Mission Control: How to Run a Creative Team That Takes You Exactly Where You Want to Go

In-house departments typically have many things in common. They’re usually run by a VP of Marketing or Communications — someone like you, who is generally very busy managing several people, reporting to the top executive, and being highly focused on delivering results. With all this and more on your plate, VPs simply don’t have time for hand-holding, or for the nitty-gritty details of process that are always involved in getting a project done right.

The ideal solution is to hire a high-functioning creative director. But the problem is: Most organizations don’t have the budget for one. Or the position is filled by an ineffectual person who was never right for the job to begin with. Most designers are simply never taught how to run a creative team. It is frustrating for everyone, and leaves everyone feeling like they could do better.

The Perfect Storm

Marketing and Comms VPs understandably become frustrated when their staff — who are, in fact very talented designers — are not producing their best work or taking creative risks. It gets even worse when you, the boss, can’t figure out why. Because in any VP’s perfect world, employees would manage up, read your minds, and get stuff done before it’s even due. And the work product would be stellar, every single time.

Well…all we have to say to that is: Perfect world, say hello to reality.

In real life, projects have false starts, run late, miss the mark, and are just barely good enough. (Not to mention the pouty looks and hurt feelings from creative teams that feel unseen and unheard.)

You know the feeling. From your perspective, you’ve given generous support and encouragement to your staff, but the quality still isn’t there. That’s when you start getting involved in aspects of creative process you know very little about — and that’s when things really start going downhill.

We feel your pain. We know you’re great at a million things, just not creative direction. And of course we’re not judging you — in a crisis situation, it’s a natural human response for a responsible person like yourself to do all you can to help.

But in reality, this kind of “help” usually backfires. The designers on the project start to ignore their own skills and training, try too hard to please you, their boss, by second-guessing what you’re thinking and how to make it work, and feel misunderstood and creatively stifled. And when designers effectively give up, staff morale and work quality go down the tubes…and Bingo! Before you know it your creative project has become a rescue operation.

Sadly, this perfect storm scenario unfolds daily in many in-house creative departments that lack proper staffing and processes.

How to Run a Creative Team: A Simple Fix

If all this sound familiar, take consolation knowing you’re not alone. And take heart in knowing there’s a simple fix that can help you take your department to the next level of quality and professionalism: hiring an experienced creative director on a consultancy basis.

A good creative team trainer and consultant is your go-between, communicating with designers and writers on one hand, and marketing/comms staff on the other. And because good creative directors are fluent speakers of both languages — the language of business, results, and spreadsheets, and the language of ideas, layouts, and typography — they’re not just intermediaries, they’re also translators and interpreters. Their crucial talents can will take you and your team to new heights.

Here’s how it might work in your department. A creative brief might say, “We have a new and exciting program in place that is a win-win for at least five key target audiences. The design must be exciting, innovative, and aspirational. In the past this content has been improperly presented and difficult to digest, since data documents can easily be designed to be boring.” (Note: this is pulled from an actual creative brief for a project we’ve worked on).

The creative director reads this…takes it in…and comes away having heard something different and deeper. More important still, creative directors understand how to translate your message to your staff in language they’ll understand. Maybe the creative director would say something like: “Our team needs to produce a piece that’s readable, persuasive, and emotionally engaging. It needs to sing to the heart. Its message must be as clear as it is dynamic. And let’s find a way to to convert dense and hard information into easily-accessed and visually compelling graphics. Let’s see how we can turn a mountain of data into a coherent presentation. What is the one big idea we want to bring forth? What is our big“ask” of the reader? How can our design reinforce this big idea over and over without redundancy? And how can we do this not only with language, but also in format, mood and design?”

Talking the Talk

Just like learning how to speak any foreign language, it takes years of practice to become fluent in the language(s) of creative direction. For me, it has taken 15 years of working with dozens of clients in nonprofit, business, and government sectors to learn the dialects unique to each.

While my creative director language acquisition started in design school, I didn’t become fluent there — because no one does. That’s because there’s a great gap in design education. Instead of giving design students real projects with realistic (read difficult) clients, most school projects are academic exercises, invented by the teacher or students themselves. The assignments are often arbitrary, so it’s infinitely easier to create good-looking graphics to meet their creative parameters.

Just as troubling, most design students never really learn how to evolve their ideas based on realistic feedback. Their source of critique are other students who are not versed in any of the business problems the project is trying to address. Instead, they learn these skills on the job — from a creative director. Which is great for the young designer who is hungry to learn, but far less great for you, the in-house VP, who is still wringing your hands over having to manage an inexperienced staff.

We Can Help

RoundPeg’s Creative Team Leadership Training and Consulting gives in-house creative departments, like yours, access to a highly experienced creative director without having to spend on hiring an expensive, full-time professional.

The consultancy service we provide is really not magic — it just looks that way. In less than three month’s time, we can help you get the right processes in place for your organization. We can intervene to address a specific department challenge, and help during a season of transition.

But whatever the parameters of our engagement, there are some things we do for all our clients. We will teach your in-house designer how to manage up you (the boss) better while being happier at work and more creative on the job. And, most importantly, we’ll give you the tools to better manage your design staff, so they can grow their confidence and abilities and improve their final work products — which will make you happier at work — and freer to do the real work for which you were hired.

The first step is to unburden your woes with a free, no-obligation, 30 minute phone consult.

As RoundPeg’s partner and creative director, Polina has over 20 years experience turning complex concepts into compelling visual communications. She also knows how to speak Russian and make delicious sauerkraut! Polina enjoys knitting despite her fear of pointy objects and loves nothing better than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. See more posts by Polina..

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