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If I knew then what I know now ... I'd give direction like a Northerner

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In this occasional series, Ad Age asked small agency chiefs what they would do differently if starting their shops today.

I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia. It's a part of the country where we tell people "We're not Southern! We're Mid-Atlantic!" in an effort to hide the fact that we are indeed, quite Southern.

I grew up being taught that the only real mayonnaise is Duke's, that pro wrestling is real and that every single kind of soda is called a Coke. I was also taught that being polite is deeply important. And for a Southerner, that meant more than just calling every single person "ma'am" and "sir" (which I still do, by the way)—it also means taking great pains not to offend anyone.

Let's call it the Bless Your Heart Syndrome.

Aaron Dotson
Aaron Dotson

So early in my career, that's exactly how I gave creative direction. When work went on the boards, I would conceal my criticism by sugarcoating it in thick layers of indirectness. I was more concerned with not offending anyone than with being honest about the creative.

I was well liked. But the work?

Well, I often didn't like it. (Not that I'd ever say.)

Then, about eight years ago I started teaching as an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. My job was to creative direct seven teams in a portfolio class. Sessions were just 1.5 hours, which meant I had roughly 10 minutes to look at each team's concepts and provide enough creative direction for them to move forward.

It was an insane pace. And my Bless Your Heart style of feedback buckled under the pressure. Because when a team spends seven minutes presenting ideas and you have just three to tell them what to do next, there simply isn't enough time for niceties. So my feedback became more bulleted:

-- Here is what is working for me and why
-- Here is what is not working for me and why
-- Here is what I think you should push/do next
-- And here is what you need to leave off the table and don't ever bring back to me again
-- Any questions?

I was direct. Honest. Maybe even a little blunt. I was giving creative direction like, well, a Northerner.

Two things happened:

1. My honesty ruffled a few students' feathers.
2. Every single team's work got better, faster.

I knew in my heart that No. 1 didn't matter a damn, because my job was to make the students' work better—and achieving No. 2 was worth my declining popularity.

After a few more semesters of teaching, my creative direction style at the office had fully shifted to match my creative direction style at the college. And the results matched those in the classroom.

Ditching my old Southern style is still less comforting to those with thinner skins, but the work almost always ends up in a better place, teams are more efficient against deadlines and no one wastes time second-guessing what I really meant.

Based on all I've learned, I can honestly say to my younger CD self: Bless your heart.

Aaron Dotson is a principal and creative director at Elevation, Richmond, Virginia

Want to hear more advice about how your small agency can not just survive but thrive? Be sure to sign up for our Small Agency Conference July 17 and 18 in Marina del Rey, California. Tickets and information are available here.

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