More than 70 creative professionals came together on November 12, 2008, to focus on some of the challenges and opportunities that in-house creative teams face these days. This InSource event was held at The Mansion on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. With featured speakers Emily Cohen (a consultant to creative professionals who provides guidance on effective staff, client and process management strategies, work segmentation improvements, metrics development and customized teamwork training) and Moira Cullen (a design strategist, writer and educator with extensive experience in the corporate world who is now working with The Hershey Company), this full-day event provided practical insights on effective management strategies.
Building and Managing an Internal Design Team
Focusing on ways for building and managing an internal design team, Emily Cohen captured everyone’s attention with her depiction of a workplace driven by chaos rather than strategy. Creative teams that are spending most of their time and energy “fighting fires” need to find a better way to work. Five key components to build and manage a successful in-house creative team are: (1) strong leadership and management, (2) well-defined client interaction, (3) well-developed organizational structure and role clarity, (4) effective management systems and (5) creative collaboration and inspired teamwork.
“Whatever you do at the highest level will run the rest of the team,” said Emily, using the phrase, “a fish stinks from the head down,” to describe what happens when inspired leadership is lacking.
Emily provided plenty of recommendations for making improvements, starting with a clear understanding of attributes that define an inspired leader versus a strong manager: “The inspired leader builds a strong connection with client leadership; navigates client politics well; champions both clients and staff alike; exerts influence; takes initiative; leads by example; leads business growth and strategy; is visionary and inspiring; is willing to embrace and lead change; and helps others realize their potential. The strong manager sets and achieves goals; manages by example; inspires and motivates the team; directs and plans projects; supports and guides change; measures results and assesses performance; teaches, educates and mentors staff to improve and grow; and implements and manages change.”
“Role clarity is very important,” according to Emily. Her advice is to assign specific roles to the creative team and to communicate this to all members of the team. She outlined critical attributes of the roles of politician (“a person who is great at working with all levels as an advocate for the creative team”), cheerleader (“a person who comes to work happy every day and is excited about design and the team”), industry activist (“a person who takes responsibility to be informed of the latest trends”), tech guru (“a Mac-savvy person who shares enthusiasm for technology”), bad guy/enforcer (“a person who has the ability to say ‘no’ in response to unrealistic demands from others, but can also say what the team can do”), and emotional quarterback (“a person who can navigate the inevitable drama in working with creatives” and “defuse others before emotions escalate”).
Recommendations for effective management systems include developing measurable job descriptions; conducting performance evaluations (“usually requires more than Human Resources procedures”); making promotions based on internal achievements, skill set and passion—not longevity; organizing productive project and department meetings (at least quarterly); establishing process maps, workflow management systems and schedules, and a procedures manual; having yearly offsite team retreats that are playful and collaborative; and providing ongoing individualized training for all members of the creative team.
Emily provided highlights of a proprietary work segmentation management tool that her team uses to evaluate each department’s workload. Projects are organized into 3 to 5 levels of project tiers, based on an evaluation against two axis: strategic importance to the organization (not the individual making the request) and complexity of execution. Work segmentation allows creatives to better align the right level resources and the right level process to each project tier. For more ideas, visit emilycohen.com
Breaking Down the Silos
“There is a huge opportunity and need for in-house design in today’s businesses,” declared Moira Cullen. “Design is a strategic tool of 21st century marketing. It gives tangible substance to the visceral function of brand strategy and aligns all touchpoints with brand ideas.”
Moira speaks with great passion about the role of design in the evolution of brand collaboration. She also communicates a keen awareness of the day-to-day realities and struggles of working as in-house creative professionals, always on the lookout to take the initiative in helping others understand that “good design is good business.”
“We live in a world structured in silos,” said Moira, noting that brand is often regarded as one silo and design is regarded as another silo. “Turf wars are destructive, can devastate an organization, waste resources, and kill productivity. There is no silver bullet (that is, no right answer) on how to overcome silos.”
To provide a broader “big picture” context for discussion, Moira outlined some of the key historical milestones relating to brand management and design management. She compared perceptions of “brand=marketing” (regarded as intangible and an investment with added value) versus “design=production” (regarded as tangible [“a thing, n
ot a process”] and an expense [“not an investment”] with added cost). She described “the business mind” (taking a “what is” mindset that approaches problem solving based on rational thinking with the support of analysis, focu
sed on “decision making”) versus “the design mind” (taking a “what can be” mindset that approaches problem solving based on a questioning of basic assumptions and channels creativity through human needs, focused on “sense making”). She then reported on research about how companies think differs from how consumers think, with the important finding that 70% of decisions consumers make are based on emotional elements and 30% of decisions consumers make are based on rational elements. Emotion and engagement are critical considerations when consumers are facing “an abundance of good choices.” Therefore, our understanding has evolved from transaction marketing to relationship marketing to emotional and symbolic branding.
A useful analogy for the need for brand collaboration is to consider a hospital emergency room as a place of crisis that requires physicians of differing specialties to set aside their structured “silo-ization” and work together for the common goal—to save the life of a person in a medical crisis. Likewise, design and marketing functions need to work together with mutual respect to achieve a common goal—the business success of a brand.
Moira also described the emergence of “connect and develop” as a legitimate business principle. Her practical advice: Start with 5 people as part of the value network (a value network is “any web of relationships that generate tangible and intangible value…through complex dynamic exchanges”) and try to break down the silos in thinking. With clear and consistent communication over time, people can begin to see that design is part of the business model, not only supportive.
“Think of design as the best conversation you and your organization can have, with an emphasis on your customers’ needs,” said Moira. “Talk about the design; don’t just show it and assume it speaks for itself (eg, explain that ‘this font was chosen because…,’ articulating the strategy in business terms instead of design terms). Align to act toward business objectives, adding value to advance the objectives of the company.”
“Design is a business function with value that extends throughout an organization, although it often is not seen that way,” Moira added. “Design matters. Design will help solve the problem, not save the day.”
“It takes time, courage, and stamina to compete in a different value creation space,” she concluded. “The battles are real, and it’s hard work to build trust and gain respect. Yet, the more effective the in-house design function is, the more effective business units are in producing significant business goals.”
The Need for Real-World Solutions
These prepared remarks from these two speakers generated lively question-and-answer roundtable discussions among attendees, covering such topics
as how in-house creative teams have to earn their place at the table by being aligned with business objectives; the need to set realistic expectations and accept responsibility for one’s part in any failure/learning that occurs; on-the-job learning about business skills and best practices in design management “to run as a business”; account management versus creative development; and the usefulness of case studies in communicating to others how design adds value. Participants shared candid observations about the need to learn from one another on ways to confront challenges and embrace opportunities as in-house creative professionals.
Special thanks to Xerox, The Boss Group, ColorEdge, Mohawk Paper and the Rothman Institute of Entrepeneurial Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University for their support of this relevant and successful event!