Saturday, June 19, 2010

How to hire the right people (because there's far too many wrong ones out there).

A Creative Director lives or dies by the people he hires. I'd love to here some of the horror stories you've encountered....


Hiring people is a key aspect of the Creative Director’s job. Hiring the right people is essential for you to achieve the objective of creating Great Ideas. 

In order to run a department smoothly - and in a way which accommodates both the pursuit of creative fame and the production of bread and butter work – you need to fill your department with four types of people: Conceptualisers, Beautyfiers, Connectors and Doers. 

* The Conceptualisers are the essential people to find. They can be copywriters or art directors and their key skill is generating a high volume of big ideas. If they can art direct or write, that’s an added bonus, but it is not essential. These people are literally the cornerstones of the creative department. They will lead you to honour and glory.

* The Beautyfiers are art directors. They don’t necessarily have to be good at coming up with the big idea (although many of them are). But once they have a big idea in front of them, they will make it look stunning. And that is why they are essential. I’ve seen many a great campaign destroyed by an overzealous art director who thought it his duty to stamp his unique personality on it (pretty borders, trendy photography and funky type, for example). The Beautyfier, on the other hand, has the ability to make a great idea shine by honing down the elements to their purest form. He understands the role of the art direction is to enhance the idea, not to overshadow it.

* The Connectors are writers or art directors with a deep understanding of the digital space. They know how to take a big idea and spread it through the Internet. They get blogging, Facebook, twitter and Youtube. These guys fundamentally understand the power of involvement. They can take a broadcast idea and turn it into a participation piece that infects communities online. These guys play a relatively small role now, but are the future of our business.

* The Doers are the people that get things done. Eighty percent of the work, in most agencies, is run of the mill. But it is also the very same work that pays the bills. So it needs to be treated seriously. And with absolute professionalism. That is not to say that these people should be boxed away and not allowed to take part in creative opportunities. If anything, it is a given that they need to pursue creative opportunities at every turn. But at the same time, they must have total dedication to servicing their designated accounts through thick and thin.


Aptitude vs attitude. The good thing about hiring creative people is that their abilities can mostly be judged by what’s in their book. But there is one more factor that is important to bear in mind. And that is attitude. I’ve seen some wonderfully talented creative people who have great aptitude, but not the right attitude.

An Art Director that worked for me in Hong Kong was a great example of this type of person. His own natural talent often let him down. He didn’t have the attitude that drives you to go further than the average person. In fact, he believed in his own abilities so much, he didn’t believe he could fail. And that led to complacency.

One time, for example, a group of creative people, including our Art Director, were working on a banking project. They started brainstorming ideas and after about two hours stumbled across an idea that had some merit. The Art Director in question suddenly announced to the team “Well that’s it. We’ve cracked it. Let’s go to the pub”. Which he promptly did with his partner.

The idea was good but not ‘Great’. The Art Director had been a little too hasty. He needed a little more insecurity about his abilities. He needed that mindset that makes you think, “That might be the solution, but I’m not sure. I better carry on for a while longer.”

Which is exactly what the rest of the team did and eventually arrived at a great campaign idea.

On the other hand, I’ve known many creative people (most of whom are famous now) who had little raw talent, but made up for it with attitude. They always worked harder. They always worked longer. And they were all frightened of failure. And perhaps that’s why they succeeded.

So if I had a choice between someone with aptitude and someone with attitude, I would always go for the person with attitude. If you can find a person with both attributes, you have a superstar in the making.


The interview. As we’ve already mentioned, a good portfolio is only part of the equation when it comes to interviewing people. Raw talent is easy to spot. Mental attitude, however, is a bit harder to gauge. Here are some questions to ask that may help you understand whether the person in front of you is the right fit for your company.

Question 1: When you arrive at an idea, how do you know it’s good or bad? 

What you’re looking for here is the person who shares his ideas with other people, gets opinions from them. The kind of person that understands that feedback from others can help with his own perspective on whether the idea’s good or not. The best creative people are always unsure of their ideas. They seek reassurance. They want to pull the idea apart, with the opinions of others if necessary, before they settle on it.

If you meet a person who’s dead-sure cocky about the brilliance of his ideas, be weary. Unless of course, that person has 10 campaigns in their book that just blow you away. Then they’re probably a genius and know exactly what they’re talking about.

Question 2: How do you react to client feedback? 

The person you’re looking for is someone who can debate with the client. Someone who uses their powers of persuasion. Someone who can collaborate with the client and gain their trust. If the client eventually rejects their idea, they don’t give up. They bounce right back with an equally good, or even better, idea second time round.

The people you should be weary of are those creative types that throw tantrums, insult the client, walk out and say: “Obviously there’s no point in me being in this meeting.” These are the people that may be able to create big ideas, but rarely sell them through. They don’t have the temperament or people skills to navigate the difficult obstacles that every great idea has to endure. Worse still, they’ll probably upset the client so much that they’ll be thrown off the account.

Question 3: When you go to your Creative Director with ideas, how many do you show him?

You’re looking for people who go to their Creative Director with lots of ideas. They understand that producing a high volume of ideas can help you get past the expected and start opening new creative territories.

Be weary of the people who go to their creative director with only one idea. These types are either lazy, obstinate or limited in talent.

Question 4: What do you do if your Creative Director doesn’t buy your ideas?

The people you’re looking for are those that say: “I take it on the chin and go back to the drawing board.” That’s not to say they don’t debate the idea with their CD, but they don’t dig their heels in at all costs.

Beware of those people that obstinately resist. They’re probably the ones that think they are better than they actually are. They’re the ones that will fight for mediocre ideas. They’re also the ones that will be reluctant to explore new routes and will invariably come back with the idea you rejected repackaged to look slightly different.

Question 5: If you’re given a job for an uncreative account, how do you approach the project?

The people you’re looking for are those that understand what is required for the job and go about their business with absolute professionalism. They know they won’t win an award with their work, but they won’t be disrespectful and sloppy in their approach to it. They will write an effective ad that works as hard as it can in the marketplace.

Be weary of the people who say they will produce great work for the client at any cost. They obviously don’t understand the realities of the world. Also be weary of those that say they will just crank the work out. People who are happy to let standards slip don’t have enough professional pride. In the long run, they will have a negative impact on the agency.

Other stuff from the author:

Man from Zork

A crash course in surviving the future of advertising

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The importance of creative gardening

The creative department of an agency is like a big garden. You plant different species of flora depending on the requirements. Where the soil is gritty and dry, you plant a hardy species like a cactus. At the entrance of the garden, where you want to make an impression, you plant roses. And in the pond you plant water lilies.

Some Creative Directors make the mistake of just planting roses. That is to say, they hire creative stars whose main objective in life is to produce award-winning work. As I’ve mentioned earlier, building and maintaining your reputation is important. And awards are one way of doing that. You need roses to help you create an attractive image. But when you plant a rose in dry, gritty soil, it shrivels up and starts to die. The same is true when you put a rose in a pond. The excess water drowns the poor thing.

The fact is, it’s no use hiring someone to help you create award-winning work and then put him on a retail account. He will do exactly what you hired him for. He will produce award-winning work. The client will reject all this work and your creative person will become frustrated. The client will become frustrated, too, because she’s not getting the kind of work she expects. And eventually one of two things is likely to happen. Either your client will ask for the person to be taken off her account. Or she will fire the agency.

But that’s not all. Even if you do take the creative star off the account, where do you put him?

You start to see the problem, don’t you. Before you know it, you have a whole lot of creative people in the department who have no accounts to work on.

Your staff costs will start to go through the roof. And at some point you are going to have to start firing good people. Nothing is more demoralizing to a Creative Department than seeing its stars being forced to leave.

My first agency faced this very problem. The Creative Director at the time had put a bunch of star creative people on a retail account that didn’t appreciate, or want, ‘great’ creative work. This account was the biggest revenue earner in the agency – and was essential to keep in order for the agency to make its numbers at the end of the year.

However, the account was nearly lost because of the terrible friction that was caused between the client and the creative stars. The creative people were desperately trying to force work on a Marketing Director that simply didn’t want to buy it (sounds familiar to our physician story, doesn’t it?).

If the account had walked out the door, fifteen people would have had to be laid off.

When I took over the CD role, I pulled these people off the account straight away and brought in a very senior art director who was happy to do the kind of work that was required. The client was happy (because she got what she wanted), the creative department was happy (because they could concentrate on accounts that did want creative solutions), the person we hired on the account was happy (because we gave her a huge wad of money every month). And I was happy (because the department could get back to the business of creating ‘Great’ ideas without having to worry too much about the financials).

Next week, we'll talk more about the types of people you need to hire.

More by the author:

A crash course in surviving the future of advertising

Man from Zork

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Part 4: Setting a vision that will inspire people

As a Creative Director, it is important that you have a clear idea of where you want to take the agency - and to disseminate that vision amongst the troops.

A vision will help bring focus to the whole department.

More importantly, a vision allows you to impart your beliefs and expectations to the whole team. It is extremely important in terms of setting the groundwork for how people should work together – and also in building a culture which will bind your people as a single unit.

It is imperative you set your team objectives so that they have a clear target to aim for. And if the objectives are tough, and even beyond what they think is possible, you will create such a buzz in the department, the momentum will keep the agency going for years.

One of Leo Burnett’s quotes has always struck me as a good example of this philosophy. It reads: “Always aim for the stars. You may not quite get there, but you’ll never come up with a handful of mud.”

It is the Creative Director’s job to make the creative people feel as if they can actually reach those stars.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when setting a vision:

1. Where is the agency now? 

Is it performing well or performing badly? How well does it do in new business? How many awards does it win? Does it have a good reputation? Is the morale high or low? Does it have the best talent in town? What’s its relationship with clients? Do people feel proud working there?

It’s important to work out where the agency is currently so that you can keep the positive aspects intact and then understand what negative elements you need to change or eliminate.

An agency I took over was rife with politics, had underperformed at the award shows, was losing clients at an alarming rate and had a bucket shop culture. By putting these issues down on paper, I was able to get everyone to agree that this wasn’t where we wanted to be as an agency.

2. Where do we want the agency to be? 

Now that we’ve worked out where we don’t want the agency to be, we can start to work out where we do want it to be.

Do you want it to be the No. 1 agency in town? In the region? In the network? Do you want the best creative profile? The best talent? Do you want to have a better new business record? Do you want to improve the work on bread and butter accounts? Or focus on the two or three clients that are more creatively oriented? Do you want it to be seen as the agency that is leading the way in social network marketing?

Once you’ve worked out where you want the agency to be you have a plan. Having a plan gives you more than half a chance of succeeding. It gives you a direction. And when there’s a direction, there’s a much better chance of reaching your destination and achieving your goals.

3. How do you get there? 

Having worked out what you want to achieve, it’s now critical you put in place action points that will help you get there.

For instance, if you want to get the best talent in town working for your agency, you need to fire people who are under-performing to make way for them. If you want to create the best profile in the business, you need to put a PR strategy in place that gives you exposure in the press. It may even require you hiring a full time communications manager. And if you want to be seen as a leader in social network marketing, then you need to hire people who can help you make that happen – and retool the best of your existing people with the relevant skills.

What’s more, when it comes to writing your action points, be clear and concise. Don’t write: “We need to improve our creative talent.” That’s too wishy washy.

Instead write: “We need to fire our mediocre talent and hire the best talent in the market.”

There’s no escaping what you need to do with an action point like that.

4. What culture do you want for the agency? 

It’s important to let people know how you want to work and the practices you expect people to follow. Some Creative Directors like a culture of individualism. Others prefer a culture of teamwork.

Here is the culture and ideals I have tried to instill as a Creative Director.

1. We don’t tolerate politics

2. We encourage transparency, honesty and integrity

3. We share ideas with others and expect them to share their ideas with us

4. We accept criticism in order to improve our work

5. We approach every job with optimism, enthusiasm and passion

6. We chase big ideas. And never give up until we’ve caught them

7. We promote team work over individualism

8. We engage in constructive competition within the department

9. We create big ideas

When the right attitude and work ethic permeates through an agency, there’s no ceiling to the heights it can reach.