Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Hey you got creative in my technology!" "Hey you got technology in my creative!"

Advancing technology will continue to impact creative services firms and the people within them. Remember the ad for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? The point was two separate elements could come together to create something new. Technology has changed many things about the creative services world. First and foremost it is a compression agent. Technology has compressed the services agencies provide and it has compressed the time frames to delivery and the preconceived costs to deliver.

What this means is, that now media buying, creative design, account management, production traffic, client billing, concepting, approvals, results tracking, list management, are all compressing to a tight delivery window to the client - blurring the distinction and silos? Clients are demanding more seamless and integrated services.

This means that creative services firms can no longer "create from a single prospective..." Design and technology are only one
¾th of the mix. How does the design function, can you capture data, track results? Can you target the exact buyer? Strategy and creative are being compressed with the introduction of new technologies. Coming at a client need via one approach levels the agency flat and unresponsive to the bigger picture. The same holds true for the agency that comes at the problem 100% technology based. Success will be in: Team Environment - Creative Technology Solutions - Market Savvy and design that hits the market (not over or under).

The demands of the future will be on dealing with the compassion factor of time and creative demands. The issue is; how to meet the needs of the client base, while keeping the organization functioning at a level that is not killing it. Miracles can happen within a creative environment, but how many and how often before you burn out a person, a team or the creative spark?

The future role of a leader within a creative services firm will be that of interior. One that can take many different demands, many different people and skill sets and bring them together as one focused response and voice to a clients need.

A few years back I had the opportunity to witness two different groups get together and talk about a client’s needs. The first was the current reincarnation of the "creative type" the "big cheese wiz" creative leader. Ponytail, earrings and attitude out the wahzoo. He was introduced as a new age "design God"  with the ability to take creative to new technologies. On the other side of the table was a classic shorthaired, glasses, and paper pad carrying technology leader. Shy with no attitude, he was a published iPhone App and programming guru.

Two totally different worlds coming together. In the first few moments that they began to speak they realized they had some ability to understand each other, when it came to technology - almost like those that took Spanish in High School who go to Mexico can kind of understand the high-level gist of the conversation. But once you get into local dialects and meanings, they are lost.

After ten minutes it was obvious that neither side was going to be able to make the bridge. As the classic technology gearhead keep saying, "I don’t understand where he (the creative guy) is coming from..." Quickly it became obvious that someone needed to act as the translator, the interpreter of the meaning, goals and issues to the two separate groups. These interactions will continue to grow. What one needs to realize is, the equation creative services firms will be operating under is:

Creativity      X      Technology
Freedom                Discipline

While these might seem to be at odds with each other the fact is, once a creative agency has gotten a sense of where its strengths and weaknesses are, it can manage them and correct them with this formula. The next 20 years will be about the challenge of keeping up with technology costs and changes - converting them into profitable client business. It will also be about how to stay creative and connected to the client and the client’s end users.

It will also be important to bring creative team members into direct contact with clients and client IT. Yes, a scary thought to some, but technology and speed require shortening the distance between the client and the creative.

Technology will become an integral part of the creative process beyond design technologies, and grow into CRM and company wide technologies where a client can actually track the specific results from a campaign – hard metrics – not soft feelings.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Who Am I, Who Is My Agency – Am I More Than My Creative Shop?

You Need A Life Beyond The Work
– Remember Poor Vincent!
How do you keep your firm from managing your life? It is important to realize that most agencies come into existence based on a single person's (or a small group’s) vision or ability. This is also true for many nonprofits and start up companies. And it is this vision and passion that makes the agency valuable to the client. What happens though, is the business and the individual become one, with no way to separate the two.

The place to start is by beginning to build a personal life that is separate, and equally or more important. 100 hours a week at work leaves little for family and other interests. You must work at building a "persona shell" that is you outside the firm. Define it, craft it and defend it like you would your most valuable and important client account. In addition it is key to have a team of people that make the agency or business come alive. Grow beyond one to many. Shape the vision as the owner, shape the culture (never leave culture to chance) and build the team – but be more than an army of one.

This simple act of saying "I will have a personal life" is the first step. The next is sticking with the building of a separate life. A few simple questions:

* How many family or personal activities (birthdays, holidays, trips, school awards, dance recitals) have you missed in the past month? Three months? Six months?

* Have you been with a family member, a friend or at a fun activity and the whole time all you can think about is "that burning issues at the firm?"

* When asked to talk about who you are, do you answer first and foremost, your job, your company and your business accomplishment?

If you answer yes to any of these you are a firm freak-azoid. You are addicted to what you do. It is what you are. While this is great for building a successful creative agency - in the end your creation will not be able to grow past you, beyond your abilities. Your life span and energy level will be that of the firm’s. Never more and likely less.

It is also important to surround yourself with key players that are more talented, creative and capable then yourself. A team is more powerful than a stand-alone person. Also it allows individuals within the team to have time off, personal space and a separation of church and state (personal and firm) when necessary.

"If there is anything in the world that can really be called a mans' property, it is surely that which is the result of his mental activity."
- Schopenhauer

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Creating A Process That Allows Business To Flow AND Creativity To Flourish

Business Processes Shouldn’t Make Creative Organizations Feel Like A Grid
Project Management at first blush can be seen as a four-letter word to designers and creative directors, mainly because it represents the necessity of bringing "non-creative" and the darn client into the creative process. 

Project management has a perception of process, paperwork, tracking, budgeting and deadlines - which are perceived as the complete opposite of the creative process.

In a past life I had the opportunity to work for a Fortune 200 company, in the adverting and product communications area. I'll never forget the meeting where my boss told me and the creative design team:  "Be as creative as you like, get wild, push the market and dump the old look!" Everyone in the room sat up and started smiling. As the big cheese walked out of the room he turned and said, "Oh, and it needs to be on green 8 1/2 by 11 paper, fit in a number ten envelope and cost no more than 15 cents a unit..." The whole team just crumbled.

But this was a great learning for me on the front of why project management belongs in a creative process, as much as in the building of a waste water treatment plant. What project management does, is allow the requirements gathering to take place, the "what you want to do and with what result," before the creative team gets going. It sets up a mindset of getting all the facts before the fun starts. What project management can mean, in its simplest terms to a creative organization is fully understanding the requirements and desired outcome a client is looking for - beyond the old "knock their socks off" talk. It allows a creative organization to understand the budget issues, the timings, the level of creativity, how and where it fits in with everything else the client is doing. Then as the project rolls out, Project Management allows the creative team to talk regularly with the client to make sure everything is on track and things haven't changed.  Project management in a creative environment is about clarity of direction and results. It is about meeting deadlines and surpassing the client’s expectations.

Good project management is about communications between different areas. It removes "disconnects" from the creative process. How many times has a creative organization done a super job up front with a client, and missed the boat at the production point? Many times one area, let's say the account management function within a creative organization, has a ton of upfront and ongoing communications with the client. Then the creative directors, the designers, the production artists, the traffic managers, etc. have lessening degrees of communications. And by the point the deliverable is at the printer’s there could be a total disconnection between the client and the desired outcome.

Solid project management within a creative environment allows for not one time or limited communications, but a constant and undiluted communications line between the client and all the touch points in the creative process. Project management in a creative environment is about continual communications. It is less about “freestyle writing” and more like a sonnet. Structure to creativity, a target for the results.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trust That The Team Will Do The Right Thing

It is a hard thing to be involved but not demand the steps to an end result. Many times a creative manager has the hard task of showing the path – by not forcing the people on their team to not “walk a certain way, think a certain way...” It requires that a clear, defined set of requirements and end result be given to a creative organization – BUT you cannot force a pre-determined end result. I have seen this time and time again. In twenty years of working with and within creative organizations I have seen a brilliant creative individual made the head of a group of creative types. The first mistake is the person thinks that now everyone on their team is now to act, be, think and generate results totally within their style and approach. They want to  lead a group of mini-me’s

I once took over the management of a design and production group. 30 creative souls trapped in design and management purgatory. The work was, OK, but it was dated and dry. So I met one on one with every person on the team. About 10% of the team was “happy just having a job” – and their work was the minimum of output and creativity. The remaining 90% said over and over again, “they didn’t feel trusted, that their ideas never were even discussed let alone taken into account.” In the end I found that everyone from the clerks, the creative directors, the artists, the photographers – everyone BUT the leader felt trapped.

When I sat down with the head of the group to review my findings, my main goal was to get him to trust his people. When the conversations began, he became very defensive. He said, over and over again, that he knew what they needed to do. They should just keep their mouths shut and do exactly as he says.

His proof was the fact that the owner of the business sent him a letter every year saying, “you did another outstanding job.” What he did realize was, the owner wasn’t the customer. The people receiving the out put of the team were the client, and sales were down 60%. After a 5-hour conversation, he realized that he needed to let his people try new things and become part of the process or they would all lose their jobs.

So over the next 16 weeks I talked with him daily, to see how it was going. I walked the floor, sat with the creative team and listened. It took a constant, “remember trust them, let them learn from doing not yelling” – and results began to come to the surface. The designs were fresh, the costs were reduced by 40% via new ideas and approaches and most importantly the people on the team began to buy in to what they were doing. Work became an expression of their creativity. The end result was a change from the past, and instead of a form letter from a the CEO there were increased sales and client love letters, customer service was hearing from the end users “I love the design, it’s easier to use, more of what I like…”

Was the effort greater than just demanding a path?  Yes. Was the result marketably different? Yes and no. Were the people involved more committed? A screaming yes (even the slugs were trying harder). Remember, trust that the creative team will do the best they can – even if it doesn’t look just like you want it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Color Is My Denim ?

Finding A Path: So where can a creative manager, a leader of an organization dedicated to creating, find a way to grow beyond the original founders and the chaos associated with creative expression? There are a few tools and guide posts to keep in mind. 

Keeping Your Vision Alive & Building Spirit

This is all about staying in touch with each and every person within an organization. It means walking the floors, sitting in meetings, and telling stories. Yes, telling stories. The best way to show a creative organization “the way to think” is by sharing experiences. Not in an overpowering way, but in a way where the stories fit into the moment, where they give a clear example of the how's and whys of a situation. 

Vision is all about wrapping an organization in a blanket of sincerity and connective-ness. It is less about hammering the heck out of it.  I remember a situation where the CEO of a company wanted a marketing communications organization to act less “wacky” and more like an accounting group. 

He hammered and yelled at the creative management, “stop them from coming into work in denim, stop them from playing football in the halls, stop them from…” He had a vision of the organization that had no room for creative disruption. In the end, he had the opposite result. It just angered the creative spirit of those in the communications organization. They rebelled, big time. My favorite was the presentation that the creative team did on types of denim and the comparison of denim vs. chambray fabric. 

What was needed was an honest and open sharing of the vision and values the CEO was looking for. Even letting the creatives see a weakness or by creating empathy based on the fact that the CEO was getting pushed by the other business units who were screaming at him “it’s not fair, why do they get to do whatever they want???” 

If he had woven a story that the creative organization could relate to, then a compromise could have been reached. Instead, there was 98% turnover in the organization, causing disruption and unbudgeted costs.  In the end, the CEO and management team got what they wanted – but at what cost in time, effort and spirit? Remember, not a hammer but a velvet embrace!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

But Master I Am Not A Painter!

Thought Point: We have all seen the 1969 movie classic “Agony & The Ecstasy” with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison. In a way it sums up how many creative projects begin. A client commissions a creative organization to take on their vision, their need, and their issue. The sales and management of that creative organization then need to convert those needs into the minds and souls of their creative. 

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II Della Rovere in 1508, to paint the Twelve Apostles and a few ornaments on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He, who had always insisted he was a sculptor, was thus to learn the art of fresco painting, and practice it on a vault decorated by fifteenth-century artists as a starry sky. 

However, as he began work on the project, Michelangelo conceived grander designs for the decoration of the ceiling. He spent the time between then and the 31st of October 1512 painting more than 300 figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

In the beginning, Michelangelo fought the direction and even the project. Not until he felt inspired, not until he conceived it as something greater than what the “client” had even asked for could he even imagine doing the work. In the end, he was driven by the spirit to create something that was bigger than the ideas of the original request and it was only then that he could start and ultimately complete the project. 

Here we see the struggle between creative genius and creative results. The client, and/ or manager attempting to jam their vision and ideas down the creative individual’s brain and force a result. Not until the ideas were internalized and where taken as the creative genius’ own, could the work even begin. In the end, the result was something beyond the money paid, the vision of the client. It was a masterpiece that has stood as a testament to the creative ability of individuals. A sculptor made into a painter. A chapel made into a temple of art.