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Creative Brand Strategy Open Mic

Think inside the box: the secret guide to creative excellence in marketing

By Wes Morton | Founder / CEO

Creativ Strategies


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July 5, 2023 | 11 min read

Here Wes Morton (founder and CEO, Creativ Strategies) speaks to creative leaders from across the industry about their secrets to managing, retaining, and getting the best work out of creative talent.

Creatively thinking inside (not out) of the box

Direct your creative talent to think inside the box, say creative industry leaders

It pays to have creatives working on or in your business.

A study by Mckinsey showed that businesses that indexed in the top quartile of creativity outperformed other firms across several metrics, including organic revenue growth, shareholder returns, and net enterprise value by at least 64%.

However, the elusive creative professional can be tricky to find, retain, and manage. I spoke to several veteran creative leaders to define a comprehensive guide to managing, finding, and retaining creative talent.

How to manage creative talent

The unifying theme behind producing bold creativity in your organization was autonomy plus support.

There’s something inherently scary about creating new things for public scrutiny. The autonomy to experiment combined with a supportive structure produces environments where creative innovation thrives.

Sachini Imbuldeniya, a 20 year veteran and executive creative director at Nemorin, thinks that balance of creative autonomy and supportive management is hard to find. “Our industry is built on constantly progressing, innovating and finding new ways to do things that never existed before. And to do that well, creatives need to have a kind of bloody-mindedness – that sense of ‘fuck you, I’m doing it my way.’ I want creatives in my team to push the envelope, seek out fresh perspectives and try things in new ways rather than relying on the old, ’trusted’ methods.”

“Unfortunately, the ones that are really good can be a bit of a nightmare to manage: that instinct to question everything is great when it comes to a brief, but it's not always ideal when you’re asking them to meet a deadline.” She believes striking that balance between creative freedom and support can make the management of creatives a particular challenge.

Adam Flanagan, senior creative director at Mocean, an award-winning entertainment and brand agency in Los Angeles, echoes the need for autonomy and support. Creatives pour a lot of themselves into their work. That emotional output means a creative manager’s role is to be a trusted guide and sounding board to refine the work.

“If you’re good, you probably have a fairly self-critical bar you’ve set for yourself,” says Flanagan. “There’s a lot of emotions that come with that on the daily, and a good manager is going to be aware and supportive of their team.”

George Tannenbaum spent decades managing creatives at storied agencies such as RGA, Lowe, FCB, Digitas, and finally as the executive creative director and copy chief at Ogilvy. His blog Ad Aged is one of the most widely read independent blogs in advertising. His advice on managing creatives is simple. “Let them know they’ll be rewarded if they bust their asses”.

“When they do good work, they get good work. If they keep doing good work, you promote them. If they don't do good work, you give them worse assignments. If they make something out of those assignments, they're forgiven. If they don't do a good job--again--you look to get rid of them.”

Tannenbaum’s plain approach to management epitomizes the core principle echoed by all the creative leaders we talked to. Challenge creatives and get out of their way. Support and push their creative vision. Reward them when they perform. Autonomy plus support.

How to get the most out of creative talent

Creatives are self motivated, inquisitive professionals that study the world around them in order to shape it into something new.

From talks with creative leaders, the key to creative excellence is your organization's ability to channel that inquisitive energy via clear direction, ownership, and feedback.

With so many directions a project can take, a clear set of guidelines delivers the best results. “Clarity is so important for non-linear thinkers,” says Brett Brown, head of creative for The Fifth, a social-creative agency based in Los Angeles. “Clarity in the process, which is why CDs need to advocate for process and collaborate with PMs. Clarity in reviews, which is why actionable, clear feedback is mandatory if you want to be a good leader to your creative talent.”

Creative excellence also requires ownership. According to Flanagan, the best way to attain creative excellence is to let creative talent run with the brief themselves. “As a leader and manager, you’re there to coach them and guide them along the creative process. I come with the experience, I’ve seen a lot of it, and I want to use that experience to help them achieve what they dream of making. It might not always be what their initial vision was, but if they feel like they’re owning their part of the project, then they’ll always put in their best effort.”

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Yet, the final product often clashes with the original creative’s vision. How to provide creative feedback stumps a lot of managers, especially from the brands. Imbuldeniya believes good feedback comes from a place of mutual respect. You don’t need to be a designer or copywriter to critique their work, but you do need to impart your desire for the best work possible.

“My job is to push them to create the best work, not dictate how you get there,” says Imbuldeniya. “There’s a huge difference between saying the work isn’t good enough, and the person who created it isn’t good enough. I put my faith in my team to deliver, with the occasional nudge in the right direction. And for me, that has worked really well.”

Clarity on deliverables and feedback. Ownership and credit. High standards. Define the guidelines but give creatives the liberty to experiment within those defined lines.

Direct your creative talent to think inside the box.

Finding the best creative talent

Our conversations with creative leaders uncovered a common truth on finding and retaining great creative talent: create a culture where these people want to work.

Imbuldenyia stresses that diversity should be a major driver in your creative recruitment. She says creativity breeds in spaces that facilitate divergent thinking. “People from different walks of life – people from working class backgrounds, people living with disabilities, women, people of color, and so on – inevitably see the world through the lens of their lived experiences, and their creative work reflects that.”

Flanagan says great creatives are passionate about making great work. He says creatives want an employer to share their passion for excellence. For Flanagan, finding creative potential is about discovering people with that self-critical passion. “If you can tell they care about what they do and the work they put out there, then I know I can support and foster that to help them reach their goals. You have to care enough to put in the work, because anything is possible with enough hard work.”

Creatives are drawn to employers that create space for people to do and work with the best. That involves collecting a diverse set of people that give a damn about the finished product. Diversity isn’t about corporate brownie points. It's about developing that space where talented, creative people want to work.

In his signature dry and matter-of-fact copy, George Tannenbaum encapsulates, “The best way to spot creative talent is to always be looking for it. Make finding good, curious, hard-working people a major part of your job. You retain people by challenging them, treating them well, and helping them grow.”

A quick case study in creative direction and how to think inside the box

A blank sheet is daunting. As we’ve discussed, clear guidelines, goals, and a sense of ownership for a creative endeavor deliver the best results. We conducted a short experiment to demonstrate how a single set of guidelines can produce different results.

We posed the following brief to two designers:

Your assignment is to create whatever you want using this box outline attached. You can color inside or outside the lines, use it as part of a composite, create a character, a modern piece, go wild. But you must use the four connecting lines and cannot break the shape apart.

Here’s what we got.

Different designs from the same creative brief


Submission 1: Cole de Brito

Submission 2: Will Varner

Results will vary based on the style and person. However, by providing clear direction and ownership over the work, you’ll be amazed by what you get back.

Only one question remains: what will you create next? With a little help, it could be great.

Creative Brand Strategy Open Mic

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Creativ Strategies

Creativ Strategies is a full-service marketing consultancy and studio for media, entertainment, and tech brands. Challenges welcome.

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