Yin Yang, Oil and Water, Creative and Marketing.

06.28.2010 / Author: Speider Schneider

I hate that title. It’s the major stumbling block in modern business. Power struggle is never constructive and it at least doubles workforce efforts at a time when streamlined initiatives need definite and swift action for positive ROI. You can spell T-E-A-M from the word “marketing” but I’ve yet to see the practice come from marketing. What can one spell from C-R-E-A-T-I-V-E? Reactive? I’ve seen plenty of that, for good reason.

Don’t get me wrong — I love marketing as a practice! In the scope of things, marketing is a fairly new practice and one that has to evolve each day to keep up with consumerism and technology. As a designer, coming up with marketing ideas is orgasmic. Guerilla, sabotage and viral marketing are the work of genius and that’s why we don’t see it very often. But you are probably thinking horrid thoughts about marketing practitioners right now. So let’s kill them!

There are a handful of great marketing people I have known in my career and they were smart enough to form their own companies. They always got the delicate dance done to create something that will be effective and not just popular with anyone who may, oddly enough, have an opinion. Then there are the people you see every dreadful day.

I have tons of marketing stories but my favorite one was when I was art directing and designing a major push on a new licensed character over all marketing channels. The staff and I worked like crazy to get the lines done for approval. It took months. That’s how much there was.

After the submission for approvals from the licensor, a member of the marketing staff, lower level, comes to me to tell me the changes needed. First thing, don’t TELL someone — write it down so there’s no misunderstanding. Luckily I was taking notes. One of the changes called for a major surgery on the main character to remove markings on their face. It made no sense to me and I questioned it but he stood fast and insisted that’s what the licensor wanted. I asked to see the email from the licensor.

“No.”

I asked for him to email the licensor to ask them to clarify.

“No.”

The most infuriating thing was that this oversized man with a cherubic face, looked like Baby Huey from the old Harvey Comics. Sounded a bit like him, too. It was hard to speak with him while trying not to laugh. As his new nickname circulated through several departments, it made it a contest among the staff to deal with Baby Huey without laughing.

I knew trouble was brewing and as with all the smart people who make file copies or just turn off layers, the art staff and I stated cutting the image and placing everything on a hidden layer. This was done to hundreds of pieces. A month later, the changes were submitted and the licensor ripped marketing a new one for the marking, so essential to the character, being gone. There was an impromptu witch-hunt held right outside the art department, next to the marketing offices. The president held it.

Yes, without wasting column space on the obvious, Baby Huey was spanked…and I believe the president actually asked him, “what is your major malfunction, Baby Huey!?”

The best part was being asked how long it would take to fix it. Explaining about turning on a layer in Photoshop, took a longer explanation to the layperson then actually turning them on, but I scored big points with the “dad” while my “marketing step-brother” was sent to military school.

It doesn’t happen enough. It does and CAN happen! In another corporation marketing got publicly spanked for taking eleven and a half weeks to work on a twelve-week initiative, giving creative, copy and design three or four days to execute lines of hundreds of products. Creative would always get it done so action to stop it took a while but the grumbling and angry staff meetings got some relief in the form of at least six weeks.

What do creatives look like to non-creatives? Obviously everyone thinks that they can design an ad or logo in MS Word, so immediately we are snooty, whining, snobs. A great marketing person I worked with wrote me a recommendation and included, “…great designs without a lot of creative baggage!”

“Creative baggage?” What could that mean? For anyone who has wrangled creatives, staff or freelance, we CAN be intolerable freaks. It’s hard to remember the last creative who actually followed my art direction without an argument or apology. We are also weak and without the socialization skills to deal with corporate power-speak. Often we give away our own power in an effort to be seen as “flexible” or “a team player.”

A recommendation from an art director, firmly a puppet on the hand of the company for which she worked said of me, “he usually hits strategy, but if some adjustments need to be made, he is very open to suggestion and direction. (Speider) has worked with our team for a long time and understands our process.”

The process was I went into meeting all smiles, told a few jokes and did exactly what I was told to do. The paycheck helped me live with myself.

In most cases that means doing what you are told by anyone bold enough to speak their opinion towards creative efforts and not have that questioned for validity. I have had to pull marketing coworkers aside and remind them that we both report to the same person and nothing was ever said about my reporting to them. I’m not being difficult – I’m taking control of my work for my department so I don’t take the fall for failed initiatives and sales down the road for someone else’s design decisions. I never get angry or attack, although people who have worked with me say my sarcasm could be deadly at times. Baby Huey’s ghost haunts me.

Just the other day, I client who showed me a product catalog that I thought was from 1972. It was the 2010 catalog and the creative department directors asked me to bring some paper product into the present (or future) and do “something different.” I love when they say that.

I did some of the finest work I have done in my career…of fine work. The creatives were really on board and revisions almost non-existant. Imagine basically having free reign on designing some fun and impressive paper products and the full support of your clients? Well, no good effort goes unpunished and I was informed the marketing department rejected the work in favor of the upcoming 1973 catalog.

Where has the fear in business put us for fast, hard decisions in the marketplace? Safe, take-a-step-backwards got us into the mess we’re in right now. How do we get out of it? I included this passage from someone who would only refer to himself as a “suit.” I have put it in another article on “Design-By-Committee.”

“I have to have the confidence that the design solution is meeting the needs of the client and is achieving strategic/tactical goals. Because of that, if there are elements of your design that I’m uncomfortable with, I will call them out, and in some cases, will nix them. Similarly for the client; they have to be comfortable about how their own brand is being presented, how their market will react, even how their own staff will react.”

“How their market will react.” That should be the only concern. And how did the “suit” become the tip of the approval funnel? The truth is that people can’t let go without second and third guessing what will be successful. It’s not like, say, a good marketing plan based on researched demographics would help in the form of a creative brief with which professional designers and writers could work from to incorporate everything into a cohesive package. It’s more the, “just design and I’ll make changes until I see what I like.” That always works out for the best…waste of time and resources.

Business is tight for many reasons but even one wrong move can cost you big. My question is; if the marketing plan is sound and the sales staff is competent, then why would those simple little changes that pop up to please people truly affect the product?

”You know, Bob…I was going to buy that package of Flugglebinders I wanted but I just couldn’t.”

“Too expensive?”

“No. The color of the package put me off.”

Happens like that every day! I used that line in a committee where the background color of an exclusive product had been discussed and sampled for a week. The marketing manager turned to me and said that I had negated marketing’s input. I thought marketing’s input was to figure out whom the target audience is, their habits, income, etc. and how to best reach them through media and other advertising venues and not how blue or green it is? Silly me! Maybe it’s a marketing secret and that’s why they can’t tell creative. We’re spies for…something.

What can one say when sitting in a committee and the subjective suggestions fly, usually contradicting each other, or people echoing previous requests but adding it should be “more” (red), “bigger” (logo), but “will know when (they) see it?” I sit and listen, take notes and then turn to my contact, if it’s a freelance job and ask what he/she would like me to implement. To be sickeningly submissive, I say, “some great insights but some are counter to the creative brief and some other directions suggested here.” I turn to the art director, boss, marketing person or whoever hired me and ask them to go over what they think will be needed. Usually they will tell me to follow what I was told in the committee. This is when I’m thankful for hourly rates because the Frankenstein created in committee is usually too monstrous to please anyone. It goes around and around as long as more than one person has at least a final decision on a project. Imagine what really would happen if too many cooks worked on one dish. The chefs I know are insane and would stab and de-bone each other.

When freelance, you are outside the eternal struggle of creative and marketing. You are only a tool used by creative and a bludgeon used by marketing to show their power over creative. Forget it and let the creative department live with it.

What happens if YOU are the staff art director or designer? Prepare for office politics. The struggle of creative and marketing has nothing to do with design or marketing — it is the good old human condition of having power over others — to be the alpha dog. No matter what your position or department, everyone there is jockeying for some power over others. From the frowning, minimum-wage guard at the front desk who tells you to sign in…while you are doing it, to the mail person who won’t let you get your mail away from your desk, to the coworker who tries to convince you that part of their job is now your job or part of your power is part of their power.

The human animal usually spends a lot of effort blending with the herd and shies away from confrontation. Confrontational people know this and use it. When the counter person asks if you want to super size, do you say, “sure” or “no?” You say yes because your brain and protective nature is telling you to go with the easy route of saying “yes.” Less aggravation. Why do good girls like bad boys? Because we…I mean they go against the herd, break rules and convention and are confrontational.

So, it stands to reason, while in the workplace, where you are in the stress situation of HR rules, progress reports and the always present cliques of workers and executives, you feel alone and stay away from confronting coworkers. But from day one you can bet they are going to at least size you up if not start stealing your power and setting a standard that will follow you throughout your career with that firm. You must start a new job with the basic knowledge of your rights as an employee. Listen and be bold, compassionate and assured, show no fear and show that being flexible is not the same as being a wimp. Any business book will tell you the weak die. You have to set your own tolerances when starting a job. Wait and see will still be setting standards for you while you believe you are in the learning curve. Once you allow any give of your territory, you will not be able to get it back. You are open to, “that’s the way it’s always been done and you said nothing last time.”

*Comeback to that line, “it may have been done that way in the past but part of my job is to streamline the process to get the best results, faster and more efficiently. I’m sure you’ll love what my system will do for the workflow and product.”

As with any situation, your human gut will tell you what feels right and what feels wrong — so will your job description. To whom do you report? To whom do others report? If a marketing person who reports to the same person as you or they are lower on the corporate ladder, why would you allow them to dictate anything if you were not told to follow their lead on the project or in general. Sometimes someone may be assigned to oversee all aspects of a project. They are the boss and that’s that…but that ends when the project ends.

If a peer on the corporate ladder makes a suggestion in a committee, it’s best to nod and either don’t execute it and you will probably never hear another word or it will be brought up by the person and you should respond not that you don’t have to listen to him or her, which might be labeled “confrontational” (it’s always the people who defend themselves who are “confrontational”) but that their idea, after much consideration, had no merit. Simple, easy, ego deflating, leading to sexual performance problems down the line. How can it be argued?

“I thought they were good!”

“Sorry, but I didn’t think so and no other opinions aired echoed your concerns” (this cuts the person off from others by setting a line that people would rather not cross. You are showing strength as the alpha dog. The pack will get on your side).

A more direct and devastating attack is to ask, “why do you think I’m unable to do my job?” This is a heart-stopper because it cannot be answered. They may bring up the team vision or protecting the client’s interests. Again, ask why they think you haven’t fulfilled the team vision from the creative briefings and why he/she sees you as against the client’s interests. It’s like a fistfight. It only lasts a few seconds before the herd breaks it up to stop…yes, confrontation. Even confrontational people are taken aback when confronted themselves, unless they are psychotics and then pray that HR rules will keep them from becoming violent. If they do, a knuckle sandwich to your lunchbox is a small price to pay to see the aggressor fired and marked as being dismissed for violence in the workplace and you can even prosecute legally, make them spend a night or two in county jail awaiting a bail hearing, they get molested with a broom handle and then you can sue them in civil court for your emotional distress. A win-win situation!

From this, you do get the “squeaky wheel” running to the boss to demand “respect” and a title over you. Often, to get to quick resolution, the squealer gets their way. You’re only chance is to calmly state your side, note your accomplishments without the squealer’s input and add that it’s a business office and not a therapist’s office for people to work out their personal problems by laying them on others. Firm, direct and sound. If squeaky gets, his/her way, then you are doomed but really don’t want to work in a place like that. If the boss so easily knocks you down the ladder, you need to find another boss. If you get your way, others will fear confrontation with you. I think coining the name for Baby Huey may have frightened into not incurring my displeasure and gaining a nickname of their own.

Once you establish that you are not a pushover, most people will respect your boundaries and the natural order will flow, with an occasional bump as a member of the herd tries to probe your weak spots. That, as some will discover, is your staff. Lowly designers and writers who will surely tremor when approached by someone outside the office that will storm in and demands changes that were “called for in a meeting.” Now you, as that lowly worker have another problem. You just gave up power to a stranger and put your creative director in a tough spot. Your actions affect how your supervisor controls the department and YOUR job.

The proper thing to do is to tell the intruding stranger that you are just a designer or writer and they will really need to talk to the creative director so they can assign the proper revisions and work. Then smile and point to the creative director’s office. If coworkers are on their toes, one will summon the creative director to come into the department and protect his or her minions from intruders. I’ve done it a gilliondy times. Summon your righteous indignation, flair your nostrils and imitate the tiger. When the interloper leaves, send an email gently reminding them that they must come to you for any creative needs as only you know everyone’s scheduled assignments and all changes must be signed off by you, as the department head. Don’t think HR will intercede to stop it. The opinion is that this process should be flexible to keep work flowing or, you “weren’t around and HR likes as few problems as possible if the bloody wound isn’t squirting arterial red like a fountain.

Points to remember:

  1. You WERE around. In fact, aside from an occasional bathroom break or meeting, you are around 12 hours a day on average.
  2. YOU are responsible for everything that comes out of your department and will be held accountable for it.
  3. People want their way and they will try anything to get it.
  4. Don’t allow people inside your power area to sabotage your power and security.
  5. Have an objection response ready in your head or make a list of them and be ready to use them when a ridiculous argument is used to corporately castrate you.
  6. HR wants the easiest way for quiet and harmony. Play all squealers as troublemakers and not as a team player. Use corporate-speak to your own advantage. If that fails, say you feel threatened physically or sexually.
  7. Sometimes you will lose the battle. Sometimes you will also lose the war. Have as many strong allies in the company as you can. The higher the executive level, the better!
  8. People want to comment on design during a conference meeting? Make some well-educated comments yourself. Maybe you see a hole in the marketing plan or the project isn’t slated with enough creative time or the sales material is a week past deadline. Bring it up gently and kindly. I believe that’s called passive-aggressive. Use it!
  9. Grab power and don’t wait for it to be offered. Take on an extra project, create an initiative yourself or earn a few million dollars for the company and they will sit up and take notice.

Often the power grab comes from people too incompetent to do their own work and public displays of “directing” are thought to mask that incompetence. It often does. Handled correctly, it doesn’t because they won’t get the chance.

Working at one large corporation, I was closing up my office and the art department at 7:00 PM on a Friday night when a young woman from the marketing department caught me in the hallway and asked to step into my now locked office. She immediately went into an act on “her” project that is so important and had to be done by Monday and emailed to her as she was going to be away for the weekend. I looked at her in silence. I asked to whom she reported and found it was one of my subordinates (if you went by the order of the corporate masthead). I told her I would talk to her boss on Monday and find out why she would have the utter nerve to hope I would be in the office at 7:00 PM on a Friday night and then expect me to work all weekend on something that was not important enough to have such a tight deadline. She stormed off.

I don’t remember why I was late on Monday but as I walked down the hall, people were shouting for me to check my email. There was an email from the young lady I had met on Friday evening. She must have gone back to her office and written a very angry message and courtesy copied the entire corporate division about how unwilling I was to work on her project and she was canceling it and I cost the company millions of dollars and immortal souls, hail Satan, hail Satan, etc.

In steps her boss, one of those fine marketing people I mentioned DO exist. The young lady had the project for three weeks (grabbing it as her first project and, naturally wanted to make a big splash) and, as I had guessed, it wasn’t time sensitive…for the previous three weeks she sat on it, but it did have to be to the printer the very next day. Being of sound minds, the head of marketing and I were able to come up with a solution, work hard together and make the deadline. Creative and marketing did it…together, with no arguments or stepping on each others toes or egos and we both shared in the glow of accomplishment. It can happen. Maybe there just needs to be guns to our heads at the time?

Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).





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4 comments, please join in the discussion

  1. Brook
    07.01.2010

    Ok, I totally agree with this – almost. I am a marketing person and have been laughing through this article and emphatically agree in having a clear vision and the importance of each person being an expert in their area. You are an experience professional and have the track record to prove it, but I work in a small company with a designer who is “wet behind the ears” fresh out of school. There seems to be too much of a risk of “certain” creatives doing design for the way it makes them feel, rather than to serve a specific purpose. The work he did when he had full freedom was terrible. I strictly adhere to the logic common ground, but there a number of creatives who can barely explain their ideas. When he is pushed enough, given guidelines and managed he can do really good work that I think even he is happier with. But when I managed him, I think he hated me for it.

    So, to all of you experienced creatives, what are some pointers for us marketing folks so that we can understand we are on the same page and you realize at the end of the day we both need to make money and not just fulfill your dream of making whatever you want and having it by default be brilliant? ;-)

  2. Speider
    07.01.2010

    So…why did your company hire someone “wet-behind-the-ears and continue to employ him if he can’t hit the mark, so to speak? Young and cheap won out over experienced?

    Does the savings on a salary make up for the lack of professional knowledge and ability to earn the income for the company? Penny-wise and pound foolish.

    “Brilliant” design is what is most effective to sell the service the company offers. Can a committee create “brilliant?” Possibly, but not in my experience. A TEAM can, but a collection of people , with each one needing to be pleased, can never reach a consensus that is to the point, just watered down and that’s a losing proposition from the very start.

  3. Brook
    07.01.2010

    Exactly – very penny wise (don’t get me started). Unfortunately that is a consistent issue with the higher ups. So, I am in this situation where I am trying to make the best of what we have. It may not be something that can be fixed, but I have seen what happens when you have someone who is allowed to “run wild”. I have/ worked with great creatives – I know I can trust them and I fight for them.

    There are some good marketing people (although admittedly few and far between). But what would you suggest to a marketing person who is trying to manage a young creative, not wanting them to run wild – but also not wanting to crush them?

    • Speider
      07.01.2010

      If money is an issue and it’s a small company, suggest hiring the creative on a project-by-project basis and you can find top level professionals who would take project fees before they would accept a low-pay full-time position. Don’t like to work with one? Find another. Like them? Keep using them.

      In the meanwhile, the young designer can move on to something else, solving your headache, you get to use top talent and your boss will appreciate the cost savings just on benefits alone.

      I hate to put anyone out of a job, but spreading out the work to freelancers spreads the wealth and gives you the WOW! factor I’m sure you’d love.

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