The Art of Managing Creative People

When the job is to come up with the next brilliant idea, against a deadline - through a combination of inspiration, hard work, intuition, and confidence - getting the best work out of creative people on a consistent basis can be tricky. 

“Creatives are individual people and have unique things that motivate them. So when you respect understand that, that’s a pretty good cocktail,” Evan Fry, executive director of creative development at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, recently told Co.Create.

CPB put Fry and creative director Dave Swartz in positions dedicated to inspiring, encouraging, and organizing the agency’s creative departments. Those roles have allowed Swartz and Fry to focus on helping creative people succeed. As experienced creative leaders, they say the most important element in fostering the talent is instinct, but there are things that leaders can do to set its people up for success:

Fry and Swartz say a useful starting point for any creative company looking to evaluate how to foster its talent is to first look at the entity. “Ask questions like, 'what kind of team do we need here; what works well for the individual agency process that we have?' Every agency works differently, so different skill sets or different temperaments work better at different places,” explained Fry.

Fry says that he and Swartz took a creative inventory of each person’s skills in order to have an understanding of their talent. "We thought, What traits work best at CPB in those roles?" said Fry. "We got really clear about that, maybe for the first time, and put it down on paper. These are the skills people need for certain roles. If you have an objective assessment of everyone, you can work to optimize those strengths by assembling the right skills for projects.”

Cater to Strengths
Fry commented, "Certain creative talent responds really well to having a long leash, and we like to encourage CDs to let this happen with people we’ve identified as having the stuff to do it, no matter what their title may be or their level of experience. Sometimes people really respond to healthy competition. You’ll see it will inspire and motivate certain creatives to dominate and crush it, where others don’t respond to competition at all.”

Keep Your Hands Dirty
While Fry and Swartz are tasked with managing the agency’s talent, they also get involved in the work, be it running a pitch or covering a shoot. “We will be called in as a creative team so not only do we have our duties running the design department and helping art directors, we’re thrown into a pitch and will run those things and set the tone, and that helps. It’s leading by example,” said Swartz.

Creative people are often as protective of their process as they are of their ideas, but individual processes are prone to jams that outsiders are better equipped to see. “There can be some method to the creative madness,” said Fry. “In any process,  we kind of know the beats. We know there’s a client meeting, when they’ll want to see a strategy, then early work, then finished work. Sometimes helping someone is as simple as putting a calendar up and outlining when certain pieces get done or being clear about when they’ll get feedback on work.”
Create Healthy Confusion
While structure has its benefits, so does a bit of chaos, according to Swartz. When working with designers, it’s actually more productive to keep them busy with multiple projects at once. “There’s’ always a lot on everyone’s plate and that’s kind of by design because part of the creative process is incubating ideas. Idea incubation comes from when you read your brief, do a few hours of work, and then you stop.”

Fry said, “You can’t switch on unless you have an off position.” It may be easier said than done--many agencies, CPB included, have a reputation for tough hours. Fry says he and Swartz are working at being more conscious about keeping weekends a little more free at CPB, and that means getting everyone from account teams to CDs on board.

Creative talent lives to make stuff. When they’re not making things, they get unhappy, prone to relocate, or worse, creatively uninspired. So Fry says it’s important to ensure people are continually putting new work out into the world.

Make Retention a Choice
Creatives routinely switch agencies after a couple of years is accepted practice in advertising, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Part of their job is to foster an environment that people don’t want to leave. “Everyone’s going to get itchy feet here and there, and anyone who’s doing good work is going to get courted. But keeping your culture healthy is huge,” added Fry.

Fry says the creative management work he and Swartz do is about helping people take charge of their own careers. This can be through encouragement, organization, keen pairing, and sometimes offering really tough advice.  Fry said, “Sometimes saying the hardest thing is the best mentorship you can give, as opposed to letting someone stay in a rut.”


Amanda Ciccatelli, Social Media Strategist at IIR USA in New York City, has a background in digital and print journalism, covering a variety of topics in business strategy, marketing, and technology. She previously worked at Technology Marketing Corporation as a Web Editor where she covered breaking news and feature stories in the tech industry.  She can be reached at aciccatelli@iirusa.com. Follow her at @AmandaCicc. 
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