Collaboration between the (brain) hemispheres
Shared perspective is crucial to effective collaboration, but creative agencies bring together professionals with vastly different styles of thought and expression. Call it the right brain/left brain split, or the difference between textual and visual thinking.
Turning words and images into engagement and action is everybody’s responsibility. Writers, artists, and the leaders they work with don’t always have the luxury of being completely heard and understood. I asked agency leaders how to build creative teams that successfully bridge the brain hemispheres and produce outstanding results.
Washington, DC-based Merritt Group grew from a PR-focused firm to a full-spectrum agency in the mid-2000s, and that transition gave senior VP and partner Jayson Schkloven perspective on how both the visual and the textual approach their respective crafts. As he built Merritt’s creative services business, he quickly realized that those who deal in words are accustomed to thinking in terms of concrete beginnings and endings. Visual processes, unbounded by the grammar conventions of a capital letter at the start of a sentence and the punctuation at the end, are less well-defined. “Text-based communicators need to understand that the visual process is not linear,” he says.
Although job title or creative style alone should not dictate coaching and feedback, Schkloven consistently finds that creative inclinations can be a guide to management style. Writers respond to facts and evidence, and so are more inclined to respond to a direct approach. “Text communicators want to get facts in a straightforward, cut and dried way, so you can be more straightforward with your feedback,” he says.
The artist’s mind intuitively grasps the intangible messages a font choice or color palette sends, and that orientation does not invite the kind of black-and-white feedback a writer may accept. “Designers make more of a personal investment. More of their ego, their heart and soul seems to be invested in visual output,” Schkloven says. “Instead of giving direct feedback, I’ve found it more successful to ask questions that let the designer come to their own conclusion.”
The most troubling clashes come not from incompatible styles but from a fundamental lack of respect. Learning to understand that what may look like a simple process can be intensely demanding helps both the visually and the textually inclined. “Some visual communicators will not value the time it takes to write a sentence beautifully, just like a writer may not value the skill, thoughtfulness, and time it takes to create or place an image,” says Nicolas Boillot, CEO of HB Agency. “That has more to do with emotional makeup.”
Balance in all things
Finding the happy medium between the visual and textual worlds is a recipe for success. Roger Camp, partner and chief creative officer of Camp + King, describes a career path that accidentally veered from pure graphic design into advertising, where a strong grounding in both communication styles pays great dividends. “I wasn’t a great designer. I wasn’t a fantastic writer. But I could step back from it all and find a good, creative solution to a client’s problems,” he says.
Artificial disciplines, not natural wiring, can be the biggest blockers to collaboration between the hemispheres. Setting aside the arbitrary pigeonholes of education and job title help creative contributors of all stripes put the focus solely on success. “A lot of creative minds are coming in with as much baggage from their own training as anything else, and often they’re waiting for the opportunity to be liberated from that training,” Boillot says. “The growth of the infographic is a wonderful example—it’s inclusive of different ideas and ways of looking at the world.”
Creating a culture which trusts that different thinkers can communicate and succeed is more important than shining a spotlight on their differences and actively searching for solutions. “It’s fun to put together a very opinionated writer with a very opinionated art director or UX director and see what kind of babies they have,” Camp says. “Sometimes it fails miserably, and that’s fine, and you know not to put the same combination together. You just move people around until you find the magic.”
It’s the soul, not the wiring
As with so many things in life, perhaps the most important lesson is not to try to force someone to be something they are not. If that means they have outsized capabilities in one type of expression, find a way to capitalize on that, rather than trying to force them into a new mold. “There are so many communication channels that everybody wants to be a jack of all trades, and I do think we miss having that perfection and incredible attention to detail,” Camp says. “When I find a pure writer, a writer’s writer, they’re incredibly valuable to me.”
Schkloven says that what matters most of all is the creative soul, not a professional’s position or peculiar cranial processing. “If you’ve chosen this career, you’ve chosen a creative occupation and you’re willing to take in ideas and produce output that is a personal expression of your own thoughts. I wouldn’t be so quick to put folks in different buckets as a ‘text-based’ or a ‘visual’ communicator,” he says. “With any communicator, you have to trust their skillset.”