Creative Leadership Is Not a Part-time Job

Taking a Step Back and Letting Good Ideas Flourish

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Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Just like an old ball player who has to accept that his arm isn't what it used to be, I came to the conclusion a couple of years ago that I didn't have the best creative instincts in the agency.

The creative team tended to give my great ideas a polite nod before they moved on to something better, and I couldn't figure out what was going on. Did my ideas really suck? Had I lost my touch? Eventually, I figured it out, or at least came up with a theory. As the agency president, I had one foot in the creative world and one foot out, which just doesn't work. Creative leadership is not a part-time job.

I started PJA Advertising as a copywriter who thought building an agency would be fun. That's about all the attention that I gave to the business side of things. I naturally assumed that my role would be as a creative contributor, and I loved the creative process and the collaboration, even the late nights and the weekends. I also didn't quite believe that we could succeed without my participation in every step.

No big surprise, as the agency grew, I had to spend more time on business issues, and I made a classic mistake: I parachuted into creative meetings, tried to pitch my ideas and then airlifted out. Or I might volunteer to work on a project, write a few lines and hand them off. Trust me, I wasn't winning any awards -- or popularity contests.

I know that I floundered for a while, but I eventually made peace with my new reality and learned that you can't be a part-time creative leader, and you definitely can't be a creative dilettante; it's a full-time job. Like any good craftsman, you sharpen your creative skills by working at them every day.

The question for me became: How do you manage a creative organization and participate in the creative process without being involved in the day-to-day creative operations? Here's my personal set of responsibilities for contributing to the creative success of the agency.

Job number one is to help the creative directors build the creative organization. That can mean scouting talent, clearing administrative roadblocks, and defining an effective organizational structure.

While I'm not rocking the world with my creative talent, I can still advocate for the creative process. I still remember what it feels like to have a pile of incomprehensible client changes dumped on my desk on Friday at 5 p.m. I want everyone to personally experience the exhilaration and the frustrations of trying to bring a concept to fruition.

I don't need to create an idea in order to help sell it. In fact, sometimes it's easier to sell someone else's ideas. It's less emotional.

My ultimate goal is a culture where everyone sees themselves as a member of the creative organization, with the exception of -- maybe -- the finance department. Good ideas come from anywhere, and I don't want to miss any. That's why we post creative briefs on our internal blog and probably include way too many people when we're brainstorming.

A teacher at my son's school once said that we all need an anxiety-free environment in which to learn. I think you can make the same point about agencies. If you really want to support the creative process, you need to create an anxiety-free environment where people feel free to let go, experiment, and explore a thousand crazy ideas. That's when the good work emerges. If I can pull that off, I'll put away my copywriting dreams for good.
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