Customer Service. Duh.
What felt like a revolutionary epiphany is really little more than understanding why inhouse design groups operate with an agency mentality. The concept is simple. Coming to terms with my character is not.
As the two-year anniversary of my move into a creative director position approaches, I have started to look back and see where I’ve gone grown, where I’ve faltered, and where I’ve exceeded my own expectations. More importantly, I am paying particular attention to the future. Where I can, will, and desire to grow as a manager and leader within the company.
Recently, I had an out-of-management experience. It’s hard to describe, and hard to put into words, because it’s one of those things that seem deadpan obvious in hindsight. But I’ll try, because I like you.
In my conversations with peers, teammates and managers, I’ve been trying to come to terms with the kudzu-like growth of our marketing team, and how teams with fuzzy boundaries need to work together. Since I manage the “creative services” team (I hate that term; please give me a good alternative) that includes writers, designers, web developers and demo engineers, I am exposed to the river of projects that tirelessly swells and recedes inside our marketing ecosystem.
Because this flux of work streams directly to my team, it is my responsibility to manage that flow — diverting projects to the right people, making sure things are reviewed (and approved), and pushing back when we do not have capacity. I am occasionally required to push back hard, and have been known to create a fuss when things get out of hand. Not an unwarranted fuss, mind you, but a fuss nonetheless.
Many inhouse design groups operate as a self-enclosed “agency,” fully staffed and some even billing different departments for time and materials. I’ve always rejected this concept, as I wanted to be part of the marketing team, and participate as an equal in high-level strategy and planning. The stereotype, after all, mandates agencies are the bitches in the relationship. Agencies sell their children into slavery to keep the account. They create work tailored to win awards. They stay awake all weekends only to be flogged in Monday morning pitches.
But I missed the one big thing successful agencies excel at — customer service.
I am the first one to preach collaboration. But the revelation, such as it is, is that I have only been practicing collaboration when it’s on my terms — when I can ultimately dictate the agreement. When I have control. I have not been collaborative when my team is put at a disadvantage; frankly, I can come off as a despotic asshole. This not only affects how people view me, but begins to paint a darker picture for the rest of the department. My team deserves better than that.
I am contrarian by nature. Some people like to play soccer or chess; I like to sit in a conference room and pick apart arguments and ideas. Being agreeable is disagreeable. When someone pitches me a ball, I don’t aim for the back fence, I aim for the pitcher. I have the position of creative director because I’m a darned good designer, understand good copy, and would lay down my career to defend my team. I am not the creative director because I make friends easily. (Or at all, depending on who you talk to.)
I am rambling.
My out-of-management experience is simple. Practice good customer service. Stop being a contrived dick. Work with people, not through them. Like I alluded to several paragraphs back, this is not a revolutionary thought, but it was like a tiny lightbulb flickering to life above my thick skull. In an inhouse group, its too easy to get comfortable and arrogant. Agencies, if nothing else, have to practice good customer service in order to stay in business. So will I.