I’ve known a lot of creative directors in my time. And the one thing we all have in common, is that at one time in our career, we were certain that our value was tied to our ability to sift through a mound of ideas, identify the ones with potential and help turn them into great campaigns. I used to think this way, and am pretty sure my partner, Tracy, did too. Heck, who doesn’t want to think that their personal taste, experience and certain je ne sais quoi are integral to the creation of every great campaign that comes out of the building? And don’t get me wrong, a good creative director can and should recognize the potential in an idea and be able to help steer it towards its finest iteration.
But, if you took a “Moneyball”-like approach to creativity and eliminated all the subjectivity and romantic notions about creative leadership, what would you find has the greatest impact on creative output? (For those who haven’t seen or read “Moneyball,” it’s an approach to baseball espoused by Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane, who stopped focusing o more subjective qualities such as speed, quickness, arm strength, hitting ability and mental toughness and instead, focused almost exclusively on simple on-base percentage.) Would it be the creative director’s ability to see and develop the big idea. Or would it be something else?
I would argue that in an industry that’s more driven by technology than ever before and spread across a number of disciplines that require more specialization than ever before, there can no longer be a single keeper of the creative flame. A creative director may be great at storytelling or great at digital or great at experiential, but he or she is invariably not the single best, brightest, most informed individual in the building on every possible initiative that will require creative thinking.
So if it’s not the keen insight and direction of the creative director that most directly leads to breakthrough creative work, what is it?
I believe it’s establishing what I’d call, a Culture of Creativity. In other words, a self-sustaining creative ecosystem where creativity is nurtured and perpetuated regardless of who the individual players are and who is at the top of the org chart.
Where the creative talent is informing the creative director at least as often as they are taking direction from him or her. And where all are both empowered and obliged to perform at their highest level.
Alright, so, as a creative director, what goes into building this creative nirvana?
Well, you need to start by placing your focus on inspiration rather than filtration. In other words, instead of worrying about killing the bad ideas or plussing the mediocre ones, expend the majority of your efforts trying to inspire the staff to come up with better ideas to start.
I believe this inspiration begins at the most basic level — your environment. Every creative company should have some practical and symbolic nod to creativity. For us at WDCW, it’s the “Think Tank,” a room actually imagined by my wife, a former art director, that serves two purposes: It gives anyone working on a creative project a comfortable environment in which to ideate and, just as importantly, it says that creative thinking is critical to our business and that we value the people whose job it is to generate fresh ideas on behalf of the brands we service.
We also did some little things that are designed to say to the staff that every space is an opportunity to do something creative. We have a motion-activated sensor in our men’s room that unleashes a wall of paparazzi flashbulbs and auto-winders when you approach the urinal, a proprietary interactive glass wall our digital business, United Future, created that turns any surface into a touch-screen shopping experience and a wall of refurbished art deco refrigerator doors that act like frames for a revolving display of the artwork created by the children whose parents work at the agency. And all of this is housed in a re-purposed Coors distribution center with beautiful old giant steel refrigerator doors.
In short, if you want to foster creativity, think of how you can physically surround your employees and clients with it on a daily basis.
A less tangible but equally important pillar of establishing this Culture of Creativity is trust. Whether it’s coaching kids, managing adults or overseeing someone painting your living room, I found that people tend to live up to the expectation you have for them. So, if you create a system where they don’t get to make creative judgment calls, aren’t privy to business insights and don’t present their own work, you’ll end up with people who don’t stay on brief, don’t know how to filter their own work and can’t present.
We’ve revamped the creative process in a manner that allows for greater participation from more people at the outset of a project and substantially more individual responsibility along the way. Inspired as much by Josh Brantley, our digital creative director and Clyde McKendrick, our head of planning, as myself, we’ve retooled our approach to something that’s basically a hybrid between the way IDEO does things and a television writer’s room. Without delving too much into the specifics, there’s now a large group of bright people with an array of specialties, focuses and areas of interest at the front end of the creative process. We all offer our thoughts on the business problem, the audience and possible perspectives to build the scaffolding of the communication platform. Then, a smaller team is tasked with the responsibility of taking the group’s input, crafting the messaging and returning to the original group with a more developed expression that everyone can comment on and improve.
This gives the creative team the advantage of having a variety of people help them get started while also assigning them the responsibility of consolidating the thinking and ownership of the final product. They’ll know the client’s business from every angle — digital, social, retail. This will make you, the creative director, more of a consultant than a dictator. And it’ll make your ultimate client presentation a hell of a lot more insightful and compelling.
Finally, while doing a creative person’s job for them is probably the fastest way for a creative director to de-motivate everyone around him or her, I believe there is something you can do creatively that will have a much more profound and lasting effect. Undertake a creative endeavor so bold and audacious, it will open the entire agency’s eyes as to what’s possible.
I’ve seen Anomaly achieve this by creating their own products. Sid Lee by turning a 57-year-old ferryboat into a spa. And Droga 5 by initiating the Tap Water Project for Unicef. Our most recent bold and audacious undertaking was the creation of our first feature film. “Free Throw” is a documentary built around a free throw shooting contest for a college scholarship. The project was overly ambitious, thoroughly underfunded and mildly exhausting for the core group involved. But overcoming all of those obstacles and putting something on the screen that genuinely rivals what grownup studios are producing helps reinforce an internal expectation that anything is possible and that the little obstacles we all inevitably face on any creative assignment cannot deter us from striving for greatness.
Now, comes the toughest aspect to building a Culture of Creativity for most creative directors and probably the most important one — hiring well. I’m not sure whether it’s our own deep-seeded insecurity that bringing another really great creative mind onboard will jeopardize our own perceived value and importance or whether the process of recruiting, interviewing and hiring people is just insufferably tedious to most creative-minded people. Either way, in general, creative directors tend to be pretty horrible at hiring, judging who will be of value based on personal taste, the cache of where a person worked last and whether a man or woman seems like they “get it.” As a result, it’s no surprise people in the creative department are far more often accused of underperforming than they are applauded for overachieving.
The bottom line, is that making the right hires is vital to the stability and longevity of your creative system. In the same way that Billy Beane signed players who fit their specific ballclub, you need to hire people whose skill-sets, talents and disposition fit with what you’re trying to accomplish as an agency. If you get the right ones, they’ll prevent you from having to be involved as often on a daily basis, actually improve and progress relationships with clients and generally act like the cement to the process, thereby ensuring that great creative work is produced whether you are personally involved or not.
As you’ll notice, the focus of pretty much all of these moves, is to make yourself far less relevant to the day-to-day operations of the creative department. This will feel counterintuitive and will inevitably have you occasionally longing for the days when you were heralded as the Divine Creative Soothsayer.
But if you look at the results when you’re done, I bet you’ll find it led to better creative.