FIRE UP your creative team

It happens to every creative department. Between tight schedules, last-minute revisions and rush projects, the creative staff falls into a rut. Designers begin to rely on the same old layouts they’ve used a dozen times before, copywriters fall back on their pet phrases to describe products, and the “close-enough-is-good-enough” syndrome becomes standard operating procedure.

What can the poor creative director do? Here are a few tips to boost your team’s morale high and keep them coming up with new selling ideas.

KNOW THE PLAYERS

It’s tough to manage any department, much less a creative group, if you don’t really know them as individuals — what they like, what they dislike, what they want out of the job, what their interests and goals are, what moves them.

The easiest way to find out is to ask them. It sounds obvious, but I’m amazed at how few managers do this. When a new person starts, hand them a sheet of paper with questions like these: Who are your favorite bands? What are your favorite sports? Favorite movies? What Websites do you like? What are your hobbies and interests outside of work? What do you like about graphic design, advertising, or marketing? What do you want from this job?

All you’re trying to do is get a fix on where each member of your staff’s interests lie. Be sure to tell the new employee that the answers to these questions are only to help you get to know him or her better. Then file the information away where you can easily refer to it.

CREATE A CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT

Take a look around your workplace. Is it conducive to creative thinking? Does it look like a place you’d want to spend time in if you weren’t being paid to be there? If it’s a “cubicle city” with corporate gray colors, it’s time to change it.

Rather than decide what your department’s creative space should look like, ask your team. Solicit volunteers from your staff, form a committee, and give them the task of recommending the colors to paint the walls, how the cubicles could be arranged, and so on. In other words, give your department a stake in what the place where they’re going to spend the better part of their day should look like.

Yes, you’ll likely have to get buy-in from your HR and facilities departments. But try to persuade them that creative people need a creative work environment and that this isn’t being done on a whim. In fact, it will actually pay big dividends down the road when you have a happier, more productive creative department.

One decorating tip: Be sure to leave space for an “ego wall” where you display your department’s work and awards. I also like to put up photos of the staff on that same wall, to reinforce the fact that these are the folks who created the designs.

TEACH THEM NEW TRICKS

Over the years, I’ve found that while money and titles are nice motivators, they’re only temporary. The thrill of a raise or a new title doesn’t last long — learning does. Most people, especially creative types, love to learn. Discovering new techniques, finding out why certain tactics work, and picking up the tips and tricks of the trade keep people interested in the job.

Encourage your staff to ask you questions about everything from eyeflow to color psychology to the differences in readership between serif and nonserif typefaces. In fact, encourage them to question everything all the time, and to use the things they learn in their own work.

HAVE AN OPEN DOOR POLICY

Make sure your staff knows they can come in at any time and ask you questions about design, layout and copy. Sure, you’ll have to put up with some interruptions — maybe a lot of interruptions. But the people who interrupt you the most are the staffers who will likely turn into your creative superstars, because they’re the ones who are truly interested in learning their craft.

Wander around your office every day. Look over people’s shoulders. Ask them questions. Let them know you’re interested in their work. Just be careful you don’t over-direct and begin telling them exactly how to design a catalog page or what headline to use on your Website. There are times you’ll be tempted to do it for them rather than letting them come up with their own solutions; resist this temptation.

Set high standards and challenge your creative staff to meet or better them. Be sure they know your standards and understand that second-rate work won’t cut it. Nothing energizes a creative department like knowing that the work they’re doing is topnotch — everyone wants to be on the number-one team.

DON’T BURN THEM OUT


Be sure to keep a watchful eye on your production schedules. There’s always the temptation to let the creative standards slip or to say “it’s good enough” just to get the work out the door. And then it happens a second time. And a third. Once you get in this rut you’ll eventually find that your department is producing a lot of work, but none of it is really exemplary any more.

It’s the path to certain creative death. And the first ones to leave for greener pastures will be your best creative people. To avoid this, you may need to fight for more time in your schedule. Or you might have to demand more people if you need increased manpower to maintain your creative standards. It’s helpful to develop a team of freelancers who you can occasionally call on to take some of the workload off your staff.

And when someone’s gone beyond the call of duty and done something really terrific, reward him or her for the initiative and hard work. What do you do? Refer to the paper you had your new employee fill out on his/her first day of work. If you know that the employee’s favorite band is coming to town, you might spring for a few tickets as a thank-you.

The idea is to reward people not with an “employee-of-the-month parking space,” but with something they’ll really value. If you can’t afford two tickets to a concert, consider a gift certificate to a place you know the employee will like — a favorite restaurant or store, for instance.

BE PART OF THE TEAM


Your production schedule may require the occasional “all-nighter” or even “all-weekender.” That’s not always a bad thing, as it gives people the chance to reach for that “little extra” and push themselves a bit harder. When they’re done, they’ll almost be elated that they pulled off the project or projects.

But you should be there with them: The captain doesn’t desert the bridge of the ship in the storm. If they’re in the office late, you stay late, too — even if you’re not directly involved in the project. If they’re in on a weekend, drop in to check on them. Make sure you pop for food, too.

Show up at input meetings when the information is being passed from marketing or merchandising to your creative folks. It shows that you take their work seriously.

You’ll see if the creative hand-offs are going smoothly. And you’ll know if your people are getting beat up at presentations. I’ve noticed everyone perks up and gets just a bit more serious when the creative director attends a briefing or presentation.

Try to make sure the input your team gets is as good as it can possibly be. Designers should be able to leave the meeting with enough accurate information to produce a great piece of work. If you attend enough input meetings and voice your concern that maybe the input isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, you’ll usually see it slowly get better.

USE (AND ABUSE) YOUR COMPETITORS


It’s common for marketing people to analyze the competition. They study competitive offers, products and even creative presentations. They try to figure out what the competition is doing and why. But the creative department is often left out in the cold. If you get your creatives involved in looking at the competition, you’ll instantly see a more positive outlook.

Take a couple of hours every few months and put the competition’s work up in a conference room. Then go over their work with your department. Dissect it. And encourage opinions from your staff. What are they doing really well? Where do you think they’re missing the boat? What could we learn from them? And what could they learn from us?

In dissecting the competition, you’ll indirectly dissect your own work, too. And it’s more than likely your copywriters and designers will come up with some fresh approaches to your projects. They’ll be better informed, and better-informed creatives translates to better-performing creative work.

SHARE THE RESULTS


Make sure your creative staff feels important. Let them know that they’re not there just to crank out ads or mailers or e-mails or catalogs, but that they’re an integral part of the company.

Let your staff know how their pieces pulled — how the catalog, Website, or e-mail campaign they slaved over did — product by product. It imparts ownership and also touches the competitive streak within all of us.

EDUCATIONAL EXPERIENCES


Designers, art directors and writers seldom get to go to conferences. They’re usually back at the office while the manager-types get to attend. When I was just starting out in the business, I was fortunate to be sent to a conference. The experience changed my life: Not only did I pick up a lot of creative tips, I also learned a lot about other aspects of our industry.

The lesson? Try to get your creative folks to conferences and seminars as often as possible. It breaks their routine and gives their energy level a shot in the arm. Point out the sessions you think they should go to, and encourage them to attend any awards ceremonies. They’ll get an idea of what others in their industry are producing and will likely feel challenged to raise their level of work to compete with the award-winners.

You can’t afford to send people to a conference? Bring in outside speakers or workshop leaders to inject enthusiasm into your group. And vary your speakers from a direct marketing guru to a photographer or illustrator to perhaps a well-known graphic designer. They don’t all have to be multichannel-marketing related.

One time, I brought in some members of a local dance troupe. I worried no one would be interested. But it really recharged the department’s batteries. Did they use what they learned about modern dance? Not directly. But, it sure raised the energy level and enthusiasm. You could almost feel the creative juices in the whole department flowing!
KK


Kevin Kotowski is president of Olson/Kotowski, a multichannel marketing and communications agency in Torrance, CA.

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