Keep egos in check
We all know creative leadership can sometimes be problematic. I have had a few charismatic bosses that talked a good game but were not fully transparent about their business goals or personal ambitions. This caused hurt feelings, frustration and it ultimately compelled me start my own company that better aligned to my own values.
On some levels, designers and creatives have always had an ego problem. Like architects, designers have historically aspired to be recognized as singular individuals in their field; one person’s vision and personal taste as a guiding force.
Think of all the names we hear about in design school; Massimo Vignelli, Saul Bass, and the like. In the technology industry we have the same; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others, mostly dudes. This innate need to have a dynamic leader is as old as human history.
“Our fervent and often irrational faith in the power of charismatic leaders seems to be a part of our human nature. The charismatic illusion is fostered by tales of white knights, lone rangers, and other heroic figures who rescue us from danger. Major events are easier to understand when we can attribute them to the actions of prominent individuals rather than having to consider the interplay of social, economic, and other impersonal forces that shape and constrain even the most heroic individual efforts. Sociologists and social psychologists refer to this common tendency to overestimate the impact of individuals as the “fundamental attribution error,” and American society, with its mythology of frontier heroes, pioneering inventors, and other “rugged individuals,” has always been beleaguered by it.”
Putting complete faith in a heroic design leader is a problematic myth that affects our perception of agency culture and also drives a false assumption that a charismatic leader or a cool figurehead is the only requirement when evaluating an agency’s competency and talent.
The cool factor and the desire to be associated with a design celebrity in some ways does an injustice to the larger human culture that makes up the success of a great agency. Exceptional agencies, like amazing clients, are not built in the service of one person’s ego. Leadership must guide and empower, not co-opt the limelight. None of us want to be the design equivalent to Turtle on Entourage doing whatever Vincent Chase tells him to do. That is not why you become a designer or why client’s hire creative services companies.
In many ways it is our own fault as creatives for giving individuals too much credit for what in reality took an incredibly talented team to accomplish. Scandals at WeWork and Vice show us that leadership unchecked can produce incredibly bad business culture and it is unfair and downright poisonous when the hubris of leadership ruins an amazing business and lets down an amazing team.
Today, we also see the cult of personality amplified even more so by social media. It is all about the individual and sometimes this focus on the self overshadows the complexity of the work and the client. We all know that Elon Musk is not building SpaceX or Tesla by himself and similarly, highly visible agency leaders speaking at design conferences are not building great businesses alone. Fighting to reverse our innate bias toward charismatic leaders is almost impossible. As a culture, understanding achievements through singular figures is what we are wired to do.
If this paradigm is largely hard-wired in us, then what we have to do as designers is to understand how this affects both the brand vision and the cultural dynamic of an agency so that we can have a more complete and informed understanding of all the players. Leadership is necessary and great leaders are rare. It is best to not view leaders with rose colored glasses and we must all fight the impulse to just buy into the biggest brand with the loudest leader. There has to be room for all of us!
Balancing business and culture
When it comes to running a business, there is a constant dichotomy between “factory vs. family.” On the one hand, you have to run a business and make money to survive. On the other you want to foster a good culture where folks like to come to work everyday. How you dial these up and down at any given moment is a reflection of your awareness of the health of your business both economically and culturally.
To be honest, I’m the worst when it comes to culture. I deleted my birthday on the studio wide calendar. I prefer to skip lunch and not chat. I forget when we are doing our offsite. I was self-employed forever and in this day and age it is not a good thing to be too insular.
At the most basic level, when you work in the creative industry you want to do great work for great clients while working with awesome leaders and staff in a lovely workplace. Fostering a good work environment and culture are crucial to ensure that your team enjoys coming to work everyday, that creative work is at a high level of creativity, and everyone feels that the environment is a healthy and pleasant place to be.
In our current era there is a more heightened awareness of values and we are seeing a degree of normalization of business culture. Toxic bosses, working long weekends and tolerating inappropriate comments have been replaced with a far more civil cultural backbone. It is by no means perfect but we have made good progress. We are no longer ‘Mad Men’ and there are clearer legal and institutional repercussions for bad behavior than ever before.
From a quality of life perspective, a commitment to perks like complimentary morning bagels to omelette stations have given creative offices a substantial upgrade over the last few post-dot-com decades. Gone are the days of regularly downing a cheap slice of pizza or Thai food at your desk and we are all a little slimmer and happier for it — thanks Sweet Green and Dig Inn (I prefer The Whole Bowl).
But office hardships still result when the economic drivers of the business are not aligned with and in support of the culture of the business. To function and succeed, creative businesses need to make money but just making money for its own sake does not produce great work or a great culture.
Historically, ad agencies have celebrated and often encouraged long hours and all-nighters. Motion graphic studios have been notorious for working late nights. Last minute pitches to win business have often come with immense emotional pressure to land that next big account. Some of this kind of work is the nature of what we do — and a little pressure can certainly be healthy — but in the long run, the chase for the almighty dollar can produce high turnover, bruised egos and frayed nerves. The recent article here about how Microsoft’s 4-day workweek boosted workers’ productivity by 40% in Japan is an encouraging indicator of where the world is headed.
That said, the business intent that an agency is focusing on — growth, expanding offices, the addition of capabilities, etc — can be at odds with the realities of its existing culture. To remedy this, there must to be constant checks and balances at the leadership level between the business’s goals, the agency’s creative goals, and the culture that a business wants to foster, preserve and amplify.
Building an honest and aspirational agency persona
Paul Rand, Ru Paul, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan and Glenn Danzig have one thing in common. They all spent their entire lives overcoming their own circumstances to build a persona and a mythology of self that they could aspire to. Overcoming perception to form a more clear and aspirational idea and reality is really what building great brands and culture is about.
Brand building is largely an exercise in transforming what you believe into tools to make them real and to help others believe what you would like them to believe. Businesses, like people, are imperfect and constantly evolving but the key to all of it is to continue to develop some level of consistency, through your values and ideology, so that there is a clarity that others can understand and identify with.
Like great people and great industries, an agency’s brand persona is not an unrealistic ideal but rather an inner truth you must continually strive toward through your business’s culture, work, and values. It is an aspiration you must run towards and if you are successful you never fully get there, you are always evolving and getting better as you strive toward it.
In closing, aligning an agency’s external brand perception and internal culture will always be a moving target that produces friction, evolution and opportunity. Every decision is a work in progress. The ideal and the real are in constant tension and collision and it is in this struggle to maintain an ideal state where the fruits of creativity occur. It’s why we love touchdowns and perfect scores and design awards. Perfection is fleeting but it is the journey toward it, as a business, a brand and a culture, that keeps us going.
Suggestions for building an agency’s brand and culture
Below are a few tips and recommendations from my experience as an agency partner. I hope you find them helpful.
— Do anonymous year end employee reviews to gain honest insight.
— Allocate time for offsite events.
— Give your design team a budget for a library (yes, actual books).
— Food is love. Trading recipes is encouraged. Eat together.
— I’m a fan of studio-wide personal projects. They bring out the best in us.
— Foster talent and support self learning. We are all a work in progress.
— Leave time for innovation and experimentation.
— Family first. Work will always be here.
— You brand should never be louder than the client’s brand.
— Speak from a place of partnership.
— Don’t be afraid to nerd out on project details.
— Tell human stories. Unpack your process. A capabilities list is not enough.
— In social, show your best side but be honest. Put work first, not your selfies.
— Have a consistent voice but never have a script. Be yourself.
— Invest in case studies and make sure your team can explain the work.
— Name drop your team. Give people credit for their creativity.