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People don’t always come out and say what they really mean. Often, managers have to decipher how a department is really doing by studying the numbers, observing behavior, and paying close attention to the words their employees use.

After all, their job is to support each team so that the entire agency can be successful. Because they will be the ones under fire when the company fails to meet its goals, loses a client, or fails to meet a deadline.

To understand what’s really going on in your creative department, listen for these specific phrases.

1) “I don’t remember seeing that email.” 

Many professionals practically live out of their email account nowadays. In fact, people send and receive an average of 121 business emails per day. It dictates their tasks for the day, causing then to be reactive to the constant *ding* of incoming messages. It also means that important requests are often competing for attention.

If your team is missing key communication and ignoring feedback, it’s likely putting your client relationships at risk. Timelines will be pushed, and you’ll default on client expectations.

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Use a project management tool (like one from this list) to store feedback, timelines, files, and the project specs in one place. It will help your team focus on what really matters: producing great work on time and under budget.

2) “I don’t need a break.”

We’ve discussed how constraints can increase creativity. But this doesn’t mean you should confine your staff to their desks. In fact, people are more productive and creative when they take more breaks throughout the day. 

If someone is having difficulty writing copy, designing an ad, or coming up with a launch plan, encourage her to follow what scientists call our ultradian rhythm. This is defined by 90-minute periods of work followed by rest periods. This cycle follows what happens to us when we sleep: we cycle through sleep stages in 90-minute increments.

After 90 minutes of high-energy work, our bodies begin to produce stress hormones, which gives us a boost of adrenaline but ultimately decreases our ability to think clearly. One study by the Federal Aviation Administration found that this approach to work increased awareness and focus by 16%.

Demand that your creatives get away from their desks. Nothing good can come from sitting in front of a monitor for 10 hours or more.

3) “Yes, we can do that. And yes, we can do that. Yes, we’ll be able to meet that deadline.” 

You don’t want to work with a creative director who always defaults to, “We can’t do that.” But the opposite of this can be just as detrimental to your agency.

If someone always “yes” even though they don’t have the capacity, you can’t realistically set timelines for clients. Even worse, you won’t know how overworked a department is if the person setting priorities and managing deadlines is too eager to please.

Consider this: A survey conducted by Workfront found that three in five people say they are completely overwhelmed and barely meeting deadlines. And half of the survey respondents feel they are working after business hours because the company is understaffed. 

The creative director should have a firm grasp on the workload of her department and what current commitments can be push for another opportunity, and she should have resources she can call on during times when overcommitment is unavoidable. You need leadership, and sometimes, that requires a person to draw lines and set limits.

4) “It’s the one labeled v16.” 

The client review process is challenging to manage — but it must be managed if you want your agency to be profitable. By round 16, those slim margins on the project have disappeared.

If a large percentage of the agency’s clients are asking for changes above the normal number of rounds of review, you should investigate. Are additional rounds of review required because the point person on the client side is asking for changes prior to showing the creative to the decision-maker? Has the agency made errors because the team didn’t proof the work internally? Is the client unhappy with the overall idea? Has out of scope work been added to the project?

Consider how you set client expectations for the review and approval process, and then refine how account and project managers and the creative team can work together to cut down the number of rounds of feedback.

5) “It’s almost done.”

If you hear this phrase, you should check on what actually needs to happen to complete the project. It could be a sign that the director of the department doesn’t really know what the status of a project is.

If things are always “almost there,” you may need to implement a report system so teams are trained to update their managers on a project’s status, forecast its completion date, and detail any potential roadblocks that could hold up the work.

Consider holding daily stand-up meetings that are no longer than 15 minutes long, or have employees fill out a 15Five report each week. 

6) “The client didn’t like my work. I think you should put someone else on the account.”

It is difficult to keep your head high when you put your work out there for the world to critique. And sometimes, client feedback can be like a dagger to a creative’s sensitive soul. 

But that shouldn’t be enough to stop someone. While frustrating, constructive feedback is also an opportunity for growth — something people who love their industry should welcome.  And if the feedback is more hurtful than helpful, it should be seen as a challenge.

Your team members should slowly pull their passion out of the “gutter” and get to work proving that client wrong.

7) “Let’s brainstorm. We just need one great idea.”

Brainstorming has gotten a bit of a bad reputation in the past few years. That’s because people leading these sessions don’t understand how to create an environment that actually fosters creativity.

You need some rules, but this list should not include an expected end result. When you ask for just one really good one, you are putting pressure on the participants. The point of brainstorming sessions should be to come up with as many ideas as possible and to do so in a way where people can build off of other people’s ideas freely. This time is not about making decisions; it’s about fostering open communication so ideas can flow freely. You can edit out, refine, and adjust concepts later.

8) “We’re going to finish that project over the weekend.” 

If the agency implements proper project scoping, sticks to agreed upon timelines, and has the internal capacity to complete the work, you shouldn’t see staffers spending every weekend in the office. It means that either something with the project went wrong or the person or team is struggling with productivity and time management.

Focus might be the key to solving this problem. Encourage employees to reduce the number of times they check their email. Try time-tracking software. Prioritize projects, and remove obstacles that make getting into a “flow” more difficult.


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