A typical digital agency contains highly diverse personnel, each with a refined set of talents, abilities, communication styles, and ways of thinking. Generally, these roles can be divided into two categories: administrative or executive roles and creative roles. The first category is often thought of as primarily organizational. They are in charge of assembling productive teams, defining the company vision, securing short and long-term funding, and planning and executing long-term goals. Such a set of tasks and responsibilities is generally considered to involve a high degree of logical and analytical thinking. Conversely, the second category of roles in an agency demands a host of creative skills such as aesthetic expression, emotional intelligence, and imagination. These attributes are often found concentrated in the roles of creative directors, copywriters, art directors, designers, web developers, production artists, and storyboard artists.
How, then, can the differences between these two kinds of agency team members be categorized? One way of conceiving the differences between executives and creatives is through their left- brain versus right-brain dominance. This notion comes from the popular (yet largely debunked) notion that for each individual, one side of the brain is more active. Those with left-brain dominance (or simply “left-brained” individuals) often excel at logical, analytical, and objective problems. On the other hand, right-brained individuals, as the theory contends, succeed in creative tasks that demand spontaneity, visual-thinking, and invention. So-called left brain/right brain theory contends that everyone’s brain dominates in only one of these two regions. But in reality, this theory represents, at best, only half of the truth. Indeed, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Roger W. Sperry, extending from his research into epilepsy, suggested in 1981 that language is controlled primarily by the left side of the brain, while spatial information and visual thinking occur in the right hemisphere.1 Yet, while this separation can to an extent be verified, virtually all neurological activity happens across both sides of the brain. As science writer Carl Zimmer explains, “No matter how lateralized the brain can get, the two sides still work together.”2
That being said, the separation of agencies into left-brained and right-brained remains a useful strategy to assemble more productive teams. Even though team members consistently use both sides of their brains, the kinds of personalities that gravitate toward such roles are almost guaranteed to contain the kinds of distinctions that pertain to the theory of left brain/right brain dominance. Here we can outline a series of best practices for digital agency team members that pertain to collaboration between business executives/managers and creatives. The first section begins from the perspective of the CFO and provides advice for working with creatives.
Through a combination of disciplined management and open-ended flexibility, CFOs can get the most out of agency creatives by understanding their right-brain proclivities. The subsequent section (“Tips for Creatives”) proceeds from the vantage point of the agency creative and explains useful methodologies for working effectively with CFOs, management, and executives. By using clear communication, anticipating misunderstandings, and attending to details, creatives can continue to meet and exceed management’s expectations. All in all, each of these perspectives will take into account the practicalities of today’s agency landscape, which prioritizes on-your-feet decision making and flexible workflows.
Cultivating the Creative
Creative types often thrive in open-ended environments in which structure and rules are undefined or perhaps do not even exist. Designers, for example, often need unstructured time to experiment with new ideas, and try out different approaches to an upcoming project deliverable. Of course, such open-ended activities must also occur within limits: a copywriter can’t spend two months brainstorming ideas for a campaign that is due to the client in two weeks. This is why many managers explicitly build in time for “discovery.” During this dedicated period, creatives can iterate over multiple versions and explore different directions before committing to specific determinations, which may be made later in consultation with the client. This way, creatives are given a kind of “sandbox” in which they can feel free to experiment and put forth their most adventurous and innovative ideas without feeling constrained, at least at this point, by impending deadlines and other restrictions In addition to cultivating flexibility within limits, effective facilitation of the work of right-brained should also include tried-and-trusted project management techniques.
It may seem obvious to industry insiders, but it’s worth reviewing the power of good project management when it comes to working with graphic designers, copywriters, creative directors, and web developers. Most importantly, each of these team members should be aware of all of the important project dates and goals. So, how can project managers keep creatives up to date on important dates and timelines, especially when these data points often change in the middle of a project? One helpful practice is to keep a calendar, which is accessible to all team members, in a place that is centrally located. For such a location there is often a default reference page, or dashboard, on every major project management software package like WorkBook or Confluence. Another technique, which should accompany centralized date-keeping, and which is no less important, is the practice of reiterating important dates, especially those that have recently been modified, in all internal and external communication. Sending a brief check-in email to your designers? Why not include a table reminding the team of upcoming deliverables and their respective due dates? Thankfully, such information can be conveniently stored on your project management dashboard. So a quick copy and paste is all it takes.
Executing the Design
Switching roles to the perspective of the creative, many of the same principles apply when considering the task of designers and artistic directors collaborating with CFOs and project managers. One way of describing this shift in perspective is to simply invert the advice we covered above. For instance, if managing dates in today’s agile advertising industry is a challenge for those in organizational roles, as a creative it should be considered a primary responsibility to help project managers keep track of timelines.
Imagine two designers. Both are great at their craft, but Designer A spends more time following up with the client following their design meeting. Designer A asks key questions to confirm the direction of the project, along with how the project works with the client’s overall vision. Rather than spending this time following up with the client to clarify the direction, however, Designer B immediately goes to work and spends twice as long as designer A on the initial wireframes. It should go without saying that designer A was, by far, more successful with the client. And, more importantly, designer A saved the agency a significant amount of profit by using fewer work hours while, ultimately, delivering the project ahead of schedule. The moral of the story for creatives? Communicate, communicate, communicate! Ask for clarity when anything seems less than completely transparent. Creatives should anticipate any potential misunderstandings among themselves, the rest of the team, and/or the client. Parts of the project that seem less certain in terms of the timeline should be highlighted. Where are the “known unknowns”? What are the “unknown unknowns”? No designer should be too proud to inquire and inform their team of vital information.
The disparities between right-brained creatives and left-brained, executives, and project managers may at first seem insurmountable. These personality traits relate to cognitive abilities that become encouraged, perhaps at an early stage of life, and then become reinforced through professional specialization. Despite a lack of scientific support for the left brain/right brain theory, there is plenty of social evidence for its continued relevance—especially in today’s advertising industry. One excels in math early on and is then admitted into a fast-track MBA program, only later to become a highly successful CFO. Or, one shows a talent for drawing, is accepted into design school, and then becomes an all-star designer for a top agency. In neither of these cases is anything said about the ability of either personality type to deal effectively with the other. But when considered carefully—whether you are a creative looking to collaborate better with CFOs, or an executive looking to relate more directly to your creative team—there are specific strategies for crossing the seemingly unbridgeable divide between cognitive hemispheres.
Whether right-brained or left-brained, together we can make the digital agency world a better place to work.