Ep 168: Creative Systems and Why They Matter
Welcome to the 168th episode of the Joshua Gagnon Leadership Podcast!
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You can read the full transcription below:
Daniel King: Welcome to the Joshua Gagnon Leadership Podcast. My name is Daniel King and I get the privilege of hosting this week’s episode and today I’m sitting down with a special guest, Mr. Alex Goff. Is your name Alexander?
Alex Goff: Just Alex.
D: Just Alex?
D: Alright. Just Alex. I was about to say Alexander but I would have been making it up. Mr. Alex Goff, he is our Creative Director here at Next Level Church. He oversees all of our creative teams, including production, video, graphics, series, the weekend experience, worship, and the list could probably go on. Also a great guy, potentially the world’s largest Clemson fan that has ever existed.
A: Go Tigers.
D: Drinking a very large Monster right now because he got in on a late flight last night, so Alex thanks so much for being on the podcast today.
A: It is my honor to be here.
D: Cool. Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about, I want to use the word “creative process”, but that makes it sound too general, but what it looks like for your team and our team here at Next Level to take an idea and turn it into reality and I think the best place to start maybe a little bit is, because, as our listeners know, we have multiple locations and that means ideas and requests and things are coming from all different directions, so talk just a little about the model of the way that you view our creative team and its relationship to the organization as a whole.
Yeah, sure, so we look at this as an agency model, meaning that we’re here to serve the church with anything creative, whether it be coming up with an idea or executing an idea and so through a system of request forms and things like that, we exist to bring someone’s vision to life and so whatever that might be, we have a model in place and system in place that allows us to be able to do that, to do that well. We, in essence, are a separate ministry that serves every department within the church itself.
D: Okay, yeah, so if I’m listening right now, I’m thinking, ‘How on earth do you keep track of all that? How do you prioritize between the different requests coming in?’ Can you talk a little about that?
A: Yeah, definitely. So we use a series of Wufoo forms for requesting that are laid out with our processes of, what is our turnaround time, when can you expect to have a draft in hand, when can you expect a completed process. Of course all of this based on them providing us with the information that we need and us not having to chase that down. We try to be as detailed as we can with our forms and asking what’s the vision behind this, what’s the overall feel, what keypoints do you want to have in this. And then we also make ourselves available to do a quick creative meeting with somebody to be able to brainstorm ideas, you know we have several department leaders that probably would not consider themselves very creative and so they have an overall vision of what they want to communicate and so we help them sit down and come up with a creative, sometimes funny, sometimes we’re serious, but a creative way of bringing that to life. And as far as our project management goes we use an app called Monday, a program called Monday and Monday is just a basic project management, just like Basecamp or Asana, but we really like Monday a lot. It’s been great for us because it’s extremely integrative and so with our Wufoo forms and even with our Slack channels that we use for communication within the church, Monday integrates really really well with those programs, and so when we get our Wufoo forms submitted, it automatically creates a new project within Monday and then we’re able to go in and assign not only just due dates and keep a great timeline in place, but it’s really customizable in allowing us to create different buttons that can tell me as a creative director where everything is in the process so whether it be still in development or in storyboarding or in editing, I know exactly where that project is and it’s able to keep track of where they are and making sure they’re staying on target for deadlines and things like that.
D: Cool, that’s awesome. Can you like screenshot that or something and we can put it in the show notes for people or something like that? Cause I have no idea what you’re talking about, although it’s making sense as you’re explaining it but now I want to see it cause I love systems and that sounds really cool. We could probably put a link to some of the Wufoo forms in there so people could see examples but I think that’s one of the things that I appreciate that I think you’ve really brought to the table in the last year or two that you’ve been here at Next Level, is just the structure and the detail and the system that goes along with it because the reality is if we were a creative agency, we’d be a real big one. Like, you’re getting a lot of requests and all over the map, like you said, from people who are very creative to people who are very not creative, from people who are very detail oriented to people who are not detail oriented, right? And having to navigate all those waters and at the same time understanding, okay, we can’t invest too much time in a project that’s only going to impact one location, or that’s only going to be seen by a certain percentage of our church and we need to invest the heaviest amount of our time and energy and resources into the things that are going to affect the most people, right? Just try to prioritize.
A: Absolutely, yeah we talk about this a lot. We like to use the phrase, “influence versus output,” and I think I’ve talked about this in the past on another podcast before, but in essence, just taking a look at what’s the output going to be for this project, how much effort, how much resources is it going to take? And what’s our influence for this? A quick, brief, story, we spend a lot of time, a lot of resources on this massive project a year ago and it ended up being a portion of our experience that not a lot of people are in the room for, and at the end of the day we looked at it and we said…
D: What you’re trying to say is everyone comes to church late, that’s what you’re getting at.
A: I was trying to be nice about it, but yet, everyone comes to church late and so this was a big countdown element that we did and we put so much time, so much money and energy into the project itself and going back on that we learned very quickly that that was a bad use of our time and our resources just because it wasn’t a large influence .and so we do the same thing, we look at creative projects with individuals, you know different departments and we look at what is it they’re trying to say? How important is this event? Is this something that’s centrally for all of our locations or is this for something that’s just for one location? And everything goes into a factor. Something that we always try to do and someone taught me this a long time ago, as we try to say everything stay on mission, and mission, there’s an acronym for that, it says, make ideas stay synced inside one narrative, and so when we sit down and we look at the mission, we want to make sure that everything is on mission, but we also use that to be able to do some omission as well. You know what I’m saying, this is not as important as this project and we really need to put our resources into this and so let’s maybe pick a different time or a later date that we can work on this. That’s the hard part though. The hard part is looking at someone and saying, “Hey, your project is not as important as this project over here is.”
D: Yeah, cause of course it’s important to them, right?
A: Yes, of course. Everybody’s project is the most important.
D: Yeah. I think a great example, one of the things you guys came up with which I think is brilliant is, one of the challenges we face to being multisite is, let’s say we just had Team Night recently, and the reality is Team Night, which is essentially a volunteer appreciation event for our listeners, one of the realities for that event is that every location is going to have different information. They need to communicate this is happening at a bowling alley, at somebody’s house, at our building, at this time at this date, right? Everybody’s information is going to be different. But it’s unsustainable to think that every time we do an event, you’re going to create a different graphic with different information and collect that information from every location and be able to communicate it right? And so one of the ideas that you guys had that I think is just wonderful and just so smart when it comes to efficiency is our graphics team will create a Photoshop file or an Illustrator file as a template that says, this is the design, but instead of writing Friday at 10:00, it says, “date goes here”, and then we have a Creative Cloud, Adobe Creative Cloud subscription that all of our location pastors have login to, and they can just grab that file, open up the file and change the date to their correct information and then export the file and put it in their own ProPresenter, and so everyone is able to adjust, yet the excellence level stays the same because the template’s already built. And we do that over and over, with men’s events, with women’s events, I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, I believe there’s even generic templates where it’s like, your announcement title goes here and they’re even able to do something that’s specific to their location, right?
A: Yeah, so bragging on my Graphics Director for a minute, Liz has done a great job of putting this amazing thing in place for this and, my phone’s going off for some reason that’s weird, right? Apparently I answered a call.
D: You said, “Hey Siri” in the middle of the thing, and now I just turned on my Siri.
A: So she, with these templates, we were finding that every, cause every event wants a graphic, right? And so we just live in this world where if you’re doing an event, you want a graphic for it. And while it’s really fun to be super creative and brand everything specifically, it’s not scalable, by any means. And so what we did was we created a color-code guide where every ministry area, so whether it be kids or students or groups or every specific area has its own colors, so red, green, yellow, and so to make things really simple, we went to a vector-based template series, so basically we created a template that has the color background, so if it’s an image, we just put a gradient map over it that gives it specific color hues so you know what department or ministry that’s for, and then we use a vector right on the very top and then there’s a title and then there’s date, information, and by doing that, we’ve allowed for our location pastors or anybody really can just log in and type in their information and it makes it so that it doesn’t overcrowd the document, they have to keep their communication brief and to the point, and of course we proof these and make sure that they’re okay, but it just makes it easier where we’re not having to create a big graphic for every event, it looks nice, we’ve created very nice templates for it, but it’s more focused and easier to scale because of the fact that this is all pretty much the same, vector art, color code, title, date, things like that.
D: Yeah, that was one of the best ideas, I loved that when I first saw that or heard about it, I think it’s really clever. So let’s just shift gears a tiny bit here. So we talked a lot about the general system, the general process, these one-off requests, but maybe we can talk a little bit about your guys’ process when it comes to something bigger. So say we’re getting ready to start a new group semester, or we’re planning a big push towards getting more volunteers, or something like that. You get a bigger project that’s not just going to be a quick graphic or maybe a one talking head video, but you’re going to need three or four weeks of communication all surrounding the same topic with handouts and slides and videos and all of these things. What’s the process your team undertakes in that type of situation, where it is more of a comprehensive initiative?
A: Yeah, definitely first and foremost, we try to involve immediately whoever oversees that department. So if it’s a groups push, we’re going to find our groups director and we’re going to bring him in and we’re going to have a sit down meeting where we allow him to just communicate vision to us. What are we pushing? What do you want to put in front of people as far as the vision that we cast for this, you know, what are the dates? What’s the feel of this? Is there a curriculum with this? Do you have any thoughts around how you would like to promote this? Do you want this to be funny and more light-hearted? Do you want to take a serious kind of life-change approach? A lot of different directions we can go with this. And so we try to first involved the director of that area of ministry so that they can cast the vision to us and we can bring that to life. And then we also try to involve our communications department in this as well, because communications allows us to be able to stay focused on what are the different areas of communication? So social media, web, handouts, banners, flags, all of those things, depending on how big the event is, and she helps us to stay focused on what are all the details that we need to think through with this. And so the first step is to create a brand, and so we sit down, we come up with an idea, we figure out what curriculum we’re going to be doing, we try to design a graphic around that and then we start from that point. So everything stays within that, so colors that we use and all of that stuff stays within the brand of that event, so that everything looks uniform. There’s nothing worse than having an event where graphics and videos are all over the place and nothing’s uniform, you don’t really know what you’re looking at, so we try to start with artistically, what is this going to look like first? And then we hand it over to our communications department to help us write great scripts and things like that for communication. And then we basically say, here is a deadline of when the projects are due, this is what it looks like through a process, so two weeks out we’re going to put this out, a week out we’re going to put this out, and that covers everything from our internal promotion, social media, things that we have inside of our experiences and so we put a plan in place for what that calendar of promotion will look like leading up to the event, and then from that point we just start putting things together. At the same time involving the ministry department leader as much as possible. Everything that we do, we put their eyes on because we want to make sure and ask since it does capture the vision, we’re not running rogue, we’re not trying to just take an idea and make it what we think is great, we want to make sure that it, in fact, captures the vision that they wanted to do, so every step of the way, they’re involved in that process.
D: Yeah, I think there’s a couple common struggles when it comes to creative people. One is that tendency to be ready, fire, aim, and to really be like, “I’ve got this great idea!” and just go run with it without stopping to think, okay, what’s the end goal that we need to get to here? And like you said, what platforms does this need to be communicated on? And those kind of things. I think that’s a common struggle that you spoke to there and another one is just that desire for art over effectiveness, right? And a lot of people who are creative, cause they love the art, they love the beauty or the cleverness or the poetry or the whatever, that goes into it, right? And so all those things are great, it’s what makes them great at their job, but at the same time, the most beautifully shot video in the entire world that doesn’t communicate the point it was originally intended to communicate is not effective. And so I think that’s a really important principle there you spoke to of just involving the person in charge of it, involving the communications team, because we’ve talked a lot of times about, oh, let’s end that video a little differently so that we can also use it on Facebook as well as the weekend and just tweaking that. Okay, does this need a link at the end, because this might also get used on social media. Or this might go out in an email blast, we need to have a different version with a different ending for that context than we do on a weekend, right? And just those little details I think are so important, but when you know that up front, you can shape the video around that. Or the graphic or the handout.
A: Yeah, there’s nothing worse than missing information when you’re the week of and you forgot that you were supposed to promote this on a different platform and this ending doesn’t work and all of a sudden you’re scrambling to try to create a different ending. Knowing that ahead of time allows us to go ahead and just we create as many different versions as we need to so that it fits whatever platform it is that we’re using for communications.
D: Yeah, so as someone listening to this podcast, I’m thinking right now, “Wow! It must be awesome to have this team of 40 people who are doing all of this and for your pastor to be getting you information 17 months in advance!” That’s what it sounds like when you described this as a structure. So can you talk a little bit, that’s not our reality. So can you talk a little bit about maybe what’s the typical timeline, how many people are on your team pulling this off, those kind of things.
A: Yeah, for sure. I mean, there’s nothing more daunting than looking at the size of your church and the size of your team and thinking, man, we don’t have enough people. And I think that that’s a tension that you’re always going to have to manage, no matter what. And I think that if you get into this mentality of, it’s not about getting more people, it’s about getting healthier systems that allow you to be more efficient, you know. So scalability, all of those things you have to have systems that allow us to do that so here we are a church of 9, 10 locations and we’ve got a lot of different ministry area that we’re serving. I would say we average anywhere from three to four graphic requests a day, at least a video request or two a week. They’re coming in and of course that’s not even considering weekend experiences and everything else, so we’re making this happen with a team of 6 people, so myself, we have a Graphic Designer, she oversees the whole graphics department, she’s a one-man wrecking crew, she is just amazing at what she does. We have one Video Director, who’s running the entire video department and creating these incredible videos, high standard of excellence every single week. We have one Production Director who is very involved in our creative process, cause everything we do, even videos have to go through his lap because he’s doing the audio adjustments for it. We have a Worship Director and we have a Creative Assistant who kind of has her hands in a lot of different pots, mainly production, but does an amazing job and we’re making it work. I look at churches that are even smaller than us and they have far more people than we do, and I think it’s because we’ve put so much focus on our systems and not on how many people we have and also training two of allowing us to be able to involve other people in the process and bring in volunteers and bring in people that are passionate about it. Yeah, I mean that’s a huge thing. A lot of churches don’t understand what they right underneath their nose, they haven’t even thought about yet, and that’s desire. That’s somebody that has a passion for something and you can take somebody that has a passion for it and put them beside someone that knows what they’re doing, they’re going to eat that alive, they’re going to grow, they’re going to go fast, and I think that if you can put systems in place to allow you to be able to use volunteers and people that you can bring in to teach and just start them with something easy. Start them with a simple project. For us, even with the graphics department, with us using these simple templates, where people are just having to go in and maybe change out an icon or put in a new text, that’s a great way to get somebody into Photoshop and teach them how to manipulate layers and how to do things like that. So we rely heavily on that. We’ve got an amazing couple that are very gifted and talented with writing and they’re professional actors and they’re just brilliant creative minds and while they’re not necessarily on staff, they are a huge part of our creative team and you wouldn’t believe how much of our content comes from their brains, and they just love to serve, and it’s because they believe in the vision of the church and we’ve put systems in place that allow us to be able to do that. So, sure, we could use more people and I think everybody could say that, but we make due with what we have and we create systems that allow us to work within our reality.
D: Yeah, I think you totally nailed that there, Alex. I was going to bring up the thing of using outside people as well, and I think that the reality is the only way that’s possible is through the organization, the systems and the structures that you’ve put in place and that your teams come up with so that there’s an efficiency there and then I think the other thing too that I would just speak to a little bit is as an organization as a whole, we all have to be on board with the vision, which allows us to then be willing to prioritize, right? And so that lets you be able to say, “Hey guys, we need to pick between this and this cause we don’t have time to do both great.” And organizationally, we have teams and directors of other departments who understand, okay, we’re going to find another solution to this problem because as an organization, as where we’re heading as the whole church, this thing is more important in this season and we’re going to put more of our energy there. And because we have such amazing leaders who are on board with the vision and on board with going in the same direction with us, we’re able to have those conversations and it’s nothing personal and it’s nothing against your ministry, we just have zero sense of competition with those type of things and, at least I’ve never been in any conversations where people are like, aw that’s not fair, my thing’s important, you know and I hear so many stories of churches where that stuff happens like, why couldn’t my thing get announced? And we’ve always been like, hey, we’re going to shift things around and we’re going to do the best we can, but we’re going to fit that in in a couple week.s And everyone’s on board but I think that speaks to the culture of what we’ve created here but it also speaks to the organization and the efficiency that you guys have built in where everybody knows creative team’s crushing it. And we’re not asking people to work 100 hours a week on your team, like we’re not crushing it because of that. We have people who are talented and then we’re very organized around them, we’re willing to prioritize and choose what’s most important for the vision and kind of back where we started is going to have the most impact and effectiveness on the most people.
A: Yeah, I think there’s two parts to that. I think that A, your organization has to believe in the mission and respect the processes that are in place, but I think it’s also equally important for the creative team to put those systems in place and communicate them effectively. Because I don’t think there’s any doubt that everybody on staff knows how do I get a graphic in my hand, if I need a graphic, how do I get that done. You have to be able to communicate that vision and what those processes are and you have to hold them accountable to it. And one thing I think that’s super important too, is a protection for your creative team. As a creative director, I always tell everyone, please don’t go directly to one of our creative staff, involve me in the conversation so that I, as a creative director, can help kind of be that firewall and say, hey I don’t think we’re going to be able to do this within this timeframe, it doesn’t put our creative team in an awkward position. Because there’s nothing worse than having someone try to get work done and they’re having 6, 7 people coming in from all areas wanting this and that and this and that, and if you allow that to happen, it will always fester, it will always be the reality, because everyone thinks that their project is most important.
D: Yeah, and if they go outside the system once and it works, they’re going to go outside the system again next time.
A: Yeah, so having someone in place that can protect that and communicate effectively what those systems are, protect those systems, protect the staff as well and make sure everyone understands the vision so that they can all get on board with it.
D: Cool, this is great stuff, Alex. I think for the sake of time, I think that’s a good spot to pull the plug, but where can people reach out to you? I’m sure there’s going to be creative people who hear this and they have questions and they want to see things. We’ll put as much in the show notes, but where can people get in touch with you?
A: Sure. You can email me directly, firstname.lastname@example.org. Would love to talk to you, this is a huge passion for me is just talking with churches and getting to know people and communicating what we do and living with open hands, because I was in that position one time where I didn’t have answers and so glad that I was able to reach out to people with answers and get resourced and just know that, man, we’re here to complete not compete. And so, dropping a little culture there.
D: That’s good. Cool, thanks again, Alex. Appreciate you listening. Listeners, thank you again for being with us, as always appreciate you taking the time to leave a rating or review, especially on an episode like this where we know a lot of our listeners, or lead pastors, or executive pastors, if you’ve got people on your creative team who would benefit from this episode, feel free to pass this along to them or share it on social media for others to find out. Appreciate you guys doing that, love the growth we’re seeing on the podcast as a result of so many of you doing that. As always, reach out to Alex, reach out to me, anything we can do to serve you, we are here to do so, and we’ll see you again next week on another new episode of the Joshua Gagnon Leadership Podcast. Thanks for listening.