Are you a creative director or creative dictator?

Are you a creative director or creative dictator?

No matter the industry, almost every agency and in-house creative team reports in some way to a creative director — or someone with a similar title — who manages the brand, delegates creative work, and oversees processes and productivity, among other responsibilities.

There are some individuals bearing this title, however, who function more like creative dictators. They micro-manage, adhere to rigid processes that stifle freedom and innovation, and often stand in the way of forward momentum.

A big reason for this dictatorial oversight is that, for many creative directors, the process of managing the work seems out of control. There is a lack of visibility on the status of projects, which leads to a fear of missed deadlines. So many react by getting closer to the details of each project. And that is where the managerial challenges begin.

The biggest danger of these behaviors, according to Workfront creative director David Lesue, is that “your team will only be as good and as fast as you — which, no matter how good and fast you are, isn't enough to meet the needs of an organisation.”

Not every creative leader is self-aware enough to recognise whether his or her leadership style leans more toward benevolent director or tyrannical dictator. How can you tell where you stand on the spectrum? Consider these three key differences between the two.

1. A director collaborates; a dictator commands

If you divide your time between leading and doing, and you get right into the trenches with your creative team, that’s one clue that you’re more of a collaborator than a commander. If, on the other hand, you believe that there’s one right solution for every creative problem, and that your opinion trumps all others in matters both objective and subjective, you may be veering into totalitarian territory.

“In my day-to-day,” says Jenny Theolin, owner of Studio Theolin, “the smartest person in the room, is the room.”

Rather than taking a hierarchical view of talent and creativity, Theolin follows an egalitarian approach that empowers all members of the team. For her, even the “creative director” title is too strong; she prefers “creative curator or facilitator.”

“I call myself a ‘Triber,’” she says. “I manage my teams by giving them the freedom to do, in parallel with supporting and facilitating their process.”

2. A director influences the environment; a dictator instructs individuals

Neil Hallmark, managing director of London-based PR agency Manifest, puts as much stock in the “F-word” as Theolin does. “The best creative leaders are facilitators,” he says. “They inspire through example whilst also providing their teams with the right environment, framework, and tools with which to explore the world around them.”

By focusing on shaping process and environment, a successful creative leader can influence the whole team in positive directions, without having to direct each individual team member’s decisions and output.

Paul Mitchell, creative director of Tea Entertain, uses a gardening metaphor to illustrate this point.

"I believe the role is essentially about nurturing the environment to be as stimulating as I can,” he says. “Preparation of the ground is an underestimated factor for successful planting as it is for creativity. As budding ideas begin to peek through, the role adapts and it's about creative husbandry: adding the ‘creative fertilizer’, weeding out the distractions, and encouraging the tiny seedlings that show to perform to their best, on their own.”

3. A director embraces flexibility; a dictator remains rigid

Processes are necessary for creative teams — in fact they foster them. When designed and managed right, they liberate designers and writers from organizational chaos. But, Hallmark points out, welcoming in a little bit of chaos can be good for creativity. Too much rigidity can kill it stone dead. Successful creative directors are able to use technology and process in a fine balance with creativity and expression. There is a role for both.

“Chaos and process are not mutually exclusive,” Hallmark says. “They both have an important role to play in the creative process. Creativity is constantly evolving, meaning rigid processes won't work if we want to keep innovating the industry.”

Lesue agrees that boundaries, guidelines, structures, and processes are important, but they can’t become more important than progress and innovation.

“We have established strong brand touchstones — a brand guide, asset templates, and great example pieces—that represent the visual brand that we are striving for,” Lesue explains. “The team knows to draw from them when creating anything new. But they also know that those touchstones aren't inflexible. The brand is a living, evolving thing that the design gets to push — over time — into new directions.”

Director or dictator?

These four creative leaders aren’t just walking that fine line between “director” and “dictator,” they’re so far on the collaborative end of the spectrum that some of them wouldn’t call themselves creative directors at all. They understand that a true leader in any industry must collaborate, facilitate, and create a flexible working environment that, in the words of Mitchell, has the potential to “create many surprising and unexpected results that often over-deliver on your wildest expectations.” Show me a dictator who can do that.

Joe Staples is chief marketing officer at Workfront.

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Joe Staples

Joe Staples is chief marketing officer at Workfront.

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