Sometimes we place so much emphasis on the first year of a business as its most challenging, we don’t always consider that the real challenges to come happen in Year 3, 4 or 5 – when tough transitions need to happen. When they do, your people on the ground can’t necessarily see the grand vision for what your organization is trying to accomplish high above. We can look no further at an organization like the Chicago Bulls to see how they struggle with this present/future paradox. The organization trades Luol Deng to save itself $20 million from the salary cap and avoid a dreaded tax for repeat luxury tax offenders. Which makes all the sense in the world from a financial standpoint. But for the actual players and coach, it makes no sense at all. They can’t relate to the move. They try to respect management but they also know that same management doesn’t take the court every few days like they do – even if they were former players. Managers aren’t their brothers. Managers don’t go into battle with them. Managers don’t communicate everything to them.
Doesn’t this sound like some cultures you might’ve worked in? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Take ad agencies, for example. I’ve worked in agencies where good people got laid off right and left. Management tried to justify the financial decision, but it didn’t really make sense. And here you were, knowing that you still have to write, still have to design, still have to program, still have to service your account.
But all the while, on the inside, you’re hurting. You’re ticked off. You just don’t understand it. The people who stick around can feel almost as bad as the people leaving.
It’s here, in the middle of the organization, where a Director-level person or people make a difference you can’t even measure to ensure the focus by your “troops on the ground” are on the tasks right in front of them. They don’t have to like the current situation. But they have to perform. In the Bulls’ situation, that person is Tom Thibodeau. Does he like the situation now after Deng has been traded? Of course not. Because no matter how much it may benefit the team long-term, he knows he has to win games right now and this move would seemingly impede that from happening. And yet, because he is such a good coach and can keep the team as focused as possible on maintaining a defensive identity, he’s still winning with what he has. How can this be? He’s not delusional. He’s not talking championship. He’s not expecting a locker room to instantly feel better about losing a cherished teammate, even after they win a game or two. But he does know that they still have to play games and win. To do that, everybody has to buy into his philosophy, which calls for playing the most suffocating defense in the NBA. It’s so stifling that other teams are going to beat the Bulls with more talent, but they’re not going to be outworked. This is no different than the mark of any other Thibodeau team, whether they had Derrick Rose or not.
In an agency setting, the role of Coach Thibs could very well be your Creative Director. The Copywriter and Art Director types look to this kind of person to help them understand what management above is doing. Did my CD always get what the people above were doing? Heck no. But the good ones also understood that we still needed to produce a fantastic product that was creatively captivating and strategically on target. But they weren’t robots. They could lend an ear too for people who needed to talk because happy people – at least happier people than yesterday – usually make for better results.
The CD here and there who couldn’t connect with their creative department fell short because they didn’t have these compassionate bones in their bodies. They couldn’t put moves from above in the proper context. They couldn’t try to relate and they didn’t see the purpose in doing so. It was just business as usual for them and their body language essentially told the rest of the team to “get over it.”
Which ones do you think got more respect and which ones do you think were tuned out more often?
In an agency setting, what can tend to happen when there is a connection with your CD is for the team to flip a switch and despite some sudden transitions of people leaving, the team sees themselves in a cocoon away from the rest of the craziness going on around them. They see a CD with fire and passion for doing great work as well as a person who has great love and respect for his people. They want to work hard for him. They want to make him look great. Because if he’s suddenly not part of their world, then things really will go to hell. And they don’t want to imagine that. There’s few things worse than a rudderless Creative Department.
In some small shops, you may not have the luxury of having upper management focused on the business of running the agency and Creative Directors – you may have to wear those hats together. I’ve had to do that and let me tell you, it’s far easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. You may want to “coach up” someone to grow into an Associate Creative Director role, which gives you the eventual win-win of giving more of your time to the goals/vision/promotion of the agency and potentially hanging on to a talented creative that much longer who can help you on the day-to-day level. After all, before he became a great coach, Thibs spent years and years learning the ropes as an Assistant.
Do you have a go-between Director or Director-of-the-future person like this in your environment? Identify them now and think about your plan to nurture them. You’ll be glad you did when big transitions in your agency are necessary that are abundantly apparent and necessary to you but far less clear to those players on the ground.