What Ad People Can Learn From Teachers

Knowing How Talent Develops Can Greatly Improve Our Companies

By Published on .

Marty Orzio
Marty Orzio
Recently, a bunch of ex-students found me on Facebook. I was floored they remembered me. I mean, it was a long time ago that I was a teacher -- some 25-odd years since they were sitting in my eighth-grade class in the Bronx, N.Y. It made me a little nostalgic.

I think we ad people could learn something from schoolteachers. Creative directors, CEOs, and even clients might be better directors of creative work if we were to look at our talent pool the same way a good teacher can look over a sea of students and recognize their array of strengths and weaknesses. "Johnny responds best to very linear thinking, Mary to visuals, Harry does well by rote, Kara needs to explore things on her own."

Why don't we more often ask where our people are strong, and where they need to improve in order to do their best? Certainly we can do better than to direct creative people like traffic cops; most of the time, we just red-light ideas we dislike, green-light ones we do and then we're done with it.

There is scientific evidence that our companies could be more productive if we knew a little about how talent develops. A few years ago I read an article about the brain (I don't remember the title of it but I do know that it alluded to research by a Dr. Harry T. Chugani, about whom there is lots of related information on the internet).

Our brains have these synapses, junctions between various transmitter cells along which all the information required for stimulating ideas must pass. When we're infants, a new one is established with almost every new idea, but after awhile, we begin to run out of room and a way to organize a whole mess of them, so our brain gets very practical. By the time we reach our early teens, our brains have only half the connections they had when we were 3. Some of them atrophied and withered away as other pathways became more important to us.

These are the roads that receive the most traffic, the ones that develop and become most productive, where information stimulates a receptor, the receptor gets excited, and sparks fly -- "Eureka! I have a great idea!" Meryl Streep has an acting superhighway; Coltrane had a jazz superhighway.

Of course not all roads are superhighways. When information travels along the back roads, these neurotransmitter vehicles don't move as quickly, nor can those pathways carry the same load. But the highways allow for the big 18-wheeler ideas.

Granted, my left brain has generalized all this a bit, but the gist of it has a lot of implications for any manager. If we could direct creative people to take one of their highways, they would have a good chance at flourishing. On the other hand, if we direct them directed according to our own tastes, or the creative-award-style du jour, it could be detrimental. I mean, wouldn't it be tragic if someone got fired without us knowing what that person was really good at or what would have inspired him or her?

Bottom line: To be an effective creative director, one has to know the makeup of the creative team well enough to recognize what each members' real talents are. Like a teacher, it's only then one apply the right tools of inspiring, bolstering, and setting clear expectations.

Right now is a really good time for everyone in the industry to be thinking about how to get the most out of the right talent. Those agencies that come out of this recession in a strong position will be the ones that, instead of having had a knee-jerk reaction to the CFO, saw the recession as an opportunity to create a purer, more fertile soil for creativity.

Marty Orzio is chief creative officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Gotham, New York.
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