Creative work is no walk in the park.
In this industry, teams are always under the pump to come up with fresh ideas fast to satisfy client desires and expectations. Adding fuel to the fire are toxic work cultures tragically common in creative enterprises. Things may have gotten worse with the pandemic. As revenues fell, businesses slashed budgets1 and reduced staffing while maintaining productivity expectations. Soberingly, 83% of marketing and communication professionals are burnt out according to a 2020 COVID19 survey2 surpassing the rates of their colleagues in other job functions.
As the world comes out the other side of a pandemic and settles into a new normal, the creative industry is set to recover. Projections are optimistic looking at a 40% growth by 2030.3 It seems like creative work is going to be more intense but we’re already working at unsustainable levels. This all begs the question: Is it even possible to build a healthy culture to keep creative teams well and productive in such a cutthroat industry?
I spoke to Matthew Robinson, Senior Marketing Director for Contentsquare, a digital analytics platform that helps businesses understand customer behaviour. He sits at the creative economy’s frontier, heading up new endeavors and expanding into new markets. Having facilitated their entrance into Northern European and Middle-Eastern markets, he has set his sights on scaling business in APAC. The approach he fields to outfitting and managing creative teams is refreshing . He champions an alternative culture that enables and empowers, bringing out the best from his teams. We’re all eager to learn his method.
Architecting a Creative Safe Haven
There is no strict formula for innovation. By nature, creativity defies replication. It doesn’t serve to crack the whip or throw the rulebook at people who subsist on inspiration. Matt takes a controversial position, with a mantra he’d adopted early on: always ask for forgiveness, not permission. He found that success in the creative space requires teams to be quick to process takeaways instead of dwelling on blame. He ensures that he’s able to justify his decisions to leadership but also works on establishing trust with the team so they’re free to be fast - in moving, failing, learning and succeeding. It’s not uncommon for workplaces to confuse accountability with blame and devolve into demoralizing and toxic work environments. He offers three ways to avoid this pitfall and give teams a creative safe haven:
- Recruit the right people
Look for two key traits: initiative and accountability. Employ people who are proactive self-starters. They bring new ideas and are unafraid to fail. Balance that with a strong sense of individual responsibility. Working in a data-driven organisation, they will manage their own performance if they’re aware of their targets.
- Be clear and transparent in communication
Leaders need to articulate objectives clearly, communicating the motivations for the project and its parameters so priorities are understood. With the answers to how and why, the team is equipped to take initiative, direct energy to the most pressing matters and execute meaningful solutions. Individuals won’t hesitate to exercise good judgment when they know that learning and communication are principal values. They have the assurance that they’ve acted on clear guidance in the event that the initiative fails.
Open feedback channels are also crucial. Our teams must be free to convey honest and actionable self-assessments. Engaging these observations allows us to optimise talent, and provide the support that our teams may require, to get the job done.
- Adopt a (relatively) flat hierarchy
It may not be possible to do away with hierarchy altogether, especially when it comes to major decisions. For creative processes though, it makes sense to be more fluid and quash the idea of a pecking order. Having responsive access to leadership at any level expedites ideation and encourages proactivity and trust. When people, practice, and structure come together, creative teams are equipped to produce actively and improve systematically, secure in the nurturing environment their organisation cultivates.
Prioritise Personal Development
Every enterprise has its goals and the task of balancing a team’s development against their productive output is the key to achieving business objectives. Matt is passionate about personal development. His philosophy on mentorship comes from a particularly motivational manager who gave him the space and motivation to exercise skills relevant to his career trajectory. He recalls how he used to be terrified of public speaking. It didn’t matter if it was a small gathering of 15 people or if he knew the subject matter like the back of his hand. His manager worked with him to build confidence. He assured Matt that it was a safe environment and prompted him to think of potential with certainty, constantly referring to him as a Future Marketing Director.
This left an impression on Matt and now, he extends that same care and freedom to his own teams. He encourages his people through mistakes and helps them extract valuable knowledge through self-assessment. Seeking resources and opportunities for our teams to consciously improve creates the agency that breeds initiative.
On or off the job, Matt is happy to help develop his people into well rounded individuals, able to productively draw from their unique diversity of backgrounds. He himself explores opportunities outside his 9-5. As a co-founder of Bottle Half Full, Matt’s work is fascinating and inspiring. Through this organisation, he and his peers come together and give back using their marketing expertise to help social enterprises get off the ground. While he enjoys volunteering, it’s not all altruism, Matt acknowledges. The work of Bottle Half Full affords them rare learning opportunities. Overcoming challenges of budding organisations and working with people who otherwise could not have afforded their talent, ultimately sharpens their skillset and expands their toolkit in unique ways. A small and finite investment of time toward tangible output is worthwhile.
Creativity as Team Effort
Often, innovation is born out of collaboration and communication. This came a lot easier for Matt when his team was all based in one place. Managing feedback, training and motivation was organic. Now that he’s growing teams in Australia, Singapore, Japan and South Korea he faces new challenges in scaling culture in a hybrid, geographically distributed regional team. A global workforce survey of people working in hybrid work environments show an almost unanimous (98%) frustration at video meetings from home. Communication over teleconference is just not the same. Matt is keen to balance the participation of remote and local teams but extending ideation sessions offer a diminishing return. He offers a couple of hacks they use at Contentsquare to negotiate collaboration bottlenecks.
- Creative Coffee
Once a week, over coffee, one person can take a challenge to the extended marketing team. Participants can come in from groups that don’t normally take part in ideation. Instead of an open forum of competing voices, participants listen to music, enjoy their coffee and dump all of their ideas on the topic into a blank sheet of paper. At the end of thirty minutes, participants take 5 minute turns to feature and expound ideas that stand out. Besides engaging more minds to address a challenging issue, this format of brainstorming avoids crosstalk and preempts the interruptions prone to disrupting Zoom meetings.
- Skill Sessions
They identify exceptional skills in individuals and enlist them to educate others in limited sessions. Efficient practices and important skills can be deliberated and propagated socially across teams.
- Monthly Redux
Each team features their accomplishments and focuses on their choice of areas for improvement. Instead of a traditional post-mortem appraisal at the end of a project arc, teams are encouraged to regularly celebrate success and ruminate on small failures as they gather talking points for these regular redux sessions. It’s a less stressful approach to accountability and goal setting.
Developing individuals and empowering teams are the keys to maximising creative output. Safe spaces encourage innovation. Organisations can create the right atmosphere by building trust with their teams and opening channels for two way communication.
- Reward initiative and learn from failure
- Encourage transparency and accountability
- Create opportunities for collaborative communication and include people across the business