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The creative team leader’s playbook 7 min read
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The tricky part about leading a creative team is that traditional leadership advice won’t always work for you.

In fact, it can even turn your team against you. Try imposing a rigid set of performance metrics or reporting requirements and watch their eagerness to create shrink right before your eyes.

Authoritative leadership styles and highly prescribed systems of working will fail to engage or inspire. Moreover, they will crush creativity. Instead, getting your creative team to work together seamlessly, take ownership of their work, and become fully engaged requires a different leadership mentality — one that caters to the specific ways creatives think and work.

Before we dive into leadership techniques for creative team leaders, let’s cover the basics.


What is a creative team?

The main goal of a creative team is to design and execute campaigns that encourage a target audience to buy a company’s products or services. The team is also responsible for creating a consistent brand image for the company through its look, voice, and messaging.

Doing this effectively requires each member of the creative team to possess a deep understanding of the client or organization’s business goals, target audience, values, and vision. Then, they must use all of this information to develop creative ways to package and present a new message, whether it’s on ads, emails, websites, billboards, or a product itself.

Creative team structure and roles

A creative team will look different depending on the type of company it is in. For example, a creative team in an advertising agency consists of copywriters, editors, graphic designers, developers, and producers, and it’s led by a creative director.

In many other industries — such as high-tech — organizations that are lucky enough to have an in-house creative team usually place it within the marketing department. Similarly, roles in this structure will consist of copywriters, graphic designers, UX/UI designers, editors, and developers. They might also include people whose job is to manage project timelines and resources or coordinate information from other departments.

How to manage a creative team: 6 principles to follow

The most successful creative team leaders understand the importance of teamwork. They strive to create a culture of collaboration, accountability, and engagement, knowing these traits will enable each individual to perform at the highest level. They achieve this by staying attuned to the needs of each team member and adjusting their leadership style and techniques accordingly.

Here are six principles successful creative team leaders live by.

1. Strive to inspire

The best creative team leaders are inspirational leaders. We don’t mean they should try to be someone’s muse. Instead, their leadership style is supportive and empowering. The most effective leaders know that by creating positive conditions for the team, creatives will find the inspiration they need to both engage and perform at the highest level.

Empowering leadership values autonomy but puts an emphasis on coaching at the same time. It includes leading by example, keeping each team member informed, and participative decision-making as much as possible.

2. Lead from the back

The role of creative team leaders is similar to the role of the conductor of an orchestra. They stand in front of the group to provide guidance and to keep all members in sync, and they are keen observers. When it’s time to change course or stop, the leader is quick and decisive, knowing this is key to making the whole team confident in their decision.

In the same vein, the most successful leaders set an example of accountability, which helps instill this value in their team. They take full ownership of their decisions, whether the outcome is good or bad, and always direct credit where it’s due.

3. Ensure guidelines and constraints are clear

There’s a myth that creative people want total freedom, but it isn’t true. In his book, Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need, Todd Henry clarifies that constraints actually drive and encourage creativity, but those constraints must be clear and predictable. When giving your creative team a new project, it’s imperative that you provide all of the guidelines upfront, so your team members understand what they’re working with from the start.

In the real world, requests, deadlines, and opinions are subject to change. When that’s the case, deliver the news to your creative team with as much notice and clarity as possible.

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4. Rethink your approach to project management

Project management is an essential part of leading a creative team, but traditional systems can be detrimental. Account executives, who speak all day to anxious clients, or marketing leaders, who eat and breathe data, often have a hard time seeing beyond bottom lines and deadlines. While they have a clear stake in creative projects, they have completely different thought processes than creatives, and can easily induce unnecessary stress and pressure.

By adopting an evolved approach to project management, you can ensure your creative team stays on top of deadlines, updates regularly on progress, answers questions, and even brainstorms new ideas without creating a stressful environment. By elevating the values of transparency and accountability, you can enable creatives to stay on track of projects and processes while ensuring other stakeholders get the information they need.

5. Foster an environment of collaboration, not competition

In some teams, creating a bit of competition is a great way to fuel motivation and engagement. For creatives, it more often produces tension, frustration, and disengagement. Your creative team will perform best when team members are excited to work together, not when they feel pitted against one another.

Instead, go out of your way to emphasize the value of collaboration. Dispel the myth of the “lone inventor,” or that the best ideas come from a single genius, and believe that the most innovative ideas are often the result of many contributions.

6. Help team members fulfill their creative dreams

All creatives have a dream that they wish to accomplish at some point in their careers. As projects come and go, they will always be yearning to fulfill this dream. Maybe your copywriter wants to spearhead a billboard campaign, or your designer wishes to use their own signature characters in a whiteboard animation.

By asking each team member what they hope to do one day and looking for ways to make it happen, you can tap into this massive source of energy and inspiration to produce mind-blowing work.

Think like a creative

In all teams, the pillars of collaboration, accountability, and engagement are fundamental to team success. But creatives are different, and they require a different kind of leader. By understanding how your team thinks, what they aspire to, and what they need, you can help provide the structure that will empower them to reach their potential while fulfilling team goals.

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