business owner wanting a smooth client approvals process.
1. Ask the client how they want the process to work
It is so easy to start a project and impose our working practice on our clients; this can be a mistake. So the first thing to do is to ask your client how they want the process to work. Some clients will be happy to work via email, some by phone and others may have their process they want you to work with such as Slack.
There is no one-size-fits-all, and you will need to fit around the client, although one thing you should insist on is getting everything in writing - even if things are discussed on the phone, not getting things in writing is a recipe for disaster. If your client wants to work by phone, then explain to them that you will be sending an email with the bullet points of the call to ensure you've understood them correctly. They will appreciate you taking this extra care when they know it's to make sure you get things right as soon as possible.
Once you've agreed how to communicate, then you need to ask them how often they want to be contacted during the process. It is best to agree, right at the start of the project, on critical stages when they want to see progress. It's no good sending the first draft three days before the deadline and finding out that key people have other priorities preventing them from looking at your work. They may be on vacation or at a conference and may not have access to the internet or limited access meaning they can't download your files. So make a plan showing the key events during the project such as the first draft, amends, final approvals, etc.
Finally, agree with your client how often they want to be contacted, again this differs from client to client, some work in minutes others in weeks - if you don't establish this then you are either going to unnerve your client or harass them.
2. Manage your assets
The project assets are the crown jewels, and it is essential that you make sure that all of them are kept safe and secure.
Before the project starts, there will need to be a list of the assets you need for you to work without delay. Depending on the nature of the project this will include critical material such as the audio files, any video content, script, client brief, etc.
As soon as you get this content, you should create a neatly organised folder containing the project and within that folder subfolders of the different type of content.
This first task enables you to collate the material and check to see if you have everything you need. If anything is missing, then you need to go back to the client to get it unless of course, you are responsible for originating some of the assets then it makes sense to get those things sooner rather than later. The collecting of those assets may include some additional recording work such as session players or ADR, or if working in video shooting extra footage. You may need to obtain stock content such as SFX or loops, and this needs to be approved by the client especially if there are additional licensing costs.
Finally, if you've got a clear brief from your customer, then any extra time and money spent on collating the assets for a project should come as no surprise. Good project management is about anticipating things before they happen so that there are no surprises further down the track.
3. Create a clear naming convention
When delivering mixes or edits to a client for approval, it is essential to have a clear and concise naming convention so that everyone can easily identify the version in review.
A clear naming convention should also help you when trying to determine which version you are working on; you don't want to have spent an hour working on a mix only to find you are working on the wrong one. We will talk more about this in a moment.
For example, a simple file naming convention is Project Name, Date, Version (if you deliver more than one a day) and State. So a file name could look like this;
Highlife 030117 V2 For Approval.wav
If a new version were delivered four days later it would say;
Highlife 070117 For Approval.wav
If several people are involved in the work, you may also want to include their initials in the file name.
The aim of the naming convention is that anyone can decipher the file name without having to have worked at Bletchley Park. This simple method means you can take a day off and people don't need to contact you to find out what version of the project they have.
Another thing you need to consider is a safety net to stop your client publishing a version that is unfinished or not approved. If you are working to picture a simple way to is to use BITC (burnt-in timecode) so that anyone looking at the image can see it has the code striped across it. For audio only then we suggest sending MP3 versions of mixes until the project has been signed off.
4. Duplicate everything
A project rarely gets signed off after your first submission, in fact, it can often run into endless versions, it is for this reason that each time you start working on amends that you make a duplicate of the project and clearly label it in a way that makes sense to you. For some, this will simply be a case of creating a 'Save As' of their file, and for other people, this may mean duplicating some of the assets if you need to do some destructive editing.
It is so tempting to think that a small change can be made to the version you last worked on, but there are two reasons to duplicate. The first reason is that you have a safety copy should it all go wrong, the second reason is that clients change their mind and want to return to a previous version. It is much simpler to open a duplicate than to try and unpick the changes.
One to thing to take care of is to always double check that the version you are working on is the latest - it happens to all of us, but we sometimes spend a long time working on the wrong version, so double check before starting the edit.
5. Final, final, final.
One word to avoid on any project is the word final.
There are never any final versions of a project, simply the last approved version. Using the word final also implies to the client that the 'FINAL' version cannot be changed and they may feel unable to ask for changes. It starts to look unprofessional and silly to have files saying things like;
Highlife 170117 Final 2.wav or Highlife 170117 Final Final.wav
Even more pertinent in modern media is that content gets re-versioned for different territories, playback devices, and other events, so again it is essential that any naming denotes this, for example;
Highlife 170117 Approved Radio Version.wav
Highlife 170117 Approved UK ENG Version.wav
Modern media production has never been more fluid, with technology enabling us to send and receive content quickly and easily. The benefits are enormous but so are the downsides of moving content at speed, it's easier to make a mistake and sometimes a big one if you don't take care of your workflow.
You may not think that clients need managing, but in reality, they do, and if you do this efficiently and with a smile on your face your clients will appreciate it.
Therefore this simple guide aims to ensure you manage your client expectations and the right project is delivered to the right person and meets the deadline with time to spare.
Do share your techniques for handling client approvals in the comments below.