THE CARE AND FEEDING OF CREATIVES
Paul Welsh, Contributing Editor
As demand for Bibles increased in the pre-Guttenberg times, an overworked monk (never haven taken a vow of silence) was heard to sigh: "It's tough to find good help nowadays and it's even tougher to keep them."
Creative people have always been in demand, but that's especially true in a healthy economy.
"The power shifts back and forth from employer to employee," says Dennis Bryant, president of D.F. Bryant & Co., an executive-search firm based in Overland Park, Kansas. "And any time there's an abundance of work, creatives feel more empowered and more independent."
More independent? Is that possible? Well, like it or not, creatives produce the most visible product an agency delivers. And if you want to keep these sizzle-makers productive, then you need to keep them happy.
With that as a goal, agencies are pulling all the stops to make sure they have the kind of place that creatives want to work. More money is only part of the answer, and probably not even the biggest part.
"Creatives are reluctant advertisers who view the work more important than the money," Bryant says. "They would work without pay...but of course they don't have to."
The creative mindset is reflected in a self-promotion piece created by Zipatoni, a promotions shop based in St. Louis. It says, "Let's face facts. We are in business and we want to be profitable. But money isn't our primary motivation. It was passion for great creative and strategic thinking that got us into this industry, and it's passion that fuels our company and makes us profitable."
One tool Zipatoni uses to attract and keep creative people is their office space--a creative exercise in itself.
Enter Zipatoni and your eyes become fixated on the giant tomato, a remnant of a St. Louis liquor store that is now the graphic centerpiece of the lobby. There's a fully-stocked bar beneath the tomato where employees and customers can conduct informal meetings.
As you wind through the offices (an intentionally inefficient floor plan to encourage interaction), you'll spot all kinds of salvage-yard specials from utility meters to reconditioned desks that were bought from a scrap dealer.
"Maintaining a fun environment is critical to our success," says Zipatoni president Jim Holbrook. "Keeping the creative energy is absolutely essential."
The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., also has a creative-friendly space.
"In our building, we have a lot of places where creatives can hide," says Randy Belcher, senior vice president and creative director for The Martin Agency's FMC business. "I want them to think about problems from a lot of different angles and try tons of stuff. A variety of work areas helps that process."
Every agency looks for a place where their creatives can be comfortable and productive. For Toronto agency Stanton & Sylvester, the most comfortable place for many of their creatives is their own homes.
"Most of our creatives are freelancers," says Jerry Colman, creative director. "We're kind of a virtual agency. It's hard to staff for peaks and valleys, and you really don't need to have people sitting at desks wondering if they're being utilized," Colman adds.
Creatives are stereotyped as people who can't conform to regular office hours--spoiled little darlings who come and go as they please. But agencies today see flexible hours as important to the creative function and not as an unearned privilege.
"Our staff exceeds 40 hours anyway so it's really not an issue with us," Colman says. "Whether it's staff or freelancers, commitment is not a problem, but pulling all-nighters can be. They'll work all night if that's what it takes, and we don't want that because it can lead to burnout."
Belcher agrees, and says, "Being realists, we know that creatives need their space, especially when they're in the midst of a creative project."
At Zipatoni, creatives are allowed to come and go as they please. "Freedom + Responsibility = Zipatoni" is how the company describes their policy.
"We have no time clocks," says Holbrook. "A few employees play games or are evil, but you can always hunt them down and fire them."
Belcher says it's important to keep creatives fresh by giving them a variety of work.
"We believe creatives have to have a mix to keep from getting burnout," Belcher says. "FMC is a big, long-term account for us, but the creative people working on it have a chance to work on other business as well." Changing creatives provides freshness while the account people provide continuity.
There are certain marquis accounts at Zipatoni that creatives like to work on, but not everyone can. So Holbrook says Zipatoni is intent on highlighting the positives of every account.
"The brand is less important than the client's passion for their products," Holbrook says. Zipatoni sells the creatives on the client and sells the client on the benefits of having their work done in a creative environment.
"We insist that the clients come to our office initially so they can understand the potential and learn what they can expect and demand," Holbrook says.
PRESENTING YOUR CASE
Generations of creatives second-guess the sales skills of account executives whenever their favorite concepts don't make it through the approval process. For that reason, many creatives want to present their own work. Generally, agencies are willing, and sometimes eager, to get them involved in the presentation process.
"Most creatives want to see what happens to their work," Colman says. "So if we're presenting in Toronto, we want them there."
Belcher feels it's important for creatives to own something, and that's why their creatives are usually part of the presentation when the clients come to Richmond. "A lot depends on a creative person's desire to present, as well as the ability to present," Belcher says. "We want them to have a passion for their work."
Zipatoni claims they don't make an overt effort to sell their work. They just try to make sure objectives are met and that when the work is complete there is an expected outcome.
Holbrook says they look forward to the client finding "delight" in that outcome.
Many creative people review creative input forms and wish they were involved earlier in establishing the creative strategy.
"Depending on experience, they can be as involved as they want," Belcher says. "If the 'Creative Brief' doesn't make sense, we encourage them to go to account service. We make it clear that they can help shape the strategy."
Colman says Stanton & Sylvester have very senior creative people, and the agency wants to take advantage of their knowledge. "It would be our loss if we didn't," Colman says.
Colman points out that the input is much more important in launching a new product than refining a message for a 10-year-old product, but they welcome input from their highly respected creative staff at any time.
Zipatoni says their basic strategy platform and framework development process includes creatives as well as anyone else who can contribute. "Strategies are not driven by departments but by the group," Holbrook says.
From time to time you'll hear of agencies that hire teams, rather than individuals, feeling that an existing chemistry will produce better work. But none of the agencies we interviewed approached hiring that way.
"It's nice when a team presents themselves," Colman says, "but sometimes we already have one person and just need someone to work with them. By using outside creatives, we can pick and choose people for particular assignments."
The Martin Agency likes to mix up the teams and feels they get some interesting results. "I try to hire talented individuals even though I know the importance of chemistry," Belcher says.
Holbrook has a colorful way of describing their approach to hiring and bringing together teams. He says, "We hire mercenaries and put them together like the Dirty Dozen."
HANDLE WITH CARE
The consensus is that creatives are wired differently and are motivated in different ways. With proper care and feeding, clients will get better work, and turnover will be lower. AM
Paul Welsh is a freelance copywriter and marketing communications consultant based in Leawood, Kan.