Becoming a leader of a newly formed marketing department one week before the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown is a less-than-ideal way to step into a new role. Outside the typical growing pains any leader faces when taking on a new position, doing so in a newly formed department while everyone is learning to work remotely presents a unique set of challenges. These were the conditions in which I started my career as creative director for Baked Bros.
In mid-2019, the Arizona edibles market suddenly became very competitive. If we wanted to remain the top-selling brand in the state, we needed to increase our marketing efforts. Over the next few months, we slowly added people to our unofficial marketing team but still had not fully aligned to create a dedicated marketing department.
The department officially formed at the end of March 2020 and was catapulted into one of the most tumultuous times the industry has seen. As a team, we made mistakes, learned valuable lessons, and achieved results far greater than we could have imagined. Here, I distill three core principles I learned about building and leading creative teams that you and your organization can use to create marketing content that drives results.
In a sense, creative teams must operate as one cohesive mind, so selecting the right members is crucial. Creative teams often have a unique culture, part of the larger company culture but distinct from it. When building a new team, especially one in charge of driving creative direction, it is of paramount importance each individual embraces the cultural values of both.
When starting our creative team, one of the biggest challenges we faced was making sure the people we hired fit our company culture. As we brought in new members, we exposed them early to members of different departments, asked them to participate in vigorous debates, and encouraged them to take on an appreciation for radical candor. While this was no doubt a jarring experience, it allowed new members to integrate into our culture quickly, creating a cohesive team ready to take on any challenge thrown our way.
The emphasis on company and team culture as a primary perspective when looking for new talent is not a new concept. In Patty McCord’s insightful book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, she details the culture created at Netflix during her time there as chief talent officer. McCord noted corporate culture was one of the primary reasons for the company’s colossal and disruptive success. Ensuring every employee fit drove results beyond what people thought possible because it created an environment where employees felt they could be their best.
Building a creative team is just a smaller application of the same principle. Once you have built a culture-based team, you have set optimal conditions for the road ahead.
It is a leader’s job is to maximize the effectiveness of his or her team by creating an environment that fosters both creativity and productivity, which can be diametrically opposed. Creativity is associated with the personality construct openness, while productivity often is associated with the personality construct of conscientiousness. Within a creative team, members most likely will be higher in openness and lower in conscientiousness, favoring creativity and potentially minimizing productivity.
This bias toward creativity makes leading creative teams particularly challenging. By nature, creativity is a chaotic process, taking seemingly disparate ideas and combining them in novel ways. Productivity, at the other end of the spectrum, heavily favors order with specific procedures and systems designed to increase results and reduce wasted resources. Working with a creative team requires a leader to fully understand the people they are working with, so they can gain insight into each individual’s creative process and ideal working conditions. This knowledge is incredibly valuable, as it will inform how the leader interacts with each person to get the most out of them.
When ego is removed, creative dialogue naturally arises, leading to improvement in ideas and creative work.
By taking these factors into account, a leader can tailor workloads, assignments, and working conditions to benefit the entire team and the organization as a whole. This may seem like a lot of work up front, and it is, but the effort will lay the foundation for long-term success. If each member is operating at full creative capacity, their productivity inherently will increase as a by-product if the leader is there to ensure things are headed in the right direction. However, if a leader imposes strict limitations on their team, some members inevitably will experience a decrease in perceived wellbeing, resulting in reductions in both creativity and productivity.
If the members represent the creative voice of the group, then the leader needs to be the voice of productivity. This does not mean the leader should tell members what to do and when to do it. A more effective approach with creatives is asking for their input and working together to find a solution that addresses everyone’s needs. Finding this unique balance is much like sailing: Ultimately, the team leader is in charge of steering the ship to its destination, but navigating against the wind and waves will not take the vessel very far.
Once the creative team is built and a system that cultivates creativity while maintaining productivity is in place, a good leader will get out of the way. Too often, leaders of creative teams feel all the ideas or insights should be generated by them or their opinion about what is best is always right. More often than not, this represents blatant emergence of the leader’s ego rather than evidence of divine creative genius.
Leading a creative team means managing vision and purpose to the extent everyone on the team is giving their best effort. The leader should encourage team members to push the limits, test their assumptions, and generate novel ideas. Leaders need to check their ego at the door and be open to the concepts or insights members present.
This absolutely does not mean leaders must accept everything everyone does, but challenging every single idea is less than ideal as well. When ego is removed, creative dialogue naturally arises, leading to improvement in ideas and creative work. Collaboration, rather than resistance, will yield the results you seek and further cement an environment that breeds workplace satisfaction.
Building and leading a creative team is both an art and a science. The science portion comprises the core principles laid out above. Building a team that matches the culture within the company sets a solid foundation for achieving marketing goals. Finding the balance between creativity and productivity will ensure content is not only engaging but also consistent. Collaboration will allow the team to function seamlessly, fostering trust and determination. The art is the way in which you choose to use the science.
Derek Espinoza is creative director at Baked Bros. He specializes in the synergy between the psychology of a brand and its target audience and leads Baked Bros creative projects, marketing strategy, and education efforts.