Care and Feeding of a Creative Department

Graphic designers, art directors, copywriters… managing them can be scary. They don’t dress like other staff members, they tend to set their own hours (that is, they don’t necessarily show up first thing in the morning like other staff members)… they have strange ideas. How do you help this ragtag group of thinkers achieve greatness? After almost 20 years in agencies and in-house departments, I’ve developed my own “Best Practices for Managing a Creative Department.”

  • Don’t overmanage us. Oh, we know you need to call yourself a manager, but the last thing creative people want is someone breathing down their necks all day. Give us the creative brief and enough time — you’ll get brilliant work.

  • Don’t isolate us. Mixing us in with the general population is good for everyone. Great ideas come from anywhere, even from Stan in accounting.
  • We’re not machines. Creativity doesn’t happen by staring at a computer screen all day. If we need to go out and browse in Borders for a few hours, trust me, we’re thinking about work.
  • Train us. It’s not enough just to get the latest Adobe update. We’re seeing lots of young, talented people coming into agencies with technical proficiency, but little imagination. Just because computers make work faster, that doesn’t make it better. All you have to do is look at the unfocused, poorly written, and poorly executed ads in most magazines to realize that pretty dreck is still dreck. Send us to creativity seminars, national conferences, and local chapters of advertising clubs. Anything that spurs creativity can only help the business. After writing 47 credit card solicitations, a three-hour creativity seminar will do wonders for your team.
  • Feedback is good. Emotionally breaking down and screaming at us: not so good. If you don’t like the work we’ve shown you, offer constructive criticism. Saying “This stinks. The client will hate it” doesn’t help much. Go over the work with us, and suggest specific ways to improve it.
  • ASAP is not a deadline. The classic battle in most agencies is over time. Because computers can crank out work faster, timelines have shrunk. Resist the urge to volunteer your creative team for another crash-and-burn project. Sure, it gets the juices flowing, but it gets to be a Chicken Little situation: If the sky is always falling, nobody will listen to you anymore.
  • Magazines and books are good. Have plenty of them around. How, Communication Arts, Critique, and many others are great for flipping through when we need some inspiration. One agency I worked with had a great idea: Employees could expense any book related to advertising or our clients. After reading it, we gave it to the company library. It’s a quick way to build a library that your employees will actually use.
  • If we create it, we’d like to present it. There is nothing more disheartening than spending 40 hours over three days agonizing over a campaign and having a starched-shirted account executive swoop it off your desk and head over to the client’s office. Nobody can sell creative like the creative department. Oh, you don’t have creatives that you trust in front of the client because they’re lousy presenters? Whose fault is that? Train them. Also, if we know we’re going to be in front of a room full of clients presenting our work, we’ll work harder. It’s simple human nature.
  • Don’t let good get in the way of great. As creativity guru Tom Monahan often says, most ideas never become great because the creator stopped at good. Think about it. If you get praise for an idea, that’s usually when you stop. If you are presented with a concept that you like, instead of saying “Whew, great work,” you could say, “I like where this is going. Keep at it, and let’s see where you are in a few hours.” You’re not only acknowledging the creator’s good start but also spurring him or her on to do better work. Everyone wins.
  • Force us to do our homework. We tend to get lazy once in a while. Make sure you hold our feet to the fire by asking us questions about the competition. See where we are in terms of our industry. It’s frightening how little some creatives know about other agencies (unless they’re mass mailing résumés) and other companies that compete with our clients. You can help: Make research an important part of every job. If you ever want to see jaws drop, arm your team members with the competitive research they need before a job is started. If you’re working on a magazine ad, provide the demographics of the audience, the unique selling proposition, and as much information as possible.

Let’s all work together to make creative departments happier places. Most people don’t leave creative departments over money. They leave because they feel unappreciated and unwanted. Try some of these steps, and see if the atmosphere changes. Creatives are different — defend us, and you’ll have the most loyal team you could imagine. Ignore us, and you’ll spend most of your time interviewing our replacements.

Related reading