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Pop rock and the art of creative department org design

The best ideas come when you’re jamming and collaborating with an ever-changing diverse group of people.

Pop rock and the art of creative department org design
[SasinParaksa /AdobeStock]

A few nights ago, I finally sat down to watch The Sparks Brothers documentary. I know, I know… I’m waaaaaay late to the party here. Anyway, I thought the documentary was great, and an optimistic story of artistry, originality, and creative persistence.

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I also found it a source of inspiration for the work I’m doing putting together our North American Creative Org Design. More on that later.

For those of you even further behind culturally than me, Sparks is an American pop and rock band formed by two brothers, Ron and Russell, back in the ’70s. But what makes them “doc worthy” is their ability to continually reinvent their sound through imaginative collaborations. This willingness to experiment, to put unusual ingredients together, helped them stay on the edge and allowed them to have a more than 50-year career in pop music.

Their dedication to collaboration starts with the brothers themselves. They’re an unusual combo. Ron, intensely shy and quirky, and Russell, handsome and outgoing. Part of what made their music special was Russell singing lyrics, written by Ron, about being awkward and strange. Hearing Ron’s lyrics come out of Russell’s mouth added a surprising texture and vibe to their music. Beyond that, it’s clear the band’s absolute best songs came from their willingness to collaborate with an even wider network of people in even more unusual ways. Case in point: Arguably their best song is “Cool Places,” written with Jane Wiedlin from the GoGos. Their best album? “FFS,” an almost experimental collection of songs created in partnership with Franz Ferdinand.

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Watching this documentary took me down memory lane to be sure. But I also found in it a lesson in how to structure a creative department in a large company like mine.

The moral here is that the old-fashioned notion of a single creative sitting alone in a room coming up with ideas is just wrong. To my mind (and I think Sparks would agree) invention isn’t a solo exercise. The best ideas come when you’re jamming and collaborating with an ever-changing, diverse group of people. So designing creative organizations for team flexibility and frequent large collaborative brainstorming is the order of the day.

Today’s creative departments shouldn’t be hierarchical collections of individuals and bosses, or even classic art director and copywriter teams all neatly lined up in a row. We need more creative chaos than that. We need interaction designers brainstorming with developers. Writers creating with researchers. Experience strategists, library scientists, art directors, and motion designers all working together in multiple experimental ways to make things that are fresh, new, and unexpected.

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In fact, we should look for opportunities to get even more people into our creative studios. Let’s get folks from the business in there. Somebody invite finance to participate. Let’s get actual customers and clients. Let’s run co-creation sessions with all of them and have everyone throw their unique ideas on the table. That’s how the magic happens. And not just once. That’s how you create hit after hit after hit.

Let’s all get out of PowerPoint and our nice, neat Excel files carefully mapping out reporting structure and lining up creative teams. Let’s take some real creative advice from Sparks, who once wrote, “Collaborations don’t work, they don’t work, don’t work. I’m gonna do it all by myself.” And then they turned that notion on its head by making it the hypnotic chorus in an incredible pop song written in collaboration, of course, with Franz Ferdinand.

As for me, I’m done creating perfect order and structure. I’m committed to designing a wild, self-directed creative group encouraged to collaborate, experiment, and invent with all kinds of combinations of people. Because, as you learn watching a music documentary, expanding our notion of the creative team is the secret to having a 50+-year creative career.

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Barry Fiske leads Experience Creative & Innovation for Merkle in the Americas. He is also host of the What Bubbles Up creativity podcast

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