Have you ever noticed how creative people are really bad at thinking creatively about running creative businesses? Brian Crooks certainly has. In the 25 years he has worked in, for, and with creative agencies, he has found that people who call themselves creative professionals typically follow longstanding models of how such agencies operate.

Is it the best way to do business at creative companies to have account executives, tech people, and idea people working separately all the time? Crooks suspects not, but he won’t know for sure until a real conversation on the subject begins. He hopes to be the agent provocateur of this conversation at the NJ CAMA networking dinner and awards presentation ceremony on Thursday, November 20, at 6 p.m. at D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place. Cost: $55. Visit www.njcama.org. And he hopes “to create some mini-provocateurs” who can take some fresh ideas back to their companies and start breaking out of the model that was set in place decades ago.

Crooks has been a creative all his life. In 1981 he earned his bachelor’s in semiotics (the study of the meanings of signs and symbols) from Brown and by the end of the decade was the art director at Grey Entertainment and Media. He moved on to a series of art director positions in some major ad firms, such as Young & Rubicam and Digitas. He became a creative director at Digitas in 1997 and has held creative director positions at firms such as Razorfish and MRM Gillespie. He is now an associate creative director at MRM/McCann, a marketing firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Crooks’ talk on November 20, he says, will not be a lecture, and will try to raise as many questions and points of view as possible. Central to all this, however, is a basic question: Do the old models of structuring and operating a creative business still work?

Indentured servitude. In the traditional corporate makeup, departments are separated by job title and rarely do most of the divisions ever actually meet. But this segregation, says Crooks, can be taxing on creatives, who, ironically, rarely help design their own departments. Decisions are made by executives.

What ends up happening is what Crooks has witnessed firsthand in companies that have in-house creative departments — the creativity is relegated to making brochures and fancy web pages and marketing materials. “They were some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met,” he says. “You’re so far down on the totem pole, you’re just churning stuff out. Nobody’s really being creative.”

The other irony about this is how often companies with grindhouse creative departments tout their love for creativity and innovation. Crooks wonders if this kind of model applies to the 21st century and whether it’s really sustainable. Creative people, he says, are made into tradesmen and creativity itself becomes commoditized according to what the company can get from people who are good at putting fonts and colors together. “There’s got to be other models out there,” Crooks says.

New model. If you believe in the idea of a creative department that is not a vending machine from which to get a passable idea whenever you feed it money, you might be a frustrated creative professional who understands that creativity is a collaborative, evolutionary entity that seeks to build an experience rather than chase the biggest pile of cash. Crooks can’t wait for the day when companies in general see this about their creative departments and realize what kind of resource they actually have.

One of the problems in getting more companies to think like the latter, though, is that people see creativity in fits and starts, Crooks says. There’s a brainstorming moment or two, then everyone returns to their departments, or maybe there’s no brainstorming, just meetings where someone asks for ideas and then it’s back to the desk.

The point is, there’s a lot of down time when it comes to creative work. Crooks particularly likes the idea of looking at creativity as a fund to build and cash in at the end of the week or month. For example, you have a one-hour meeting. Rather than give the creative department 10 minutes to talk and then move on, cut that 10 minutes and add it to the till. At the end of the month, maybe you’ve saved up, say, two hours. Then use that two hours to have a creative meeting or discussion. Let the creatives think on what could be addressed and then let everyone collaborate.

You’re creatives — think about what you face. When you run a creative company, like an advertising agency, you’re supposed to think differently. But creatives, used to a life lived according to infrastructures they didn’t put in place, often don’t stop to think about the most basic aspects of the issues they face in solving creative problems.

“Say we get Victoria’s Secret as a client,” Crooks says. “My first point of reference is, I don’t wear women’s underwear. So how do I know how to sell it?” Creative departments are asked to solve problems like this all the time. But hardly ever are they sent out to actually talk to the customers. If your job was to sell candy, Crooks asks, wouldn’t it make sense to send some people from the creative department to the candy store and see what people buy, how they buy it, and why they want it?

Research and knowledge build ideas. And Crooks says that the best creative companies know how to take research and planning and generate a buffet of ideas that allow different people from different departments to develop ideas organically.

All for one. Did you notice the implication in getting informed research and opinions from more than just the guys pumping out brochures in the basement? Truly creative companies, Crooks says, are organically and holistically creative. They develop and grow ideas together, they don’t come up with them on the 10th floor and shuffle them off to some dank cubby hole behind the mailroom.

In the traditionally modeled company, Crooks says, ideas get tossed around a lot, but they only tend to get louder and more misshapen, not actually better. Creating an environment where real ideas are nurtured and allowed to grow is a needed first step in changing the paradigm.

“This whole thing is kind of a ‘physician, heal thyself,’” Crooks says of his talk. “Creatives are bad at being creative about creative things. We’ve got to ask, ‘How would a creative run a business about being creative?’”

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