A Cult(ure) of Creativity
Before you answer, consider that a cult is simply a group of very devoted individuals. And that those wholeheartedly devoted to anything are usually pretty good at championing their beliefs through their actions, words and general daily output — for better or worse. What more could a company want from its team?
Balancing between running a business and building a place where creative people feel like they belong is rough. But as it turns out, where individual and collective creativity are found — especially when coupled with employee happiness — there’s often a trail of breadcrumbs leading straight back to a solid agency culture.
Both the ingredients and the gestalt of a strong culture can be difficult to grasp and even harder to pollinate. Much like creativity itself, there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” that is not easily bottled up or replicated. You can’t simply will it into being.
The good news is that you can build it. We’ve whittled what works for us down to three foundational compartments. They’re well worth stacking nicely, whether you’re shaking things up or laying these bricks for the first time. When it comes to motivating creativity through culture, some big drivers are: active core values, a laser-sharp vision and a purposeful environment.
Core Values: Practice What you Promise
What do you believe in? What does your team believe in? Are your policies aligned with those beliefs? Most policies and rules are created to minimize negative behavior, whereas I believe it’s much more powerful to create momentum toward positive behavior — to manage toward the positives rather than away from the negatives.
You can form real enthusiasm around what’s typically written off as “the way things are” by giving your team a say in shaping your core values. At redpepper, one of our core values was recently jettisoned and replaced because an employee pointed out that it was no longer passing our litmus test of driving behavior. One of our most highly respected (and still living) values is “If we’re not changing, we’re dying.” And it actively applies to our guiding tenets themselves as well as everything else. This is the difference between theoretical values and values in practice. Make sure yours are active.
Vision: Sharpen Your Corners
Leadership’s role in imparting its vision is painting a crystal clear picture of where you’re headed — what I call giving an idea “sharp corners.” This ensures everyone is moving toward the same horizon. Next (the hard part), you get out of the way and provide your team the freedom and empowerment to run toward the horizon.
When personal passions can fuel momentum toward the company vision, people will run. Try nurturing individual strengths and passions by enabling learning during office hours instead of encouraging folks to take a class on their own. That’s right — allow everyone (not just the creative department) to spend some non-billable time bettering themselves. If employees want to learn a new photography technique, coach them. Hold them accountable. Ask them to show you a tangible result, and give them ownership of what that is. Ask them to share what they’ve learned with others. Because when everyone is growing, no one is stagnant, and therefore your vision is never stagnant. Creativity is so easily stifled by stagnation.
A Purposeful Environment: Some Assembly Required
Cultivating creative soul within your walls requires more than ping-pong tables and a casual dress code. You need deeply creative people: followers (call them what you will) who consistently bring your core values to life whether they’re having a tough conversation with a client or writing an “out-of-order” sign for the latté machine. And to nab the right people, you do need a fun habitat. But what’s the next step?
Capturing pure creativity in the form of big, simple ideas should be baked into your process, not just your space. A purposeful environment is less about the right kind of rooms and more about guiding the thinking within them. Before brainstorming begins, allow study time (we call it “tank filling”). We know that creativity happens when we connect existing dots in our minds in new ways, so ask people to bring dots to the room. Whether they found a video or a font that gave them a positive hunch, have them bring it to the brainstorming table. More dots can be the difference between emerging with an idea that works and emerging with an idea that’s game changing.
What Do you Worship?
No cult was ever organized around money. Unless, of course, you count Wall Street as a cult, and in that case you’re probably right. My final point is that you can’t constantly spotlight profit as your only end goal. That doesn’t motivate people. Winning the money game cannot be what gets them (or you) out of bed in the morning if you want everyone to keep playing.
Instead, try putting your vision, active core values and a maniacal focus on growth at the center of your universe. This is your sun. This ensures that everyone else — from the CEO to an intern — is a planet in orbit on the same circular path. Sure, we all have jobs to do, but we’re all constantly moving toward a common emanation: producing meaningful creativity. That’s one of our core values, too: “We provide creativity with provable benefits.”
Does your cult do the same?
Tim McMullen is founder, CEO and Executive Creative Director of redpepper, a Nashville-based integrated ad agency that produces creative content and marketing promotions for brands like Georgia Pacific, Kirkland’s, Oreck and John Deere. Tim currently speaks nationally on two topics he knows best: company culture and integrated marketing. He was also named the 2010 Agency Marketer of the Year by the American Marketing Association Nashville chapter and is a past president of the American Advertising Federation Nashville.