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Creative leadership doesn’t comes from a job title

Anyone who has ever had to lead and inspire a group of creative people knows how challenging it can be. You have to lead but let them find their own solutions and creative process. You have to set the tone and style for the work but allow for individual creativity. This isn’t ever going to be book that will give you all the answers on how to do it. I get a lot of emails from people of all levels asking for advice or ideas on how to do it better as we all move down the road in our career and develop from a creative designer to a creative leader.

I break the problem down into how you manage the creatives who work for you on a day-to-day basis and creating the long-term road map for the group.

The day-to-day creative director

I have found that creatives will come to me for two things on a day-to-day basis – hope and support. Hope because they need to know that tomorrow is going to be better than today and they are going to be able to do better, cooler, bigger work in that future. I think that if we are really honest we would say that creatives are restless and insecure by our very nature so we need a sense of hope that this personal endeavor will be well received. Support so that they know their work is valued and you are just as passionate about it as they are and will fight to protect the countless hours they have spent creating this work that is very personal to them.

I say that knowing those are very big and general points so I break it down into things that are more executable like the next time I talk with one of them I am sure they walk away from me with:
1 – a plan of action for both of you which will give them hope that things will improve and the two of you will work to fix their problem, challenge, campaign, design, etc. It also sets goals and expectations so that hope will be fulfilled and not become and empty promise which will become more damaging.
2 – an understanding of what I am going to do about the problem because this tells them I understand and value the work they have done and tells them I am going to fight and protect them, their work and our group

From designer to creative director (or how I miss the days I was still a designer)

You get to the point when you decide to transition from a just a designer to a designer and manager and that you need to be able to focus on leadership, vision and hope more than your design ability. In a lot of ways it is a strange system that the higher you go in your career the further you get away from what you love and what brought you into the industry in the first place.

For leadership you need to lay out a clear path for your team and the company right away so they know what is expected of them and what they should expect from you. Vision to me has always been to be the one who is always pushing the team to go 10-20% beyond where they want to so the work gets better than it is now. Hope, so that they know tomorrow will be better than today, that their work will be better than it is today and for you all of that will add up to them staying with you for years.

Along with laying out your expectations for the group you also need to evaluate the talent you have to work with. Trust your gut and make any cuts you need to. The one thing I have learned from working for a lot of epic creative directors is that you always protect your best talent no matter what and let the rest fall where they will. It is never worth losing a truly talented art director because you didn’t fire a junior copywriter who is making their life hell.

These things are just the starting point but don’t be afraid to actually lead, set the tone and set expectations. Listen to your people so you know what they need, how they work and what you need to do to support it. You are asking them to creating something personal for you while working crazy hours so remember you owe them just as much as they give you.

2 Comments

  1. Lori

    December 12, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Thanks, Steve.
    You are absolutely correct in that moving from designer/writer to manager is one THE hardest transitions in the industry… at least from my creative experience. Good stuff!

  2. fregan

    December 15, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks for the insight and guidance as always. Your statement regarding protecting the talent really stood out to me. All to often the creative department is seen as a waste of time and pushed aside in many decision making processes. It is nice to know there are Creative Directors like yourself out there to give us a voice that is heard, instead of being ignored because we don’t hold a title. Thanks again and keep up the great work.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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