5 points from 5 years of managing Creative Teams in a SaaS Tech Firm.

When I left Grey Canada in 2015 from an Associate Creative Director role fill much bigger (and scarier shoes) as the creative lead at Dashboard (now merged into Vicimus) – I had a LOT of preconceived notions about what my job was. I was mostly wrong most of the time. But I also learned a LOT over these past 5 years.

An agency survives on relationships with clients – their needs drive your motivations. A tech company with an in-house creative team is self motivated by internal needs of the sales and marketing teams. And ultimately as a creative by your own drive to work and challenge yourself and the work. As a creative director you become a cheerleader for the company, culture and products because if you don’t your team will never feel excitement or challenge to do good work. Never before has “Drink the culture cool-aid” been so important if you are going to work this side of the creative coin.

We do both our own marketing as well as creative services for clients at Vicimus. Our creative services are similar to agency style work for clients like the Canadian International Autoshow, dealer groups, OEMs, occasionally partner vendors and individual rooftops. That creates a unique mix of work and a lot of juggling of skill sets.

So how do I manage creatives in such a diverse creative ecosystem?

The experience has helped me feel confident in how to get the best work out of our creatives and push a creative agenda internally. Ironically it is closer to agency-style creative direction than I realized.

  1. Creating Diversity for project excitement. When your team will touch so many different projects you have to lean into that diversity as a positive. Where it may feel like you are asking people to constantly try to learn a new way to apply their skills it can help them advance their career and become more well rounded. My art directors and designers work on everything from social posts to product design to video editing and animation for example. Much of that new learning and self taught with google, a bit of my guidance and time to learn in a safe environment that encourages personal evolution and skill evolution.
  2. Becoming A knowledge expert is something they can look forward to. It’s true after so many years I now A LOT about Automotive (all sides of it). Though I’ve worked in almost every vertical with almost every type of brand. The opportunity to dive deep into an industry and technology and evolve communication and your own learning is a huge benefit for a creative (which they may fear are shackles if mismanaged). As long as that work stays diverse you can take someone who has never worked in the industry and quickly turn them into a pro because they will have so many opportunities to learn. The exposure when you are client side to that business speeds up what may take years to learn with linear pipeline projects and a handful of client presentations.
  3. Timelines are what we make them. Let’s face it, clients and media purchases drive most of the aggressive pressure on a creative team. Instead of doing that with our teams we don’t buy media before an ideas is real. By flipping the order and being both client and agency we regularly will push deadlines if the work isn’t ready. No one stays up all night and become bitter. No one yells or gets fired. We simply say “Ok, this isn’t ready, let’s slow down and take our time to get it right”. And no one has bought media 8 months earlier as part of a marketing plan before a strategy or idea is even briefed.
  4. Removing the fear. I manage my creative team with the same creative expectations for quality and thinking as an agency-side team. That can be hard to do when you just spent a few weeks doing something more on autopilot like production. Though I have high expectations – it’s very important to call out and appreciate the differences to remove the fears that come when a few missteps can lead to a client leaving and mass layoffs. Ultimately the decision to move forward with a creative idea is going to come from people in the same company that you have a much closer relationship with. Between myself, our EVP of Marketing & Sales and the extended team leads – we are able to work directly with all parties early and sometimes even say “We want to do it anyways”. This means less things die at the end but are killed off earlier before we become creatively and emotionally invested. That is INCREDIBLY freeing for a creative staff. It lets me give them accountability and confidence that they can be innovative and not fear failure.
  5. The Creative Pressure is STILL There. But NOW it’s Positive. I spent the first 14 years of my life exclusively in and out of agencies of all sizes. It’s part of my DNA now to never be satisfied with an idea and always want more and better. But when deadlines and outside forces are driving the ship your pressures can sometimes turn negative. Often we do this to ourselves by management and team members looking at their current state of mind and projecting it on the work and client….but thats a whole other article. That may mean I still impose deadlines for thinking to keep us from being lazy but they become positive pressures to take the blessing of time to get the idea right.

I could fill a book with the things I’ve learned in the last 5 years helping run a company that transitioned industries and was acquired, but 5 points is good for now.

Regardless of being client-side, agency-side, a hybrid, freelance and so on – If you are in a creative role or department the job is to find ways to move past the negative, see the positive and focus on making the BETTER. Always.


Originally published on LinkedIN.


About the Author:

Todd Lawson is a creative/art director who has made commercials, brands, software and ad campaigns, who understands tech and designs UI & UX, a designer who does large scale paintings, a painter who writes articles, a writer who is constantly curious about what’s next. His curiosity has garnered Cannes Lions, One Show Pencils, CA’s, Cassies, and countless other accolades. In 2014 & 2015, he was Ranked 9th & 15th Best Art Director by Strategy Magazine’s Creative Report Card. As Digital User Experience Lead & Associate Creative Director, Todd helped Grey Canada win ADCC’s 2013 Agency Of The Year. But the story doesn’t stop there. In 2015 Todd left Grey to Co-lead the complete transformation of Dashboard, his past agency, from a 16-year-old marketing firm into a Software SaaS Development Company, successfully selling it to tech firm Vicimus in under 2 years. Todd then led the company rebrand, developed departmental processes, guided UI/UX for product, oversaw and built external marketing plans and rebuilt creative and design teams.

See 18+ years of curiosity at www.toddlawsoncreative.com

Vertical Experience: Automotive, AutoTech, Alcohol, B2B/B2C, CPG, Cosmetics, DTC, Entertainment, fashion, Financial, Food, Gaming, Health & Wellness, Insurance, Marine, Not-for-profit, Pharma, Publishing, Software, Retail, Tech, Trade events.

Gallery Artist since 2004. Commercial artist/illustrator since 2001. See artwork at www.toddlawson.com