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Stay In Your Lane

Written By Scott Kirkwood | Jun 11, 2018

If you’ve lived in the agency world long enough, you’ve got your own story – a tale of a dysfunctional family dynamic that prevented you from doing your best work. I’ve got mine, too, and while the specific details are shrouded behind an NDA with my signature on it, I can still share a lesson or two.

A while back, I was hired on as the creative director for an agency of 25 — a role that was left vacant more than a year after the previous CD had been fired. Eventually, I would learn that the agency’s leaders had no interest in finding another creative director, but finally acquiesced to client demands, and begrudgingly hired me — an inauspicious beginning that led to a predictable result. (Note: Several years after my departure, they have yet to find a replacement.)

I’ve always been a fan of the approach, “Hire smart people and get out of their way,” or better yet “Hire smart people and remove the obstacles that get in their way.”

Since I came from an in-house environment, agency life was new to me. I spent the first few months listening and observing intently, hoping to understand the process and culture before staking my claim as a leader. Even so, when it came time to gently elbow my way into the creative process, my opinions were generally dismissed. The Strategist questioned every word of copy I crafted, the Account Director was quick to suggest alternative color palettes, and the CEO looked over the shoulders of Designers and even Web Developers, making changes to suit his own taste. Any gentle suggestions that these responsibilities should be left to the talented people hired to do the work were dismissed: “Two brains are better than one,” and “We’re all a part of the creative process,” were common refrains from people who, ironically, didn’t exactly welcome constructive feedback on their own work.

I’ve always been a fan of the approach, “Hire smart people and get out of their way,” or better yet “Hire smart people and remove the obstacles that get in their way.” But my fellow agency leaders didn’t agree; they preferred the 60-hour weeks that generally come with doing other people’s jobs.

For those of you struggling with some of the same problems I encountered, here’s a metaphor that I wished I’d dreamt up before giving up.

Consider a crew, those muscular teams of eight rowers navigating waterways from the Charles River in Boston to the Willamette River in Portland. A Creative Director might be compared to the bowman — generally the most experienced rower, who’s focused on the boat’s direction but also contributing plenty of muscle. Strategist — your goal is to survey the waterway in advance, noting its curves and its currents, then help the creative team plot a successful route. Account Director — you’re the coxswain, sitting in the back, measuring the shell’s speed, ensuring that every stroke is synchronized, and offering help if we veer off course. CEO — you bought the boat, you played a key role in hiring the crew, and you might even be planning the next regatta, but for now, your role is to sit on the shore and cheer us on.

When the Strategist starts critiquing the rowers’ technique, the coxswain grabs an oar and starts rowing, or the CEO says he’d like to steer once in a while, guess what happens? The boat runs ashore pretty damn quick.

That’s not to say there’s no room for constructive criticism. If you’ve got ideas on how our crew can improve, that’s great — let’s gather on the pier and talk about it during one of our 6 AM practices. But during the race, stay in your lane. Focus on your role. Be the very best at what you do. We’ll all get where we’re going a lot faster.

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