Creative Leadership

How to Respond to Creatives

I received this note from a friend recently: “I’d love to see you comment on how to give feedback to creative types. I just had a client give me an hour to write a script with no direction. Two days later, I heard that it was “terrible and to rewrite it.” My friend’s note hit home, because I’ve certainly worked for difficult clients. Nothing could be more counter productive to getting creative results than slapping down your writer, designer, media director, or other creative staff member.  How should you respond?  If you know someone having trouble supervising creative employees, pass these tips along:

1. First – Don’t be vague with the assignment.  Most bosses ask for creative work in incredibly general terms and then get upset that the creative doesn’t nail it the first time. Creative writing, designing, video editing, or anything else is like stabbing in the dark. Unless we have some direction, we’re likely to miss the mark. And what if you don’t know what you want? Then admit it. We’re happy to help. And when that happens, be more understanding when we don’t get it right the first attempt. Creativity is collaborative, and the most innovative companies know how to support each other and work together.

2. Give your people the right tools.  God can make a diamond from a lump of coal, but creative people can’t. Give your people the software, time schedule, and support to do great work.

3. Stop treating every creative person the same.  Everyone is different – we prepare differently, write or design differently, think differently, and live differently. Managing every creative person on your team the same way will only result in failure.

4. Be specific.  It’s fine not to like the product. But help us understand what missed the mark. Just saying, “It doesn’t work” or “I don’t like it” doesn’t tell us what’s wrong or what we could do better.

5. Seniority means nothing.  Stop promoting less talented people just because they’ve been around longer.  Loyalty is great, but talent is far greater.  Strong leaders understand how to value the best employees.  That’s the way to get results.

6.  Finally – think long term.  Work to build a strong creative department by being supportive, providing resources, and most of all give encouragement.

It’s important to remember not to be afraid to express disappointment, or even frustration – but only after you’ve followed the 6 points above. Coddling your creative team is just as bad as crushing them. Tell them the truth and be direct. The more feedback the better. But be specific, and help them deliver a great final product. You’ll be much happier with the result.

Any other suggestions to pass along?

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  1. Memo to Bosses: No creative can be done to your liking unless you present a strategy and the objectives to the team. Too often bosses talk much and say little. An abusive tone will undermine your ability to communicate anything. We creatives are human. The carrot works better than the stick. We want to please. Help us.

  2. Oh you are so rigth.. Work with graphic design, like posters or CD covers and stuff like that. The WORST THING EVER is when your boss calls you in to show the brand new work – and all they say is “thats not good enough!”. They can’t what is wrong, which direction to go in or anything, its just not good enough!

    If you want to kill a persons creative mood – point 4 is the way to do it.

  3. I think #5 is a valuable piece of advice. Creatives will work better for stronger leaders and just butt heads with ‘seniority’. Not to mention, creatives aren’t easily intimidated by pressure, so applying it doesn’t really change anything. #6 is SO important! Build a strategy for building your team, don’t just hire the easiest or cheapest to get the job done.

  4. A great six-pointer! Communication, communication, communication…. it can’t be said enough. Valuable info, thanks Phil.

  5. There is also a fine line to walk between structure and smothering. Creatives need room to breath. I love a quote from Mad Men where Don justifies their methods by saying “You have to understand we let them be unproductive until they aren’t.” Creatives need a certain amount of room and time that more cognitive practices don’t. As my drawing teacher once said “Some days you just aren’t creative.”

  6. I was in the third world country a few months ago, surrounded by extreme poverty, three of the children we met the first day died before the third day of hunger. Our task was to document stories to bring to the TV audience of a large ministry. Just as we were getting ready to shoot, we get the worse kind of call from the ministry HQ. The mission film we shot the week before was “terrible…what were we thinking…can we go out and find the right shots?”

    It took hours to pick up the creative team, put them back on their horse, dust them off and send them into battle.

    As it turned out, the stories we got that we were yelled at about generated record response. The stories we got after being yelled at? Not so much.

  7. “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it, not hard enough and it flies away.” – Tommy Lasorda

    Lasorda’s quote works well with creatives too.

  8. “2. Give your people the right tools.”

    Absolutely.  This is one of my favorite mantras.

    I’ve noticed two things all too often.

    1. People are afraid to ask for any tools, software, help, etc., because they’ve been shot down so many times for such requests.

    2.  People are so busy doing their work, they haven’t taken the time, etc., to learn what tools are available.

    Oh, and there is that training issue.  New technology involves a learning curve, and folks don’t feel they have the freedom to take time from daily tasks to learn new tools that will be more productive in the long run.

    When I research and introduce new tools, I make sure to include the training, which results in improved productivity.

  9. I have come across this 4th point many a times huh.But when they give a project they have an outline or something fixed in their mind but wont tell or be specific enough.even if we give them as many designs as possible they say its bad intead of saying what is bad. Finally we gotta forcibly 🙂 get their mind out and do the work ,and then they say oh this is what we want 🙂


  10. Communication design by it’s nature is fiercely competitive. If you don’t care for the competition, consider moving to fine art or poetry.

  11. :::Watch this::: Q: How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: 5. The first one to actually write the script and the other 4 to say they could have done it better! :::Click. Poof!:::

  12. Just thot I’d say I really don’t expect my boss — a huge Phil Cooke fan — to forward this blog to our creative team 🙂

  13. While I agree with your suggestions, I have one of my own for creatives…Be creative! The frustration lies in over-used, stale and or safe approaches to the task at hand. The product often looks old and tired and shows little effort or creativity in many cases. Why is the person who is frustrated by this, time and again, the bad guy? Creatives aren’t the only people passionate about their work!
    I know in our case, the same directives, with explanations, are communicated over and over to little or no avail with certain staff or creative/marketing teams on occasion. Strangely enough, they seem surprised when called to task on the matter and become the typical wounded victim who is misunderstood, under-appreciated, and still smarter than everyone else! Take a seat on the other side of the table and see what people, with a mission to be as effective with the gospel message as possible,also have to deal with.

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