One issue that is generally swept under the table in many smaller agencies is the fostering of a creative environment throughout the agency. It seems that many smaller agencies are so pressed for time, and so short-handed, that the work is just banged out as quickly as possible. This is dangerous not only for the ongoing viability of your people (they burn out very quickly), but also for the ongoing viability of your business since great creative ideas are the only thing you'll be able to sell in the future. It is critically important, in our opinion, that you strive to foster a creative environment in your agency so that your valuable people can operate at their best. Here are eight ideas you may be able to use in structuring that environment.
- Melting the Brainstorming Deep Freeze. If your agency creates ideas in team meetings, then surely you've been faced with the "icy cold" period most team meetings experience.
That first half-hour can be deadly. No one wants to talk, and people are willing to defer to the person in charge. Your responsibility as a creative manager is to "break the ice" and get people thinking and sharing. We know of agencies who allot the first half-hour to talking about anything in order to create an open environment. One agency principal opens creative meetings by playing scenes from classic comedy movies; e.g. Monty Python's "Lumberjack Song," "The Pink Panther" (the "priceless Steinway" scene), "Blazing Saddles" (the bean scene), "Young Frankenstein" (Egore/Igore), Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" or "Groundhog Day" to loosen everyone up. Make the environment crazy and freewheeling—in fact, fun—and creative juices will begin to flow. (Read Marilyn Barefoot’s “Hey, What’s, I Say, What’s the Big Idea, Son?” in our 2019 Summer Second Wind Magazine.)
- Just Say "Yes." Probably the biggest deterrent to creative sharing is the non-acceptance of ideas. People are afraid to be openly creative if they feel their ideas will be immediately criticized. As a manager, you must make sure this doesn't happen. We have a friend who is a creative attorney. His philosophy on creative sessions with his people is that no idea is bad. He takes in all ideas regardless of what he personally thinks of them, and allows the idea to be thoroughly discussed. Only after the group has agreed will he discard an idea. This environment of acceptance has made his meetings very creative, and very productive.
- Two Are Better Than One. We recently spoke to an agency principal who said their agency has begun treating creative meetings in two parts.
The first meeting is the input session where the creatives and the account service people exchange and discuss project information. The second meeting is the creative session where all of the information is at hand, and the creative team is able to proceed in a smoother, more informed fashion. We agree with this. Meetings, where both input and creative are discussed, can become long and arduous. Plus, if creatives have a little time to consider the input, the stage 2 creative sessions will be more productive.
- Dress (the Set) for Creative Success. We are always surprised at how un-creative-looking most creative departments are. But really creative agencies go far beyond mere set dressing to create inspiring work spaces.
In many of the agencies we have visited, the creative department is simply an extension of the rest of the agency. An agency creative department should take on a life of its own. The decor should be a little different than in the rest of the agency. Dress, music, furniture should all emphasize the creative environment. An agency creative director with whom we spoke, recently said the thing that bound their creative department together was their mutual love of all types of music. They moved happily from Motown to Vivaldi to alternative rock, depending on their mood, the time of day or night, and their workload. "Music is a great motivator," she reported," and we mix it up as much as we can."
- Structure the Day for "Groove Time." By far the best way to foster a creative environment is to structure the day as well as possible so that creatives have that all important groove time to work uninterrupted.
We wrote about this in The Structured Day, advocating that agencies commit to a daily routine where all meetings take place at the beginning or end of the workday, leaving the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. uninterrupted for creatives to get into the work. Good creative cannot be done fifteen minutes at a time in between pop-up meetings with clients and account service people. Establish "groove time" and enforce it.
- Off-Site and Out of This World. Something that we found fostered a creative environment at our former agencies was, whenever possible, to hold creative meetings "off campus."
We would go to great lengths to have creative meetings in weird and offbeat places. There is nothing that says all creative meetings must be held in the agency conference room. If time allows, and a creative meeting is needed, take your people to someplace where the new environment will stir the creative juices. Have you ever tried a meeting on the top of a mountain? We did. Did you ever go to an amusement park, or a restaurant, or a kid's museum? Try this. We think you'll be amazed at the creativity this "mind-traveling" will engender.
And Two More... Finally, there are two other things that we feel foster great creative.
- One is the "parent figure" image. We have a theory that creatives are all looking for a parent figure, someone to look up to. We think it is probably part of the creative psyche to seek acceptance and support of their ideas. If you are mentally able, try to be that figure. The truth is most great creative agencies have had that parental figure. Look at Bill Bernbach or David Ogilvy. They were not only great creators, they knew how to manage a creative effort. Much of that management was the parental image they projected to their employees.
- Make the workplace fun. The other idea for fostering great creative comes from the employer of a former agency partner who, for forty years, succeeded by paying people very modestly and having a lot of parties. This agency would have a party a week. The idea was to make the agency fun. And it worked. People did very good work because they felt the agency was a great place to work for. But you can also create room for creatives to play as they generate ideas. Having fun should be part of your creative culture.
The fact is, creative people are happy for the opportunity to do great work. By taking some simple steps to encourage a truly inspiring environment, and a spirit of creative risk-taking that invites innovation and experimentation, your agency can grow from a good creative agency to a world-beater. Try these creative ideas to get started.