Are You 'Killing' Your Creatives?

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Arich Harrison

Your Leadership Style Could Be Your Agency’s Ultimate Demise

Are your deliverables becoming the duck face selfies of the ad world? Is your stuff leaving a smile-frown on your clients’ faces? It could be that your leadership style is killing your company’s mojo. To succeed, your creative agency must operate like an organism healthy enough to give birth to new ideas—and with great prolifery. That said, let me share with you the brutal truth: You will watch your agency die a slow and painful death if you fail to protect yourself from the fatal disease of micromanagement.

Consider my use of the non-word prolifery in the paragraph above. This non-word works quite nicely and even has a peppy ring to it, IMO. And if you’ve read this far, you understood what I meant when I used it. If one of your writers used such a non-word, would you ask them to change it? Would you be afraid that someone reading the article might think your agency hires writers who can’t write good? Over time, constant requests to change unimportant things such as silly non-words in feature articles will chip away at your organization’s creative heart. Though seemingly insignificant, if excessive, these little changes send a deadly message: I don’t trust you because your work’s not that good.

Please understand, I realize that editing and revisions are necessary parts of the creative process. The thing is, with creatives, as with rebellious, vulnerable children, you must choose your battles wisely. And here’s why: Most creative professionals are rebellious and vulnerable children wrapped in grown-up bodies. Don’t be fooled by their occasional aloofness.

They want to please you. They want you to hang their work on the fridge.

There are always those who balk at this assertion, but they are invariably the cynical Hemingway types, and, well, we know how that played out.

Micromanagement — A Buzzword With Which To Be Reckoned

I, like you, have an urge to throw up a little bit when I hear the buzzword micromanagement. However, though they eventually bruise our brains, buzzwords serve an important purpose. They help us work through concepts we’re all thinking about. And we tend to think collectively about stuff that is actually important (or cool or awesome, but, in the case of micromanagement, there’s none of that). So why, then, is the concept of micromanagement so important? Because it’s really, really, really bad for business.

Before I offer up the whys of its lethality, I’d like to outline a couple of subtypes of this terrible disease—those with which I’ve had personal experience.

Subtype Wrecking Ball

This aggressive subtype is capable of delivering the deathblow faster than you can say, “I have an idea.” The Wrecking Ball is almost always characterized by loudness. Think J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle. Only, for the real-life Peter Parkers, the ones who don’t have the self-esteem bolstering outlet of the superhero-by-night identity, the effects of this abuse can be catastrophic to creative ability.

Referring back to the inner child: Wrecking Balls, like authoritarian though well-meaning parents, inspire in their creatives a desperate, unmet need to please. The creative living under the watchful eye and resounding disapproval of the Wrecking Ball is trapped in an after-school special with no resolution and no commercial breaks.

The Wrecking Ball might say, I will call the shots! My word is law around here! They’re my clients and this is my company! Of course I have the last say.

Yes, of course you do—and you should. Everyone agrees. But how about having the last say without having to have the constant say? Ask yourself why you wanted to run a creative business in the first place. It was probably because you saw other guys making a living by producing neat stuff, and you thought that was awesome (which it is). But those other guys weren’t micromanaging their creatives (that is, not if their agencies were successful enough that you took notice). To become like them, you’ve got to let go.

Subtype Soft Killer

Though more insidious, this subtype is equally fatal. The Soft Killer is not loud or abusive, just always on the verge of a pass-out panic attack. The Soft Killer is often seen lurking on the fringes of the inner circle because he or she must always be close enough to hear the conversations going on, yet far enough away to avoid engaging in them. He or she is highly compelled to squelch any edgy dialogues that could take the campaign in a potentially disastrous direction.

The creatives will know when the Soft Killer hears something he or she perceives as dangerous. They will notice the Soft Killer begin to edge toward the inner circle, feigned composure betrayed by darting eyes and wringing hands. This behavior will put the creatives on high alert because they know that in those twisted mitts, the Soft Killer is warming up a hefty dose of pseudo-sweet slapdown that is sure to deliver slow yet certain death by demotivation.

The Soft Killer might say, But it is too scary; if I set them free, they will run amok like non-neurotypical children on high doses of sugar and red dye!

Perhaps; but good creative is messy. And the best of it is always spiced with a dash of ADHD. Plus, know this: Right there, in the middle of that anxiety-provoking mess, is where you’ll find the ideas capable of taking your company to the top.

The Lethality of Micromanagement

Mike Schaffer, CEO of the Pasadena-based creative agency, Echo-Factory, said, “I’ve stood back and watched creative flow wither on the vine because every time a little shoot began to grow, it got snipped off. It’s such a waste of resources. With my team, I approach it like, ‘Do it now. Apologize to me later.’ Is it risky? Sure. But isn’t every great thing? There’ll be fails along the way, but there’ll also be the kickass creative that resounds so loud and long you start to realize the mistakes are part of the process, not a hindrance to it. It’s like this: You can grow flowers pretty easily, but if you want them to be awesome flowers, you better give them the right environment. If you don’t want to do that, you’re going to have to settle for convenience-store bouquets. They’ll do the job, but you might not get a second date.”

And with clients, that second date is the first step toward putting a ring on it.

Nancy Andreasen is a neuroscientist renowned for her research on the creative mind. Last year, she wrote an article published in The Atlantic, titled “Secrets of the Creative Brain. In it, she said, “When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.”

A wild-eyed manager hovering over your desk like an aerial battle drone might inspire you to think up creative ways to look for a new job while on the clock, but it’s certainly not relaxing and probably won’t do much for finding the perfect tag line.

Recently, to gain some insight on creativity, MIT Technology Review interviewed Isaac Asimov, a polymath, renowned science fiction writer, and pretty much one of the most creative guys ever. In the article, titled “On Creativity,” Isaac said, “Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness.”

Folly. Now that’s a great word, Isaac. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “Lack of good sense or normal prudence and foresight; a foolish act or idea; an excessively costly or unprofitable undertaking.” I left out the parts about criminally foolish or lewd behavior because we’re not trying to do all that, in most cases.

The point is, to generate great ideas, creatives have to feel safe saying what’s on their minds, regardless of how dumb it might sound. The interviewers went on to ask Isaac how, then, creative people could be made to feel safe. He said, “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.”

But object they do—if they’re micromanagers. And here’s the extra-frustrating part: Most micromanagers really admire creative people and desperately want them as part of their organizations. A recent BusinessWeek article reported that, “According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.” That’s way too many chief executives for there to be less than a few hundred micromanagers in the lot.

These leaders characterized the ideal employee as a “communicator” who is also a “pro-active, curious problem-solver and risk-taker.” Nothing will hamstring that character like the mental exhaustion inflicted by constant, critical supervision.

According to Dea Goldsmith, Echo-Factory’s COO, this compulsion to over-edit among many executives is partly the result of a common misunderstanding. She said, “I think people imagine macromanaging as the opposite of micromanaging. Like it’s this free-for-all kind of approach, where there are no boundaries for creatives to work within. You know, you just hand the client’s boilerplate or product description to the creative team and hope for the best. That would be insane—and just as damaging to morale and productivity as micromanagement. The key to generating solid creative work is giving your team parameters to work within, and then stepping back and letting them have at it within those boundaries. The ‘letting them have at it’ part is what scares micromanagers. They need to learn to set effective boundaries so that they can trust those boundaries enough to walk away.”

So what’s the cure for the common creativity killer?

First, take some deep breaths. Then, use your administrative and analytical gifts to design boundaries for your creative team that will allow them the freedom they need to give you the deliverables you need. Third, and most importantly, chill the hell out. The choice is yours. Whether you go on killing them softly, or keep coming in like a wrecking ball, one thing is certain either way: Your clients won’t be hearing a love song.