Smashing Editorial: Please notice that the language in some parts of this article may be very informal. If you think you might be offended, please stop reading this article now.
I hate the division represented in this title. It’s the major stumbling block in modern business. Power struggle is never constructive, and it at least doubles workforce effort at a time when streamlined is crucial for a positive ROI. You can spell “team” from the word “marketing,” but I’ve yet to see a sense of it in marketing. What can one spell from “creative”? “Reactive”? I’ve seen plenty of that, and for good reason.
Don’t get me wrong: I love marketing as a practice! Relatively speaking, marketing is a fairly new practice (marketing in the sense of “public”, broad mass marketing, applied to products in the modern age — ed.), 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, which is why we don’t see them very often. But you are probably thinking horrid thoughts about marketing practitioners right now, so let’s rethink for a second.
I have known a handful of great marketing people in my career, and they were smart enough to form their own companies. They always managed to do the delicate dance to create something that was effective and not just popular with anyone who might, oddly enough, have an opinion. And then there are the people you see every dreadful day.
It’s A Diverse Crowd Out There
I have a ton of marketing stories, but my favorite one comes from when I was art directing and designing a major push for a new licensed character across all marketing channels. The staff and I worked like crazy to get the lines done in time for approval. It took months — that’s how many lines there were.
After our submission for approval from the licensor, a member of the marketing staff, lower level, came to me, telling me the changes that were needed. First off, don’t tell someone the changes: write them down so that there’s no misunderstanding. Luckily, I was taking notes. One of the changes called for 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 that’s what the licensor wanted. I asked to see the email from the licensor.
I asked that he email the licensor to ask for clarification.
The most infuriating thing was that this over-sized 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 without laughing. As his new nickname circulated through several departments, a contest started among the staff to try to deal with Baby Huey without laughing.
I knew trouble was brewing, and so, like any smart person who would make file copies or turn off layers, the art staff and I stated cutting the image and placing everything the licensor wanted removed on a hidden layer. We did this to hundreds of pieces. A month later, we submitted the changes, and then (surprise, surprise) the licensor ripped marketing a new one for removing the marking, so essential to the character. An impromptu witch-hunt was held right outside the art department, next to the marketing offices. The president personally led it.
Without wasting any more column space than is needed to state 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 when I was asked how long it would take to fix it. Explaining to the lay person that I would simply turn on some layers in Photoshop took longer than actually turning them on, but I scored big points with the president, while my “marketing step-brother” was sent to military school.
This doesn’t happen enough. But it does and can happen! At another corporation, marketing was publicly spanked for taking eleven-and-a-half weeks to work on an initiative that had only twelve weeks in total — giving creative, copy and design three or four days to execute lines for 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.
Are We Or They The Strange Ones?
What do creatives look like to non-creatives? Obviously, everyone thinks they can design an ad or logo in Microsoft Word, so immediately we become snooty, whining snobs. A great marketing person I worked with wrote a recommendation for me and said, “…great designs without a lot of creative baggage!”
“Creative baggage.” What could that mean? For anyone who has wrangled creatives, whether 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 lack the social skills to deal with corporate power. We often give up our power in an effort to be seen as “flexible” or “a team player.”
An art director who was firmly a puppet on the hand of the company she worked for gave me this recommendation: “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 that I went into meeting all smiles, told a few jokes and did exactly what I was told to do. The pay check helped me live with myself.
In most cases, that means doing what you’re told by anyone bold enough to speak their opinion about the creative process and not be questioned. I have had to pull marketing co-workers aside and remind them that we were both reporting to the same person and that no one ever told me anything about reporting to them. I’m not “being difficult”: I’m taking control of my work for my department so that I don’t have to take the fall for failed initiatives and low sales down the road that result from someone else’s design decisions. I never get angry or aggressive, although people who have worked with me say that my sarcasm could be deadly at times. Baby Huey’s ghost haunts me.
Be Different, But Expect The Same
Just the other day, a client showed me a product catalog that I thought was from 1972. It was their 2010 catalog, and the creative department’s directors asked me to bring one of their paper products into the present (or future) and do “something different.” I love when they say that.
I did some of the finest work of my career… some good work. The creatives were really on board, and revisions were almost non-existent. Imagine basically having free reign to design some fun and impressive paper products and having the full support of your clients? Well, no good effort goes unpunished, and I was informed that the marketing department rejected the work in favor of a catalog that looked like a sequel to the one from 1972.
What has the fear in business done to our ability to make fast, hard decisions in the marketplace? Safe and take-a-step-back has gotten us into the mess we’re in right now. How do we get out of it? I include this passage from someone who would refer to himself only as a “suit.”
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 this “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 a question of whether, say, a good marketing plan based on researched demographics would improve a creative brief that professional designers and writers could use to create a cohesive package. The reality is more like, “Just design, and I’ll make changes until I see what I like.” That always makes for a great waste of time and resources.
Business is tight for many reasons, but just one wrong move could cost you big time. My question is, if the marketing plan is sound and the sales staff is competent, then why would those simple little changes that are requested to please people truly affect the product?
”You know, Bob, I was about to buy that package of Fluggelbinders that I wanted, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
“No. The color of the package turned me off.”
Happens like that every day, doesn’t it?! I used that exchange in a committee meeting in which the background color of an exclusive product was 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 responsibility was to figure out the target audience, their habits, income and so on and how to best reach them through media and other advertising venues — not how blue or green the product should be? Silly me! Maybe it’s a marketing secret that can’t be shared with creative. They’re spies for… something.
Do You Want To Get Involved In Office Politics?
What can one say when sitting in a committee meeting and subjective suggestions are flying around, usually contradicting each other, and people are echoing previous requests but adding “More red” or “Bigger logo” or “I’ll know when I see it”? I sit and listen, take notes and then turn to my contact (if it’s a freelance job) and ask what he or she would like me to implement. To be sickeningly submissive, I say, “Some great insights here, 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 tell me just to follow what I was told in the committee meeting. This is when I’m thankful for hourly rates, because the Frankenstein created by the committee is usually too monstrous to please anyone. It goes around and around as long as more than one person has a final say on the project. Imagine what would happen if too many cooks worked on a dish. The chefs I know are insane and would stab and de-bone each other.
When freelancing, you are removed from the eternal struggle between creative and marketing. You are only a tool used by creative and a bludgeon used by marketing to wield its power over creative. Just ignore it and let the creative department deal with it.
But what happens when you are the art director or designer on staff? If you are, then prepare for office politics. The struggle between creative and marketing has nothing to do with design or marketing: it is the good old human impulse to assert one’s power over others, to be the alpha dog.
Whatever your position or department, everyone in it is jockeying for some measure of power over others, from the frowning minimum-wage guard at the front desk who tells you to sign in (as you’re doing it) to the mail deliverer who won’t give you your mail away from your desk to the co-worker who tries to convince you that part of their job is now your job or that part of your authority is now theirs.
Humans usually spend a lot of effort blending in with the herd and shying away from confrontation. Confrontational people know this and use it. When the person taking your order asks if you want to super-size it, do you say “Sure” or “No”? You say yes because your brain and protective nature tell you to go the easy route and say yes. Less aggravation. Why do good girls like bad boys? Because we… I mean they go against the herd, they break with convention, and they’re confrontational.
So, it stands to reason, while you’re in the workplace — where you face the pressure of HR rules, progress reports and the ever-present cliques of workers and executives — that you would feel alone and stay away from confrontational co-workers. But you can bet that they will at least size you up from day one, if not start stealing your authority and setting a standard that will follow you throughout your career at that firm.
You must start a new job with 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 that the weak die. You have to set your own boundaries when starting a job. If you “wait and see,” then standards will be set for you as you adjust to the learning curve. If you relinquish any territory, you will not be able to get it back. You will open yourself to charges like, “That’s the way it’s always been done, and you said nothing last time.”
(By the way, a comeback to that last line is, “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 gut will tell you what’s right and wrong, as will your job description. To whom do you report? To whom do others report? If a marketing person reports to the same person as you or is lower on the corporate ladder, why would you let them dictate anything if you were not told to follow their lead? Sometimes, someone may be assigned to oversee all aspects of a project. In that case, they are the boss, and that’s that… but that role ends when the project ends.
If a colleague of yours on the same rung of the corporate ladder makes a poor suggestion in a committee meeting, it’s best to nod and just not execute it. Either you’ll never hear a word about it or the colleague will approach you about it — in which case you shouldn’t respond that you don’t have to take their suggestion, which could be labeled as “confrontational” (it’s always the people who defend themselves who are “confrontational”), but rather that their idea, after much consideration, was found to have no merit. Simple and easy. It deflates their ego and could lead to sexual performance problems down the line. How can you argue with that?
“I thought my suggestions were good!”
“Sorry, but I didn’t think so, and no one else 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 fall on your side.)
A more direct and devastating attack would be to ask, “Why do you think I’m incapable of doing my job?” This is a heart-stopper because it cannot be answered. They may argue that you lack team vision or that they’re protecting the client’s interests. Again, ask why they think you haven’t fulfilled the team’s vision, drawn from the creative briefs, and why they see you as acting against the client’s interests.
It’s like a fistfight. It lasts only a few seconds before the herd breaks it up… Yes, this is confrontation. Even confrontational people are taken aback when confronted, unless they are psychotic — in which case, pray that HR rules keep them from turning violent. And if they do become violent, taking a knuckle sandwich from your lunchbox is a small price to pay to see the aggressor fired and spend a night or two in county jail awaiting a bail hearing, opening the way for you for a civil lawsuit. A win-win situation!
On the other hand, you might encounter a “squeaky wheel,” who runs to the boss demanding “respect” and a title over you. Often, in the interest of a quick resolution, the boss lets the squealer have their way. You’re only hope is to calmly state your case, 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 their way, then you’re doomed. But then, you don’t really want to work in a place like that anyway. If the boss would so easily knock you down the ladder, then you need a new boss. If you get your way, others will fear confronting you. I think coining the name for Baby Huey may have frightened my colleagues into avoiding my displeasure and gaining a nickname of their own.
The Enemy Within?
Once you establish that you are not a push-over, most people will respect your boundaries, and the natural order will be restored… with an occasional bump as a stray member of the herd probes your weak spots. Those weak spots, as some will discover, are your department colleagues: lowly designers and writers who will surely tremor when someone storms into the office and demands the changes that “I called for in the meeting.” Now you, as that lowly worker, have another problem. You have just given up your 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 intruder that you are just a designer or writer and that they really need to speak to the creative director so that they can assign the proper revisions and work. Then smile and point to the creative director’s office. If your colleagues are on their toes, one of them will summon the creative director to come into the department and protect his or her minions from intruders. I’ve done it a gazillion 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 requests, because only you know everyone’s schedule, and all changes must be signed off by you, as department head. Don’t assume that HR will intercede to stop this; they believe that the process should be flexible enough to keep work flowing. And as long as the bloody wound isn’t squirting arterial red like a fountain, HR likes as few problems as possible.
Points to Remember
- You were around. In fact, aside from occasional bathroom breaks and meetings, you’re around 12 hours a day on average.
- You are responsible for everything that comes out of your department and will be held accountable for it.
- People want their way and will try anything to get it.
- Don’t allow people under your authority to sabotage your power or security.
- Prepare a response to an objection or make a list of responses for when a ridiculous argument is used to attack you.
- HR wants the easiest path to peace and calm. Present all squealers as troublemakers and not team players. Use corporate-speak to your advantage.
- Sometimes you will lose the battle. Sometimes you will also lose the war. Form as many strong allies in the company as you can. The higher the executive level, the better!
- Does someone want to comment on a design in a conference meeting? Make some well-educated comments yourself. Perhaps you see a hole in the marketing plan, or the project doesn’t have 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!
- Grab power, and don’t wait for it to be offered. Take on an extra project; start an initiative yourself; or earn a few million dollars for the company. They’ll sit up and take notice.
Power grabs are often made by people too incompetent to do their own work, and public displays of “directing” are thought to mask that incompetence. They often are. But handled correctly, they aren’t, because they won’t get the chance.
Every Relationship Has Good And Bad Times
When I worked 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 about how “her” project was so important and how I had to do it by Monday and email it to her because she would be away for the weekend.
I looked at her in silence. I asked who she reported to and learned it was one of my subordinates (if you went by the order on the corporate masthead). I told her I would talk to her boss on Monday to find out why she would have the utter nerve to hope that 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 for 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 spoke with on Friday evening. She must have gone back to her office and written a very angry message, courtesy copying the entire corporate division, about how unwilling I was to work on her project, and how she was cancelling it, and how I was costing the company millions of dollars and immortal souls, and hail Satan, hail Satan, and so on.
In walks her boss, one of those fine marketing people who I mentioned do exist. The young lady had the project for three weeks (grabbing it as her first project and naturally wanting to make a big splash), and as I suspected, it wasn’t time sensitive… Mind you, she sat on it for the previous three weeks, and it did have to be at 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 other’s toes or egos, and we both shared in the glow of accomplishment. It can happen. Maybe we just need guns to our heads at the time?