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Running a Creative Team: How to Gather Folks and Keep the Team Together

When a creative team is continually working for a number of brands, its members often face three challenges: burnout, low profile, and narrow specialization. However, we managed to solve these problems.

My name is Sergey. I lead a team of copywriters, designers, animators, editors, developers, and localizers. More than 40 people create content and advertising for fintech product promotion all over the world. There are enough resources to create communications of different complexity for all channels and formats. The studio was created inside the Dataduck marketing agency.

In traditional studios, professionals constantly hear that “the design must solve the client’s problem” and “people must find the content useful.” But do you know what happens to your ideas after they are implemented? Does your design solve business problems? Is the content really useful?

Perhaps you will come across your design or text somewhere on the internet in a couple of months. You will be able to take a critical look at it, thinking of what could have been done better, rephrased, re-shot, or rewritten. But you already have new clients, and the former ones did not share the results of their ad campaign with you.

At Dataduck, we are constantly working to promote multiple brands, measure communication effectiveness, select the best solutions, and make them even better.

Our specialists are always in touch with the customer’s product team, buyers, and PR specialists. We’re the first to test the updates, get results of user surveys, and ask the developers hardball questions. What makes us different from a traditional studio is that you can develop and implement your ideas with us. This is the first thing I tell a person at a job interview.

We have been working as a team for three years. We had to experiment before people started getting settled at the company for a long term and recommending their friends for a job here. The three most painful problems we faced were burnout, narrow specialization, and lack of publicity.

Challenge One: Burnout

A couple of years ago we were just putting together the team. One day, I had meetings with three colleagues who separately decided to quit their jobs. These guys found it hard to force themselves to write content and do design for dozens of landing pages, which are not so different from each other.

We parted with those employees with great regret because we were losing not only excellent pros but also part of our experience of working with the product in the market. This is why we started to fight burnout and hand out options to keep our employees motivated.

First of all, we changed our approach to hiring. We started asking candidates uncomfortable questions at the interview to find out whether they were ready for long-term business relationships. We had to say no to those who just “wanted to try something new” or “have always dreamed of working in a foreign market,” simply because we needed people who already know what they love doing and want to develop.

To boost employee motivation, we provided them with more freedom in their decision-making.

The agency’s organizational structure is closer to the traditional vertical structure because this way, we can faster solve the problems of different teams within the agency and quickly respond to changes in different markets our business operates in. Despite this, there is no formalism or bureaucracy in our team.

Employees communicate directly with internal clients, participate in the discussions of the project at any stage, and choose their own ways of solving problems. When a new person joins a team, team leaders help them learn about working with brands and products and then give them the freedom to do what they decide is best.

For example, we always ask animators to join the process of creating a video concept so that they could later implement their own suggestions. If we get a task to make a banner, it is assigned to the designer straight away. The designer who has been making such banners for quite some time has a better understanding of what techniques really work than the client.

New challenges also contribute to dealing with burnout. We have recently started creating ads targeted at audiences in more than one culture. You don’t often get a chance to work on a creative video project that involves traditional dancing for India or shoot a story about a crazy talking finger for Thailand.

Challenge Two: Lack of Publicity

It’s no big deal for a typical studio when a specialist quits because dozens of other professionals would kill for this job. In our case, there is no queue of candidates since we keep a low profile. We do not participate in festivals and ratings.

This problem is still to be solved. And publications like this are one of the few ways to tell others about our company.

As a manager, I help candidates and employees look at this thing differently. It’s not the awards we store up but the experience of creating promotional materials for specific products and markets. This is why the lack of publicity, which might be seen as a drawback by a candidate, turns out to be an advantage when this candidate is headhunted by other companies.

For real business, festival prizes are way less important than the specialists’ ability to influence profit performance with their design or text.

For example, I have 15 years of experience in classical agencies and studios. But I willingly joined a production team as a focused specialist when I realized that I could test hypotheses and constantly improve my creative solutions. My colleagues seem to share this point of view since many have been part of the team for more than a year.

Challenge Three: Niche Specialization

The creative studio at Dataduck is a conveyor belt system, not a creative boutique. For this reason, our specialists deal with tasks, which require narrow focus. These conditions don’t sound like the perfect environment for coming up with out-of-box solutions, but that’s what we manage to do.

During the three years, we tried different formats of cooperation with people. At first, we only hired full-time staff so that we did not depend on the outside market. Then we worked with a large number of freelancers to not depend on the limitations of our in-house specialists.

A year ago, I tried to order texts and scripts only from freelancers. I reviewed one-and-a-half hundred CVs, asked fifty candidates to complete test assignments, and ordered three dozens of scripts. And I faced the reality of the freelance market — not a single specialist was ready to dive deep into financial products and the peculiarities of local audiences. Everyone wants to come up with awesome ideas, but few know how to link the idea to advertising and fit it into the production budget.

All our departments now have teams of both permanent and temporary specialists. The latter join the project if such a need arises. The localization team, for example, consists of managers who assign tasks to freelance translators. The best translators join the team as regular employees.

Producers in the video production team usually work with freelance directors, cameramen, and animators. However, the videos are localized by in-house animators, who are familiar with the product specifics. Freelancers failed to deliver quality results within the deadline. At the same time, contractors are better at shooting and creating animation.

How the Team Works

Most of the team members have been working with us for more than a year now, and the team leaders have been managing teams for at least two years. By these points, employees accumulate enough experience. Without them, we would be just a gang of feverish creators and designers.

There are six teams in our studio, each of them works by its own rules. Specialists from different fields can consistently participate in one project. To connect them and ensure that tasks are completed en masse, we have set up clear workflows. Each specialist understands whom to contact in case they need some information, who should approve their solution, and which specialists will work on this task next.

Teams of the studio:

  • Content Marketing — copywriting and editing of communication, technical and informational content.
  • Creative — any kind of video scripts: advertising, educational, informational.
  • Video Production — production of animated and staged videos.
  • Design — graphic and web design, visual identity.
  • Web & Development — web project management and development of websites, services, landing pages.
  • Localization — content localization and voiceovers for videos.

Specialists of the same team can complete tasks set by a dozen customers, which are not always in sync with each other. Team leaders set the priorities and assign incoming tasks to their team members. I do the same as a division manager, but I prioritize projects, considering their importance to the company and its goals.

We are not only about production but also about creativity, so we change processes as we go whenever they hinder the progress of problem-solving. Like Pixar, we have chosen the Middle Way in management: we do not get too far from business realities but keep our creative specialists’ options open.

Secret Ingredient

All our employees switched to telecommuting last spring, and nothing went wrong. The tasks are completed on time, folks are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the caravan goes on. For some time, I just couldn’t get my head around why everything went heels over head in the traditional studios I know, but not in ours.

I think the point is that we are united not by a shared workspace but by the products we make and promote together. Even before the quarantine, half of the team was working remotely from different countries. Thanks to this experience, we had a smooth transition into remote work.

Members of the Dataduck creative and production team can do things they would never do in a typical studio. We gain experience working with familiar brands in new markets, and we can try new approaches and fix our past solutions.

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We are Dataduck — a creative publishing studio. We take clients’ ideas and bring them to life by creating design and content.