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Creative Culture Change

Blog | Building Culture   |   December 28, 2016

by Janina Aritao

I worked in a studio setting for most of my professional life—12 years and 4 workplaces. I experienced being screamed at, being fired, working overnight, working four weeks straight without weekends. And working on weekends for fear that if I don’t, the work will be less than perfect. The creative life seemed to be a constant roller coaster. It was a dragon eating up every ounce of me. And the question always on my mind majority of those years was, does it have to be this way?

Does the creative high, and work that comes out of it, justify the constant late nights, the pain of dealing with people’s mood swings? Is being in the creative business not possible without birthing pains and people pains? Can you have a happy family life and be a successful art director at the same time? There seemed to be a strong correlation between the quality of work and the intensity of the suffering. Between the agency’s success, and the struggles experienced.

Not all creative workplaces are terrifying, but generally, a creative professional can expect to be perpetually exhausted, extremely pressured to perform, and driven by fear and insecurity. Sadly, the cruel declaration of a competitive marketplace is you’re only as good as your last work. Your work defines you.

Working in an agency is exhilarating—the process of exploration, collaboration, problem-solving, ideation, and the unexpected creations. But how can we address issues that plague the creative industry, that hamper the growth of young creatives, and that are a hindrance to building great teams. How do we pursue giving creatives the freedom to explore how to do one’s best work, and empower them to serve clients well?

Examples of some creative culture plagues:

Stress is the default mode

If you aren’t rushing, you’re doing something wrong. If it’s not difficult and you don’t feel like dying, you’re not giving your best.

Follow the ladder

One person is on top of the ladder and has the last say. Elder people’s thoughts are more valid than young people’s. Young people need to painstakingly climb the ladder.

Client needs trump team needs

Your personal life is less important than business. Unless you’re in a hospital bed, you need to be at work.

Perfection is everything

The quest for perfection is worth getting stressed over and persecuting others.

You are your work

You’re only as good as the work you’ve done. Your work defines you.

Save yourself

Protect your name. Don’t trust anyone. Other people might steal the credit for your work.

Creative teams take pride in creating great work, and tend to value people according to the quality of work and ideas they bring to the table. But valuing and judging people according to their work is a breeding ground for insecurity, and may be a hindrance especially in encouraging creative thinking. It also does not give young people the freedom and support they should have as they learn the craft and the business.

Going back to my question, does it have to be this way?

Creativity is about finding solutions to problems, and many times, creative teams are great at responding to others’ problems and challenges, but not their own. Two years ago, as I stepped outside of agency life, and joined—gasp—a client, and became part of an in-house brand, marketing, and communications team, I witnessed how a creative team can thrive, and almost design its own culture. And in answer to my question—no, it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve been part of Cozeh, the creative communications arm of ROHEI Corporation, for two years now. And the team has evolved from two people to three, to four, and now 12 people. Our culture was defined strongly by ROHEI’s culture, which, being a training company, is people-oriented and relational. The formula was ROHEI culture + creative people = Cozeh culture.

This team that evolved—most of them did not know the rules of agency work, uncorrupted by the dynamics of highly driven creative people—became a picture of what creative culture everywhere can be.

A creative culture where:

There is no ladder to climb; there are just leaders who think of themselves as servants, and a team focused on purpose, without absurd expectations of one another.

We think generations. We invest in the lives of our younger colleagues. Rather than expecting them to fight or climb their way to the top, we prepare and equip them for the future.

You are not judged based on experience level or working style or number of hours clocked in.

Each person is valued and has nothing to prove. And each person’s needs are important; we are prepared to cover for another when needs or emergencies arise.

There’s a culture of learning and growth. We all understand that we have a lot to learn; nobody knows it all. Feedback is given freely with the common desire to give every project our best.

There is true team spirit. Work is fun regardless of the type of project because there are relationships and friendships.

This creative culture would have sounded extremely foreign to me a decade ago, where I was experiencing life as a young, inexperienced designer. And the key element was really was caring for people more than the work. When you care for the people above the work, the resulting work is more than you can ask for.

Creative organizations can take an interest in their own culture, and re-format it. If there is an epidemic of burnout, take notice and address it. It must not be shrugged off as “a normal part of creative life.” It’s not. It’s just a matter of the leaders valuing people enough to give time and attention to the organization’s culture and how people are cared for, and are caring for themselves. Changing the culture in creative teams will change lives—the lives of the creatives, and even their families. Trusting them (rather than fearing that they will become spoiled brats) will give creatives the new-found freedom to take their work to a new level.

Plagues are not the price of success. If you are a business leader or HR Director, see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Success, for a creative person, is fulfilling the client’s needs while pushing the boundaries in the creative field.

Take a step back and see what can be done to make things better for your culture. After all, that is the mandate of the creative professional. To find ways to make things better.


Janina Aritao is a Senior Consultant at ROHEI. She loves to draw alphabets.

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