There’s no instruction manual for leading a creative team at a marketing agency and no secret training course for chief creative officers. While I was working my way up in the business, I always wondered how or why my leaders did things a certain way. But the day-to-day grind of working in a fast-moving creative environment doesn’t usually leave much time for discussions of leadership philosophy with the boss. So I did my best to pick things up—by observation or osmosis. But I always hoped that somebody, one of those wise old heads in the corner offices, might write down some secret recipe for teasing great work out of people.

Then I got to be a chief creative myself. And even with all those years of observation and osmosis, it’s taken plenty of on-the-job training, and plenty of mistakes, to get to the point where I feel I have a bit of a handle on the job. So I’m going to be that wise old head—or at least an old head—and offer some free advice to the folks who are close to directing their own creative teams or just beginning to do so. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1. It’s All About the Work

We all have distractions in our personal lives, and offices all have distractions, too. The argument with your spouse last night, next week’s tuition payment for the kids, the crazy traffic on the way to the office, or who didn’t refill the coffee maker. But when it comes time to create, or to discuss what you’ve created, all that needs to be put aside. The Buddha sat alone beneath a fig tree for 49 days before achieving enlightenment; we as marketers might not have that kind of free time, but at the very least we sometimes have to isolate ourselves from all the outside noise in order to reach our own enlightenment of brand insight.

So once the time to create has begun, create a zone of silence around your work. The work, and only the work, should be allowed in. When your internal conversations focus on the work alone—not on whose idea it was, not on what odd thing the client asked for, not on any of the egos or office politics or emotional attachments that can sometimes get mixed in, but on the work alone and how well it solves the problem it is intended to solve—then, and only then, can you make clear judgments about it. No one who sees your journal ad or web banner or TV commercial once it’s out in the wild will know or care who came up with the idea, who took the credit, or how much time someone spent on this or that part of it. So you need to think about and look at the work in that same fashion.

2. Seek Passion, and Take Advantage of It

Everyone is passionate about something. And any good creative agency employs plenty of people who are passionate about some component of the creative process. The trick is finding which person’s passion is perfectly aligned with the need of each brand. When handed even the beginnings of an idea, for instance, someone who is passionate about conveying emotion through film might just transform that idea into an award-winning patient testimonial film through sheer force of their passion—it becomes more than just client work to them. If you can harness what your people are really passionate about, the ways they really love to express themselves, they will take your brands to places you never imagined because the work they do will become an expression of their passion.

3. Look and Learn

And not just about “creative” things, either—about everything. Every creative person has had the experience of the spontaneous free association. When faced with some creative challenge, they flash back to something they saw or heard or read that fits into that challenge just perfectly. Maybe you saw a particularly memorable sculpture at a park while jogging six months ago, and it flashes into your mind as you consider the best visuals for an oncology campaign.

The people that happens to most frequently and effectively are the people with the largest mental libraries of images, stories, experiences. So never stop adding to your own library. Look at artwork, see shows and films, read books, meet new people, learn about everything you can, even (and especially) things that are completely unrelated to your work. You never know when something you’ve picked up along the way might turn into the perfect idea, phrase, or visual.

4. Let Vision Develop

A variation on the passion theme: Let’s say you’ve gathered your creative team to discuss ideas for a particular project. One of the ideas, perhaps, doesn’t excite anyone in the room—except for one person, who says, “I have a vision for this.” The natural inclination in our largely consensus-based business is to move on to ideas that the group likes better. But my experience has been that vision, once engaged, can transform so-so ideas into great ones. If someone in your room full of creatives has a vision for an idea, given time and support, they might just turn that idea into the best idea in the room. Even if you don’t “get” their vision right away, even if no one else “gets” their vision—well, vision is too rare a gift to let it fall by the wayside. Let them flesh it out and
see what happens. It might just surprise you.

5. Push, Push, Push—But Know When to Stop Pushing

Once there was a doctoral student who submitted a thesis to his advisor, and had it returned with, “Is this the best you can do?” written on the cover. He worked on it for another month and submitted it again, and again it was returned with, “Is this the best you can do?” on the cover. So he worked on it for another month, adding new angles of research that he hadn’t thought of before, and submitted it a third time. Once again, it came back with “Is this the best you can do?” So this time, the student went in to speak with his advisor and said, “I’ve explored every angle of this thesis, I’ve learned everything I possibly can about it, this is the best I can do.” And his advisor said, “Good! Now I’ll read it.”

The lesson? Creative people are usually capable of far more than they think they are—they just have to be pushed a little to get there. Don’t be satisfied with the first or third or fifth draft; be satisfied only when you know your creatives have stretched themselves and their talents as far as they can go.

On the other hand (isn’t there always another hand?), sometimes we need to know when to stop pushing. And that might be one of the hardest leadership skills to learn. I’m still learning it to this day. At a certain point with each creative person, pushing begins to develop diminishing returns. It’s the creative leader’s responsibility to learn the limits of each person and push, or not push, accordingly.

Also, it can be very easy as a leader to become so invested in the success of an idea that you continue to push it beyond the point where it shows that it just won’t work. This is another time when creative leaders must have the self-confidence to step back and remove their egos from the equation, to have the courage to tell a roomful of people who have been working on something for days or weeks or months that it just isn’t working. It ain’t easy—but it’s necessary.

6. Work Ethic Can Be Just as Valuable as Talent

Talent is a gateway into any creatively focused business, but it isn’t the deciding factor on who will be successful. Over the years I’ve worked with many people who were more naturally gifted than I was—and I’ve seen many of those people surpassed in output and in career trajectory because they ran into others who were a little less talented but a lot more committed. Talent might produce a great idea, but only talent and work ethic together can bring it to fruition.

7. Don’t Be a Jerk, and Don’t Work with Jerks

Our industry is ripe with creative jerks, leaders who put their egos or their need to aggressively show their authority above the work. We all know them, we’ve all worked with them. In fact, when someone asked my boss, Dale Taylor, why he started the agency, he said, “Because I didn’t want to work for jerks.”

We all knew exactly who and what he meant: People who use cruelty instead of constructive criticism, who decide that their vision is the only vision, who treat their teams like tools rather than living, breathing individuals with creative potential.

These people might go a long way or last a long time in our business based on talent or force of personality. But at the end of the day, the fear they engender can cripple a creative enterprise. And when they finally float off to be a jerk somewhere else, they leave behind teams of traumatized people whose confidence has been systematically trod upon.

Serving as the highest-ranking creative executive at AbelsonTaylor doesn’t give me some kind of monopoly on vision or ideas at the agency. A critical part of my job is training and encouraging the next generation of creatives who will still be here when I’m gone. But jerks just don’t think that way. I doubt that any jerk who reads this will magically mend his or her ways, but if you’re working for one, go work somewhere else. And if one is working for you, don’t be afraid to tell him so, or to show him the door if his jerky behavior doesn’t cease. Our business is challenging enough without having to deal with such people, and no amount of talent is enough to offset the human cost of empowering one.

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