By Eileen Fritsch
Five years ago, Emmis Books sent me a review copy of “The Creative Professional: A Survival Guide for the Business World” by Howard J. Blumenthal. It was billed as “a book to help right-brained people survive in left-brained world.” The press release noted the same personality traits that give certain people a creative edge can also cause turbulence in a corporate atmosphere.
That statement grabbed my attention because the editors, writers, art directors, and photographers I worked with on magazines seemed increasingly at odds with the publishers, sales reps, and bean counters who set our budgets and marketing strategies.
In 2005, the painful, disruptive transition from print to online media was just beginning to ramp up. Our editorial staffs were already lean. It didn’t help that our art and editorial budgets were slashed even further as print-advertising buyers began diverting big chunks of budgets to developing websites, internal databases for email marketing, and emerging forms of online media.
We stopped hiring photographers, illustrators, and freelance writers. We started using cheap stock photography and more advertorial-like feature stories freely supplied by PR agencies. To make matters worse, every staff writer and designer was expected to produce more content—including websites, books, conference workbooks, and promotional materials.
As the quality of our work began to suffer, the creative pros started complaining. Some of us passionately believed that short-sighted business decisions were undermining the overall quality and value of our editorial products. And we predicted it wouldn’t take long for readers (and potential future advertisers) to notice.
Blumenthal’s book helped me understand why it was perfectly natural for the creative pros on the staff to feel so argumentative. The book also explains why business people consider creative pros difficult to manage. While our innate ability to think and see things differently can be a great asset to businesses seeking innovative solutions to new problems, business-focused people don’t always see it the same way.
For example, traditional business people see their mission as generating profits. They consider sales as the most important aspect of any business.
Conversely, creative professionals generate value (which is far more difficult to quantify than quarterly profits). Creative pros see business as a holistic system and believe sales will succeed if the entire system works properly.
Blumenthal admits that working with creative professionals “is no picnic.” Many managers don’t understand our nonlinear thought processes and what motivates us. Whereas many employees like the security of a paycheck, benefits, and sense of community, creative pros are typically driven by three other needs:
- the need to know, understand, and explore;
- the need to constantly learn and improve our techniques and skills; and
- the need to derive part of our self-image from our work.
So why do some creative people do well in a corporate environment while others struggle? Blumenthal says it’s not simply a matter of skill. He contends that “A creative professional who takes the time to understand the company’s operations and manages projects accordingly will be far more likely to win the business game than a creative who simple writes with talent and skill.”
In the book, Blumenthal lists seven key attributes as crucial to success:
- a keen understanding of the marketplace
- abundant self knowledge
- the ability to engage others in your creative work
- the right combination of integrity and cooperation
- the willingness of others to work with you (based on track record, industry reputation, personality, and quality of the opportunity)
- your ability to raise necessary resources and/or support
As Blumenthal puts it: “The creative process does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, you are part of a community. The way you behave as a member of that community will affect your success more profoundly than your ability to dance, juggle, sculpt, arrange the horn section, or any other skill-based endeavor.”
Much has changed since Blumenthal’s book was released.
Media channels and platforms for online marketing have multiplied. Print publications that failed to develop effective online strategies are being forced out of business. Corporate marketing managers are under tremendous pressure to do more with less, while producing measurable returns on every expenditure. New forms of analytics have made it increasingly easy to pinpoint exactly which forms of communications are generating the most bang for the buck.
Blumenthal’s book primarily focused on helping creative professionals succeed as full-time employees in a corporate environment. But he points out two other ways creative professionals can earn a living:
- working for multiple clients; or
- selling work to the public, either directly or through a publisher or distributor.
Happily, the transformation from print publishing to online publishing and communications has made it far easier for creative professionals to develop a broader base of clients and/or sell more of their work directly to the public.
However, if creative pros want to work with a broader base of clients or sell directly to the public, there is one big drawback. We must develop some of the sales and marketing skills and financial discipline that seem to come so naturally to the profit-minded left-brained business people.