The Creative Manager’s Challenge: Moving from Doer to Enabler

creative manager's challenge: moving from doer to enabler

To kick off his Creative Managers series, Steve Smallman, CEO and co-founder, shares why moving from creative professional to creative manager is the only way to scale yourself and your creative vision (and why you will find a lot of joy along the way).

Every creative professional has experienced and (hopefully) grown to love the great highs (and lows) of the process. Diving deeply into the brief, understanding the objectives of the campaign or project, and then coming out with initial ideas: bad ads and inventive treatments–everything from mild to wild.

It’s a blast.

Depending on how much traction you get with your own idea–first with your team, then with the client–your emotional attachment to both the concept and the process is strong. That sense of attachment is what helps you get through the “dark night of the soul” that most projects go through: that space where the idea falters or the client requests just enough revision to ruin it. You’re lost. So you dig in, double down, and then…magic. A breakthrough. The team comes together, collaborates, fixes it, and pushes out the eventual winner.

It’s exhilarating

As I’ve coached several creatives–from early career to their shot at a coveted Art Director or Creative Director role–I’ve cautioned them that they will have to step back from that process. They will need to make the transition from a primary “doer” to a manager of doers. Instead of getting into the weeds of iteration and prototyping, they need to oversee and facilitate the people (and even the process) that makes the magic happen.

It’s not easy. And it’s not for everyone.

If you know that you prefer being heads down in the work itself–being a creative manager might not be for you. But if you can make the jump–the rewards will multiply and you will find a lot of joy by playing a different role. And if you’re maturing in your career as a creative professional, it’s the only way to scale yourself and your creative vision. To extend your reach, you’ll need to get comfortable spending a lot more time managing your team than doing the work.

It’s a pretty basic rule for any industry–no big secret here. But I think in creative services this transition can be a little harder. For example, as a skilled designer you may struggle to design less and coach more. You went to design school–not management school. So you’ll have to get used to seeing your creativity expressed in the form of influence, as you let others complete the work.

Three quick-start rules:

  1. Give your best ideas to your team, then leave them alone.

    They’ll come back to you when they have something to show you. If they don’t, follow up.

  2. Teach your creatives the difference between self-expression (Art)
 and brand-expression (Creative Services).

    I’ll write more on this in a later post, but it’s critical for any young creative if they hope to make money doing this.

  3. Give the credit to your team.

    Too many creative managers fail to do this, thinking the client will see the work as more valuable if it came from the brain of a senior leader. That’s baloney. Recognize the talent of your team–it makes you look great.

So, what’s the secret to producing the best work of your life at the top of your field? Stop doing and start enabling. It’s the only way to grow.

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