Fatherhood is Like Creative Direction

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Understanding what drives great creative thinking comes with first-hand experience and, even as the marketing and technology landscapes continue to change, the experience still matters. The lessons I have learned throughout my professional career help me respond to the daily needs of our clients, their customers and our agency team.

Turns out they also help me in my role as a father. While it seemed as if I had no relevant experience prior to becoming a dad, the leadership style and philosophies I picked up in my career most definitely carried over to my personal life. And vice versa.

Know a good ‘sitter?

It’s cliche, but it’s true: it takes a village. No child grows up in a vacuum and ideas don’t come to life on their own either— having them is just the beginning. Once the best idea has been identified, it must be “raised” just like a child in order to bring out their best. That means understanding their needs and surrounding them with a nurturing community. Whether that’s drawing from a team of experts across technology, social media, UX, writing, design and strategy or leaning on my wife, friends, parents, school system, playdates and activities—knowing who to call in and when leads to a higher level of success that can only be accomplished as a team.

Let’s make a mess.

The byproducts of my child’s sensory discovery and play have required an adjustment to our standards of cleanliness. I’ve learned to appreciate the omnipresent food crumbs in my car, toys all over the living room and sand throughout our house just as I have learned to embrace how stylistically different creative minds can be.

A strong creative team is comprised of diverse personalities and methodologies. Managing the various styles can feel awkward and uncomfortable, especially when they contrast with your own, but getting the most out of them requires an environment in which they feel safe to explore. The first idea is rarely the best, but ideas are like stepping stones— one leads to another. So I fully subscribe to the philosophy that “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” since we can often find something in every idea to tweak and improve until we’ve landed on something special. And sometimes the messier the process feels, the better things will end up looking in the end.

Who’s to say what’s the best way to get dressed?

Sure I have more experience and can often get things done faster, but when I let my daughter discover her own methods, it can be much more meaningful for her development. She was recently struggling to learn how to dress herself, but by allowing her to explore things her way, we both discovered that she could more easily get into her dress if she slipped her feet in through the neck hole first. She was very proud of her accomplishment and I was equally proud of her determination and inventiveness.

A spirit of creative freedom in an agency environment can be beneficial as well, if managed appropriately. While keeping my eyes on the team and their work, I had to develop a feel for when to jump in and when to stay out of the way. In my early days as a CD I would feel compelled to push my own ideas, but humbly learned that my ideas aren’t always the best. My responsibility is to objectively identify which ideas have the most potential and guiding their development. By giving my team space to attack a problem their way, they may discover inventive solutions I would never have thought of myself.

Not every day requires a trip to Disneyland.

Campaigns rarely require a broadcast tv spot and multimillion dollar media spend to be successful. Sometimes the best solutions are also the most simple. While I’m always pushing my team to think big, I also try to remain pragmatic. We make sure to understand the requirements, insights, goals and limitations, for both our clients and their customers, before commencing any creative brainstorming. Knowing our boundaries and success markers allows us to creatively (and efficiently) solve the marketing challenge we’re facing. And even though I always want my daughter to be happy, her growth, development, fulfillment and basic entertainment don’t always require shiny new toys or introductions to real life cartoon characters. Simply going to the park on a Saturday afternoon may be the answer for when she needs to burn off energy, interact with other kids or even bond with me, but merely transporting her there wouldn’t suffice. Just like I need to keep my team highly inspired and motivated to crush it—whether we’re working on a global advertising campaign or a simple banner ad—I will tirelessly push my daughter on the swings to the constant demand of “Higher, Daddy!”

Bedtimes are made to be broken.

Sometimes an extra bedtime story will make laying down easier and dreams that much better. And on special occasions—like when family is visiting—we let my daughter stay up much later than usual. Similar thinking guides my gut for when to push a work deadline. Our super-skilled production team takes the utmost pride in delivering projects on time and under budget, but even they will tell you that work quality is Priority #1. I’m expected to guide the creative in a way that fits our scope, but to also understand when a killer idea needs more love. I must be incredibly selective about when to pull this card, but if we could significantly increase our success with additional time, staff or funds, it’s my responsibility to communicate a rationale to our Account and Client partners. In both roles, I need to pick my spots so that we reap the benefits of routinely meeting bedtimes and deadlines.

Some magic happens when you’re over-tired.

I was never more exhausted than during my first few months as a father, but I can say now the suffering was totally worth it. I wasn’t nearly prepared for the early challenges of fatherhood—after all, who is?—but turning my life upside down proved to be very rewarding. With the help of my wife, our parents, our friends and our instincts, we not only survived, but handling the adversity served to deepen our bonds and increase our confidence as parents. And while it took time to find our groove, we picked up some valuable learnings merely by straying from our daily routines and comfort zones.

Working in an office environment, in the same rooms with the same people can get comfortable over time, but that comfort may be the enemy of creativity. It’s unfair to expect breakthrough thinking when everything in life is so procedural. A typical work day includes countless emails, meetings and revisions that can collectively sap the team of their creative energy. If their environment feels uninspiring, chances are their ideas will as well. To encourage fresh, original thinking, I ask my team to stretch outside their comfort zones. To design in ways that conflict with their natural aesthetic. To devise ideas that feel awkward. And to change up their routines— take a different route to work, move their laptop to a different workstation, partner up with someone new, redecorate their space, go brainstorm in the park, have a drink and return to the work tomorrow. You never know when or where the breakthrough will happen, but if you’re always surrounded by the same four walls, it’s most likely you’ll hit another wall, creatively speaking.

If you love them, set them free.

As artists and storytellers we want to noodle our ideas until they’re perfect, and as parents we want to shelter our children until they’re able to provide for themselves. In both cases, being overprotective may only serve to stifle the success of what we’re developing. For my daughter to become a positive contributor to society, she must receive feedback from the very society she’s entering. As she explores her independence, I can take comfort in the belief that we properly prepared her to appropriately handle the experiences in front of her. For our digital experiences, we use our research, insights and strategy to guide our creative thinking as much as possible, but there is no substitute for market testing. Prioritizing key features allows us to publish our work more quickly and analyze how consumers interact with what we’ve built. That feedback informs how we should refine our product for optimal performance and how to improve on our ensuing projects.

We made this!

We get so wrapped up in our current projects and what’s next that it’s easy to forget how much of ourselves we’re pouring into our work. We are in service of our clients and their customers, but we also care deeply about them both. We need to. Creative expression comes from deep within ourselves, even when doing so on behalf of brands. And needless to say, raising a child is the most personal project imaginable. On both sides it’s important to take a step back and recognize our accomplishments and to do so alongside our collaborators. Positive reinforcement goes a long way and there are tremendous benefits to working as a team, none more rewarding than admiring our achievements together.

Maybe I’m the one who’s growing up.

When I was first promoted to Creative Director, I was both thrilled and terrified. The scale of responsibility was nearly overwhelming, but I felt prepared with the belief that my prior experience helped me develop strong guiding principles for the type of leader I wanted to be. When I became a dad just a few weeks later, I was even more thrilled and even more terrified, but I was more prepared than I realized. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, those same creative management philosophies would help guide my journey as a father. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I earned both titles almost simultaneously, a connection I didn’t totally appreciate until I began writing this article. With two such demanding roles, it’s a tremendous benefit that lessons learned in one help inform behavior in the other… especially since I’m still learning new lessons each and every day.