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Dancing With the CMO: 5 Tips From a Seasoned Creative Director


Maintaining a productive relationship between a CMO and the creative team can be tricky. 

Both sides have strong opinions and ideas on what a brand "needs." And it is this coming together of differing ideas and opinions that can deliver brilliant results.

But sometimes, the relationship can break down before it is firmly established, leading only to stressful, combative meetings. 

If you just hired a new agency or are looking to repair a current relationship, consider these five tips for creating strong creative partnerships:

1) Start with “thank you.” 

Every relationship with a CMO starts with a problem or challenge that the brand needs to solve. As creatives, we have a primary role in how that solution is articulated to the world. I don’t care how talented you are, there is always a mix of excitement and anxiety when it comes to delivering the project to the client. We want you to be wildly happy, inspired, and confident in what we craft for you. The best CMOs understand this truth and acknowledge the bravery associated with it. They have empathy for the way we torture ourselves through the process and pine over every detail, word, color, and font. Thanking us, even when you aren’t completely in love with what we did, gives us the strength to keep pushing to be better.

Many times, CMOs don’t realize how encouraging a simple "thank you" can be. They may think sharing their situation -- the pressure and urgency they’re feeling to find the perfect solution -- will help the creative team work faster and better. Or they may look at the creative team and see over-confident know-it-alls and think that encouragement isn’t needed.

I’m here to remind you not to assume that creatives don't need a pat on the back. They appreciate it and sometimes even crave it. Knowing you are supportive of their process even when the work isn’t 100% perfect gives them the fire to keep going.

2) Don’t try to solve the problem on the spot. 

The best work is iterative. It’s very rare you get to the aha moment on the first try. If you do, then go ahead and celebrate! But experience has shown you need to let things marinate a bit before you can make a clear decision. The best ideas are co-created over time, so while first impressions definitely have value, take some time to absorb the facts. 

The creative process is a dance that requires honest feedback to keep moving in the right direction. It starts with an idea that gets revised, then revised again, and usually revised a few more times after that. This process requires trust and inspiration from both parties -- clients and the creative team -- to allow the creative team to work through endless possibilities and finally come up with the best solutions.

Many CMOs (and plenty of other folks, too) think they’re being helpful by trying to solve a problem as quickly as possible, e.g., “How about if we try X, Y, or Z as a headline instead?” What they’re actually communicating is that the creative teams don’t know how to solve the problems, and they -- the CMOs -- can solve them on their own in just a few minutes. With this approach, a client diminishes the value of the creative team. Give feedback, and explain why something doesn’t work for you if that’s the case. But remember to leave room for your creative team to keep creating.

Want another example? Think about how you’d communicate with other craftsmen (say a carpenter). You wouldn’t try to solve a building problem, but you’d do your best to give the carpenter all the details and feedback about the problem so that he can apply his skills to solving it.

3) Let go, a little.

I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want. — Andy Warhol 

We understand that overseeing the creative process isn’t the only responsibility of the average CMO. But if your company is working with a creative team, and as the CMO you are tasked with managing the work, my advice is to “let go, a little.”

Many agency staffers are motivated by the opportunity to help create client heroes. That’s right. They thrive on making you look good. They want their great work to be a reflection of your guidance and leadership in the creative process so that you’re applauded within your organization.

The two most inspiring things a CMO ever said to me were “What do you think?” and “Show me something that scares me.” 

The end result might not work for your brand, but it's good to see how far you can push things. The exercise usually leads to breakthroughs.

4) Be open to creative influences. 

Being a CMO means you have to worry about segmentation models, big data analysis, thought leadership, spreadsheets, and white papers. But you should also be aware of cultural trends, design movements, and advances in technology. Are you creatively aware? Are you inspired by trends, social issues, the art direction of "The Grand Budapest Hotel," the power of an Upworthy post, and Snapchat Discover? Your creative team is plugged into popular culture and inspired by it. The more you can connect on a creative level, the more powerful your relationship will be. Ask your team what is the latest book they have read, movie they have seen, concert they have attended, or meal that inspired them.

5) Embrace and nurture change -- together.

I have always liked the idea that companies don’t own brands -- people do. And what that means is that you really have limited control or influence at any given time over the brand. I think the solution is to embrace this uncertainty and constant evolution.

A stagnant, “well, this is how we’ve always done it” approach is no longer the safest option. CMOs have to constantly be thinking like chess players, considering their next move and their competitors' next step.

Starting a new relationship is never easy. But if you keep these tips in mind, you might just create a truly collaborative creative partnership.