When Jodie joined the advertising agency EFG, she was extremely excited. It was one of those big-name companies that was built on the idea of looking at things a different way. Sure, it’s not as popular as it once was—most clients these days prefer smaller creative consultancy groups—but you really couldn’t scoff at the power of a name. Working for this creative agency is a big deal, and being hired as one of its copywriters is darn exciting.
Three months later, Jodie is silently composing her resignation in her head as the client tells her—in his office—what he THINKS the precise wording of the copy should be. He’s rejected every suggestion she’s made so far, even when he gave her very little to go on. Somewhere in the corner, one of the EFG account executives is simply agreeing with the client. This is NOT what Jodie expected.
And frankly, this is NOT Jodie’s problem.
A Grave Misunderstanding
The above situation is, of course, not limited to creative businesses like ad agencies. There are many companies out there that employ artistic-type people for various functions, usually in the marketing division (though you can find imaginative folks anywhere). More often than not, they are expected to produce creative output.
This is where it all becomes mucky. See, the moment “output” comes into the equation, the tension between creative workers and their managers becomes apparent. For the longest time, managers are expected to push their people into producing as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. The problem is not necessarily in the volume of the production—many artist types can produce as much as they want or need to. The issue is more along the lines of a typical manager’s approach to encouraging output, which is often designed to treat workers as a collective, and not as individuals. Creative people don’t like that.
Working WITH You
Much of the mistakes people make when working with creative people involves the idea that these people are working FOR you. Concepts like this come with certain expectations. You expect them to just do as they’re told because they’re being paid for it. You expect them to respond to YOUR company’s reward structure—to be grateful for big awards ceremonies and salary hikes (even if what they really want is respect and a few days off). We expect them to always be connected to the business phone system, to pick up every call, so they can make real-time changes to the stuff they’re doing.
But here’s the thing: even if you employ them, they’re not working FOR you. They’re working WITH you. The fact of the matter is that creative people want to help you through their talents while incidentally getting paid for it. No matter what, THEY own their talents. YOU never will, no matter how much you pay for it. As such, you don’t get to control it. You get to help them focus and harness it. There’s an important difference there.
Why It’s YOUR Problem
If you want to be able to work with creative talent, YOU have to understand how creativity works. You can’t turn it on and off. You can’t just say, “Give me a good idea” and expect a good idea to magically appear. Those things take time, and maybe distance from the project. Hovering over creative people does not help, and neither does “offering suggestions.” What actually works is leaving them alone for a bit, and only doing some checking in every few hours. That said, creativity also doesn’t work with a blank slate. You HAVE to tell them what the specific desired end result is, so that their subconscious has something to process for a particular project.
On the other hand, telling creative people EXACTLY what you want down to the last detail defeats the purpose of their presence. If you don’t want them to actually contribute to the project, then what you really wanted was an ARTISAN, not an artist. There is a difference, and it’s important that you know it.
People like Jodie tend to leave companies that don’t value their creative talent—even if the company thinks that it’s treating its artsy workers like they should. Be more aware of the way you treat your creatives, and the rest will follow.