Why are In-house Creative Teams so Uninspired?

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Part 1- “Take the initiative, Mr. Hooper!”

In this world of social media, modular web applets, and distributed corporate messaging, it’s getting harder for agencies to step into the client’s shoes and develop cohesive solutions. Their ability to address pieces of the puzzle still makes them valuable, especially in these days of restricted budgets and restrained internal resources. Yet at the same time, it underscores the growing necessity to have a motivated internal team that embodies the essence of the brand while forging meaningful customer relationships. Agencies get the audience piece really well, but are more likely to fall short in their ability to embrace the internal culture and brand essence.

The funny thing is that the same things that undermine an agency’s effectiveness conspire against building an effective internal team. Nigel Colin lists some of these dynamics in his recent post on 6 Ways To Frustrate Creative People, and while it’s important to recognize them, it’s even more critical to understand how to counteract them within the unique confines of a corporate culture. He correctly identifies the frustration points as micromanaging, too much process, too much structure (especially time restrictions), too little freedom to explore, and a lack of respect. Now…anyone who has EVER worked in a corporate environment has experienced all of these pain points, (perhaps even in their first week on the job), so we need to acknowledge that it’s nothing personal against the creative teams… they’re just in an environment where creative expression is naturally absent.

The point on Nigel’s list that stands out the most for me is the issue of respect. Most in-house creative people don’t feel respected or acknowledged for what they do. To me this is a core reason why in-house teams struggle, and I’m convinced that both sides are to blame for it. But rather than sit back and wait for the non-creative boss to suddenly realize how brilliant and valuable you are, the onus is on you to take the first step in showing your respect and allegiance to the business.

Don’t wait for respect, earn it!

It reminds me of the dynamic between Quint and Mr. Hooper in the movie Jaws, with Quint representing business leaders and Hooper acting as the creative department. Quint is on an important and dangerous mission, he knows how to be successful, and is empowered and paid to achieve a result. Along comes this young pup who thinks differently and is undermining Quint’s world view with new ideas and process. Animosity ensues.

Quint was a jerk but Hooper was arrogant…neither made much of an effort to understand the other when in reality their differences could have made them unbeatable. Many creatives refuse to understand the needs of the business… they don’t value the same things the business values and they just want to do their thing. Most managers and directors can sniff out an ivory tower mentality that defines success as winning awards or boosting your portfolio site. They can discern pretty quickly that you either don’t understand their needs, or that you just don’t care about them. The best in-house creatives are those who demonstrate a natural curiosity for the needs of the business, and they frame the strengths or weaknesses of their work within that context.  We should say things like: “This layout will drive more conversion because…and we should A/B test to see which design drives better results.” rather than talking about the innovative effects of Papervision or the cool things the competition is doing. We still think those things are cool (and so do our non-creative directors or VPs), we just don’t make coolness the justification for our recommendations.

When you’re presented with an impossible deadline for a project that should take much longer and requires significant ideation, most in-house creatives will follow one of two routes: they either scramble and grumble, eventually giving up in despair, or they push back, raise a fuss, are forced to do it anyway, and eventually give up in despair. Either way they don’t do their best work, and they end up feeling undervalued and disrespected.

An alternative approach is to understand what’s driving the urgency of the deadline and what the specific outcome needs to be. Do we need to demonstrate progress to the president, hit a date for the shareholders and the street, or perhaps impress a potential client who’s in town for just that day? Creative serves the business and not vice versa, we need to ask what we can reasonably accomplish in the time frame, and how do we right-size our efforts to the deadline and the importance of the moment? Finally, we need to present multiple options that outline the risks and advantages, emphasizing that our primary objective is to support the business and to make our bosses look good.

That last comment will ruffle feathers in the “artist as free spirit” community. We see art as a democracy where the most creative and inspired voice always wins. That’s not business. Business is a dictatorship, starting from the top. Think of it more like the military. There are campaigns and assaults that seek to gain market share and profits, taking no prisoners and spilling blood along the way. Agencies tend to function more like mercenaries who are paid to fight certain battles but never take sides. But if you’re in-house, you’re drafted brother, and you need to understand that your job is to support your commanding officer and make him look good. If he’s misguided he will be discovered in time (or bitten in half, in Quints case), but rebelling or “checking out” creatively almost never works.

When talking to non-creative execs I tend to say things like: “I’ve got your back”, “We’re here to make you look good”, or “We’ll do whatever it takes/whatever the business needs.”. This only sounds like sucking up if you don’t mean it, in which case you belong in the mercenary agency world. But on the battlefield of corporate business, a manager needs to know that the guy next to him has got his back. This also becomes an opportunity to build a bridge where the creative team can be seen as a true resource rather than a necessity that needs to be kept in line. It’s kind of like the scene in Jaws where the boat is sinking, the shark is circling, and Quint is out of ideas. He sheepishly asks Hooper “just exactly what can you do with this fancy equipment of yours?”

Our goal is to demonstrate that value before there’s a crisis, and to be central in the business plan. That’s where the responsibility of the business comes in….but I’ll address that in the next installment where I’ll discuss how an organization needs to motivate, empower, and inspire their creatives.

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