How an Indie Band Taught Me a Big Secret of Great Creative Teams
By Eric Eisenberg, Partner | Brand and Content
May 28, 2021
When I say “creative team,” what comes to mind?
If you’re in the agency world, probably something like:
Modern day Don Drapers & Peggy Olsons… untucked button downs & horn-rimmed glasses… important ideas bouncing off brick walls and bamboo floors before coalescing and gliding in for a million-dollar landing… high fives and champagne…
About 15 years ago I landed a spot on a team just like it — champagne included. We were a successful agency with a stable of high-profile clients and talented people. Our process was dialed and the work was kickass. It seemed like a creative dream team…
But something was off. Something beyond the standard agency operating stress. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but there was an imperfection hiding in the gears like a gremlin, and I knew it was preventing our creative team from doing our best work.
Fast forward to present day, where I’m a partner at a digital marketing agency, and where I think fairly often about how to keep our creative team functioning at its peak. I remembered that gremlin from my old company and suddenly felt compelled to figure out what it was, where it had been hiding, and how I could prevent it from ever holding back our growing creative team.
And thanks to an indie band, I did.
As it happens, this indie band is my indie band — a side job we take seriously. We’re called Marble Party, and over the last 9 years we’ve recorded 3 albums, mobilized a small following, and even broke the top 100 on the national college radio charts for a week or two.
During a recent late-night songwriting marathon I realized that our band is very much a creative team. In fact, it operates a lot like my old agency team did. The material we develop is different, but the way we approach creative problems is almost identical and the work sessions are just as immersive.
But despite the similarities, there’s one major difference between these teams: I always seem to leave Marble Party work sessions feeling nourished and accomplished, but I only sometimes left those old agency sessions feeling that way. Something must have been obstructing my creative flow during those old sessions — that feeling of lightness where ideas come easily and blast through any obstacles.
It then occurred to me that after 9 years in the band — through thousands of hours of songwriting, rehearsing, arranging, tweaking, sweating, rewriting, and re-rewriting until we got it right — none of us has ever felt like an outsider to the team or experienced a blow to our self-esteem.
And I hadn’t felt that way at my old company. In fact, no matter how electrifying my performance may have been during a given creative session, I felt like I could become an outsider at any moment if I stopped achieving. I suddenly remembered the voices that whispered inside my head during those sessions. Like this voice during new project kickoffs:
I really want to come up with the golden idea. Come on, give me the win here! I love the praise from my boss and teammates. It validates my being here.
Or on the flip side, if I wasn’t producing during a session:
I haven’t said a damn thing in at least 5 minutes. Come on, wake up! I’m like dead weight in the room and I’m sure they all notice.
It’s clear that my ego was wide awake and working overtime to protect me back then, and in doing so, causing a serious blockage in the creative flow. And since I’m in control of my own reactions to situations, I suppose that means that the alleged gremlin… was my ego.
Excellent, I’m getting somewhere.
But there’s still a missing piece. Namely, why doesn’t my ego come out when I’m working with the band? After all, we’ve established that these teams are almost identical. Whatever triggers aroused my ego at my old agency do not seem to have the same effect when I’m with my band.
And with that realization, the answer finally revealed itself:
The issue at my old agency wasn’t, in fact, that something specific was waking up my ego. It’s that no focus was placed on preventing it from waking up in the first place.
Let me explain.
I’d never considered this in contrast to my old agency team, but our little indie band has been working actively for the last 9 years to keep our egos out of the creative process. We operate on a principle — a fact — that we’re all equal contributors to our modest success. It doesn’t matter who writes the material. Our songs will always be credited to the full band because everyone enriches them with nuance and kindles the ideas that bring them to their final state. We each have nights where our creativity is on fire, and nights where we don’t contribute a damn thing, but we’ve developed a mentality where we work as a single entity toward a common goal, and the highs and lows are a natural part of the creative team experience.
Through years of conscious practice, we’ve transcended the need to feel validated by our own ideas, or feel threatened if ideas fall flat or fail to come at all, because we’ve created a zero-ego environment. We’ve created a safe space where we can be ourselves and let our creativity fly freely. That’s why I always leave rehearsals feeling nourished and accomplished, and with my self-esteem fully intact.
In order to function at its peak, an agency must establish an environment where egos cannot thrive — where gremlins cannot hide. Ego management isn’t just the job of the individuals holding the egos. Agencies must take active measures to chase ego from the workplace. I believe doing so is the single greatest enabler for creative teams.
Five Ways to Chase Gremlins Away From Your Creative Team
Here are the concepts I think about most regularly in both the music and agency studios to help keep egos at bay. They’re especially relevant to creative team leaders, but anyone can bring these to the table to foster a healthy creative environment.
#1: Learn to spot awakened egos
Awareness is the first step. When a creative team is assembled in a room, I try to visualize each person’s ego as a nasty little beast (a gremlin, if you will) leashed to its owner — my own ego very much included. In a more confident creative, the ego may be sleeping peacefully in its owner’s lap. In someone less confident, it may be sitting right in front of its owner with teeth bared, ready to defend an attack.
Egos are born to protect, and because they typically don’t behave with great subtlety, it’s easier than you might think to recognize when someone’s ego is engaged. When leading a creative work session I keep watch for the beasts, always at the ready to calm them back to sleep. Contrary to handling live-beast situations, you cannot ease an ego to rest with force. You just need to subtly reassure its owner, and the beast will calm itself. I find that the following 4 principles are the best means for doing this.
#2: Display your respect, even when someone does nothing specific to deserve it
Every person on your team needs to know that your respect for them is unwavering — that you’ll appreciate them as creatives whether they’re brimming with ideas, or feeling flat that day (even Don Draper had off-days). With respect in the room, bad feelings or resentments don’t have enough fodder to form.
If someone is sitting silently, let them just enjoy being there. Throw them subtle cues — a smile, maybe — letting them know that you have all the confidence in the world that they’ll eventually contribute something great.
#3: Refocus your accolades
Praising your teammates is natural and noble (Awesome idea, Mary!), but I recommend a subtle shift that places the accolades on the idea itself, rather than the person who suggested it (Awesome idea!). Odds are, Mary built her idea off someone else’s idea in the first place, but either way, I like enforcing the notion that people don’t actually produce the ideas. Rather, the ideas produce themselves as a result of the creative process.
“A stronger group mindset will develop when ideas become neutral, unattached to owners.”
#4: Eliminate the desire for credit
Ronald Reagan kept a plaque on his oval office desk that read:
“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
Political persuasions aside, it’s a great message for creative teams. I’d even recommend posting a copy in your workspace, revised to include everyone:
“There is no limit to what a person can do or where they can go if they don’t mind who gets the credit.”
This concept can take thoughtful practice to master, but start ingraining it in your team immediately. When people overcome the ego-driven need to receive credit for their ideas, they’ll feel creatively freed, and better ideas will flow. A stronger group mindset will develop when ideas become neutral, unattached to owners.
I’ve found that a good stepping-stone to this practice is to start seeing your own ideas as if they were your children. If your daughter was a budding soccer player, you wouldn’t think twice about having her work with a coach, or a friend, or a neighbor, if their input could make her a stronger player. So offer that same level of unattached support to your creative ideas and let others on your team help transform them. I promise you’ll find this more rewarding than running a single idea to the end zone by yourself.
A side bonus of people building on my original ideas is that the outcome often surprises me. It takes my idea, my child, to an unexpected and often better place.
#5: Be candid
Practicing candor can put egos on edge at first, but being able to give and receive honest feedback is critical for creative teams. If you’ve ever wasted time and energy sidestepping an issue in an effort to avoid upsetting someone (waking up their ego), you know what I mean.
Much like shifting the focus with your accolades, encouraging your team to provide honest feedback on the ideas or issues themselves, as opposed to the people behind them, will help people feel more comfortable as they begin to speak their minds more freely.
Always pay attention to principle #2 above when practicing candor. When a team knows that their colleagues respect them as creatives, honest feedback can flow with a much lower likelihood of someone’s ego shifting into protection mode.
With egos out of the way, the feelings of negativity and anxiety that plague so many creative teams evaporate. More ideas are generated, and more good ideas are generated. More bad ideas are generated too, but that’s OK: The cutting room floor always looks better with crap all over it. Plus, we don’t want clean bamboo floors — we want good ideas. And maybe a little champagne too.