Creative leadership: A guide to making the work better

Check out the previous articles in this series, The secrets to leading teams to creative success, and The secrets to massive idea generation.

Your team has the big idea for your ad, website, social media or email. They showed you the final recommendation. But before it goes to the client, you have the chance as their creative or marketing supervisor to make the work more effective. This article will give you tips on the little things that will make the work better.

The eye of the inchworm

My creative director at Simons, Michaelson, Zieve in Detroit was Harvey Gabor. He was an original Mad Man. His "Hilltop" ad for Coke is in the Advertising Hall of Fame.

 Working with him was invaluable. He taught us the power of “the eye of the inchworm,” which meant to slow down, get up close, evaluate and polish every facet of the communication to as close to perfection as time and budget allow. 

Why? Today consumers will be exposed to over 5,000 branded messages. The whole world is fighting for your customer’s attention. But marketers like you only get an instant to make a connection, so the more succinct, simple and clean you can make your work, the more likely it’ll work. So sweat the details. Picky matters. Make sure your tacticians have craft and finesse and polish that someone’s hard-earned money and your budget deserve.

Experienced evaluators of creative work review projects constantly and have developed a fast process to making their teams work better. Here it is, deconstructed.

Back to the brief

My friends know I’m in the ad business, so they’ll ask what I think of a logo or an ad or a social media campaign from time to time. I usually answer that without knowing the job’s objectives, it’s tough to evaluate it. Similarly, you need to know the project’s objectives from the creative brief before you evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Ideally the work is a natural result of input from the brief. Does the work meet the objective? Does it have one clear single-minded proposition? Does it leverage the insight or strategy? Is it on brand? Does it have the mandatory inclusions?                                                                

Knowing good vs. great

Alex Bugusky, one of my faves and one of the best creative directors in the business says, “Good enough sucks.” So how do you know the difference between good and great? Be a student of creative advertising. Looks and trends evolve over time (remember the Minneapolis all-caps headline and white space art direction of the ‘90s?), so you need to constantly review great sources of work like Communication Arts, Archive  and Ads of the World. Share great work with your team. Debate it. Stay on top of evolving industry trends and tech. It’s a habit to continually groom and grow throughout your career.

What can you remove?

Great designers remove elements until they’ve got the essentials necessary to communicate. Great creative work is efficient, and you can help your team’s work by looking at what can be removed. I handed copy to a creative director once, and he spent two minutes with it making edits with his red pen. He removed about 30% of my copy, yet it still said the exact same thing. He just made the reader’s job 30% faster.

Our work needs to work quickly. We get a couple of seconds to capture attention, THEN something distinct in the work needs to be remembered, so THEN it can be acted upon. So what copy or design elements can you remove to increase efficiency while still preserving the idea?

One last polish

Before you send the work out, give it a final micro-inspection, reviewing every pixel for perfection. I look for balance, alignment, spacing and design consistency by reviewing the work sideways or upside down.

An old creative partner of mine said, “We’re not done making it better until the ad is on the air.” That was how we worked, polishing and improving the work until we no longer could.

Following and breaking rules

Knowing basic graphic design, art direction and copy rules is table stakes for a creative evaluator. Individuals who are newer in their careers and still developing their craft will need more help nailing the basic rules of effective communication, and having polish with kerning, leading and consistency. More experienced people know how to bend and break the rules yet still deliver efficacy.

Here’s a great example of breaking the rules from Rotwild mountain bikes. It follows some basic rules: the layout pushes the eye down and across the page, there is a nice balance to the weight of the elements in the ad, the left-justified headline is aligned nicely and the bike shows some cool features. But by avoiding a typical bike photo and blending photography and illustration with splashes of paint, they added a ton of energy to the piece and differentiated from competitors instantly. The headline is readable yet messy. The logo is placed at an angle, and is not in the lower right corner. Breaking traditional design rules makes it feel like you’re on the bike while reading the ad, making it a powerful idea that’s well executed.

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 andy@kw2madison.com.