Creative Scheduling

Do you find that your catalog production team rarely meets deadlines? Is their work incomplete much of the time? Are you convinced that there’s no way you can get people to abide by a schedule, much less tighten their timelines?

I am here to tell you that yes, you can. You can create a schedule…one that works. One that people follow. One that holds people accountable.

Catalogers who create and stick to schedules as a course of business are infinitely more capable of excelling. That’s because a good schedule

  • is proactive in nature

    Building back from a scheduled mail date, it seeks to identify and accommodate all the important things that need to be done during the course of development.

  • provides accountability

    A good schedule not only lays out a plan but also identifies who’s responsible for what and when.

  • fosters the exchange of information

    An effective schedule clarifies required information ahead of time, so that people will come to meetings prepared with relevant and actionable information, questions, or challenges.

  • creates additional time

    Improved schedules cut down on the need to “fix things,” and we all know that having to fix errors due to late, incomplete, or just plain wrong information is one of the biggest time wasters there is.

  • results in better creative

    When given sufficient, usable information, adequate time, and meaningful direction, a talented creative team will give you a better product.

Here’s the catch: You will probably need senior-level support and directives if effective scheduling isn’t happening on its own. (So when you’re done reading this article, bring it to the boss!)

A frequently asked question is “How long does it take to create a catalog?” No one who knows his stuff about schedules will answer this question directly. If you ask catalog consultants or production pros this question, they’ll ask if what you really want to know is “how long should it take?” or “how long can it take?” In fact, many consultants will just ask right back, “How long do you need it to take?”

An effective catalog schedule depends on a number of factors:

  • the number of pages in the book
  • the number of pages that are new vs. redesigned or simply modified
  • the number of new products
  • how much and what kind of photography is needed
  • how many and which people are working on the book
  • who needs to be involved in approvals and at what stages.

There is a rule of thumb that a 48- to 64-page catalog will take approximately two months to complete, from the turning over of information to release to printer. That said, I’ve seen it take two weeks (albeit with horrible mistakes and awful creative), and I’ve seen it take nine months (when changes in direction and bureaucracy were accommodated).

The three key meetings

I’ve gone into countless companies where people say they don’t have time for “another meeting.” But too many people conduct a lot of unnecessary and unproductive meetings. The real trick is educating them about how to initiate and conduct efficient and effective meetings. Ultimately it’s critical to a successful schedule to plan meetings that allow enough time and specific activities to get the catalog to the next step.

The formula for success includes three key meetings: the turnover meeting, the layout meeting, and the mechanical and film review. Conducting them correctly may eliminate hundreds of hours of asking questions, playing phone tag, and making corrections and changes.

It’s best if the participants in these three key meetings are consistent. I like to see at least one merchant providing the entire overview and merchandise strategy. In some cases different buyers will also attend, either in part or in full. A representative from marketing should be at all meetings, as well as the art director working on the job. If the job is to be handed over to another, more junior person, that individual should also attend. The catalog coordinator (or if you’re using an agency, the account executive), who is part traffic person, part trouble-shooter, and part problem-solver during the course of the project, should attend all the meetings as well.

The writer normally needs to attend only the turnover meeting, so that he can see and hear about the product. After the writer submits his work, any changes and corrections can usually be made on paper and trafficked through the system.

Some meetings and jobs are more important than others, so other, more senior people may attend. A point to be made, however, is not to wait until the final meeting to include anyone who has a considerable say in the look or feel of the book.

A sample schedule: countdown to success

The catalog process is circular. Catalogs yield results, results encourage planning, planning stimulates activities, activities create catalogs, and so on. We have to start somewhere, so we will begin our sample schedule with the turnover of information meeting. Not that this is the true beginning of the process, of course. Results analysis, merchandise planning and selection, and pagination already took place.

Turnover meeting Day 1

In a nutshell: Merchandising turns over complete product information to creative.

The tasks at hand:

  • Identify all products by spread
  • Provide completed fact (profile) sheets for each item
  • Discuss each product
  • Clarify uniqueness and position of each product in relation to the company
  • Show all new products
  • Determine product features and subfeatures
  • Identifywhen vendor photography is available and desired
  • Identify exclusives, limited quantities, etc.
  • Identify best-sellers and/or trial products
  • Identify opportunities for Web editorial
  • Discuss photography direction and important shots
  • Provide “swipes” — artwork pulled from other sources for use as examples — to indicate desired photography direction
  • Discuss front-cover strategy and identify front-cover product candidates
  • Identify back-cover products
  • Have additional information for pick-up product (for copy-editing)
  • Identify all catalog versions
  • Identify offers and tests

Note: Ideally the marketing rep kicks off this meeting by sharing information such as performance of past catalogs, competitor activities, and customer information.

Layout meeting Day 14

In a nutshell: Creative presents to merchandising and marketing.

The tasks at hand:

  • Preview and confirm all space allocation, key items, features, subfeatures, type placement, etc.
  • Clarify space allocation for Web drivers, editorial content, etc.
  • Discuss photography plan (still life vs. on-figure, locations, surfaces, models)
  • Present swipes that represent intended/recommended photography style, backgrounds, surfaces, etc.
  • If models are being used, present model head sheets or “go see” shots
  • Have all new products available for shoot
  • Approve covers and required photography
  • Confirm final pagination (as it affects pacing and photography plans)
  • Identify requested vendor-supplied art
  • See items not shown at turnover meeting
  • Prepare products by spread for photographer

Copy due Day 14

In a nutshell: First round of copy presented on layouts or in galley.

Photography Days 15-30

In a nutshell: This includes preparation, travel, and scouting. The number of days allotted depends on the scope of the project, how many shots can be taken each day, etc.

Copy corrections and comments due Day 30

In a nutshell: You want this first pass to be as complete as possible; coordinate all comments onto one master file.

Mechanical and film review Day 45

In a nutshell: Creative presents all layouts with photography in place.

The tasks at hand:

  • Ensure that photography is sized correctly in the space provided
  • Confirm that product photography is attractive and salable
  • Make sure that editorial stories/photos are well placed
  • Check all type for readability
  • Read bullets, call-outs, and other display copy for readability and salesmanship
  • Check that the icons for “new,” “exclusive,” and other features are properly placed
  • Confirm that merchandise is keyed correctly with copy blocks
  • Ensure that all products used as props are cross-referenced for sale
  • Double-check page numbers and footers

Final copy due Day 50

Final confirming type proofs distributed Day 57

Final quality control of all pages Days 58-59

Release of final art and type to printer Day 60

Glenda Shasho Jones heads Shasho Jones Direct, a New York-based consulting group.

Optional meetings: not required but helpful

While they may not be required for every catalog, it’s important to build in opportunities where the focus is on review and problem-solving. Two additional meetings that should be considered (on a per-catalog, quarterly, or at least twice-yearly basis) are the planning and strategy meeting and the post mortem meeting.

Planning and strategy meeting

The tasks at hand:

  • Clarify positioning and review brand elements
  • Review performance of in-the-mail catalog
  • Review industry trends
  • Review what the competition is doing
  • Review offer opportunities
  • Discuss creative preferences, updating, evolution, etc.

Post mortem meeting

The tasks at hand:

  • Review the catalog’s performance, if results are available
  • Review what went wrong, what went right
  • Identify actions to improve process and creative product

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