Enable multi-level opportunities + focused teams = better creative leaders

Thanks to Digitas LBi for hosting last Thursday’s panel discussion of “What Makes a Great Creative Director”. More than half of our audience were newbies, so word is getting out as fast as the [free] tickets are selling out. Moderator and SheSays communications committee member Kimberly Campbell kept the conversation moving smoothly with highly experienced panel members: Kevin Lockwood, Director of Experience Design at Digitas San Francisco; YanYan Zhang, Creative Director at VSA Partners; Elaine Lopez, Design Lead at Greater Good Studio; Holly Williamson, Brand Art Director at Groupon; and Derek Sherman, SVP, Group Creative Director at Digitas Chicago.

50/50…Are We There Yet?

“Gender bias.” “Boys’ club.” “Lack of work-life balance.” These terms are well known in the creative workplace, truly need to be discussed and ultimately redefined. Just ask Derek Sherman. “I’ve heard male agency leaders say women can’t work on beer or cars, or that women aren’t funny. It’s just not true,” he said. “I’ve also heard men can’t work on beauty products, haircare, fragrance or diamonds. That’s not true either. There are business opportunities on every type of account. We have to get rid of these pre-ordained biases [if real progress is going to be made].”

“Events like this one, where we introduce women to senior-level women who they can look up to and gain knowledge from, that’s a big step in the right direction,” said Holly Williamson. As a mother of two, Groupon offers Williamson and other mothers a “work from home” option on certain weekdays and the ability to come in earlier or leave later to balance her busy life and skip the guilt.

“Talk about the benefits of having women leadership. Every team that has 50% women has stronger, better communication in their work,” said Kevin Lockwood. YanYan Zhang built on his comment with the idea of across-the-board growth: “When I started, it really was a boys’ club. Now I’ve learned when you nurture and mentor across all creatives, you allow opportunities for growth in all areas.”

Work/Life Balance: Legit or Lip Service?

Advertising can be compared to that stupid-simple carnival game with the longest name ever: “Whoever-Keeps-A-Hand-On-The-Car-Longest-Wins-It”. There is underlying pressure to reward those who stay late, even if they’re eating pizza and crushing it at ping-pong. Hey, a Cannes-worthy idea can show up anywhere right? Sure. Yes. But for those with families, outside commitments, or those who simply want a break from the nightly cube village happy hours, we’re somehow at a disadvantage for wanting a professional life and a personal life. How do we begin to implement policy change for work/life balance? Is it even possible to have a balance?

“We got rid of meetings before 1:00 PM, and it’s been a huge success,” Lockwood said. “We can be more productive in the morning, be more focused when we do meet and everyone can get out at a decent time. Open seating has also been a benefit, so teams can talk about the work as the day goes on and minimize the ‘less official’ meetings.”

Elaine Lopez added, ”Design is equally pressured. I left more than a few jobs because I was completely burnt out, but I’m fortunate enough now to work at Greater Good. We have a results-only work environment, which means we can work from wherever and however we want as long as the work gets done. The company was founded by parents, so they understand the value of time and they respect ours. This trust level encourages us to keep that balance as well. If I need to run an errand in the middle of the day, I don’t feel the guilt, because we’re all on the same page.”

Personal management style comes into play at the CD level, as Zhang candidly shared. “There’s a difference in what is considered ‘official company policy’ versus personal management style. I am not always that great at balancing my own life, but I’ve become more conscious of my teammates’ schedules. Set boundaries, and respect your colleagues. If you set your own boundaries, people will respect them.”

Sherman brought up a good point and sage advice for younger creatives: “You will always have to deal with clients. You don’t always get the final say.” Translation: set some solid, personal standards now and prepare to practice flexibility with future teammates, management and clients.

“So…What does a CD Really Do?”

The panelists didn’t hesitate to respond when an audience member asked the question about a CD’s responsibilities.

Lockwood: “It’s up to [CDs] to set boundaries for our teams. It’s up to me to protect my team from outside influences, whether real or not, then protect my inner team to go do what they need to do. I do more than I’m expected to do, and in most cases, it’s been the right thing to do.I make sure everyone is doing their best work, especially if I have NOT directed them. That means they are taking leadership.”

Sherman: “To be a CD is the wrong goal. It should be to do the best work you can possibly do, and keep doing that. As time goes on, people will notice and offer more responsibility. The most important skill is resilience, as things get better the more you push. It’s not just having great ideas. I wish I knew then how to shrug things off and start again every time.

Williamson: “Understand where you want to work – in house, an agency, etc. Remember to continue to gain experience. I’m gaining experience and knowledge by looking around me, to see who I respect and admire, or even asking mentors to lunch.”

Lopez: “I’ve gained patience [with projects and people], and know that things come in time. I trust my instincts, have the confidence to share ideas and am willing to fail. I have a positive attitude, and level head. It reflects that I know what I’m doing, that I can handle the responsibilities. Definitely be vocal about a leadership role.”

Zhang: “I never set out with the specific goal to become a CD and am still learning. The responsibilities vary and it’s important to make sure you understand and prioritize: are you managing people? The clients? the projects? presenting/selling work?”

Mentors: Don’t Leave a Job Without One

A good mentor can show you the ropes and offer advice. A great mentor can see your potential, listen well and keep you and your goals in check.

Lopez: “Reach out and stay in touch with past bosses and creative directors. When a pivotal job or life decision comes up, those people know you in a different way than family and friends. They know how you work and other things about you that those closest to you probably don’t.

Zhang:“Right out of school, I remember having a timeline with ambitious goals. My mentor has always stressed the idea of slowing down and focusing on what I was learning and the importance of experience over time. He always had an “open door” policy, and I do as well.”

Sherman: “I think mentors are fine, but a good partner is much more important. You sit together every day and make things happen. You challenge each other, and you can get really far with a great partner.”

Lockwood: “I agree with having a partner, but I’ve always looked two to three levels above where I am now to get involved in that person’s work. It could be your boss or a co-worker. The more I’m around that person and see how he or she approaches the work, the more I can be like that. The best mentors always keep learning. That’ll pay off in your own work and you can pay it forward.”

Expect the Unexpected

Advertising and design are fast-paced, quick-thinking careers. There has to be a way for a CD to cope with the daily (hourly?) ups and downs…right, panelists?

Lockwood: “Let go and let the team do something. Allow them to make mistakes, but guide them to not make the same mistake again. It can be difficult when you know you can do something better in half the time, but juniors, mid-levels and even seniors need to be coached.”

Williamson: “Understand how people work. I had an epiphany as I started managing – and realized I was too tough on my former creative director. They might need space or for you to work with them more. Face-to-face conversations really help, too.”

Zhang: “As a designer, I’ve always been pretty good about not taking things personally. As a CD, I’ve found unexpectedly that I take criticism of my team’s work personally.”

Lopez: “Manage your team’s time as well as your own. Know how to properly gauge the time involved in a project is properly scoped and planned.”

Sherman: “I thought as a CD, I’d be able to sell work through and have more say. It’s not true. The higher you go up the ladder, you’ll still have a boss and a client, and it’s funny, the most junior clients still fuck with senior creative directors.Titles don’t guarantee control.”

Online. Offline. In line at Target. In a cab. On a train. In a plane. Where does your creativity thrive?

Sherman: “Talking to people. Have conversations. Find out how other people think and work. Facebook is great to see what people are posting and inspired by.”

Williamson: “I am inspired by live music and people around me in and out of the office. Museums, going online for fashion and interior design, colors and pattern inspiration.”

Lopez: For me, not working really helps. Talking to friends who work in different fields. I have friends who are doctors. Hearing them talk about their profession is fascinating. Or my friends in the military, with their structured lifestyles. I love film festivals and being inspired by things that may not be design or creative, too.

Lockwood: “I run 30-60 minutes almost every day, with or without music. I’m lucky to be close to Redwoods so I can hike and be in nature. Side projects on weekends – code something, design something – these are always fun for me.”

From all of us at SheSaysChicago, THANK YOU for making Women’s History Month such a success. We look forward to seeing you at the next panel discussion on salary negotiation on Thursday, April 21 at General Assembly.

Article by Anne Hagerty, Photos by Anna Olsztynska

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