How to manage creatives

The How To Issue: Finding it difficult to keep your creatives productive but under control? Here's how to get the most out of them.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 01 Dec 2014

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The prospect of managing a bunch of difficult creative types can bring you out in a cold sweat - their reputation for being unpredictable, unreliable and arrogant precedes them. The manager of creatives is the ringmaster of a circus of high-flying acrobats, thrilling the audience with their skill and daring.

There are two kinds of manager in creative industries: practitioners and generalists; both can be successful. But they must have a vision and communicate it effectively, set standards (having the guts to stick up for what is right), be emotionally intelligent, and able to hire the right people. 'Hire the best talent you can afford and let them get on with it,' advises Gordon Torr, author of Managing Creative People (Wiley).

The three components of creativity


Creativity, argues Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, comprises three things: creative-thinking skills, expertise and motivation. The easiest area for managers to influence is motivation, categorised into two parts: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic comes from outside a person, whether it's a carrot or a stick (and usually involves money).

The trouble is that for many creative people, money makes them feel they are being bribed or controlled. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is what pushes their buttons. Explains Amabile: 'When people are intrinsically motivated, they engage in their work for the challenge and enjoyment of it. The work itself is motivating.' People are most creative when they feel thus involved.

Enhance creativity


But how to boost intrinsic motivation? First, set the right challenge. You must stretch their ability, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed. And give them the freedom to meet your brief in whichever way they want. But goals and boundaries must always be clear: 'the great freedom of a tight brief', as one of my clients puts it.

Next comes resource. A creative needs time to meander, but not so much that the sense of challenge dissipates. Finally, creative people need to feel supported and know that their work matters.

And it's not just about celebrating the successes - failure needs to be allowed to happen. Unlike most forms of manufacturing, creative output cannot be failure-free. For a manager of the creative process, the worst failure is not to allow wriggle-room in the budget or the schedule for starting again or fine-tuning the promising into the excellent.

Mind the gap


In many businesses there is an unhelpful standoff between creative and commercial people. Each side has preconceptions about the other that ignore the fact that, in the end, both are in pursuit of the same goal: high-quality output that generates revenue. Rather than perpetuating the problem by keeping the two sides apart, hold an event at least annually where both sides discuss and agree priorities and plans.

Many journalists, designers, copywriters and art directors have a rudimentary understanding of finance. It's not that they're incapable of grasping the commercial principles on which their organisation is founded, but that it has never been their main concern.

This lack of commercial savvy puts them at a disadvantage in discussions with senior management. Some managers try to shield them from all monetary discussions, but this is not a kindness. It infantilises them and can lead to unrealistic expectations and demands.

Factor in fun


It can be wearing to have continually to look within for inspiration if your job is creative. To lighten the load, allow some time (and a little budget) for activity that might not seem immediately productive but will probably inspire and stimulate the little grey cells of your people. As Picasso said, 'all creativity is theft', and exposure to different forms of creativity can be a valuable stimulus to ideas.

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