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Navigating Creative Collaborations: A Guide to Setting Terms for Success

Creative collaborations hold immense potential for innovation and success. Whether you're teaming up for a design project, a product launch, or an otherwise innovative meeting of the minds, laying the groundwork with well-defined terms is essential. In this article, we'll delve into the key aspects of setting terms for a creative collaboration, ensuring a harmonious and prosperous partnership from start to finish.

I was well into running my business before embarking on my first "true" brand collaboration. It was with my friend Roachele Negron, owner of Rayo & Honey. We met in 2011 while working at Dekalb Market in downtown Brooklyn, before it was home to luxury condos and a bustling subterranean food court, with a Trader Joe's to boot. Our businesses were new and so were our children. (They were always with us, which is in part what drew us to each other.) We later co-designed a pennant that was both of our first design collaboration. That was in 2017. Roachele's line of minimalist canvas pennants with literary and culturally-relevant expressions had taken off, and she the idea of using the white letters against a black background for the very first time—a color scheme that is characteristic of the mudcloth textiles that I work with. The expression we used was one that I came up with during a bout of 2016 post-election grief while channeling my frustrations in to my art: "Create and Resist". And thus, a collaboration was born.

1. Roachele and I developed this vision together, and that's the first step in developing a successful collaboration: Develop the Vision Together. Every successful collaboration begins with a shared vision. It's crucial that all parties involved work together to define their creative objectives and goals. This initial step not only aligns everyone but also fosters a sense of ownership and commitment to the project. Ask yourselves:

  • What is the core idea or concept behind our collaboration?
  • What are our overarching goals, both creatively and commercially?
  • How do we want our work to impact our audience or customers?

Beyond the type and nature of the product (or service), determining the number of products is a fundamental yet easy-to-overlook component during the initial excitement. Decide upfront how many products or pieces you intend to create together, and how many of each will be made. This number can always be increased, but then that decision will be made together. This ensures that all parties have a clear understanding of the project's scope and the workload involved. Whether it's a limited-edition collection, a series of artworks, or a range of merchandise, setting a specific number provides a tangible target to work towards.

2. Once your product quantities and stock are decided, you'll want to discuss product promotion. That includes Language, Channels, and Approach.

Effective product promotion is critical for the success of your collaboration. This can range from casual social media posts, to a robust digital marketing campaign. Either way, you want to spell out what the strategy is, where it takes place, who is in charge of what, and for how long. In any of these instances, you'll consider these three things:

  • Promotional Personality: Agree on the tone and style of your promotional content. Ensure that it aligns with your shared vision and brand identity, or perhaps you both want to honor and amplify your respective existing brand voice. That is okay, too. Roachele and I already possessed similar world views and brand identities, so our brand language was easily melded. (See our product description below.)

  • Channels or Platforms: Decide where you will promote your products. Whether it's social media, email marketing, physical events, or other platforms, be clear about your chosen channels. Roachele and I marketed primarily on our respective social media channels and newsletters. (I think I still even used Facebook then.) Instagram didn't have the "partnership" feature at that time, so we tagged each other and created a hashtag (below).

  • Promotion Language: Determine the language and messaging you'll use in your promotions. This includes taglines, slogans, and any unique selling propositions (USPs) specific to your collaboration. In my case, Roachele and I used the #createandresist hashtag on social media, and to this day it's a beautiful repository of not only our promo, but of our customers sharing the pennants as well.


3. Profit Split: Fair and Transparent

One of the most critical aspects of any creative collaboration is the profit-sharing arrangement. Here, you and your potential collaborator will discuss and decide how the profits will be divided. While there's no one-size-fits-all formula, the factors to consider are; who is managing the shipping and logistics (if not both); where the work is being sold (pop-up shops have additional costs and time implications versus e-commerce sales); and weighing intellectual property (an original idea) versus real property (something tangible). Some common splits include:

  • Equal Split (50/50): A straightforward division of profits down the middle, which is often chosen when collaborators have equal contributions and responsibilities.

  • Unequal Split (70/30, 60/40, etc.): This split may be chosen when one party brings significantly more to the table, such as a well-established brand or a larger financial investment.

Remember that the profit split should reflect the effort, resources, and contributions of each party. If one partner is purchasing the supplies, that should factor into the share breakdown. If another is contributing their intellectual property, that must also be assigned a value. It is up to both collaborators to agree on and assign these values, and then generate a profit-share that satisfies both.


4. Sales Channels and Wholesale Terms

Many small businesses and creative entrepreneurs utilize various sales channels to sell their products and services. We relied heavily on e-commerce during the height of the pandemic, but by-and-large, we are also selling at focused events and retailers again. This opens up new opportunities for us to sell our collaboration products as well. If you've ever done a pop-up or in-person event (seen above at Zawadi Arts in Washington, D.C.), you know that it means long hours and it's a lot of physical labor (and small talk). E-commerce transactions take a lot less "work". I suggest coming up with a tentative sales and distribution strategy or events calendar to outline potential pop-up events, online sales events and the likes. Then, work backwards from there to decide how this might impact your profit sharing agreement. More broadly, discuss where your products will be sold and whether they will be available for wholesale. Address questions such as:

  • Sales Channels: Will you sell exclusively through your own website, partner with retailers, or utilize a combination of channels?

  • Wholesale Terms: If you decide to offer wholesale, define the terms, including pricing, minimum order quantities, and payment terms for wholesale buyers.

Relatedly, shipping logistics are a significant responsibility, so it is important to designate who will be responsible for this aspect of the collaboration. Consider who will cover the costs of shipping, including packaging materials. Maybe each partner pays for what they ship out, or materials are purchased together and shared equally. You'll also specify the shipping methods, whether it's standard mail, free shipping, etc. and what the customer's shipping cost will be (if any). 


5. Use of Contribution in Future Products or Designs

Consider whether any elements of your contribution can be used in the creation and sale of other products or designs outside of the collaboration. As seen above, "Create and Resist" also gained popularity as an accent pin. This is particularly relevant for artists, designers, and content creators. Discuss:

  • Intellectual Property Rights to determine who retains ownership of the creative work and any associated intellectual property rights. If you have an intangible asset, such as a quote, it is prudent to trademark or copyright that before pursuing a creative collaboration. Once your work gets more widely distributed, it can easily be pirated if it is not legally protected, and this extends beyond the domain or lifespan of the collaboration agreement.

  • Licensing or Usage Rights: If elements of your contribution can be used elsewhere, agree on the terms, such as royalties or licensing agreements. These have more weight once you have legal protection (such as the aforementioned), but for the collaboration, decide if products outside of the collaboration can repurpose any element of the collaboration product, and if so, what.

In conclusion

Successful creative collaborations are built on a foundation of clear and well-defined terms. When collaborators develop a shared vision, establish product parameters, and address key considerations they set themselves up for a rewarding and profitable partnership. I hope these tips from my own experience lead to successful creative collaborations, and have a lasting impact on your customers and business growth.


**This article is an extension of a webinar class I originally taught for Nest's Hometown Heroes Collective, sponsored by Madewell. See the class recording here.

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