How to manage "creative people"

It doesn't have to be like herding cats, says advertising boss Nils Leonard.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 09 May 2019

To the imagination-deficient, creativity can appear a sort of superpower. Yes, context and mindset matter – and both can be changed, if you’re seeking to boost your creativity – but the fact remains that some people just seem able to conjure great ideas out of thin air.

It’s little wonder some bosses give said "creative people" a free reign, for fear of disturbing their mojo. Just let them do their thing, and let the rules apply to other people. The problem with that of course is the effect it has on everybody else – no favouritism being one of the core principles of good management.

So how do you impose order on people who thrive on free thinking, without stifling them?

The first thing to note is that creatives aren’t residents of an artists’ commune, they’re business people, and should be treated as such. Give them a little credit. The second is that, like all good management, it comes back to understanding their motivations, as Nils Leonard – former chief creative officer and chairman at top ad agency Grey London, and founder of creative studio Uncommon – explains. 

"What do you mean by creativity? Ask five people to tell you a good idea, and they’ll say five different things. Ask them what creativity is, and they’ll all say different things. So you need to be ferocious about your vision of what creativity will deliver and what it means day to day.

"One of the most common mistakes CEOs make is hiring creatives in a peripheral role. ‘You know I’m bringing in a creative director... oh what’s she in charge of?... Erm, not really sure.’ Well if she’s not in the same room as you, day to day, making decisions about the future of the company, then creativity probably isn’t that important to you.

"If you’re managing creatives, you need to understand that what they want most in the world is to be prolific. They’ve become addicted to this beautiful kind of crack, which is watching things go from being ideas to being real. It’s thrilling. So if you talk to a really good creative, they don’t really care about money that much, they care about making things.

"The way to attract them is to give them a canvas on which they can continually produce, rather than watch them get frustrated that they’re not making.

"But it’s also critical that everyone shares in the creative success, including the people who aren’t creatives. Awards are an interesting thing in that respect. People are obsessed with credits – who wrote this or made that. But that often comes at the expense of everyone else who helped make it. It’s very easy to forget everyone who had those strategic conversations, who engineered the culture that allowed the work to flow. So I’m always keen to talk about the crew behind the work, not just the creative person."

Image credit: Anthony/Pexels


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