How to successfully manage creative people

There’s a default mechanism, deep in the subconscious mind of freelance creative professionals. It automatically holds down the reset button every time the words ‘business’ or ‘management’ are mentioned.

It was only upon writing Champagne and Wax Crayons, a first person, brutally honest account of transforming my childhood hobbies of drawing wrestlers and footballers into an international career working as an illustrator and art director that I noticed the importance of that feared term, management; something I foolishly felt had left my life in 2008 along with full-time employment. 

The nature of the relationship between a creative director and a creative freelancer takes many forms. The world of the freelancer is often a series of brief professional relationships – some becoming repeat encounters, others entirely disposable. 

The main skill required in order to successfully manage creative people is the ability to adapt to different personalities. Some are bold-natured and others are more fragile. We’re all individuals selling a specialist service that is a product of who we are as humans and this is the crux of the aversion to traditional business speak. We like to feel a degree of ownership in the jobs we are employed to do. 

I work with Dave Hilton, the VP creative director of digital media at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). We’re both from the north of England and this connection has helped us build a rapport, overcoming the challenge of pairing little old me with the mega-corporation. I create illustrations and paint specialist lettering for Hilton, which is used in a wide range of media at WWE.

The jobs rarely last more than a week, sometimes less than one day, but his subtle suggestions and diligent steering (despite the small matter of the Atlantic Ocean between us) has enabled me to develop willingly and rapidly. This massively benefits him as a manager and myself as a practitioner. His innate ability to know exactly when to drive me with robust, constructive criticism or to step back and allow me the freedom to problem solve for myself has brought about optimum results and makes the collaboration enjoyable. This pleasure means that I will go out of my way to become an integral part of the entire process, even sometimes pitching projects without being asked. 

Some creative types are less inclined to take the initiative and need a stronger hand. My managing experience so far has been restricted to more independent roles, working with fresh talent. Clearer and more explicit direction is often required to compensate for inexperience, while tenderly managing the lack of confidence that is almost always present in someone starting out in a ferociously competitive industry. 

Takeaway points 

  • Establish early whether a creative likes to lead with their own ideas or if they prefer to be explicitly directed
  • Go the extra mile to gauge a freelancer’s personality. Their style comes from it and working with their character will boost their productivity
  • Bring the creative in at the earliest stage. Nobody likes to be force-fed a clichéd idea. It can kill enthusiasm right at the start. Listen to their ideas
  • Subtlety is key. Management speak is like salt to a slug where creative professionals are concerned. Informality, calculated freedom and trust will go a long way
  • Do not be fooled by age, many graduates are in business way before they enter the professional world
  • Be likeable. I go out of my way to provide the best results for someone who I enjoy hearing from. Most creative people are friendly; half a minute to find out how someone is will generate greater positivity and tangible results

Ben Tallon is an illustrator and art director. He recently wrote his first book, Champage and Wax Crayons, about his career and the creative industries more generally. He regularly provides illustrations to HR magazine.