Sarah Levinger’s Process for Onboarding and Delivering Creative Strategy for Clients

Colby Flood
Creative Strategy

How to Create a Smoother Creative Delivery Process

One thing I’ve learned as an agency owner is that the initial stages of a client relationship, onboarding, and strategy planning dictate the trajectory of the partnership. Over the last several years, I’ve learned the importance of strategic client onboarding and created my own processes for managing expectations and creating a good experience for everyone involved. 

I recently spoke with Sarah Levinger, a veteran in creative strategy. We discussed why the first 90 days are essential and how to make the most of them.

Drawing on that conversation, this blog explores effective techniques and insights for nurturing these early stages, ensuring that our partnerships are productive, innovative, and aligned with our clients’ visions.

The Crucial First 90 Days: Setting the Stage for Success

Establishing trust and demonstrating value is important in the early days of a client-agency relationship. After what can often be a long sales process, this is your chance to impress your new clients and show them that they made the right decision when they chose your team. 

The first 90 days lay the groundwork for what clients can expect from our partnership, so it’s crucial to show measurable results and align our efforts closely with the client's goals and expectations.

Understanding and aligning with our clients’ campaign visions is the first step here. During the sales and onboarding process, we provide an intake form designed to help us better understand the client and their brand. 

After we read their replies to our questions, we have a comprehensive discussion to help capture the full scope of the client's creative and strategic goals and ideas. Balancing our marketing expertise with the client's desires and objectives requires a nuanced approach. 

It’s also important to understand the visual identity that a client has in mind. It’s hard to know how they’re picturing their ads and creative assets without literally being in someone's head. But Sarah has a unique workaround for this: Pinterest! 

At the start of her creative process, she’ll have clients create a Pinterest board of ads they love or identify with to help her understand the visuals and executions they’d like to translate into their accounts. It’s a great way to begin understanding what they like and don’t like so that you don’t stray too far when you begin your creative process. 

Sarah also notes that a deep understanding of the client’s core metrics or KPIs is essential to gauge success and ensure that the strategies developed resonate creatively and effectively. For example, measuring success isn’t as simple as tracking sales. One client may want to boost their click-through and conversion rate, while another may be focused on boosting overall brand awareness. These require tracking unique sets of data and analytics, as well as completely different creative strategy approaches and executions. 

Sarah Levinger’s 4-Step Creative Strategy Testing Strategy

In my experience with client onboarding and campaign development, having a structured approach to creative strategy is crucial. While a certain looseness is essential for creative processes, it’s also important to have guidelines and structures in place to ensure that your processes are data-driven, strategic, and aimed at delivering results. (This could be a blog of its own)

No one knows this better than Sarah, and she has devised a 4-step process to perfect the approach!

Here's an in-depth look at how she suggests we test and refine creative strategies.

Phase 1: Brand Positioning

  • Sarah has found, and I agree, that the foundation of any successful marketing strategy lies in a well-defined brand position. This phase of her process involves a deep dive into what sets the brand apart from its competitors, ensuring that the position is not only unique but also defensible and sustainable. 
  • Sarah emphasizes that a clear brand position helps inform all subsequent creative decisions – from copy to visual execution. That’s why, internally, we analyze competitors and market trends to establish a position that uniquely defines the brand. 
  • This research phase includes reading reviews and online discussions about a product, analyzing what competitors are putting out, and viewing the performance of past creatives. 
  • At the core of this phase, it’s important to understand what everyone else is doing and strategically decide to pursue a different path that highlights our client’s unique attributes.

Phase 2: Messaging

  • Once a solid brand position is established, the next step is to craft messages that clearly and consistently communicate this position to the target audience. This phase focuses on articulating the brand’s value propositions in a way that resonates with consumers. 
  • Sarah stresses the importance of consistency in messaging, ensuring that every piece of content reinforces the brand's identity and enhances its position in the market. 
  • The goal is to create a cohesive narrative that supports the brand's overall strategy and appeals to potential customers' emotional and rational needs.
  • Often, we’ll create documents that include things like ‘Language to Use’ and ‘Language to Avoid’ for each brand to ensure messaging stays consistent across ads and to minimize client revisions. Of course, some level of testing is required to find what works, but it’s important to stay within a set of parameters that are authentic to the brand. 

Phase 3: Emotional Testing

  • Understanding the emotional triggers of the target audience is crucial for creating ads that resonate and convert. This phase involves experimenting with different emotional appeals to see which ones most effectively engage the audience and lead to conversions. While many strategists would test based on offers or angles, Sarah finds that testing emotional drivers is much more valuable.
  • Sarah tests these to determine which emotions foster a deeper connection with the audience, which helps her understand the audience even better. By identifying successful emotional appeals, we can refine our messaging to better align with the audience's needs and desires, thereby increasing the effectiveness of our campaigns.
  • Internally, we use what we call ‘Motivators’–core themes that motivate a brand’s audience to buy. We find this lens especially helpful for creating messaging, as it always keeps the ‘why’ at the top of our minds and keeps us from straying too far away from the core USPs and brand strategy we developed. 

Phase 4: Creative Style Testing

  • The final phase of Sarah’s strategy testing process involves experimenting with various creative styles. This might include different graphic designs, video styles, and content formats to determine what best captures the audience's attention and drives campaign performance. 
  • This phase is critical for understanding how different visual and textual elements perform across various platforms and contexts, ensuring the creative looks appealing and works hard to achieve strategic goals.
  • This also highlights the importance of using data and analytics to view your results; without proper testing and data, it’s impossible to know what’s connecting. 
  • Internally, our team consistently looks at data and creates brand-new creative plans every 90 days based on how an account performs. This allows for an even balance of leaning into what’s currently working based on data and trying new creative executions. 

Each phase builds upon the last, creating a strategic, data-driven approach to brand marketing. Sarah’s process is deeply rooted in understanding the client's brand and the market dynamics, ensuring you have a full view of the field you’re working with. 

By meticulously navigating these phases, we ensure that our creative strategies align with our client's business objectives, resonate with their target audiences, and drive growth and sales.

Streamlining the Creative Approval Process

Feel like it takes forever to get your creative assets approved and finalized? You’re not alone.

Sarah emphasizes the importance of a streamlined creative approval process, advocating for a structured approach in which clients provide specific feedback on creative elements, including: 

  • Copy – To ensure it aligns with their target audience and core messaging. 
  • Color Scheme – To make sure it fits in with their branding. 
  • Layout – To make sure they’re comfortable with the look of the ad itself. 

Focusing on these 3 core areas for revision streamlines the process and helps maintain the campaign's strategic integrity while accommodating the client’s unique preferences. Providing revision guidelines for these specific elements helps narrow focus to funnel feedback for these specific areas. 

Effective communication during the revision process builds trust and ensures clients understand the rationale behind each creative decision, which will help foster a collaborative environment. It’s also helpful to take the time to explain why you’ve made certain choices, whether it’s about copy that speaks to a specific audience or a color chosen to evoke a certain mood or feeling––providing these explanations will help clients understand how much strategic work is going into what may seem like a simple ad.

What to Learn From Sarah Levinger’s Process

Mastering the art of client onboarding and developing a nuanced approach to creative campaigns are essential for creating and maintaining successful relationships in the marketing industry. As an agency owner or creative strategist, it’s up to you to ensure your processes are efficient and beneficial for everyone involved. 

By emphasizing strategic alignment from the start and adopting a structured approach to creative testing and approval, we set the stage for campaigns that meet and exceed client expectations––and by following the steps we laid out above, you can do the same! 

Sign up for Sarah’s newsletter HERE.

Want More Strategies for Success?

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