The art of managing creative teams

Illustration of two people conversing.

Like all of us, you’ve probably had a lot of bad bosses. Which means you may know exactly what kind of leader you want to be — and what kind makes you run screaming for the hills.

Leading a creative team brings its own set of hazards as you balance challenging projects and cater to a host of strong personalities. But managing creatives is some of the best work to be found.

Here are four of the top creative management principles, gathered from a lineup of creatives who have managed and been managed by the good, the bad and the clueless.

1. Don’t get in the way of your Avengers

Your team is a group of superheroes with unique powers who all have something to contribute to the greater creative good. Help them do what they do best by getting out of their way.

Stay above the fray

You don’t need to be involved in all the nitty-gritty details of day-to-day production. Part of being a leader is delegating these tasks to your team, and to show that you trust them. It may be tempting to jump in, especially if you have expertise in a certain area, but stay above the fray. Let your team figure out the finer details on their own, even if it takes them a little longer.

You are not the project manager

Don’t spend your time filtering creative requests and organizing assignments. It can be easy to slip into that role, but that’s not what you’re here for. Stay focused on leadership and creative direction, and let your PM take care of things.

2. Cast a creative vision

As a creative director or leader, part of your job is to provide a North Star for the team. You should have a clear vision of where your team and your company are headed.

Break it down for your team

You have to take information from your client (or company, if you are in-house) and translate it into a creative vision that your team can grab onto. Marketing and business strategy often doesn’t translate easily into creative work — you will need to get a handhold where you can and cast a creative vision that aligns with your style. Ask a lot of questions until you really understand the project and its context, and then you can put a creative spin on things.

Say one thing

Marketers tend to want to pack all of their messaging points into any creative piece. But saying everything is the same as saying nothing at all, and having too many messages often doesn’t stick with consumers the way having one solid message does.

Work on distilling your client’s or company’s message into one clear point, also known as your why. Check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, which explores why asking why is such a powerful tactic.

3. Leverage your position

Leadership offers an advantageous spot to do things for your team that they couldn’t do on their own, and good leaders will leverage that to make things better for everyone.

Go to bat for your team

You function as the go-between for your team and your clients or company, and you want to be an effective buffer. Protect your team from unreasonable requests and be there to take responsibility when creative work is criticized. Also be sure to pass along accolades to the appropriate team members.

Keep this motto in mind to know you are using your powers for good: “When the team is having trouble, it’s my fault. When the team succeeds, it’s their success.” Humility looks good on you.

Cross-collaborate like it’s your job

As a leader, you have access to the leaders in other parts of your company, giving you a singular vantage point. Use your position to keep your team in the loop on what’s going on at your organization. Don’t miss the opportunity to find ways to collaborate with other departments — and do your best to bring synergy to your creative team. The right tools are critical too. Adobe Creative Cloud makes it simple to co-create more productively, collaborate with other teams in real-time and drive cross-team engagement.

4. Perfect your process

Digging in and designing your ideal work process can go a long way in keeping your team on track and helping you avoid becoming a project manager.

Champion creative briefs

A good creative brief is your first line of defense against a poorly-thought-out request. Use your leadership skills to institute a culture of developing creative briefs, deadlines and checkpoints. Effective creative briefs boil down the essential project requirements and put everything your creative team needs in one handy place.

Creative briefs should include all the basics like a project summary, background context, objectives, timelines, guidelines, the target audience, a list of deliverables and specs, word count, examples, etc.

Automate what you can

Automation can save you from (some) drudgery, so cash in on it where you can. Set up things that work with your process.

For example, creative requests come in through a form that’s integrated with our system. When a request is submitted, a “project” is automatically set up for us and we are prompted to schedule a kickoff meeting. This keeps us all from having to remember to document the new request and schedule a meeting. Little tricks like that, and the right work management software, can save you time and brainpower.

Make your own damn flyer

Teach the non-designers at your company to create their own collateral. If your team gets a lot of requests for simple, repetitive designs, consider templatizing your design situation. We like to call this “Make your own damn flyer!” Meaning, when someone comes to the creative team needing yet another flyer/banner ad/social media graphic just like the last one, with only minimal differences, you can empower them to make their own.

Templates have saved many creatives from burning out, and it is a simple way to appease people with frequent requests.

We have all experienced what poor leadership can do to an otherwise awesome team. Luckily the reverse is true as well — good leadership can take a struggling team and turn them into confident, resourceful, productive pros. So be kind, be bold, and be an advocate for your team.