How To Save A Troubled Creative Project

Nobody sets out to make The Phantom Menace. But they make it anyway. Talented people working hard fail.

[box]Welcome back to process week, part III. Two more to go. The first two are here & here. They are preventative. This one is curative![/box]

It will happen. Despite all preventative measures you will encounter a project that goes wrong. Sometimes it’s a matter of things being “just a little off.” Other times things are wildly wrong – a key misunderstanding.

Let’s assume we set everything up for success. That the business arrangements worked out.

And someone raises their hand and says “we’re in trouble here.” What should we do?

First: Ignore Sunk Cost: Should This Project Continue?

Sometimes a good agency (with a good client) will make a mistake and should find an honorable exit. Despite the time and hours working together we have to ask: what does finishing this project bring both parties?

Does the project still matter? Are the goals viable? Is the reason that it’s been hard because it’s an unimportant project?

Second: Defend Against Late Joiners

In our business, we’ll lock in a brief, script, tone and design elements, and sometimes, the “big boss” will show up wanting to change things. Wanting to reverse decisions.

This always feels bad, till you realize that it doesn’t have to be bad.

When we get late joiners we ask:

  1. Did the brief change?
  2. Did we change?

We have to identify that – “This is a departure from our existing goals, so what do we do about it?”

First, if you have been impeccable in all things, you needn’t panic. The client may change what they want, and cover the costs. Or they may stick with the brief. Either way, it’s just business.

OK, now let’s assume that we’ve decided to move forward on the project.

What attitude should we have? Simple:

No Judgements, No Punishments, No Lectures

It’s OK for projects to morph. It’s perfectly fine for clients and providers to change their minds about work.

People change their minds all the time.

It’s not the time to punish them, lecture them, or judge them for being indecisive.

Sometimes when you go to a hotel, you need to change rooms because, on reflection, being closer to the conference floor is more important than having a panoramic view. That’s not a mistake, that’s a choice borne of knowledge. So you ask to move. The hotel should honor your request. Occasionally, there’s a fee for changing rooms (let’s say that the centrally located room is a more expensive room). That’s fine, and choosing to pay that fee is fine.

What’s not fine is snarky remarks about changing your mind. Your goals may have improved upon further knowledge.

So consider this as we move into the next steps:

Have an Alignment Meeting (or two)

The next part of the process is to have an alignment meeting.

No matter who calls time out and raises their hands, you have to have a meeting.

The purpose is to see what gets us to the finish line. Who cares who is at fault here. Everyone wants the project to be successful. There are no secret saboteurs. It’s hard to do these and let issues roll off your back, but it’s the best way to salvage the project.

Stuff isn’t working. That in itself is unfortunate. So we are saying “we’d like to have a meeting to increase the chances of a good outcome here, and get this project to a place where we’re confident in everything.” That acknowledges the troubles, but it puts the blame on nobody.

We don’t put our clients on the defensive, and we don’t let routine processes cause us to apologize (clients hate it when their vendors are weak).

So the goal of this meeting:

  1. Learn what’s not working as specifically as possible.
  2. Figure out what we can do to make things right.
  3. Compare what’s necessary to the original plan.
  4. Plant the seeds for a change order.

All four steps are important. We recently had a client who changed all their branding right before a project was supposed to go live. We had to be prepared to make the reversal of existing decisions a change order.

Agree to a Revised Plan

Now you’re cooking with gas. You’ve figured out what you need to make this hit the finish line.

There are three elements to a revised plan:

  1. New Timeline
  2. New Deliverables
  3. New Business Arrangements

Not everything has to “change,” but they should be addressed. This should agreed by the client:

  • Hi, Client, We have agreed to use the new logo and color scheme throughout. Our original deadline was  the 15th, and now it’s going to be done on the 16th. Provided there are no further changes that are caused by this, there won’t be extra fees.


All three elements have to be in play when we are making a project cover.

Use Precise Language To Describe The New Plan & Sign Off

The responsibility – under every circumstance – for having an understandable spec is on the provider. Not the client. Period. You can always tell a bad designer because they mock clients for not having a nuanced and precise design vocabulary. Or they rush into business with someone too soon.

The new plan has to use design language. That’s clearly explained and understood. That’s agreed. That’s different than whatever didn’t work well.

Then sign off on it.

Finally: What Not To Do

Remember that this is business.

A client not liking something isn’t a personal attack on your company and its values. As long as everyone is well intended, plays fair, and doesn’t get emotional about it.

You don’t have to grovel or feel bad because you deliver a lot of work to a lot of clients. You are impeccable and didn’t have any issues so far. It’s part of a routine process, no more unusual than having to search for parking in Manhattan.

You are presenting an idea that doesn’t work. I know a ton of people that think Stanley Kubrick is a great director. I think his movies are tedious and boring. Doesn’t mean that Kubrick isn’t a great director with a great audience. The other clients that have paid and referred you are what validates your work.

So don’t get emotional.

This job may fail, and you could still be a legendary creative team. One job doesn’t make or break you.

After all, George Lucas produced Star Wars and Howard The Duck within 10 years of one another. We remember Star Wars, and are reminded of Howard The Duck.

What about you guys? Do you have an idea to recover troubled projects?  If so email me at and let me know what we should add to this post.