The secrets to leading teams to creative success

Here’s the first of three articles in KW2’s Creative Management series. It’s for anyone who supervises those who make content for anything from ads to campaigns to social media. So keep coming back. Andy’s next article will address how creative teams can generate better ideas.

“Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” John Cleese

We tend to think and talk about creativity like it’s this mysterious, mystical force. But you can’t manage magic. And if you lead a creative marketing team, you already know the truth Cleese, the great Monty Python comedic thinker, is sharing: You don’t have to manage magic. Because creativity isn’t this instinctive, unruly thing for only a chosen few. It’s a process. A tool. A teachable, repeatable technique for seeing the world and solving problems that anyone can adopt—and any manager can encourage and guide. 

From the culture you build and the way your team collaborates to the great big concepts you guide from idea to execution, you’re in charge of helping your people, department and brand operate creatively. After more than 30 years spent fostering brand storytellers and collaborating with creative teams, we know how you can accomplish that.

Build a creative-friendly environment

No, this isn’t about pool tables and a beer fridge. It’s about the atmosphere and culture you create for your team to succeed. How? 

Protect their time.

The first creativity seminar I ever attended was about time and input. With the proper amount of both, creative teams can succeed. That was 30 years ago, and it’s still true. So you need to protect your team’s time. Sure, there are busy weeks and challenging workloads to juggle in our business. But if your team is about to get overloaded with too many assignments in too short a time, or if any deadline is utterly unrealistic, you need to get your team more time. Time is money, but crappy work is a waste of money. And time.

Make it okay to miss. 

Babe Ruth struck out more than any batter five times in his career, but he was also the home run king 12 times and the all-time leader for decades. He said a strikeout was just getting him closer to another home run. Make it clear your team has your permission to boldly swing for the fences and miss once in a while in their quest to deliver powerful, smart and effective work. One way to make your team fearless about failure? 

Be a respectful rejecter.

Creating is risky business, emotionally and professionally. To have great ideas, teams must have a lot of ideas—which means you’ll reject much more of their work than you’ll ever approve. So show respect, even for the duds. Explain clearly and rationally why an idea is off-brand or off-strategy. Feedback like “I don’t like it” or “it just doesn’t work” or “I’ll know it when I see it” are cop-outs, not creative direction. You can argue, debate and reject an idea, but always respect the person who came up with it.

Mix in fun.

Yes, this is business. And yes, creative feel the pressure to succeed every day. But they’re full of beautiful “crazy ones, misfits and rebels” who want to deliver. Because if the work doesn’t work, few blame the brief or the budget; they make the ad the villain and its creators are accessories to the crime.

“When people aren't having any fun, they seldom produce good work. Kill the grimness with laughter. Encourage exuberance. Get rid of sad dogs that spread gloom.” The immortal David Ogilvy is right, of course. “Fun,” or levity or joy, whatever you call it, it’s not essential for fun’s sake; it’s a necessary component of creative thinking.

Changing things up can spark new ideas when teams get stuck. (Studies show creative output actually increases when people intersperse their brainstorms with play and physical activity.) So find tactics for your culture that encourage freedom and an esprit de corps. Book a breakfast someplace funky, take them out for a beer, head to a museum, look at great ads together. Have fun.

Your team doesn’t need nor want a party-time circus culture. But they do need to shake off their cubicles and smile on the job. Creating positive, smile-worthy moments is a cheap investment that’ll always pay you back. 

Adopt creative-friendly leadership habits

You’ve given your creative team sunlight and good soil. Now it’s time for you to employ a few deliberate, everyday management behaviors that promote creative growth. 

Demand clarity.

Ogilvy Creative Director Norman Barry said, “Give me the freedom of a tight strategy.” What? Restraint equals freedom? Yes. Without clarity, the work suffers, frustration mounts and assignments can take longer, which can ruin your margin. Input and direction, the creative brief and your feedback all need to be crystal clear.

Sometimes another department will give your team an assignment, and the input may be off. It could be your single-minded proposition is really three messages in one, there’s a murky insight, our you get four primary audiences. If that happens, it’s up to you to keep sending that brief or research back so your team receives the smartest, most efficient start possible.

Give credit where it’s due.

It’s not all about you. Let your team, organization and client know who is truly responsible for quality work. Over the course of my career, I lost trust in managers and creative directors who put their name on my work when they didn’t touch it. Most people react positively to praise, so if it’s earned, give it. 

Inspire, inspire, inspire.

Every great creative is a thief. As a kid, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones wore out the grooves on his Chuck Berry records. Surprise! He wound up sounding a lot like Chuck Berry. It’s the first point in the very cool book Steal Like an Artist, Picasso even said it: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Creatives are influenced and inspired by the people and things in the world around them, and develop their craft in the wake of those who blazed creative trails before them. So you need to make it a habit to continually inspire your team. Share great ads, amazing videos, startling social content, innovative entrepreneurs and keep lighting that thing inside them that makes them say, “I wanna make something like THAT!”

Groom and grow `em.

Former GE CEO Jack Welch said, “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people.” You’ll have better teams by pushing bigger challenges, professional development and evolution as a group, and individually. Not everyone on your team needs the same grooming to grow, so address each member’s needs individually or you’ll run the risk of a having a lousy garden on your hands. 

This applies to you as well. You need to grow over your career to remain relevant to your changing team, and to stay creatively engaged. I was there when advertising went from zero digital to being digitally dominated, and saw managers who didn’t embrace all things Internet get left behind.

Show courage.

The middle of the road is where you get run over. So stand up. Your customer, the person your work is talking to, wants you, they’re begging you, to not make more advertising junk and to have the courage to stand up for surprising work they actually notice and value. Apple, Costco, Domino’s, Amazon and Virgin succeed by leading and it takes a backbone to do that. So you need to fight for the people, process and little things that will make a dent. Don’t get run over. 

What are the essential creative management skills you rely on most? 

KW2’s President and Executive Creative Director, Andy Wallman, would love to hear your thoughts. An experienced creative leader with over 30 years of invention and success in creativity and advertising, he’s on a mission to help improve where creativity and business intersect. Email him at [email protected].