Bouncers for the Creative team: Mural’s Erika Kincaid on Creative Ops
Creative Ops Convos is a live talk we host once a month, where an expert in the field of Creative Ops shares their knowledge. As we continue to build out a world-class Creative Ops platform here at Air, we hope to bring you every available resource to improve your creative engine.
This is a transcript of our first Creative Ops Convo, recorded live on November 2, 2023. Sign up for the next edition below:
Erika Kincaid is the Sr. Director of Design Operations at Mural. She’s spent her entire career in operations-focused roles: from project management at the New York Kids Club; through her first dedicated Creative Operations role at iconic brand consultancy firm Interbrand; to her role today at Mural.
Mural is a modern collaboration tool, centered on a digital whiteboarding experience. The organization is over 700 people strong — Erika’s coverage includes a Design team of over 80 people. As the organization’s Design Ops leader, this includes both Creative and Product Design.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define Creative Operations at Mural?
Creative Operations is about the orchestration and optimization of our creative function. We think about efficiencies, processes, and systems that support designers, at scale. That’s our main focus.
How do you describe what you do to your family, or someone outside of the tech and creative industries?
My family is always quite confused when I try to explain what it is I do. Generally I talk about Creative Ops as being 'the arms to the brain'. The design team is the brain — they are the ones innovating, and then it’s our job as operations to be their arms: to help them bring their innovations and ideas to life. We provide them with the set of tools and pathways to do it, making sure their paths are as free of obstacles as possible. It’s about shepherding ideas through to implementation.
How is Creative Operations similar or different to other operations roles, in areas like revenue or marketing?
Creative Operations, at least at Mural, is really about people. Not people operations as in HR (human resources) but rather how people work together, and the unique way in which creativity comes to life. So it's a little bit different than designing processes for finance or even for marketing operations. You’re really defining a human-centered approach around how people should work, both independently and together, and building systems and processes to support that.
“I see our Creative Ops teams as the bouncers at the door of this really fun nightclub. The creatives are in the club and everyone wants to come hang out, but you can only come hang out with us if you have a really strong brief and we really understand what we need to do for you.”
What are some of the problems you’re trying to solve with Creative Ops?
The main issue I'm always trying to solve for is resourcing — despite my best efforts, I never quite know exactly what everyone is doing. It’s a big team. There are myriad tools, systems, and spreadsheets — so many different ways that I'm measuring it — but I just can never quite get a full understanding of all the work that's happening. I'm always trying to solve for that: how can I know where everyone is and exactly what they're doing, so that I can advise others in the organization, or folks with creative requests, on what we can and can't do?
The second problem would be the speed of delivery. It’s a nebulous thing, to break down a creative process into a tight timeline, and it's sort of unfair, in my opinion, to say ‘okay, designer, you have four working hours to come up with the thing that we need’. The speed of delivery is always a piece of stakeholder management — managing expectations around delivery of each stage of a project, from concepts through to final assets.
How do you know when you’ve been effective, as a Creative Ops leader?
When collaboration across the team is working well, or when the designers feel really confident in the work that they're putting out. Especially when we get feedback from our creatives that they’ve really been able to flex their creative muscle — that they’re proud of what they’ve produced.
Our designers are always trying to push against what we've already done, to go a little further. So when they're really excited about the finished product then I know that our operations work succeeded; they're not having to think about how the work gets done, they're just doing the work.
What are the KPIs of Creative Ops? How do you track them?
Recently, our main focus is the speed of delivery, broken down into stages. How quickly are we gathering the information that's needed for the designer to get started? What is that briefing process like? How fast are the revisions happening? Are stakeholders actually engaging? You spend a lot of time chasing people down.
We're trying to really understand and measure, for example, how many times do we have to follow up to get feedback? Why is it X amount of times? What can we do to better connect people to the work that's happening, or influence their participation in some way?
We’re also focusing on the back end, which is how much work are we doing and who's doing it? In other words, capacity planning and understanding of resource management.
I would say we know when we’re hitting these KPIs correctly when everyone is busy enough, but not too busy. Like when we’re right on the line — when there's still enough time for people to do the projects that they want to do to, that satisfy their creative goals. When they’re busy but inspired; hitting their deadlines but having fun. To me, that's the point.
What are some of the biggest challenges that Design and Creative Ops teams face on a daily basis?
It’s all about communication. The daily challenge is just answering basic questions— especially in a remote environment — who's where, who needs help, where are we stuck? How do I make sure I have an understanding of where everything is in the process? It’s about getting in touch with our designers, understanding where assets are, and what tickets are (or are not) being updated when.
In a remote environment, it’s the day-to-day challenge of not having a physical office where you can walk around and see what everyone’s working on; the communication has to be really ramped up.
How can I begin to bring Creative Ops into my business if I don’t have the resources to have a full Creative Operations team?
Go on a listening tour with your designers and establish service level agreements (SLAs) that help you decide how long things take to do. Once you have SLAs in place, that starts to establish the framework for how people across your organization can expect to work with your creative team.
You start to be able to give concrete answers, to be able to say to someone who needs a banner ad, for example, that it’s going to take at least 48 hours. Or someone needs a web experience stood up — alright, that's going to take four weeks.
You start to set some rigor around your requesting processes. Then the granular expectations can be defined. So we're saying this takes four weeks, how many revision rounds can we do? Who all needs to be working on this? Is this a ‘large t-shirt’ or a ‘small t-shirt’ effort? Where does it fit in our workload?
The first step towards strengthening Creative Ops at your business of just documenting what's happening now. From there, once you know what's actually happening, you can identify what can be approved, then get to work.