Non Standard Leadership Techniques

Why Good Creatives Leave – and Why They Stay

Stan Richards asked:

First, the cliché: Creatives are restless. On good days, they have the attention span of a caffeinated finch.

Now, the problem: For too many people who hire creatives, the above rings true.

Ask anyone faced with building a team of terrific, committed creatives, and you’ll hear the same theme played back: Attracting top talent is hard enough. But keeping it? Next to impossible. The siren song of higher profiles, newer challenges, and greater opportunities will have today’s star hire following her muse out the door tomorrow.

And yet, through decades of building a thriving agency, an amazing client roster, and several dozen feet of trophy shelving, what makes me proudest about The Richards Group is our unheard-of staff loyalty. The creative tenure here sets industry records; our 24 group heads have been here an average of 16 years. Better still? We’ve several young teams with growing profiles who have yet to be poached. And it isn’t for lack of trying.

These are all folks who could work anywhere, who get constant calls from headhunters promising big money, fame, and the moon. So, what do we do that keeps them with us?

Money matters.

Let’s start with the easiest answer: Pay them fairly. The best creatives will tell you they do their jobs for love, not money. Still, when the pay is good? The love is deeper. For our part, we embrace profit sharing and bonuses. Whatever your approach, don’t just tell your partners you value them. Prove it. Good creative is the coin of the agency realm. Good creatives deserve good coin.

Money doesn’t matter. Craft and challenge do.

Yes, this point contradicts the first. Welcome to life with creatives. To keep these contrarians happy, worry less about their bottom line than you do their top priority: staying creative. For my part, I believe that no one should ever work on garbage. It leaves a stench that no amount of money can ever wash off. So we don’t work on garbage here. It isn’t tolerated. Yes, not every job can be a Super Bowl spot or spread ad. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a level of craft and wit to meet. Meet, then be pushed to exceed. I will always expect our work to be the best of its kind. And thus to be rewarded with pride and surprise – the real currency of creatives.

I know for a fact that our folks get constant offers to leave for more money. Most choose to stay because they see greater value in raised expectations. So set the bar high, then challenge everyone to soar over it. When the same assignment rolls around for a second, third, or fourth time, let your folks know it’s not “Do it again,” but rather it’s “Can you outdo it?” As long as you walk the walk, they’ll appreciate the push. After all, this is nothing that great creatives don’t already tell themselves.

Give them a say, not just a voice.

Don’t overlook the fact that creatives are problem solvers. If all you ask and expect from them are clever lines and handsome layouts, you’re missing a big opportunity. One of the reasons they communicate so uniquely and cleverly is that they see things differently too. So let them challenge each brief your planners provide. Let them adjust a strategy they find lacking. Let them own a problem; it will help them provide a solution. It will also let them know that they’re not just hired guns – in fact, you trust them to call a lot of the shots. That breeds loyalty faster than any pay raise or promotion.

Shake it up.

Another cliché, if you will: Vision and wit are like muscle. They have to be exercised constantly to grow. But – and here’s the part too many people overlook – they also need to stretch. They need variety. To put it another way: No one denies that Popeye is strong. It’s just that he needs to lay off the forearm curls. To that end, give your team a chance to flex new muscles now and then. At The Richards Group, this is easy, given our 60+ client roster. Our creative groups often swap members or sound an alarm for “outside” help. But even when the need isn’t there, we still push folks to dig for assignments outside their comfort zones. We make it a point to let everyone work on the big-budget “cherry” assignments; we also encourage work on spec for smaller, quirky brands. When every week brings a different challenge, who needs a different job?

One last point: Everyone deserves respect.

I won’t belabor this, because if you don’t get it, you shouldn’t be hiring. Just remember to treat your creatives as you do your clients, your family, and your friends. They’re adults. They want to work. They deserve your trust and respect. Give them rules, yes. But also give them room to surprise you.

Nothing good can happen until you do.

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