Monday, April 19, 2010

Keeping staff happy: a creative manager's POV

I have been talking to the COO of a digital agency about the special issues that arise when managing a staff of creatives. This is certainly interesting to other creative managers; but job-seekers too will find useful insights and there is good information for staffers aiming for promotions. Part One of this conversation is contained here.

"Without constant revitalization, minds can start to wander," says Aaron Harvey, Partner/COO of digital agency Purple, Rock, Scissors of Orlando and New York, as we talk about the special issues related to managing creative staff. "If you don't have a revival on a quarterly basis then people do start to complain. The conversations start very quietly with whispers."

"The only way to mitigate that," he says, "is to get involved one-on-one with your employees on a personal basis - so they can let out the things they are thinking and you can do a temperature check and quash the issues before they become a problem. Otherwise unhappiness can spiral out of control very quickly."

"Information is also key - when people are disconnected strategically - when they don't understand the direction of the company and are not invested - when thy don't know about new business pitches, or a new sector the company is pursuing - if they are siloed off - this is a cause of discontent." He tells me that communication with the staff is "a two-way street. We open up dialog through social space. We have an online area in a Basecamp where we get ideas from staff - but this needs nurturing, sometimes it is active, but sometimes it goes quiet."

"To motivate better work, we have to play to how they like to do it; give them freedom to get in the zone and not just have to stamp against the clock; give the freedom to work from home or the beach - letting them know that it is due on Friday," Harvey told me.  As the company grows, things get more complex: "We have to empower mid-level people to find a way that says: If you rock this out for me over the weekend - here's a little reward."

Harvey says that he believes there's an inbred mentality in ad agencies to exploit their employees. "We hire out of school: super-green, super-hungry. We give them the experience and we make them work. We are a deadline driven industry - so when we hire them, we tell them they may have to work a 40-hour week or an 80-hour week - that is the nature of the beast. Every ad agency has a foosball team. I am a major advocate of the bonding that comes with this. It is good to be able to take a break at 6 o'clock and play foosball together. It makes it that much easier to get back to work later."

Learn what Aaron Harvey had to say about giving promotions and how he recruits new employees in Part Two.

Steinbeck on jargon

Since we returned from a winter break in Mexico's Baja California, I have been reading John Steinbeck's delightful book Sea of Cortez.

An account of an expedition he undertook just as WWII was breaking out in Europe, it's witty, humane and most charming. It is about survival and biology and exploration and discovery and politics and "civilization". And drinking. One of its most vivid characters is the Sea-Cow: his willful outboard motor!

In this excerpt Steinbeck goes on a rant about scientists and their obscure jargon. This is something that we should all pay attention to in our own fields - whether marketing or architecture or design or film. You know what I'm talking about.

"It has seemed sometimes that the little men in scientific work assumed the awe-fullness of a priesthood to hide their deficiencies, as the witch-doctor does with his stilts and high masks, as the priesthoods of all cults have, with secret or unfamiliar languages and symbols. It is usually found that only the little stuffy men object to what is called "popularization," by which they mean writing with a clarity understandable to one not familiar with the tricks and codes of the cult. We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men."

Leaving a corporate job to start a business - Part one

I recently saw the movie Lemonade." Priti Punjabi told me. "Itʼs about really smart people who got laid off from advertising. They had been stuck into the routine of a job and the spirit inside them had gone to sleep. When I quit my corporate job I had wanted to awaken that spirit in myself and not be forced to have to do it by circumstances beyond my control."

Priti got her first advertising job around 9/11. "I was green," she said. "But I soon realized that you could lose your job at any time." After stints in a couple of ad agencies, she landed a job in a well-known global ad corporation. "It is a great company. I was passionate about my work. But then came the little reminder. I got a new boss around the time I was facing some personal issues. She had not seen how
hard I had been working, and she challenged me, asking ʻDo you want this job or not?ʼ I looked at the employee manual and discovered that the company policy for bereavement leave was just three days. And then I looked across at the person in the office opposite:she had to come back to work just 3 months after having a baby."

Her conversation with her new boss had stirred something up. Priti asked herself if the corporate structure was really for her. "I decided I wanted to challenge myself to open my own business. But," she wondered, "Can I do this?" She first thought about opening a youth hostel; but quickly realized that would cost too much money - and besides, she wasnʼt sure she had the confidence to take on
something that big. Then a friend suggested that dog daycare was a growing business.

Priti had a new dog and was paying someone $30 a day to play with it. This felt like a business she could get her feet wet in. "Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a busy, hot area - this is where I wanted to put it. I found a place - and a silent partner to help fund it."

She prepared a business plan, though she told me "I think it is kinda bullshit. After all, what are those projected numbers? They are just made up." But her landlord asked to see it before he would give her a lease on the space - so it was not in vain.

"The whole thing was very scary - but I thrive on the gamble. I think that itʼs about retaining the youthful fearlessness - you need to keep it alive for your own sake."

Read more of Pritiʼs story here soon