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10 Tips For Managing Creative People

Veteran creative directors Evan Fry and Dave Swartz are charged with managing, inspiring, and organizing the creative staff at agency CPB. Here, they outline some of what they’ve learned about getting the best from the people we call "creatives."

When the Harvard Business Review published a post called Seven Rules For Managing Creative People a few months back, the reaction was an almost universal, Oh, please! This was due to the fact that most of the advice in the piece was bizarrely off base ("surround them with semi-boring people." What?), but also because of the patronizing tone and the assumption that "creatives" are a breed of brats demanding a different set of operating instructions.

That said, the topic is a valid one—there is an art to getting the most out of your teams of creative professionals. When the job is to conjure the next brilliant idea out of thin air, against deadline, via a combination of inspiration, hard work, experience, intuition, and confidence, getting the best work out of creative people on a consistent and efficient basis can be tricky business.

Nurturing and managing a workforce of creative professionals requires a certain degree of sensitivity to individual skills. "Creatives are individual people and have unique things that motivate them. So when you respect understand that, that’s a pretty good cocktail," says Evan Fry, executive director of creative development at Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Evan Fry and Dave Swartz

Fry is speaking from experience. CPB recently installed Fry and creative director Dave Swartz in positions dedicated to inspiring, encouraging, teaching, supporting, and organizing the agency’s creative and design departments.

Seen as an investment in creative talent, the new roles have allowed Swartz—a longtime agency fixture—and Fry—who recently returned to CPB after nearly four years at crowdsourcing agency Victors & Spoils—to focus on helping creative people succeed. As experienced creative leaders, both say the most important element in fostering the talent of others is instinct, or as Fry puts it, "A Spidey sense for creative talent"—but there are a number of distinct things that business leaders can do to set its people up for success.

Here, Fry and Swartz share 10 ideas on how to manage creative talent. While they admit some seem deceptively simple, they say that the mere process of introspection required in understanding what a company needs from its talent—new and veteran—aids in clearing the way to help others.

Set the Bar.

It’s one of those things that often just happens: Through a series of deadlines, projects, staff turnover, and a lack of constructive navel gazing, a company’s processes and DNA become routine and unspoken. But Fry and Swartz say a useful starting point for any creative company looking to evaluate how to foster its talent is to first look at the overall entity. "Ask questions like, 'what kind of team do we need here; what works well for the individual agency process that we have?' Every agency works differently, so different skill sets or different temperaments work better at different places," says Fry. "This is helpful when building new relationships with new people, but it’s also helpful in pointing out to people who are here that these are the areas you need to foster."

Identify and Leverage Traits of Individuals.

When undergoing this process at CPB, Fry says that he and Swartz took what can be considered a creative inventory of each person’s skills. The idea? To have an up-to-date understanding of their talent. "We thought, What traits work best at CPB in those roles?" says Fry. "We got really clear about that, maybe for the first time, and put it down on paper. These are the skills and traits people need for certain roles, not just for new roles but for people here as well. If you have an objective assessment of everyone, you can work to optimize those strengths by assembling the right skills and talents for projects. This sounds extremely simple, but in the ad agency world, I’ve seen it’s not always that overt."

Cater to Strengths.

Knowing the ways in which people produce great work is as important as knowing what specific skill they can add to the team. "Sometimes you just need to empower," says Fry. "Certain creative talent responds really well to having a long leash, and we like to encourage CDs to let this happen with people we’ve identified as having the stuff to do it, no matter what their title may be or their level of experience. Sometimes certain people really respond to healthy competition. You’ll see it will inspire and motivate certain creatives to dominate and crush it, where others don’t respond to competition at all. We encourage whatever suits a person. We’ve seen what trial by fire can do. Some people really respond and then all of a sudden they’re your next leader."

Keep Your Hands Dirty.

While Fry and Swartz are tasked with mentoring and managing the agency’s talent, they also get involved in the actual work, be it running a pitch or covering a shoot, when needed. "We will be called in as a creative team so not only do we have our duties running the design department and helping art directors, we’re thrown into a pitch and will run those things and set the tone, and that helps. It’s leading by example," says Swartz. "And it helps when it comes to people respecting what we do. If we have a suggestion, they know it’s because we’re also experiencing the process day to day."

Suggest—But Don’t Necessarily Impose—a Process.

Creative people are often as protective of their process as they are of their ideas. Someone waltzing in with a do-it-like-this mandate is about as welcome as . . . well . . . it’s not usually welcome. Yet individual processes are prone to log-jams that outsiders are better equipped to see. Suggesting process therefore must be done delicately. "There can be some method to the creative madness," says Fry. "In any process, like a pitch, we kind of know the beats. We know there’s a client meeting, when they’ll want to see a strategy, then early work, then finished work. Sometimes helping someone is as simple as putting a calendar up and outlining when certain pieces get done or being clear about when they’ll get feedback on work. It can make it more efficient and make sure the thinking happens at the right times without the worry getting in the way. Some people are more predisposed to organization than others. But sometimes it’s about making little lightbulbs go off."

Create Healthy Confusion.

While structure has its benefits, so does a bit of chaos. Or, as Swartz calls it, healthy confusion. He says that when working with designers, it’s actually more productive to keep them busy with multiple projects at once. "There’s’ always a lot on everyone’s plate and that’s kind of by design because part of the creative process is incubating ideas," Swartz says. "Idea incubation comes from when you read your brief, do a few hours of work, and then you stop. You may hit a wall and then suddenly you’re in a grocery store and you think of something. That’s because your brain works on it over time. So when you’re in a healthy confused state, you get a lot of work done. You learn how to manage it. It’s important to have a lot on your plate—not to burn you out but to give your brain time to focus on something else."

Encourage Switching Off to Switch On.

All that said, burning creative talent out is a legitimate concern. As Fry says, "You can’t switch on unless you have an off position." It may be easier said than done—many agencies, CPB included, have a reputation for tough hours. Fry says he and Swartz are working at being more conscious about keeping weekends a little more free at CPB, and that means getting everyone from account teams to CDs on board. "It takes some work, but organization can help a lot. I keep a calendar when everyone’s on vacation, when meetings are. . . . Being prepared ahead of time is the biggest key. It doesn’t always happen, but we’re taking steps wherever we can to anticipate things and alleviate the pressure so it’s not crushing people all the time."

Keep Them Producing.

Creative talent lives to make stuff. When they’re not making things, they get unhappy, prone to relocate, or worse, creatively uninspired. So Fry says it’s important to ensure people are continually putting new work out into the world. "It sounds simple, but it’s about keeping in mind how to keep people in positions to get things done. We focus on getting work into the meeting because beyond that, it’s often out of your control—budgets shift, clients change things, work dies. . . . Ideally the work being sold is spread around. And if it’s not working for a creative talent and a given place, you have to encourage people to keep going for it, and get in a situation where you can be producing. From a leadership standpoint, you have to remember why they’re here so they don’t lose perspective."

Make Retention a Conscious Choice.

That creatives routinely switch agencies after a couple of years is accepted practice in advertising. But Fry and Swartz believe it doesn’t need to be that way. Swartz, a 25-year CPB veteran, and Fry, who is among the agency’s many "boomerang" employees (those who leave and then come back), say part of their job is to foster an environment that people don’t want to leave. "Everyone’s going to get itchy feet here and there, and anyone who’s doing good work is going to get courted. But keeping your culture healthy is huge. You have to understand it’s not just about money as these people are being courted. It’s always about culture. Culture is what retains talent," says Fry.

Know When To—And Be Able To—Speak The Tough Truth.

Fry says the creative management work he and Swartz do is essentially about helping people take charge of their own careers. This can be through encouragement, organization, keen pairing, and sometimes offering really tough advice. Say Fry, "Sometimes saying the hardest thing is the best mentorship you can give, as opposed to letting someone stay in a rut."

[Playing Football: Blend Images via Shutterstock | Image: Flickr users NASA, Simon Greening, David Haberthür, Jlhopgood, and Buddy Venturanza]

Add New Comment


  • ranisuvita

    Nice tips on managing people effectively!

    I would almost argue that the last step (to really hit this one out of the park) would be to talk to someone 1-1 to really get the low down. My friend did this with Matthew Bucher who has founded a successful creative management agency from the ground up ( and it was amazing.

  • ranisuvita

    Nice tips on managing people!

    I would almost argue that the last step (to really hit this one out of the park) would be to talk to someone 1-1 to really get the low down. My friend did this with Matthew Bucher who has founded a successful creative management agency from the ground up ( and it was amazing.

  • David

    Hi I need some advice. I have come to the conclusion i am overly creative. I find it hard to function properly in my job, relationships with people and in my mind. I make connections to things in a way only i understand. My mind is like an endless pit of ideas and reasonings and sometimes or a lot of the times its hard to focus on one thing at a time. Its frustrating that people don't understand me unless i go through my whole thought process. I don't always get things right but i get so engrossed with things its really just chaos to be me in some situations. I'm really quite extrovert as well and this makes it hard because i want everyone to be happy! I hate negativity. I really don't know where to turn and being suppressed is really making my head spin faster and faster! Apart from going to see a doctor so they can medically suppress me or try to talk me into thinking my creativity is an illness. Is there anyway I can harness this part of me to control it or at least manage it to benefit my existence?

  • Michael Chinn

    The idea of managing and dealing with creative people is relatively new. The old model for dealing will all types of people and business used to be pay people more so that they are motivated and have greater  output. This turns out to be untrue for many jobs. Most creative jobs are actually hindered when there are material rewards at stake. In this world where new ideas and innovations are everything, creative people have become much more valuable. Managers need to manage completely different than they would have on a factory floor. Sometimes dealing with creative people can be difficult. You occasionally run into the stuck up and arrogant types who value their own ideas above all else. But a good manager with adept people skills can bring many people of different creative aspects together to create something great.

  • jaijacobia1

    Face it, everybody's "a creative."  "God created man in His own image" which was the greatest creation of all.  We are born creative and it it is not crushed out of us by family, friends and bosses, we can combine our talents and skills with others to succeed in any field.  I have degrees and success in medicine, business administration, and theatre.  In each, I have used creativity to solve complex problems.    

  • CharlieSeymourJr

    SO much good information.

    I have to admit that when people tell that that they are "creative" (or worse when someone says he/she is "a creative"), like the rest of the world isn't, I sets off an alarm in my head and I go, "Look out!"

    As a pro photographer, videographer, theater director who just HAPPENS to be right AND left brained, I don't allow excuses that "I'm a creative" and so therefore I can't (whatever the hell the problems was... like "I can't organize" or "I can't stay on schedule") - that's crap.

    However the one part I really liked was... don't tell them HOW to do something. Set a deadline, make suggestions, but then get out of the way and let them do their specialty.

    Nothing worse than when a client hires Dr. Marc and me to create a sales-generating video for them and then tells us how to do it, what color the backdrop has to be, what the storyline needs to cover. I say: Set a deadline, make suggestions, but then get out of the way and let us do our specialty.

    I can organize things better than most and get on and keep to a schedule - but there's creative work in all I do too.

    So... good reminders throughout your article - let's hope it helps!

    Charlie Seymour Jr

  • Amy Austin

    You're "right AND left brain"? I doubt that. You also sound like you're in an industry where "right brain" is more managerial in nature. I am an artist on a prominent video game. I can't code. It's not for lack of trying, I've taken 6 college level courses to try and learn how to write code. I can't wrap my brain around it. It requires an entirely different way of thinking. If you can be a videographer, photographer, and theater director AND be able to actually use your left brain to the extent where you can also write your own software, I'll believe you're truly both. The ability or inability to organize or stay on schedule has nothing to do with being creative and has everything to do with personal accountability.

  • Pia Bertonegross

    "Creative" are just another term attached to describe people. Intimately the logical advice from this article is a good refresher to understand and make the most of anyone, "creative" or not.

  • Nate Davis

    These all sound worthwhile, things I will attempt to keep in mind as I hire and manage creative folk myself. It's really interesting, however, to see this post--and their positions--appearing at a time when CPB has lost its shine. Will giving employees their nights and weekends back be one of the ingredients to CPB's return to the top? For the sake of countering the toxic industry generalization that long hours are necessary for the best work, I hope so. 

  • DAMnyc

    DAM implemntation was shorter and more fluid in those areas where we took more time identifying individual work traits. Conversely, at points of resistence, we needed to retrain, resell and/or revise the process.

  • batmanroxus

    Yup, don't try to control what you don't understand. You may as well try herding cats. Control freaks are the bane of any society, specially a creative one.

  • George Sepetys

    The most important thing to understand is how a creative mind works (very few people in the world of an agency do, unfortunately.) The creative process, whether you write, design or perform is a very personal phenomenon, you reveal yourself. It is difficult because in the world of business, to understand that the principals that make the business successful don't apply.

    Communication is the key and unless you understand this, you will have a difficult time understanding and benefitting from great talent.

    For openers, stop "managing", it's a partnership.

  • Angela Schvaneveldt

    I am a creative person, and while this information is true, it is pretty basic and generic. How do you handle creative people? Leave us alone. Don't try to micro manage. Do not tell us how to do things. Give us space.

    I have created my own company that I was forced to do in a sense due to corporate ignorance. I don't want to sit in your office with your goons over my shoulder wanting to know what is happening every second. I work better alone - just me, coffee and my computer. So thank you, corporate world, for opening my eyes to how to be my own boss, to create my own destiny, and answer to no one.

    If you want highly creative people in your company, ask them what they need to be at their best, and give it to them. Get rid of the 'I'm the boss' type morons-in-charge and bring in team building minded leadership instead. When people feel like they are a part of a team, they participate more. When they feel like a minion with worker bee mentality, you will get the bare minimum out of them.

  • Darren Horrigan

    If you have clients Angela, you answer to someone. And love 'em or loathe 'em, it's our job to show them how to be authentic AND creative.

  • harikumar

    You reflected me mostly, Ms Angela. Having plunged with 'corporate discipline' and 'deadly deadlines' the employers, in common, do forget or ignorant of effective relationships with creators. Hope they need to be sure that we as unrestricted/responsible/dedicated designers, can understand & maintain the deadlines & discipline. 

  • JMillerBoston

    I wouldn't try to diminish the accomplishments of Fry & Swartz, or anyone who's lasted in the business...but I used to be an agency creative leader, and these sound like pretty typical "agency culture" responses. The kinds of leadership thoughts that sound good on paper because in and of themselves they're "mini-pitches;" stories and vignettes meant to sell a point of view. In this case it's Ad Agency Agenda. 

    It's not just this article. Whenever this topic of "how to manage creatives" comes up, I'm always disappointed with the responses. It's the same kool-aid I've been avoiding my whole life, and it lacks honesty and ignores the most important factors that influence creative awesomeness.

    Before this comment turns into article, I'll stop myself. 
    Then I think I'll write an article.

    Meanwhile, following some of these tips may help. But they won't give you a foundation for the kind of group mindset shift that's required to make the best stuff. 

  • ITGuruTurnedCreative

    I think this article is meant to give you a basic starting point, but yes you too have to in turn work on yourself before you can lead a group of "creative".  I am from an IT background, was asked to take on leading a group of creative - went from a highly dysfunctional team to a high-performing/producing team.  And had people wondering, how did I do that?  Well because it wasn't just me, I did most of what this article suggested, but I also adapted my style in order to give to get what I needed, which was I wanted to see work. Also ask the team what they want! In the end, love the team, love the work, we are getting it done, people are coming to us and bottom line that is what you want.