Once computers are able to replicate creativity, we’re all screwed. But until then, creativity is the one ability that cannot be replaced by AI or other forms of automation. Hence, it’s becoming an increasingly valuable skill to have.
Personally, I believe everyone has it in them to be creative, and research supports the idea that we’re all creative to some degree. It’s like a muscle that you can exercise and strengthen. But I also believe that some people were just sort of born that way and that their natural predisposition to be creative somehow led them into particular professions. Some refer to them simply as “creatives.”
Who or what are “creatives?”
You know them as copywriters, designers, art directors, creative directors, illustrators, photographers, and engineers (yes, engineers too). But they are all members of one particular grouping of workers that are collectively referred to as “creatives.” Having worked with hundreds of them through the years, I can tell you, they are not your normal flavor of ice cream.
No, in fact, IF they were a flavor of ice cream, they’d be something like Banana Fudgecicle or Pickled Mango or Toasted Pine Nut & Coffee Toffee Swirl.
And while some may be able to blend in with the rest, they are a distinct category of human. And if you work in marketing or product and you partner with these strange and exotic creatures, you’d be wise to understand their quirks and predilections so you can get the best work out of them.
Creatives: A basic understanding
They are explorers, artists, judges, warriors, and perhaps most especially rebels. Yes, they skylark in your meetings. They doodle on your presentations. They make impertinent quips, pummel you with questions, and reject company directives outright. They dance to the beat of their own tambourine. They’re inherently unruly and sometimes hard to understand. The best ones are a willful, thoughtful kind of cantankerous sort. Malcolm Gladwell observed that all innovators depend on a fundamentally disagreeable nature. They’re not obnoxious as such, just ‘willing to take social risks – to do things that others might disapprove of.’ They’re an acquired taste.
I once had a creative director who jumped on a table, put his legs behind his head, and broke out into an Irish fight song. At a bar. I can’t even tell you the inappropriate part.
Okay, maybe they are sometimes obnoxious.
They’re not really the kind of person you’re going to read about in a Harvard Business Review think-piece. But they are changing the world. They’re always changing the world. For some, that is all they know how to do.
And that’s because they don’t see the world as everyone else does. They’re endlessly curious about how things work. And when they find out how things work they often think, “Well that’s odd. Wouldn’t it be better if…” Their fundamental drive is to re-think. To poke. To prod. To uncover new truths or find a new way to reveal an existing truth. Therefore, it’s safe to say that their fundamental disposition is rebellious. While some might see a beige cardigan sweater, they see some material that they can turn into a parachute. It may not work, but they’ll try it and see.
Companies want people like this. They need people like this. And yet, very often they do not try to understand them. In fact, they often get irritated by them and wonder why they’re so...sensitive. Creatives don’t fit. They don’t conform. They’re not “company people.” What is that about?
Companies do fawn over creative types when interviewing them for open positions. But when they become employees everything changes. They actively suppress, control and frown upon their non-conformist behaviors. This is a bit like putting a golden-egg laying goose into a BDSM bondage harness (though some creatives don’t mind it all that much - to each their own).
Perhaps instead, when you discover these unique birds, recognize the value of their fiercely independent rhythms and heart-centric qualities. Have a little understanding and patience for their peccadillos and they will work their tailfeathers off for you.
Here are a few helpful guidelines for getting the best work out of them:
- Don’t jam deadlines down their throat: Ask them what timeline makes sense based on their workload. Different creative people have different circumstances and work at different speeds. Understand that and let them do the work according to their process.
- Don’t tell them what to do: Yes, I’m well aware of how this sounds. Of course, they need to be managed like anyone else. But think of it this way: you’re giving them an assignment… a problem… and asking them to solve it. Do not tell them how to solve it. If you have an idea, by all means share it. But don’t force them to execute your idea and don’t be shocked if they hate it. If you do force them to execute your idea, don’t be surprised when you get half-assery. Their heart wasn’t in it.
- Respect the process and give them time to be creative: Sometimes the best way to come up with an idea is to spend 95% of the time blowing off the assignment and the 5% bearing down hard. Sometimes things take longer than others to percolate. Creativity is inherently messy. It’s a giant cloud of inexplicable, unmeasurable brain-work. Connections between concepts are being formed, severed, re-shuffled, and re-formed hundreds of times. They’re not just looking for “a solution” to the problem. The good ones are looking for a completely new way of thinking about something. That. Ain’t. Easy.
- Give them kudos: When I was working to put my copywriter book together, one of our creative director instructors at the Portfolio Center remarked, “Creatives are affirmation junkies.” And it’s absolutely true. Acknowledge their work and appreciate the aspects that you genuinely like. But don’t blatantly stroke their ego, because they can smell disingenuousness from a distant galaxy.
- Give them solid feedback they can work with: I wrote a whole article on how to give creative feedback over here. Tell them WHY you like or don’t like something (and have good reasons). Often clients only focus on the negative. Not only is that bad form, but it’s also not as helpful as focusing on both.
- Don’t distract them when they’re head down. The best creative ideas and execution often comes when a person is in “flow.” It’s like their levitating multiple objects with their mind. An interruption causes all of those objects to come crashing down and it’ll take them another 20 minutes to get them back into the air.
- Let them know that you and they are on the same team. Creatives often get treated like servants. I can not stress this enough. Treating them like the help is highly demotivating for them and they WILL NOT do their best work for you. They have to like you in order to bring the good stuff. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but that’s just how it works.
- If you like the work they did, stick up for it. Another creative director professor at The Portfolio Center once remarked, “Good creative work is like a little lamb walking through the nincompoop forest. If it’s unaccompanied and undefended, the chances that it will reach its destination are slim.” So if you’re presenting the work to some company exec, straighten up and help defend the work.
- Do a great job on the briefs. The creative brief is your one chance to set them up for success. If you do a good job here, they will love you. If you shirk this or rush it they will spend the entire time working on the assignment cursing your name. The creative brief is a big responsibility, so treat it as such and you’ll be okay. Here’s how.