—Great creative can only be made by people who are truly living life, not chained to their desk until 9 p.m. every night, says DON SAYNOR—
Years ago, while working at a large multinational shop, myself and some fellow team leads were summoned to meet with a new leader.
We gathered, placed our Fineliners on our Moleskins, settled, and awaited the new chief to begin his dissertation. He had been there for a month, and we knew this would likely be the “Well, I’ve been here for a month and this is what I’ve noticed” discussion.
We were correct.
“It’s clear to me the people around here don’t work hard enough. We’ll only be great if we put in the extra hours. You and your teams need to be at your desk by nine. And the whole idea of leaving at six has to be a thing of the past. Nine to nine needs to be the new normal.”
Then he said something that will forever remain in my memory: “I only see my children on the weekend—they’re asleep when I leave and asleep when I get home. It’s what it takes. For this team, it means you’re often going to miss that soccer practice or that hockey game. It’s the sacrifice we need to make to be truly great.”
Then he left the room. Leaving us all a little dumfounded.
Although our new boss was a star, his proposition seemed bleak: chained to your desk, hour after hour, never seeing the light of day or the people that were important to you (veal anyone?). All in the pursuit of “great.”
How was it even possible for us to create engaging work that spoke to people as they went about their lives if we were discouraged from living ours?
I was convinced there must be a better way. I really liked soccer practice.
Today, four years after founding my own shop, it has become infinitely clear: the best way for an agency to “get to great” is by encouraging anyone who works for them or with them to embrace every tiny morsel that life has to offer.
As a client, initially, it might make sense to search for an agency of industry professionals who live and breathe brands. However, I believe there’s something more important than that. Find a shop that is full of people who live and breathe life.
Account directors who love pottery, braising meat, historical documentaries, running, coaching baseball, blogging about cheese. Creatives obsessed with bonsai gardening, making soup, beekeeping, or accounting. Go to the last section of any CV—it’s usually titled “interests”—that’s where the magic is.
The reason? Well, in my opinion, two things.
One. Making “great” is really bloody difficult. It requires hard work, inspiration, probing, and sleepless nights. While creative directors would love that to happen 24/7, recharging is fundamental and, dare I say, creatively fruitful. I can speak from experience: great ideas can often show themselves long after leaving the office. Maybe while testing a new recipe or tying a kid’s skates.
The second reason? Well, this may be a little harder to hear: actual people out there don’t give a rat’s ass about your brand or the work your agency is doing. They might say they like you, some may even suggest they are loyal, but the lives they are living are infinitely more important.
To speak to, and understand them—in hopes of them choosing you—you have to be with them. The folks making your work need to be doing what consumers are doing. Living how consumers are living. Side-by-side. We cannot create “great” in a vacuum.
Okay, so I simply need to hire an agency full of employees that love life?
Well, kind of. There is a caveat.
Sometimes it’s also about looking for an agency that embraces people with no desire to be employees at all.
Ten years ago, “freelance” was a bad word. “Only people who can’t get a job go freelance,” we thought. Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of the world’s best and brightest are on their own. They have left the 60 hour weeks of agency life and simply take on projects they find interesting. All while working on their novels, backhands, or families.
For clients it means not paying the annual salary, benefits, and overhead—or the late night dinners, foosball table and summer party drink tickets—of a full-time agency employee.
It also means you’re often getting a better fit. Relying on the vast network of freelance talent allows clients and agencies to assemble bespoke teams, with members holding deep experience in a particular brand and category. That means a team that has had a mortgage working on a mortgage brand; team members who have had kids working on a diaper brand; or a team that plays basketball working on a basketball brand.
(Little secret: this is not how the big shops operate. A client’s project is usually staffed by the team that is available, not always the correct fit. Trust me, I remember the day when an over-worked creative services manager placed me on an assignment for a yeast control brand. “Don, you need to do it, I have nobody.” “Uh… okay… I guess I’m your guy.”)
“Okay Don, you’ve yammered on for long enough. What does this all mean? And what’s in it for me?”
Well, here’s the net-net.
Forever, the adage in our business was “cheap, fast, good—you can only have two.” I would argue that is truly outdated thinking. Work with happy people who love their lives more than their jobs, and you can get all three. Great solutions. At the current speed of business. Without wasting half your budget on fees. And you can all make it to soccer practice.
Now that I have my own shop, I actually spend more time working on my client’s brands than I ever did before. Like, way more. But rest assured, it’s different. If you were to call me this week, there’s a 50/50 chance I’d be at my desk or refinishing a canoe.
Don Saynor is the founder and chief creative officer at The Jack Russell Agency in Toronto. When he’s not creating work for clients, he’s usually at home making dunk tanks and backyard rinks for his three kids.