10 Tips For Managing Creative People

Veteran creative directors Evan Fry and Dave Swartz are charged with managing, inspiring, and organizing the creative staff at agency CPB. Here, they outline some of what they’ve learned about getting the best from the people we call “creatives.”

10 Tips For Managing Creative People

When the Harvard Business Review published a post called Seven Rules For Managing Creative People a few months back, the reaction was an almost universal, Oh, please! This was due to the fact that most of the advice in the piece was bizarrely off base (“surround them with semi-boring people.” What?), but also because of the patronizing tone and the assumption that “creatives” are a breed of brats demanding a different set of operating instructions.


That said, the topic is a valid one–there is an art to getting the most out of your teams of creative professionals. When the job is to conjure the next brilliant idea out of thin air, against deadline, via a combination of inspiration, hard work, experience, intuition, and confidence, getting the best work out of creative people on a consistent and efficient basis can be tricky business.

Nurturing and managing a workforce of creative professionals requires a certain degree of sensitivity to individual skills. “Creatives are individual people and have unique things that motivate them. So when you respect understand that, that’s a pretty good cocktail,” says Evan Fry, executive director of creative development at Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Evan Fry and Dave Swartz

Fry is speaking from experience. CPB recently installed Fry and creative director Dave Swartz in positions dedicated to inspiring, encouraging, teaching, supporting, and organizing the agency’s creative and design departments.


Seen as an investment in creative talent, the new roles have allowed Swartz–a longtime agency fixture–and Fry–who recently returned to CPB after nearly four years at crowdsourcing agency Victors & Spoils–to focus on helping creative people succeed. As experienced creative leaders, both say the most important element in fostering the talent of others is instinct, or as Fry puts it, “A Spidey sense for creative talent”–but there are a number of distinct things that business leaders can do to set its people up for success.

Here, Fry and Swartz share 10 ideas on how to manage creative talent. While they admit some seem deceptively simple, they say that the mere process of introspection required in understanding what a company needs from its talent–new and veteran–aids in clearing the way to help others.

Set the Bar.

It’s one of those things that often just happens: Through a series of deadlines, projects, staff turnover, and a lack of constructive navel gazing, a company’s processes and DNA become routine and unspoken. But Fry and Swartz say a useful starting point for any creative company looking to evaluate how to foster its talent is to first look at the overall entity. “Ask questions like, ‘what kind of team do we need here; what works well for the individual agency process that we have?’ Every agency works differently, so different skill sets or different temperaments work better at different places,” says Fry. “This is helpful when building new relationships with new people, but it’s also helpful in pointing out to people who are here that these are the areas you need to foster.”


Identify and Leverage Traits of Individuals.

When undergoing this process at CPB, Fry says that he and Swartz took what can be considered a creative inventory of each person’s skills. The idea? To have an up-to-date understanding of their talent. “We thought, What traits work best at CPB in those roles?” says Fry. “We got really clear about that, maybe for the first time, and put it down on paper. These are the skills and traits people need for certain roles, not just for new roles but for people here as well. If you have an objective assessment of everyone, you can work to optimize those strengths by assembling the right skills and talents for projects. This sounds extremely simple, but in the ad agency world, I’ve seen it’s not always that overt.”

Cater to Strengths.

Knowing the ways in which people produce great work is as important as knowing what specific skill they can add to the team. “Sometimes you just need to empower,” says Fry. “Certain creative talent responds really well to having a long leash, and we like to encourage CDs to let this happen with people we’ve identified as having the stuff to do it, no matter what their title may be or their level of experience. Sometimes certain people really respond to healthy competition. You’ll see it will inspire and motivate certain creatives to dominate and crush it, where others don’t respond to competition at all. We encourage whatever suits a person. We’ve seen what trial by fire can do. Some people really respond and then all of a sudden they’re your next leader.”

Keep Your Hands Dirty.

While Fry and Swartz are tasked with mentoring and managing the agency’s talent, they also get involved in the actual work, be it running a pitch or covering a shoot, when needed. “We will be called in as a creative team so not only do we have our duties running the design department and helping art directors, we’re thrown into a pitch and will run those things and set the tone, and that helps. It’s leading by example,” says Swartz. “And it helps when it comes to people respecting what we do. If we have a suggestion, they know it’s because we’re also experiencing the process day to day.”


Suggest–But Don’t Necessarily Impose–a Process.

Creative people are often as protective of their process as they are of their ideas. Someone waltzing in with a do-it-like-this mandate is about as welcome as . . . well . . . it’s not usually welcome. Yet individual processes are prone to log-jams that outsiders are better equipped to see. Suggesting process therefore must be done delicately. “There can be some method to the creative madness,” says Fry. “In any process, like a pitch, we kind of know the beats. We know there’s a client meeting, when they’ll want to see a strategy, then early work, then finished work. Sometimes helping someone is as simple as putting a calendar up and outlining when certain pieces get done or being clear about when they’ll get feedback on work. It can make it more efficient and make sure the thinking happens at the right times without the worry getting in the way. Some people are more predisposed to organization than others. But sometimes it’s about making little lightbulbs go off.”

Create Healthy Confusion.

While structure has its benefits, so does a bit of chaos. Or, as Swartz calls it, healthy confusion. He says that when working with designers, it’s actually more productive to keep them busy with multiple projects at once. “There’s’ always a lot on everyone’s plate and that’s kind of by design because part of the creative process is incubating ideas,” Swartz says. “Idea incubation comes from when you read your brief, do a few hours of work, and then you stop. You may hit a wall and then suddenly you’re in a grocery store and you think of something. That’s because your brain works on it over time. So when you’re in a healthy confused state, you get a lot of work done. You learn how to manage it. It’s important to have a lot on your plate–not to burn you out but to give your brain time to focus on something else.”

Encourage Switching Off to Switch On.

All that said, burning creative talent out is a legitimate concern. As Fry says, “You can’t switch on unless you have an off position.” It may be easier said than done–many agencies, CPB included, have a reputation for tough hours. Fry says he and Swartz are working at being more conscious about keeping weekends a little more free at CPB, and that means getting everyone from account teams to CDs on board. “It takes some work, but organization can help a lot. I keep a calendar when everyone’s on vacation, when meetings are. . . . Being prepared ahead of time is the biggest key. It doesn’t always happen, but we’re taking steps wherever we can to anticipate things and alleviate the pressure so it’s not crushing people all the time.”


Keep Them Producing.

Creative talent lives to make stuff. When they’re not making things, they get unhappy, prone to relocate, or worse, creatively uninspired. So Fry says it’s important to ensure people are continually putting new work out into the world. “It sounds simple, but it’s about keeping in mind how to keep people in positions to get things done. We focus on getting work into the meeting because beyond that, it’s often out of your control–budgets shift, clients change things, work dies. . . . Ideally the work being sold is spread around. And if it’s not working for a creative talent and a given place, you have to encourage people to keep going for it, and get in a situation where you can be producing. From a leadership standpoint, you have to remember why they’re here so they don’t lose perspective.”

Make Retention a Conscious Choice.

That creatives routinely switch agencies after a couple of years is accepted practice in advertising. But Fry and Swartz believe it doesn’t need to be that way. Swartz, a 25-year CPB veteran, and Fry, who is among the agency’s many “boomerang” employees (those who leave and then come back), say part of their job is to foster an environment that people don’t want to leave. “Everyone’s going to get itchy feet here and there, and anyone who’s doing good work is going to get courted. But keeping your culture healthy is huge. You have to understand it’s not just about money as these people are being courted. It’s always about culture. Culture is what retains talent,” says Fry.

Know When To–And Be Able To–Speak The Tough Truth.

Fry says the creative management work he and Swartz do is essentially about helping people take charge of their own careers. This can be through encouragement, organization, keen pairing, and sometimes offering really tough advice. Say Fry, “Sometimes saying the hardest thing is the best mentorship you can give, as opposed to letting someone stay in a rut.”


[Playing Football: Blend Images via Shutterstock | Image: Flickr users NASA, Simon Greening, David Haberthür, Jlhopgood, and Buddy Venturanza]


About the author

Rae Ann Fera is a writer with Co.Create whose specialty is covering the media, marketing, creative advertising, digital technology and design fields. She was formerly the editor of ad industry publication Boards and has written for Huffington Post and Marketing Magazine


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