Five Tips for Managing Creatives Without Crushing Their Souls

Higher education attracts some truly fabulous creative minds to marketing communications. They like the intellectual communities, the vibes of college towns, the opportunities to engage in creative activities outside of their day jobs, and the relative flexibility of working at a college or university.

And sometimes they drive higher ed marketing and communications leadership crazy. They can thrive on unconventional schedules, unconventional dress, pushing the envelope, engaging with controversial issues, and saying “what if” well into a process or deliverable.

Here’s the thing: managing creatives is more an art than a science, but if you can do it without crushing their souls, you will get sparkling, innovative, on-message content and execution that embodies your institutional brand. Thinking about some very successful relationships I have had with creative colleagues, I have teased out some common threads that made us all successful, sometimes brilliantly. A number of these professionals have moved on to lead teams and do other amazing things.

  1. Don’t tell a creative person what to do or how to do it, tell them why.

This is the difference between management and leadership. Management keeps the trains running but leadership pushes strategy down into the organization, where it can really thrive in all kinds of unexpected ways.

If you take every interaction as a moment to help your team live your brand, you’ll get some amazing results. But they have to know WHAT your brand is. So, don’t just say, “I need you to produce a video of no more than two minutes that recaps the orientation experience at this university from the student’s point of view.”

The bigger context really helps, in this case, “Orientation is also a crucial time for the recruitment cycle for undergraduates, what I would like to do is have a video that showcases all of the work our student leaders do to make people feel welcome, captures the nervous vibe of incoming students, helps prospective students visualize themselves here, and shows some of the things that make our school stand out in its peer group. I’m challenging you to get the student voice into this piece — and you have total flexibility about how to do that.”

This approach resulted in a 63 second orientation video that perfectly embodied the undergraduate brand for this institution and garnered some of the largest audiences we had seen.

2. Set up guardrails, but apply them with an eye toward nuance.

Yes, you have to have graphic identity standards, but they really must make sense. If your school color is one of those that looks completely different on a screen, on a banner, in textiles, and on coated and uncoated paper, maybe having “One True Pantone™ color” is not the solution. Ask your creative people to figure out which variation is the best for each application — and to create a complementary color palette.

Yes, you need them to be in the office during core office hours or to meet with clients, but when they’ve been photographing a late night event or there’s something important happening on campus, or the light is just right — don’t chain them to their desks.

Go to bat for them, or rearrange your budget to get them the tools they need, the ergonomics they want, and let them have some flexibility in how they arrange their work environment. I could care less what people think about a forest of inflatable palm trees in the office or why, exactly, there are a bunch of Brussels sprouts and half a Chewbacca costume in the photography studio, as long as the team is creating great work. Quirky gonna quirk, folks.

3. Give permission to take risks and give them a safety net.

Especially when you are a new boss, sometimes you need to say this out loud. Let your creatives take risks. Sometimes they’ll go too far, but make it clear that you are holding the net for them. You may, at times, have to ask them to dial back a concept or a statement because of the many audiences you serve, but make it clear when you do this that it is because you have their backs. I have found that the reward side of letting your creative team take risks is much greater than the risk side.

4. When you have to say no, be truthful and clear.

Sometimes you have to say no. One year I was reviewing a photo set from an LGBTQA event on campus and one photo of a transgender student — who happened to be an armed services veteran and have an interesting personal backstory — was really striking. But our university was right in the middle of a very conservative area, and the photo set was meant to be shared on social media. So I asked the team to take it out.

Cue outrage. This is where my habit of walking around and talking to people paid off. The photographer in question was really upset and felt censored. I sat down with him and explained that the photo, which was of a single student, was really hard to contextualize on social media and — in a way that usually isn’t true of group photos — might make the subject a target of hate. Given that we are educators first, and a safe environment is essential to learning, I didn’t feel that it was in the best interest of the student to share it in a medium where we couldn’t give context.

5. Praise liberally, correct sparingly.

This cannot be empty praise — you have to be specific and meaningful about what you are praising and why. It’s the nature of creative types to parse communications for authenticity and nothing will lose respect faster than over-praising, praising the wrong things, or ignoring the nuance. If you offer unsolicited positive feedback, it makes the times you have to say no, or tighten up the safety net, a little easier to take.

Writing this post makes me nostalgic for some incredible work I’ve seen from some truly talented and dedicated people, and I’d like to hear more stories from them and their colleagues — can I get some in the comments?

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