Show them the way then get out of the way

Advice for newbie creative managers

I’ve learned a lot about leadership during my tour as an agency creative. Sadly, most of those lessons came from really, really bad managers.

How well I remember Pat (not his real name). Though he managed a sizeable group at a large Chicago agency, this writer-turned-CD clearly never learned how to lead.  Working with him was nothing short of creative torture. Hourly check-ins, obsessive nitpicking and a stranglehold on divergent thought fed his apparent fear of losing control. And though he believed micromanaging spawned great work, for anyone below him on the org chart, it was death by a thousands pecks.

Throw a paper wad in any agency and you’ll likely hit a Pat (or a Patty, for that matter). I’m truly grateful for each and every helicopter CD, or obsessive account lead, who has hovered over my keyboard. Without these heavy-handed overlords (along with those who were MIA until the night before deadline), I would not have witnessed the egregious inefficiencies created by their presence. Nor would I have gained the insights behind this guiding advice for those stepping into creative management.

Form pre-launch partnerships

Cozy up with the account lead or planner early on. Ensure that the brief is clear and concise before it is shared with the entire team.  And don’t forget to lock down the budget. You don’t want any time-wasting surprises after the ideation train has left the station.

Have a kick-ass kickoff

I’ve seen more assignments crash and burn (and burn a crap-ton of hours) due to a confusing kickoff. Does the team understand the ask? Can they empathize with the audience? Does everyone know what’s expected of them? Hold the room hostage until there are no unanswered questions regarding objective, target, deliverables and tone.

Plant seeds then peace out

If the assignment is ginormous, or your team is a bit green, corral the herd to let them vent and freak, if necessary. Offer up a few broad on-task, on-target ideas as examples and then send them off to do their jobs. If your team has seen many a rodeo, host a quick gut-check then step back and let the magic happen while you move on to other pressing matters – including that overdue mani-pedi.

Mold, don’t meddle

If you are a parent, you get this. There’s an art to helping creatives, and their ideas, take flight and lot if it has to do with trust on both sides of the desk. Know your people and how they work, then choose the best way to guide them. Some creatives crave attention. Others want to go it alone. If you have an open office environment, use proximity to your advantage. Work the room. Blend in. Nurture as needed.

Respect the work and the worker

Off-strategy ideas can be great learning experiences. Ask the team to draw a line from their ideas to the main message on the brief. Talk about the boundaries of the brand landscape and whether their work lives inside or outside of the lines. Above all, honor their effort. Celebrate the good stuff. Pepper with please and thank you.

The bottom line is, set up your team for success by getting involved at the get-go. Then let go. Be a guide with a flashlight. Shine it in the right places and they’ll find their way to great work.