Finding common goals in everyday chaos

Stepford wives can think and speak in unison, but in the real world, everybody has their own agenda. Your junior art director may be trying to bolster her portfolio for a move to another agency and a senior position. Your intern might be hoping simply not to be yelled at today (again). Your account manager might be mentally checked out, daydreaming of the vacation that starts next week.

Channeling everyday chaos into collaboration is what separates great agency leaders from the merely adequate. Whether a key contributor’s focus is just starting to slip or an all-out staff revolt is imminent, redirect and realign before clients start quietly shopping for a more cohesive and coordinated partner.

The difference engine

It’s easy to pay lip service to the idea that all of your employees are united behind a pithy common goal, such as “we are all 100% focused on delighting the client.” The real world is more complicated.

So before racing off to try to drill a uniform mindset into everyone on your team, start letting go of some misconceptions. People can still do great work together even if they don’t share the same dreams. “The client says, ‘Make me as much money as possible.’ The art director and copywriter want to win awards,” says Mike Catherall, creative director at Vancouver’s Immersion Creative Corporation. “The job of a good creative director is to balance those two divergent thoughts.”

Forcing employees to act and think in lockstep is a losing strategy because marketing is driven by diversity. “Agencies are set up to make people with different skills, objectives, and opinions work together,” says Andy Wallman, president and creative director of Madison, WI agency KW2. “And the breadth of skill sets has only grown with the emerging ways businesses can communicate.”

True collaborators understand that they can have their own objectives while still working in support of a common goal. That’s why hiring the right candidates is so crucial. “We vet people to make sure they are going to be great collaborators. That doesn’t mean they are going to roll over every time, but we need people who want to work well on a team and want to succeed, or we will implode,” Wallman says. “We hate cowboys in caves.”

Protecting your team

Arbitrary demands and senseless rework are persistent drags on morale and cohesion, and the burden typically falls disproportionately on a particular role or individual, such as a designer or copywriter. KW2 relies heavily on objective definitions of progress and success in project plans, and isn’t afraid to lean on a signed creative brief or change order document to dissuade a client from asking for yet another soul-crushing storyboard.

Leadership bears some responsibility to keep people involved in engaging, creative work. If employees are grumbling that they don’t get enough chance to really open the throttle and create, there may be an opportunity to encourage the client to keep the work fresh and innovative. “Any creative director knows that if you don’t have a creative enough product, it’s not going to be disruptive, it’s just going to be wallpaper,” Catherall says.

Building trust between the client and agency leaders can also protect the team from intrusive micromanagement. “The creative director is the captain of the ship and it’s my job to lead a successful expedition. The client doesn’t need to know about the fires I’m putting out behind the scenes,” he says.

That said, it is still incumbent on an agency to show some semblance of order and cohesion. “Nobody wants to hire a company when they can see fires in the window,” Catherall says.

Stamina and focus

Call it professional stamina: the ability to grind through even the least stimulating milestones in a lengthy, complicated client project stretching out for months or more. You can help your charges refuel their spirits with everyday conveniences and special treatment to ease the path through the darkest, grittiest patches. “We bring in breakfast, we have a beer fridge, we have a budget to give people a surprise that acknowledges hard work or a hard time,” Wallman says. “And those cultural things add up and make people say, ‘Yep, I have to go back to the drawing board, but I’m in a cool environment with people who care about me, so I don’t mind getting back up on that horse.’”

This is not advice to create a culture of coddling. Ultimately, employees should hear loud and clear that it is their own responsibility to find satisfaction and stimulation in every project. “It’s a business of using imagination and initiative to create more opportunities. Every job gives you the opportunity to take initiative, and if you can’t, you probably shouldn’t be in advertising,” Catherall says.

Hiring collaborators, protecting agency staff from arbitrary client demands, and recognizing when someone needs a boost can go a long way toward keeping everyone rowing in the same direction. And if you’re doing all that and somebody still can’t perk up and buy in? “If someone can’t get around conflict, distractions, and the many, many challenges that are a part of the day-to-day in this business, they gotta go,” Wallman says. “That’s not easy, but sometimes the last resort is the right thing to do.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.