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September 19, 2013
The Macro Problems of Micromanaging the Creative Process
Does it help or hurt when executives sweat the conceptual details?
“I’m not a pro, but I know enough to be dangerous.”
So proclaimed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer of her Adobe Illustrator skills, in a blog post announcing the company’s newly redesigned logo.
Many professional designers cringed at the results, but more significantly, at the process. Mayer said, “I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the trenches” one weekend to get it done, making the redesign of a billion-dollar company’s brand identity sound as challenging as painting a guest bathroom.
Why are so many creative projects so easy — and tempting — for agency or client executives to micromanage? Is it a lack of trust or a need for control?
I’ve worked on clients from Fortune 100 enterprises to single-owner stores, so I’ve seen many C-level executives get their fingers dirty with the minutiae of marketing projects when I thought they’d have better things to do with their time.
One thing I’ve noticed is that certain types of people love to do this. Entrepreneur CEOs or store owners in particular. They’re the ones who love to appear in their own ads or cast their nine-year-old daughters in the commercials. And that’s understandable, because they’re the ones who shoveled their life savings into a business. In their minds, their brand isn’t a reflection of them. It IS them, and damned if they aren’t going to pick over every detail.
But it takes on another dimension when it’s someone like Mayer, an appointed leader of a large corporation, getting into the weeds. Let’s face it: For them, advertising and design work is fun to think about. Like movies and music, creative concepts are easy for anyone to contemplate and dissect, even for people who don’t do them for a living. I imagine for a CEO, talking about casting choices in a commercial beats the hell out of listening to a PowerPoint presentation outlining AMEA regional sales strategies.
CEOs and other senior executives call the shots, are accountable to many audiences, and more often than not, take it all personally because of their egos. For many of them, micromanaging a project is easier than laying out a big vision and letting others work towards it. So marketing makes an easy target for their attention.
But bringing top-level management into the creative process at an early stage is becoming more and more popular with agencies looking to build trust with clients. Involving the executives is sometimes the best way to get something done. They feel a sense of ownership over the ideas and therefore champion them through the process. It’s risky, and only confident agencies make it work successfully. Because the clients can easily start believing they have more creative abilities than they do. Or perhaps they’ll see that their agency doesn’t have a magic formula — leaving the client to think they may no longer need outside help.
For agencies, it’s a delicate balance. A great advertising or marketing idea can be chopped, spoiled, or screwed up by making any one of a hundred small but bad decisions. Everyone in the ad biz has seen a great concept nitpicked to death so that little by little it’s rendered impotent. And when top management gets involved in the details, things can go very wrong very quickly.
That’s not pleasant. I’ve had clients take concepts I’ve presented and proceed to rewrite them badly — full of tired clichés and laughably incorrect grammar — simply as an ego exercise. To paraphrase Marissa Mayer, they know enough English to be dangerous. I feel sorry for these people, because truly confident leaders know when to let the professionals keep the reins. But that’s a tough argument to make in a conference room full of C-level executives and their lackey mid-level marketing managers.

It’s up to agencies, and their creative departments, to prove themselves worthy of trust. To have rationale for doing what we do. While so many creative decisions are rooted in aesthetics or simply what feels right, verbally or graphically, we need to justify practically everything, no matter how small. And sometimes, that won’t be enough.
Let’s not give clients unnecessary reasons to micromanage creative projects. While we might not stop the ones who can’t help themselves, we can make their jobs, and ours, easier by getting a little more buttoned up all-around.
Otherwise, we’ll only manage to put ourselves out of work. 

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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