The beauty and challenge of working in any creative field is that there is no right answer. Almost any idea can be a great idea or a horrible idea, depending how it works out. So your success as a creative often comes down to how much your team can help you execute your ideas successfully.
My first two jobs in advertising, I found myself working for great mentors. They taught me so much about writing and about advertising in general, and made sure my ideas turned into something successful. Each mentor was extremely smart, and they would never settle for anything that wasn’t as great as it could be. They were also incredibly patient and were willing to work with me to improve my skills.
At my third job in advertising, that completely changed.
The collaborative atmosphere was replaced with an every man and woman for themselves ethos. Some aspects were the same - we were still focused on producing the best work possible. It’s just how we approached that goal that was different. And that approach burned people out and made everyone unhappy.
The reason we work in groups is so that we can bring as many creative viewpoints to the work as possible. But for the power of groups to work, the people in those groups have to figure out how to work together.
In my experience, I’ve learned that you have about a fifty-fifty chance on finding yourself in a good environment. At this point in my career, I’ve figured out the things that you should look for in your team, the things that are going to give you a chance to improve your skills, make meaningful contributions, and be happy while doing it.
These aspects of good teams don’t just apply to advertising, they apply to any creative environment where teams are involved.
You want teammates who are:
This may be the most obvious thing to look for in your teammates. Smarter people have something to teach you. They could have something to teach because they’ve experienced so much, or just because they have an immense amount of talent.
You can learn from them by listening to what they have to say, but you’re probably going to learn ten times as much from them by observing how they do what they do and seeing what they produce.
It’s great working with smart people for another, less obvious reason. In my experience, smart people are open to new ideas and different perspectives. I’ll talk more about this below.
… but dumb
If your team is already pretty full in the smarts department, there may not be enough room for you to contribute. You want to make sure that you can bring something unique to the room, and not simply serve as a backup.
If there’s a more senior writer on your team, you still want that person dumber than you about certain things. She may know more about writing and advertising, for example, but you could know more about social media.
I’ve been the youngest, greenest writer on a team, but I’ve still been able to contribute because I could bring a younger perspective. Or a male perspective. Or, when I was working under a British writer, an American perspective.
It’s a great feeling when you realize that you not only have something you can contribute, but you can even teach the people on your team something new. Like teaching a Brit about the backyard game Cornhole, for instance.
I used to think that if I had more than five drafts of a manuscript, I was doing a bad job. I now know it shows I’m working with the right editors. Someone who wants to make sure the work is the best it can be, and in the process is pushing me to get better. It shows that I’m being asked hard questions, and I am being allowed to provide the solutions. And if they weren’t the right solutions, I got another chance.
When your editor is not challenging you and simply says “Good enough,” then you’re not getting better because you’re not being pushed to be your best. Believe me, there’s a big difference between writing that “get’s the point across” and writing that “can’t be ignored.” You always want to be pushed towards the latter.
Honestly, you need your teammates to push you there. It’s almost impossible to have the perspective needed to realize when your own work is not quite there.
I’ve mentioned before how it’s really easy for someone editing your work to simply rewrite you. A lot quicker sometimes. It’s impossibly hard to learn as a writer when someone simply tells you what to write, however.
You want teammates who will permit you time to struggle, to make mistakes and go down wrong paths. Oftentimes you learn more from your mistakes, and it’s important that your team understands that, especially when you’re starting out.
A big part of this permissiveness isn’t solely that your team will allow you to be wrong, but they want you to be right. As I mentioned above, you want teammates who are open to new ideas, and encourage you to figure out how they will work, sometimes despite their instinct telling them that it’s not going to work.
They don’t lock in on only the ideas that they had a hand in developing, or the ones that are most similar to ideas they already recognize. You can bring them something new, and if it surprises them and makes them uncomfortable, that doesn’t make the idea a bad one.
Some of my best advertising ideas started as almost completely horrible ideas. They had one little interesting germ of an interesting idea within them that saved them from being killed immediately. People on my team urged me to focus on that interesting part of the idea, and that’s where the great work came from.
I would have never been able to come up with this great idea if I didn’t
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Every creative endeavor is about the unknown. There’s no formula, there’s only a weird mix of knowledge, instinct, taste, and artistry - coming together to create something that people will hopefully connect with.
It can be so hard to work in this unknown because the best way to come up with something that works is to come up with a lot of options. Some will work, some won’t. Some won’t work at an almost embarrassing level. And the only way to know which work and which don’t is to share them with your team.
That’s why you need a forgiving team. You need to be able to be wrong with them and not feel like you’ve hurt your career. To share bad ideas and not feel the sting of embarrassment when they tell you why it’s not working. To feel comfortable enough to be able to do the same thing tomorrow.
No idea can’t be improved by sharing it with others. You want your teammates to push you to make your ideas stronger. Great ideas will bend, anything less will break.
It can be a hard process, especially if you are in love with your idea. If your idea is getting beat up, it’s hard not to take it personally. If you’re team pulls their punches in favor of your feelings, though, they’re not doing you any favors.
Creative work is so closely tied to deeply personal aspects of yourself, like your taste and your vision, that emotions inevitably become involved. There is always room for an encouraging word and a little empathy, no matter what business you’re in.
A good teammate knows when you could use a word of encouragement. Knows when you could use a coffee, or a day off. Knows that sometimes you need a little more explanation than someone more experienced as to why your idea isn’t working and how you may be able to make it better.
You want a team that knows a compliment sandwich is a really effective way to give feedback, and it goes beyond saving someone’s feelings. I’ve seen it happen many times when the participants of a meeting quickly get into a habit of pointing out what’s wrong with someone’s work, without mentioning what is right. This can cause whoever worked on it to believe that nothing is right, and toss the idea completely.
Throw a couple of compliments in there, and you’ve got something to build off of as we go forward into the next round. Those positives are like footholds that give a writer a way to climb higher.
Writers need space, quiet, and time to do their job well. A good team knows that.
Even when all three of those things are in short supply, you want a team member who tries to provide that for you. Standing over a writer’s shoulder while she chooses between “Learn more” and “Find out more” isn’t going to help anyone.
A good team member really should focus on the final product - what you write. The one area that I’ve found is not very helpful is a team member who tries to change how you write. That’s why giving space is so important.
This perspective is coming from the guy who wrote the article about how to write, so I know that this sounds hypocritical. But while I feel that any writer can benefit from hearing how others work, I ultimately believe that how you write is a personal decision for every writer. Someone who wants to affect your process doesn’t understand how writers write and is probably doing damage to your confidence.
Cheers for scores...
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to hear a “good job” every now and then. When you work long hours and do the hard work of taking something from an idea to an actual “thing,” the high fives are truly appreciated. Those are some of the best moments in advertising.
And if what you’ve worked on actually makes a client happy or gets recognized for a reward, you want to be on a team that actually enjoys celebrating together.
...but doesn’t keep score
One of the hardest things I ever dealt with in advertising was working on a team where my supervisor would keep track of what pieces of copy each of the writers produced in particular pieces. Inevitably, she got the most credit for the various lines of copy.
What she failed to appreciate was that she was taking credit for a line that I or one of the other writers wrote, she saw it and changed a word or two, and then claimed it was hers. As though it had sprung immediately from her own mind, fully formed and without any input from anyone else. This is the opposite of teamwork.
What ended up happening in this situation was that when things went well, she expressed the belief that it was thanks to her. And when things didn’t go well, it was because the other writers couldn’t produce. It was a horrendous working environment.
I don’t believe that any creative endeavor works like that and I will never work with anyone who feels that it does. We work together to make our creative product better. That means when we have a “win,” it’s because we all contributed. When we “lose,” it’s because something went wrong - not someone.
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The ideal situation for a writer
Have I ever been on a team that showed all of these characteristics? Nope.
But the best ones I’ve worked on did pretty well on most of them, but sometimes fell short in certain areas. The worst teams did none of them. And working with them was painful, everyday.
What it really comes down to is feeling inspired to do your best work. That is how you will be able to produce really creative, breakthrough ideas that make your team happy, make your clients happy, and ultimately, make an impact in the marketplace.
How about you, what are some of the traits that you want to see in your team?