Fear is the enemy of creativity

I recently co-founded a boutique creative agency. It’s both exciting and stressful. My partner Mark and I are now for the first time tasked with making all kinds of decisions we have never had to make before. We are making decisions about corporate structure, benefits packages, real estate and of course most importantly what kind of work do we want to do, with whom and how, as it’s likely going to be our creative product that ultimately decides our success or failure.These latter decisions have caused me to reflect upon my own work and career.

I have thought about when I have done my best work, for whom, and what was the environment like in which I did it. I have thought about what I can do to make sure we get the best and most creative work from our people because, as we grow, that’s far more important than work I generate myself. And all this thinking has led me to one conclusion: Episode Four’s people need to be able to take creative chances without fear.

As a friend and former colleague of ours, Simone Oppenheimer, says: “if people are frightened of their boss, they’ll do safe work” and as anyone who has worked in advertising knows, safe isn’t what we are going for. Saying creative work is safe is akin to saying someone is nice.

So how does one build a creative culture that leads to work risky enough to be a hit?

Aim for respect not fear. When I look back at the bosses for whom I have done my best work, they are people I admired not feared. They gave me space to do what I do and they encouraged me to be different not just from my peers but from them. They gave me sage counsel and honest feedback and they weren’t afraid to get involved and do the work themselves when necessary. But most of all they were fun to work for.

For example, I spent five years working for Pete Favat and I can’t remember ever being afraid to try a crazy idea on him or being afraid that he wouldn’t support me. In fact, the opposite was true. Working for hm was a blast. Respect needs to be earned not demanded. It doesn’t come with a title or a position, it comes from behavior. It comes from confidently doing one’s best and doing it while being respectful of others.

“Be hard on the work, not the people.” I remember my former boss and brilliant creative in his own right, Steve Simpson, saying this and it has stuck with me as being very sound advice. There’s a real difference but it’s often hard to do and it requires constant attention. I believe in giving direct feedback. I’m frank and honest, perhaps even too honest. But I try and walk the very fine line between judging the work and judging the people because the latter can be disastrous.

It’s inherently scary for a creative to present work and they must know that they are allowed to swing hard and miss, a lot, or they’ll never hit one out of the park. But even more importantly, they must enjoy the process even when they miss, or they won’t keep swinging.

Judge people on their best work, not their worst. My father is a successful writer and director. He’s had huge successes with hit movies and TV shows, he’s won huge awards and yet he’s also made some work he knows wasn’t as good as it might have been. That’s just a fact of creative life.

From concept to completion a project undergoes major evolution and almost always massive creative compromise. This could be due to money, time, difference of opinion amongst stakeholders and a host of other factors but what it all adds up to is that despite the best efforts and intentions of everyone involved, sometimes projects just miss and it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. So I simply choose not focus on those.

If someone has created true hits then they are good enough to have run the gauntlet and I believe they’ll be good enough to do it again.

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Our company is young and still small. We don’t have layers of management or dozens of creatives so its management is not yet that complex. But as we grow, I do know that the one thing we’ll strive to make sure we always have, is a culture where it’s OK to try new things and be wrong before we get it right.

I hope that people will respect me as the creative director because if they ever fear me we might as well close up shop.