The interesting thing about creative agencies is that the self-belief and positivity of its people essentially make up the entire product. There are no widgets to sell and there’s no capital investment in plant or machinery. Our product is just people, raw talent and energy—and so the health of the whole creative industry reflects the mental state of those that work within it.
It follows that the very best agencies have real mental strength: a robust, positive and productive mentality that translates to better thinking, better creative ideas and better results. But creative agencies are also unusual in that, by sheer necessity, they attract a mix of very different people. Here you’ll find artists, writers, filmmakers and inventors, often from radically different backgrounds and with radically different mindsets. What unites these kinds of people is their creativity, which flows from their sensitivity and openness to new ideas and experiences.
And yet the one truth about people with a flair for creativity is that their creativity comes with a tendency towards self-doubt and other forms of negative emotion. Creating an environment and culture that embraces this vulnerability and helps individuals withstand criticism and build a positive sense of belief is therefore not just a key ingredient for success, but the single biggest factor that drives success or failure in the creative agency business.
The opposite is also the case. There are world-famous agencies which, in the past, and often due to changes in management or periods of economically difficulty, haven’t so much slumped in their performance as quite literally imploded as a business, as feelings of personal vulnerability and self-doubt have pervaded every aspect of their work. Clients see it and feel it and it’s reflected, ultimately, in their likelihood to pay the agency in future.
In contrast, when agencies successfully foster a deep-seated belief in themselves and succeed in managing and marrying their blend of talent, they can achieve disproportionate success. Like the best teams in the world of sport, they become greater than the sum of their parts, each person filling in for the weaknesses of the next and combining with others in ways that create the kinds of outcomes they could never achieve alone.
And just as with those teams from the sporting world, it tends to fall to one person—in that case, the coach; in this, the CEO—to be responsible for managing emotions and resolving the differences within the agency.
So the question is: How do you go about managing slightly unstable teams of talent to build a successful business?
The first is of course hiring the best possible talent in the first place. You can’t deliver great work unless you genuinely have top-end individual talent. But just like in any high-performing sports team, each individual has to add to the team dynamic in some positive way even when things are not going well, however good that individual happens to be.
The second is by fostering a proper sense of team. That’s about making sure above all else that you spend more time working together than alone. There is no strict rule here, but it stands to reason that if people in your company spend less than 50 percent of a typical week working in a team, it is going to be a more individualistic organisation than one with a collaborative, team-led dynamic.
The third, and the most critical piece of the puzzle, is actively managing the mental state of each and every team member. This typically has two sides: Mental Health and Mental Fitness.
First and foremost we have to protect and preserve mental health: each person’s ability to stay positive when he or she is feeling negative. Poor mental health stemming from issues at work is often directly linked to how unconfident the person feels at any given time.If, for example, someone is short on confidence, the likelihood is that they have been sitting at home, telling themselves negative stories about themselves in their heads. Our inner lives colour our outer lives, as the trend towards meditation and other forms of mindfulness practice point to. The mistake we make is that we indulge our thoughts and argue with ourselves. But this is always a losing game.
The remedy for this is simple, honest, direct communication. Feedback that provides clarity about ‘where we stand at all times’ gives us confidence and strength, regardless of whether the news we receive is good or bad. Though we may be disappointed with negative feedback, once we have received it, we spend no more time in a state of uncertainty, chronically off-balance, distracted and insecure.
And with this frequent communication and feedback, we can begin to move beyond mental health—a base level of psychological well-being—to mental fitness, which allows us to be our best, most productive selves. I think of it as believing you can achieve anything despite any recent events that might suggest otherwise. And it therefore holds the key to the disproportionately high performance of the individual, the team and, ultimately, the business.
There is no simple technique for building mental fitness, but like any kind of physical fitness it takes time, commitment and regular effort. In the creative agency world, a lot of self-belief is drawn from spending time as a team, achieving things that no individual could ever achieve on their own. Pitching, presenting and anything else that requires competitiveness can help to build this self-belief: the team’s achievements reflect the individual’s belief in their own ability. Taking time, therefore, to recognise and cement winning moments and not overly analysing, dissecting or apportioning blame for failures, is key to building a high level of mental fitness.
It’s the job of the CEO, as the architect of the company’s culture, to try to exemplify the kind of mental fitness that they hope to see in the members of their team. But that alone—weathering the highs and lows of agency life and leadership—is not enough. The CEO must be ready and willing to confront the psychological challenges among the wider team which, if left unaddressed, can bring it to its knees, but which also, if harnessed, can help the whole team stand taller and be stronger.