Mad Men's Guide to Managing Creative People

by Saba Software | Posted | Performance Management

Mad Men\'s Guide to Managing Creative People

[Update September 11, 2013]: This post, originally published in 2010, was authored by Dan Bingham, manager of creative talent by day and comedian extraordinaire by night.

Recently, I tripped across a great blog post by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic over at the Harvard Business Review called Seven Rules for Managing Creative-But-Difficult People. It makes a lot of the same points about managing creative people, and adds some new insights and research (and references Don Draper!).

I think a lot of the ideas presented apply to not only creative employees, but high performers and high potentials as well. I especially like the point they make that:teams made up of diverse members who are open to taking each others' perspective perform most creatively.”

My favorite PSYBLOG also has a whole bunch of ideas for managing creatives and boosting creativity, all backed by psychological research (Yup I can be nerd!). I think their blog Creativity for the Cautious has a valuable message for all those in management about the importance of creating a safe environment for experimenting with new things, and making failures and challenges learning opportunities rather than anxiety producing events, if you want to foster creativity in all your employees.

And just reading all this great research seems to spark my creative juices, opening up new ideas for ways to be a better talent manager.

One of the best lines on how to manage creative people was delivered by Don Draper, the main character from the nine Emmy and five Golden Globe award-winning television series, Mad Men. When Sterling Cooper’s new management, personified by Lane Pryce, criticizes the ad agency’s creative department for being a bunch of lazy alcoholics, Draper defends his team with a statement I’ll never forget:

“You came here because we do this better than you, and part of that is letting our creatives be unproductive until they are.”

So simple, and yet it pretty much says it all when it comes to effective talent management for creative people. Let them be unproductive until they are. A very difficult pill for task oriented managers to swallow, but an absolutely crucial prescription for the creative potential. The following is a guide on how to get the most out of your creative team, keeping them happy, motivated, from the perspective of someone who spent the last two weeks cramming three entire seasons of Mad Men into his brain. If you haven’t seen the show I apologize. I’ll try to keep my references to a minimum, and I promise not to give away any spoilers. There’s still plenty of good stuff for people who haven’t seen an episode. And as a creative writer myself, I wholeheartedly agree with everything I’m about to say.

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The Creative Workplace

When I first walked into the Los Angeles offices where they create the hilarious cartoon King of the Hill, I immediately became extremely jealous. The central meeting space looked more like a spoiled teenager’s bedroom than anything else. Big screen TV, videogame controllers strewn about the floor, a pool table, crazy posters and snacks everywhere.

The writers for the show all had their own offices, but this is where they came to unwind, brainstorm, bounce ideas off each other while bouncing tennis balls off the wall. Does this mean the writers are a bunch of immature clowns who play all day and get very little work done? Maybe. But King of the Hill ran for twelve years, was nominated for seven Emmy awards, won two of them, and was named one of the top 100 greatest television shows of all time by Time magazine. How did this happen? The producers let them be unproductive until they were.

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Employees need a work environment that inspires their creativity. This can sometimes be as simple as positive performance appraisal or by giving them a window to look out of. It is often while we gaze and daydream that some of the best ideas pop into our heads, because we are relaxed, calm, out from under the weight of managerial pressures.

The right colors, lighting, furniture, all have tremendous impact on our moods, energy, productivity, and creative ideas are often a reflection of the mood we are in. This is why a lot of musicians prefer to live in darkness, as it helps them tap into their anger and sadness to create some of those head banging or tear jerking songs. If you want some fantastic examples of creative workplaces you should visit here.

See? An entire section without one mention of Mad Men…although, I think it’s important to note that every member of Don Draper’s team had their own office complete with a couch, a window overlooking Manhattan and a bar (the show takes place in the ’60s).

Motivating the Creatives

The creative department over at Sterling Cooper were not paid huge salaries, and yet they often worked into the evenings and over the weekends to meet important deadlines. But why would anyone do anything if the cash isn’t there? It has been proven again and again that creative people are not motivated by money. For simple tasks, yes. You offer a cash bonus to the employee who can lick the most stamps, and watch as the tongues start to fly! But offer the same incentive to whoever creates the best jingle for your company’s new cereal, and you’ll get some really lousy jingles.

“People will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself, not by external pressures.” – Theresa Amabile, ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1998.

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In a survey conducted by Information Week in 2001, over 20 000 IT workers were asked “What matters most to you about your job?” If this were an Olympic event, money would have gone home empty-handed. Challenge and responsibility, flexibility, and a stable work environment took gold, silver and bronze respectfully, leaving money in fourth place.

In fact, nine out of the top ten answers were about the work itself, the work environment, and the people they work with. Every manager should know this list off by heart. This, along with many great tips on managing creative folk can be found in this e-book written by Mark McGuiness.

No one, not even Don Draper, was given a bonus for impressing the pants off their clients with incredible ad campaign ideas. But they all beamed with pride for having worked so hard and would celebrate whenever their creativity was rewarded with a simple “Good job, the client loved it.”

For the love of Pete, let them be unproductive until they are!

As was mentioned earlier, Lane Pryce accused the creative department of being a bunch of lazy, non-productive alcoholics, and at first glance without the help of any performance review software he’d be right. At many points throughout the day, management could often find them lying on their couches, staring up at the ceiling with a scotch in their hands. First of all, management shouldn’t be disturbing them when the door is closed, they probably killed a brilliant idea before it had the chance of being born. Secondly, management needs to understand that very often doing nothing is exactly what the creative process looks like.

Creative people work their best when there is no one hovering over them, micromanaging their every move. They like to feel autonomous, like their own boss, independent and without distraction. This can be very difficult in an open office environment, where anyone can just walk up to you and ask you a question, or where you can hear conversations happening right next to you, or constantly getting bombarded with emails and instant messages. When creatives aren’t working together to brainstorm ideas, they need to be left alone. Want to crush someone’s creativity? Get them to fill out a progress report before they’ve finished a project. Not only will this interrupt the process, but it will make them feel watched, managed, stifled.


This is not to say that creative people don’t respect deadlines, they very much do so, but they don’t need managers on their shoulders every step of the way.

Of course not all interaction is negative. Your employees should be encouraged to brainstorm with others as often as possible. Creation can be a lonely journey sometimes, and ideas grow exponentially when more than one brain is working on something.

“Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise” – Dale Carnegie

Anyone who has read Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People, knows that people in general, creative or not, not only want praise for the work they do, but they desperately crave it!

While creative employees give off the impression of being extremely strong and proud, lone wolves who ‘don’t need nothin’ from nobody’, who can just brush criticism off their shoulders like too much dandruff, are actually the complete opposite. They are like delicate egg shells, and can very easily crack if not handled with care. Creatives are very sensitive, especially where their work is concerned. And while they don’t need extra money to do a good job, they definitely need a pat on the back for a job well done.

It took nearly two seasons of Mad Men before accounts manager Pete Campbell got a genuine “Nice work” from his boss Don Draper, and boy oh boy, you should have seen the look on his face! Campbell looked like he’d been crawling across the desert and Don just gave him some water. The reason this interaction took place is that while on a business trip in California, Don completely abandoned Pete, leaving him all alone to meet and greet with new companies and potential clients.

Okay so maybe Don didn’t abandon Pete for the right reasons, but in the end he placed an important project in Pete’s hands, he trusted Pete’s judgement and creative ability to get the job done, and he didn’t micromanage or hinder Pete’s progress.

And when Pete pulled through, he was hearty in his approbation and lavish in his praise. The moment was so genuine that I was smiling from ear to ear, even though most of the time I couldn’t stand the little twerp!

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