leadership, innovation, creativity

What Does a Creative Director Do?

I get asked this question a lot.

Over the years I’ve answered it by describing my functional roles, such as the one who oversees the creative process and team. The gateway between the client, and the client services and the creative departments. The creative bar raiser and standards bearer.

Other times I’ve described my role as cat herder. (If you’ve ever managed writers, designers, art directors, photographers, illustrators and the like you’ll know how appropriate this is.) Surrogate parent. (Don’t get me started on the topic of managing spoiled kids with a misguided sense of entitlement.) Brand and message platform police. (Self explanatory.)

But for the last couple of years, I’ve described what I do thusly: I encourage failure.

On the strange looks I often get, I continue to state that “creative” by its very definition is something that’s never been done before. There is risk involved in developing and championing the unfamiliar. The completely new.

It's important to note that I didn't say "irrelevant" creative. Don't mistake the pursuit of creative for its own sake with contextual creative. A truly creative solution is one that is on strategy, echoes a brand trait and solves the problem at hand.

But it does so in a completely new way. A surprising mash-up. A whole new perspective.

Those who have worked with me have heard me say often that I've not done my job unless I've made the client nervous. (Usually making the client services team nervous first.)

This is the kind of breakthrough, attention-getting, results-generating work I want my creative team and myself to feel free to create.

But if creative people don’t feel secure enough, don’t feel comfortable exposing their hearts and souls without fear of being crushed, don’t feel someone has their back (and their front), then all you’ll get is safe creative. Middle of the road ideas. Rehashed and recycled copy and art.

So my job as a creative director is to encourage failure. To support misfires. To buttress bumbling.

Because out of that free-flowing process will eventually emerge an idea so powerful that it can literally change the future.

A good creative director is one who, as Seth Godin recently wrote, “knows the difference between failures that are better off forgotten and failures that are merely successes that haven't grow up yet.”

So that's my job. I encourage successes that haven’t grown up yet.


A Culture of Non-Stop Innovation is a Culture of Non-Stop Learning.

I’d like to pick up on our past discussions about cultures of innovation. We’ve talked about what makes up a culture of innovation, where it resides, why we need more of it, what can kill it, and how to lead it.

Today I want to talk about how to teach it.

Since no two creative people and no two creative solutions are alike, how do you foster a shared understanding of the principles of creativity so that everyone has an opportunity to experiment, learn and grow?

In our culture of continually accelerating change,
how you learn is vastly more important than what you learn.

While both matter, the ability to quickly absorb and adapt to new information, knowledge and insights is what will keep you from becoming a dinosaur... irrelevant and extinct.

The ability to acquire new knowledge quickly is the fundamental skill that underpins a culture of innovation.

According to Drucker, “Every enterprise is a teaching and learning institution. Training and development must be built into it at all levels – training and development that never stop.”

If you want to build and foster a culture of non-stop innovation, then you must build a culture of non-stop learning and training.

But what does this training look like?

According to our good friend Marty Neumeier, he calls this “branded training.”

It’s training that “bridges the gap between university knowledge and industry knowledge, and between industry knowledge and company knowledge.”

It teaches personal mastery and collaboration, so that “personal mastery can inform collaboration and so that collaboration can inform personal mastery."

This kind of ongoing training and learning is what builds and feeds a culture of innovation.

It identifies and builds the value of your internal brand.

It aligns each individual’s actions in your organization with the overall business strategy.

And, most importantly, it creates happy and loyal customers who are benefiting from this ongoing and rapidly adapting knowledge as it is applied by you to meet and exceed their needs.

If you want a culture of innovation, you must have people who never want to stop learning and who know how to share what they've learned.


How to Lead a Culture of Innovation

For the last two weeks we’ve been talking about innovation—what it’s made of, where it resides, why companies and organizations need more of it and what can kill it.

This week I want to talk about leading a culture of innovation.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and author of the book, “Supercapitalism,” said the job of leadership is to help people overcome denial and cynicism so they can “close the gap between the ideal and reality.”

This is the gap we discussed last week that lies between “what is” and “what could be.”

This gap can be hurdled by people in a company or organization when their leader articulates a compelling vision that gives them the courage to innovate — a vision so enticing, so soul-stirring and inclusive that it rivets everyone’s attention.

A compelling core vision of what a company or organization stands for and where it is headed can inspire a surprising amount of passion.

Deep, soul-stirring passion results in a culture that releases the talents of its people and, given enough time, will exceed its own expectations.

Unimaginative leaders reach for a vision from the ready-made rack and then wonder why their leadership has no followship.

Few people feel inspired by safe and easy.

Howard Shultz, the founder of Starbucks, put it this way: “Who wants a vision that is near-fetched?”

While a culture of innovation must be led from the top, it doesn’t necessarily need to start at the top.

The spirit of innovation and revolution already exists in the hearts and minds of motivated employees.

Often, a leader needs to only act as a managing editor, shaping the ideas to align with the shared vision.

But here’s where it can get tricky.

A moment ago I mentioned that innovative cultures will invariably exceed expectations, but the key to this is “given enough time.”

Two weeks ago I mentioned an ad agency I worked for that had created an environment completely counter to innovation.

But this agency didn’t start out that way.

When I came onboard it had a deep, soul-stirring vision of the future and it wanted me to help it get there. They said this was the very reason they hired me.

But the agency’s leadership couldn’t maintain this vision when times got tough.

It backpedaled, reverting to its old ways of thinking and working, defaulting to the comfort of the familiar rather than continue down the unchartered terrain of the future.

The spirit of innovation can be a tenuous and fragile thing and will die if not fed.

Building and leading a culture of innovation is not for the fainthearted.

It requires leaders who will not back down in the face of adversity or retreat to safe and easy when met with external and internal resistance.

And I guarantee that resistance will indeed come. Usually sooner than you think.

The market may not yet be ready for what you’re offering. Customers will resist change or not yet see the value. Fellow employees who fear change will grumble and voice doubt.

This is when leaders discover what they’re really made of.

Will you adhere to the far-fetched, awe-inspiring vision of the future or retreat to the near-fetched, spirit-crushing myopia of the past?

There’s only one right choice if you are looking to maintain and lead a culture of innovation.

I know it’s not an easy choice. Particularly in the heat of shrinking margins, lost clients and uncomfortable change.

If it was easy then every company and organization would be fostering a culture of innovation.

But it is truly worth the effort.

Just ask companies like Google, Facebook, Starbucks and Apple.

So if you lead your people with vision and courage, holding steady to the course needed to foster innovation, then one day you will be adding your company or organization to the above list.

(When you do, call me. I could use the work. Winking