We are “highly creative”. The phrase has – in conjunction with its sensible cousin, “business-minded” – become the self-promotional mantra of average design companies. But how many of these organisations are creative about the way they run their business? In my experience, many manage their employees with the imagination and sensitivity of a misanthropic mill-owner. Directors make the decisions and everyone else simply executes the instructions handed down to them from on-high.
Such companies are truly unpleasant places to work. The designers gaze into their screens and talk mournfully about how they want to do record sleeves; the new-business director lives in a small booth, only emerging to go to the toilet; the account handlers suffer a constant, collective existential crisis based on the impossibility of reconciling the aforementioned designers with increasingly bewildered clients; the production team swear if approached; all administrative staff are either off sick, feeling sick or about to leave.
These companies are following an outdated manufacturing model where the workers are segmented into their operational tasks, tightly controlled for maximum efficiency, and not given any motivation to think and act independently. The likelihood of this system producing design work that has a huge impact on a client’s business languishes somewhere between the chances of Scotland winning the ’98 World Cup and the British Tourist Authority identity getting a D&AD Gold.
Limit the confidence and expectations you offer your employees and you restrict their ability to produce something valuable. Look at the role of the receptionist. In so many cases, their responsibilities end with picking up the receiver and saying “Hello”. What about a brief to recognise the voices of key clients and suppliers and greet them by name when they phone? Then a further brief to read the design, marketing and national press, TV schedules, Internet reviews and communiquÃ©s from design industry organisations and create a weekly in-house cuttings magazine with business leads, stories, industry information and entertaining bits for everyone in the company to read and act on. Why not get them to look for stories and leads that might be of interest to key clients and suppliers? And why not give them the responsibility for creating and organising that company sports day/Christmas lunch/tequila jelly session you’ve been talking about for three years?
Liberation from limitation; where do you draw the line? You don’t. Directors should be looking to turn all employees into entrepreneurs, who express their personalities through their work, who are alive to opportunity and who are eloquent evangelists for the business. Easily said, tough to do; getting such commitment from staff means taking liberation into the heart of the company. The people at Elmwood are among those who have started to do it though. One element is a visual business plan – a wall-hung structure in a communal area, on which employees place images, objects or words which sum up how they want Elmwood to be. This device takes discussions about company culture out of the boardroom and offers a fluid, tangible and inclusive way to depict the values of the company. By the way, Elmwood’s profits have doubled two years running and the company believes more than half of that increase is due to thinking differently about how it works.
Of course, liberating employees ultimately means performance-related benefits and – for exceptional company entrepreneurs – equity. The latter is an answer to the age-old issue of how directors of design companies sell up when they’ve had enough. Look at how the two partners of CDT Design have brought in four younger directors to gradually take over the running of the company, keeping the CDT brand strong (thus valuable), while relieving themselves of day-to-day management. That’s creativity applied to business.
With an office full of entrepreneurs it becomes much easier for a design company to define its offer. If employees give the client what they ask for, on time and on budget, fine, but plenty offer the same. If employees burn to exceed client expectations at every turn and give them work of exceptional value and a great experience along the way – bingo; the company’s reputation will spread like a knob of butter in a scorching pan.
Perhaps “highly creative”, “business-minded” also-rans should stop trying to invent a personality for their business through brochure-borne platitudes, hyperbole and spot varnish, and start looking for the answer to their identity problem within themselves.