Enough is Enough in the Approval Process: When to Sign Your Name and Ship It

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The old Abbott and Costello routine Who’s on First? is a classic gag. It’s seemingly endless, and also very funny.

Who’s Got the Authority to Sign Off and Approve a Piece of Marketing Collateral? may feel like just as much of a gag. It’s definitely endless, but it’s not so funny. Approval is like a hot potato – people don’t want to touch it and are reluctant to sign their name and hard-stamp something with “this is good to go.”

Personally, I think it comes down to fear. Fear of one’s initials being the last on the document – because the last to say “yes” becomes the first in line to receive blame should something go catastrophically wrong.

But without that “yes,” we are aimless. Somewhere, someone has to say “yes” – or else your copywriters and designers will soon be crying uncle. At some point it has to be “done.” Finite. Approved.

So, who should be the decider? Who signs off – and at what stage? And how many rounds of revisions should everyone expect, anyway?

Digital’s influence on the approval process

Today is a far cry from the old print-publishing days when we really had to get it right from the start. In that era, my boss and I spent hours hunched over proofs with red pens. We scrutinized and line edited. We also carefully selected what things we’d let slip through – because editing meant reprinting, which meant more money. Some things just had to slide. And once we signed our names, it was a done deal. Literally. The print shop took care of shipping and distribution for us, too. So our approval meant that the horse had left the barn.

In today’s digital age though, we have the possibility to be perfect – and we also have a massive perfection complex. There’s always room and opportunity for improvement, so it’s easy to feel like nothing is ever “done-done.”

I’ve encountered so many execs and higher-ups who are afraid to say “Yes – close it.” They fear that an error will reflect badly on them, so they shirk the final act of closure. They let endless loops of revisions take them down, missing a deadline in favor of fixing another headline or comma.

It’s maddening.

We can never move on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we strive for disorder and poor grammar. We should strive for greatness – or at least goodness. We should want our copy to be error free, our collateral to be polished, and our best foot put forward.

But sometimes, when you’re 20 revisions in (hands up if you been there too), it’s time to say “Enough is enough.”

What is the approval process and who’s in charge?

Approval, in today’s age, means someone with the correct level of authority steps out and signs their name – literally or proverbially – on the project’s dotted line. Gives it a green light. Ships that sucker.

Typically, the person at the top – or near the top – of the marketing organizational pyramid will be the one to give the final signoff.

Whoever wields that pen should have read the content (or reviewed the artwork/video/insert-your-medium-here), weighed it against everything that’s come before it to ensure it fits the brand and quality standards, and then given the go-ahead green light.

Incremental signoffs and mini approvals

In order to reach the final approval – the peak of that pyramid – take a tip from climbers: Try a milestone approach.

For example, let’s say your Chief Marketing Officer has final signoff in the approval process. Before the CMO sees it, make sure that whoever sits immediately below her – let’s say it’s the Director of Marketing – has a chance to sign off too (preferably a few days before the CMO, to allow time for any changes). Before it gets to the director level, make sure your Senior Marketing Manager also weighs in. And so on.

This is sort of like a work-back schedule: You know where you’re going, you just need to set achievable milestones along the way to ensure you get there, on time and with high quality.

Creating an approval process

I personally like that incremental approach so I know that I’m heading in the right direction.

I recognize that this isn’t always possible, however, especially on super-tight turnarounds or in a smaller organization. Sometimes you need to create a piece and lob it over to the executive to see.

You can still take cues from this model by setting mini milestones for yourself. Let’s say it’s just you and your boss – a mighty team of two – working on a project. She has final say and leaves the rest to you. Now, you could wing it and hope for the best. But instead, I’d suggest creating a mini approval process for yourself.

It might look something like this:

  • Brainstorm 10 campaign slogan ideas.
  • Narrow that down to the best three.
  • Write campaign copy for each of those three slogans.
  • Now, review your work and select two.
  • Put those two into layout and choose your art.
  • Step away and come back to an hour or a day later.
  • Which one pops? Which one speaks most to the brand, and is both engaging and unique?
  • Make your choice.
  • Consider that a milestone and move on. 

How many rounds of reviews should you expect – or allow – in the approval process?

Over the years, I’ve worked with business clients of many sizes. You’d think that the big operations – the corporations – would have this dialed, and the smaller guys would be tripping over themselves. I’ve actually seen the opposite. In many cases it’s the smaller businesses that are more buttoned up, careful to reduce churn, and get things out the door. Maybe it’s because they have less time to spend, and therefore every workstream must be efficient.

As you can probably sense by now, endless revisions are a pain point and a pet peeve in the approval process. At the same time, I recognize we are rarely done after just one round. It’s quite possible – and necessary – to flesh out a few ideas and try some things before you get to the good stuff. Sometimes reaching into the can for the second, third, or fourth idea is what reveals the best stuff.

But, in order not to get caught in an endless loop, I like to cap my revision rounds at three or four. It’s lofty, I realize. Sometimes – if time allows – you may give yourself a little extra back and forth with the boss to get things right.

Re-checking your work after four or five times is just time wasted, because something happens: Our brains go muddy. We’ve seen The Thing so many times that we become blind to otherwise obvious errors. We miss stuff. That’s not good, especially as you approach the deadline and executive signoff.

Endless rounds of revision also lend themselves to version-control issues. The more times you revise, and edit, and revise again, the more apt you are to lose version control. That’s a topic for another time, but believe me when I say it’s on my mind. A lot. Especially when I can’t keep the drafts straight and start to feel like a crazy person reconciling five simultaneous files to find “the latest” or discover that errors that we corrected in rev three were reintroduced in rev five or six.

And, productivity simply plummets when you get into double-digit revision rounds.

I had a recent project that went through more than two dozen revisions. I wish I were kidding. Usually I’m pretty good at keeping track in my mind of what we’ve done and still need to do – such as “Yes, we’ve fact-checked,” or “No, we haven’t yet brand-checked.” But by rev 20, I was fried and had lost all memory of what we’d done. I had to resort to double and triple checking the final document to make sure it was sound, and some bad stuff still slipped through. It made me cringe a few weeks later when I saw it.

So, the warning: If you must – and I really mean must – stretch into half a dozen or more revision rounds, be sure you bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes to see the thing before you ship it. They can help catch typos and other little errors that no longer jump out at you. 

Tricks of the trade

So, what now?

The first thing you should do is figure out who (or several whos) need to sign off. If you do nothing else, do that. I know a lot of companies are employing the “flat organization” structure these days, but please give someone the final red pen of approval.

Another step you can take is to follow a documented roadmap. Be that a creative brief or a creative workflow, having some kind of guidance to document the way things should be is helpful.

Letting it go

And then, surrender. Because at some point you really do need to let your work go out into the world. A great campaign slogan kept in a proverbial drawer never sold any product.

When you let it go, this also allows you – and your team – to move on. Instead of striving for perfection, you can harness that energy and use it on your next project. Because there’s never just one project. There’s always something else around the corner.

We can also learn from our mistakes, including what works – and what doesn’t.

And here’s the kicker: In today’s world, we truly do have opportunities to redo our work. Not always, of course – if you print something for a billboard or a brochure, that’s sort of a done deal unless you want to fork over the cost to reprint. But if you work in digital, you ostensibly can audit your channel in a month and decide, “Hey, let’s tighten this up and try it again.” You can revamp a campaign and course-correct any things that have been nagging at you since the initial release. You do have opportunities for fixes. Let that sink in – and let your shoulders relax a bit.

At some point you need to loosen the reins a bit and say, “It’s good enough. Let’s try it.” And see what happens.

As marketing guru Seth Godin says, “You don’t need more time, you just need to decide.

Be the decider – or decide who is the decider – and get going.

Back to you: What’s your system for keeping your projects on track and revising your work wisely? Share your tips here.