Too much direction can slay your team's creativity
A view from Lucas Peon

Too much direction can slay your team's creativity

When the ideas aren't coming, don't over-direct your team. If you have the right people, step back and give them space to do their thing.

The other night I was having a drink with a friend who, like me, runs a creative department. I don’t remember what we were talking about but, at one point, he said: "I generally don’t do ideas. The only time I do is when time is running out and I don’t think my team will get there, so I jump in – that’s when we are all panicking."

That got me thinking about why our industry is hurting right now. Why there are so many articles talking about the "death of the model." Why clients are becoming more prescriptive. Panic!

Think about it. We’re living in a fast-paced, hyperconnected, nothing-will-be-the-same-again world. Where new channels make the landscape change as quickly as culture does. And amid all this uncertainty, clients still need results yesterday.

Urgency combined with doubt breeds panic. So we question the current model, jump in and over-direct. But maybe the answer is to simply relax.

I walked into advertising through the door of film-making. I was barely of legal working age and I started getting paid to shoot stories for brands that were way more mature than I was, competing for scripts with directors that were at least twice my age.

I should have been happy. But I wasn’t. The scripts I was getting were for ads filled with effects, requiring less character and more neon starbursts. But the directors breaking new ground were the ones creating story-based ads. And I wanted to be part of that group. So every chance I’d get to direct actors, I’d give it my all. I’d micro-direct them – giving line readings with the emotional inflection I wanted, or demonstrating how I’d like something played out.

No take was good enough for me so I would redo them over and over in search of the perfect delivery. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get the performances up to the level of my peers. Theirs were fresh. Surprising. Real. Mine were not.

I suddenly realized that it wasn’t about trying to extract a great performance from an actor. It was about choosing the right actor for the performance. 

Then, one day, something clicked. I’m not sure how, or why, it became apparent, but I suddenly realized that it wasn’t about trying to extract a great performance from an actor. It was about choosing the right actor for the performance. Setting them up with clear context, and then simply letting them do their thing. Cast, set up and roll. That was the way to get actors to deliver their very best.

From that moment on, I spent all of my energy searching for the right actors. I knew that the performance hinged on that decision, and that decision alone. So I would fight for the unconventional ones, for the unexpected ones, prep them accordingly and simply set them free.

This approach gave birth to truly magical performances. One script led to another and I finally found myself in a happier place.

Some years later, I was seduced by the wonderful digital world that was materialising before our eyes. Well, not really. At that time, it was actually materialising in messy rooms with half-empty pizza boxes and some pretty smart, unruly people full of ideas, away from flashy suites or overly serious boardrooms, which is exactly what seduced me.

I spent many years leading digital creative teams in digital agencies. And again, it was that same approach that made it all work. Cast, set up and roll.

We worked hard at getting the right mix of people, with the right mix of skills, over the right projects, and then we simply gave them the space to do their thing.

Today, in our agency, we use the same approach. Yes, the world has changed a lot since I started out. Today we listen to TV while we scan through our Facebook feed. We walk into stores to pick out things we’ll buy later online. We type messages with our voices. Watch news on our phones. Call people from our TVs. But what hasn’t changed is that if you want good performances out of your "actors," you’re far better off spending your energy casting, setting up and then just getting out of the way.

So if you’re client-side and over-directing your agency team, or if you’re agency-side and overdirecting your talent, try it. Cast, set up and roll. You may be rewarded with some stellar performances.

—Lucas Peon is the executive creative director at J Walter Thompson London.