A Creative Director’s Guide to Building Trust Within Creative Teams
“Fear is the enemy of creativity,” says Nick Kelly, creative director of DSGNHAVN, the in-house video and design studio at Faithlife. (With over 350 employees serving millions of users worldwide, Faithlife is a leading producer of church and faith-based media. DSGNHAVN produces thousands of pieces of design, videos, and even feature-length documentary films.)
“For creativity to really happen you have to feel free to make mistakes, not fear them.”
This is the mantra that defines Nick’s leadership.
As executive producer, I’ve had the privilege of working with this industry veteran for more than half a decade, so I’ve witnessed firsthand the positive results of his directorial philosophy. Nick offers very valuable advice for creative leaders, directors at first. Later he drills down into very practical tips editors and other individual contributors who are seeking to push through their creative boundaries. We recently sat down to explore how creative teams build trust in high-pressure production environments. Turns out, failure is at the core of trust.
Take an editor as an example. When they sit down with all the footage from a shoot, their first priority is to string out an edit with the director’s intention in mind. However, as a director, you should also want the editor to play with the creative possibilities, to experiment, and to bring their own artistic insight to bare on the piece, even if that experimentation doesn’t work out in the end. Why? Because without the freedom to make mistakes, it’s hard to build trust among creative teams.
It’s important for directors to understand this. There is tremendous value in the process of trying different and unexpected creative possibilities. Editors (and pretty much all post-production collaborators) have creative instincts of their own, which can often mold a project into something greater than what was initially imagined. Of course, these experiments don’t always work on the first or second go, but this kind of failure has to be OK if you want to build a creative team that trusts each other and works together to push past barriers towards greatness.
For Nick, this is really the mark of a great editor vs a good editor. “A great editor can keep going after 3 or 4 revisions: but, a junior editor gets stuck on version 1.” A smart director realizes that, and encourages their team members to keep working through both successful and failed experimentation.
But how do you know when creative experimentation is working? And organizationally, how do you develop patience for pushing through the necessary revisions to get to a great end result?
Nick is a big fan of the “brain trust” framework employed by Pixar, as described in Ed Catmull’s book Creativity, Inc. The idea is that a small, diverse group of handpicked people should work together to review early cuts of the material, not just the director and editorial staff.
The brain trust members may not necessarily have responsibility over the project, for instance, a leader from another team might be on it. But they do give their opinions. The director of the video has to listen and give weight to their thoughts.
“I’m a huge fan of a ‘the director gets to make the calls’ style of creative leadership,” says Nick. “Directors should listen to everything, but they don’t have to do anything.” We want directors and editors to ask clarifying questions, and dig into the feedback that they receive, but they are not beholden to it. Ultimately, the editor collaborates with the director to get to the best result.
This reminds me of a recent review where the brain trust really felt a particular video was too bloated with some unnecessary scenes. Yes, the time had been taken to shoot them, but the piece felt too long. Some “darlings” were going to have to die. But instead of everyone identifying which parts they would cut, the director was simply presented with the problem of the piece feeling bloated and redundant, even though it was filled with great ideas. The director cut scenes I might have left in, and left in scenes I might have removed. But the end result totally worked. The director heard our feelings, but also felt empowered to make his own calls.
Show Work Early and Often
It can be scary to let people see your creative process, but at Faithlife we value showing work early and often. Unfinished motion graphics, unpolished animatics, and very rough edits get more visibility within our team than you might expect. Nick believes that making the building blocks more visible increases the confidence of individual team members, and helps them to speak their mind. After all, it’s much easier to provide feedback, criticism, or fresh ideas when something is unfinished and there is still time to make changes.
Showing work in progress also familiarizes the whole team with the roles of other members, which helps everyone better understand when feedback is most helpful and appropriate at each stage of the project.
Balancing Creative Vision with Artistic Openness
As the creative director, Nick oversees the work of directors for both video and design. A video director’s job is to own the vision for the finished video. But Nick emphasizes that their disposition ought to be one of collaboration and artistic openness in the process, not firm, unyielding control from beginning to end. Video is a “team sport” where leaders must effectively hone the creative vision by harnessing the specific talents of those on the team.
One of the primary responsibilities of a good director is to recognize the aesthetic and technical talents of their editors/animators/cinematographers, and then to trust those talents to solve creative challenges. Without exception, videos are improved by the fruitful processes of creative collaboration. When team members know that their input is valued, and they see the outcome on the screen, their trust is deepened with their teammates and they consistently perform above and beyond the call.
Building Trust by Taking the Heat
“One thing, as a leader,” Nick says, “it is your job to take the heat.” Sometimes your initial attempt at turning around a deliverable doesn’t match the expectations of the client or the executive in charge of the project. To build trust in your team, they have to know that you won’t throw them under the bus. Creative experimentation takes time and carries risks. Sometimes the results might take an executive or client by surprise. A good leader takes the heat for the decisions made, and then lays out a new game plan for their team.
Without this protection from the heat, a creative team becomes self-protective. If editors and animators are constantly questioning their individual creative decisions because they fear blame from above, everything slows down. But this doesn’t just result in decreased productivity. It also means lost creativity. If a production team feels like their leader won’t back up their creative experimentation, they won’t take the risk. “The only way to build a culture of creative trust,” Nick says, “is to recognize that great ideas develop from multiple failures.”
I can think of a recent example where a team member had a killer concept for a video done in 3D motion graphics. It was a trailer for a book. The story was great, but the execution left something to be desired. Draft after draft was done. Nick made sure that the internal client knew that we were working on it and trying to get it right. Experiments with textures, lighting, and camera angles. Normally, you might lose patience with the process, but we liked the concept so much that our team member was able to push through to create a final video that was unique and powerful.
In her book Radical Candor, author Kim Scott encourages leaders to “challenge directly and care personally.” This concept forms the foundation for feedback at DSGNHAVN. It is critical to recognize that creative team members are not “cogs in a machine” that can simply be swapped out. Nick believes that it is “absolutely necessary for leaders to value their team members as individuals, if they hope to earn their trust.”
Once someone knows that you care about them as a person, they are far more open to hearing your suggestions and critique about their work. We as creatives often find it difficult to separate criticism of our work from our artistic identity. We equate criticism of our work with the value we believe a superior is placing on us as a person.
But when team members know they are valued, not just for what they bring to the table professionally, but for who they are as people, then they are far more open to accepting feedback and criticism. They are even more willing to go the extra mile to get the project done right for the client. But without that trust, direct feedback from leaders is more difficult, so leadership that puts personal value first is vital to the creative process.
I can personally testify to the value of this. As a creative, you put your soul into your work. And we’ve all seen creatives go through situations where the critique they received was so strong that it felt like a rejection of them as a person, not merely that the individual piece needed improving. But when I’ve received critique from Nick, even if we’ve disagreed, I knew that it was about the piece, not a questioning of my value as a person. That is the foundation of a culture of trust.
Personal Growth & Trust
The byproduct of this kind of feedback cycle is growth. Focused, meaningful, and caring feedback will produce growth in just about every creative individual. Nick calls it “fuel for the fire.”
But change always accompanies growth. When a team member grows from a junior role into a senior role, it is important to recognize that and celebrate it. Team member growth can actually make leaders feel uncomfortable. Questions start to be asked of “will I have to pay this person more?” Or a leader might ask, “will they find a job elsewhere?” On the other side, a growing individual might start questioning, “are they undervaluing me?”
But how can a creative leader earn the trust of their team? People simply have to know that you support their personal growth as an artist or technician. It is key that if someone gets a job across town as a step up, or if they get a promotion within, that move is celebrated. Why? Well obviously, because that team member matters and has intrinsic value no matter where they work.
But also, the more friends we have around the video industry the better. Nick points out that “growing team members means a growing network, a larger recruiting pool, and (if you’ve treated them well), an improved reputation among clients and colleagues.” Of course, the flip side of this is the price you pay when you don’t treat people well. If your team members don’t know that you support their growth, and they move on, they’ll carry that with them wherever they go.
Ultimately, it pays to care about your team members and do everything possible to help them reach their fullest potential.
Facilitating Communication Between Executives and Creatives
Everybody wants to do great work and everyone wants it to be effective. But there can be a gulf between the way creatives and executives talk about the means of getting there. There can be a fundamental breakdown of trust between those two groups. Nick warns that “if you aren’t careful, that gap can be so wide that it leads people to suspect and question the motives on the other side.”
Creatives can be seen by executives as simply pursuing aesthetics to the detriment of the bottom line. Executives can be perceived as tasteless and merely motivated by money. Nick insists that solid creative leaders must understand this communication challenge and avoid it.
“A good director knows that you can’t use just creative terms to win arguments with executives.” This approach builds trust on both sides of the equation. Directors must learn to translate the values of creative language into business language, and they have to understand the risks and responsibilities that executives or clients shoulder, and the enormous trust they place on creative teams. Great executives care first and foremost about the customer, and ensuring they are happy. That is the essence of business.
In line with this, creatives should channel their technical and artistic considerations toward the business aims of the project, and ultimately the wishes of the end customer. If they do so, then trust flourishes between the creative team and the executives.
The health of a business is not opposed to the expression of artistic talents, or vice versa. Nick points out that a competent creative leader “must be able to bridge this common divide and help their team empathize with and appreciate the concerns and responsibilities of executives and clients.”
Do the Right Thing and Wait to be Fired
But sometimes you head into a rough patch, and you find your team members are second-guessing themselves. Their trust in those who lead them may waiver. There’s a temptation to self-censor, and just “do what you are asked.” Inspired by the words of a Google developer, Nick says that in those situations, when you don’t know how to resolve the issue, you just have to“do the right thing and wait to be fired.” When a team functions in this way, you build trust and respect for each other’s motives.
This isn’t just a fatalistic acceptance of a seemingly insurmountable problem. The point of this idea is to take on the burden of acting in the best interests of the people we serve, even if it means putting ourselves out there in a risky way. As a director, you may not always find agreement with everyone that the way you see things is the “right” way. But, as a leader it is so important to speak up and stand up for what you believe is right for the project, the team, and the client.
For example, when you deal with marketing technology products, it is very easy to fall into the trap of just presenting “speed and feeds.” We know that it is easy to get a script approved that simply mentions new features and why the new version is better than the old version. And there is a place for that.
But the right approach to presenting technology to the market is to seek to communicate how those advancements will affect the hearts and lives of the end user. Those kinds of scripts risk more. They require greater effort to create, and their rejection is more painful.
Or when you choose to employ an unorthodox editing technique that no one asked for. Or when you use music to reach for an unexpected emotion. If executed right, these risks yield great results. But there’s always a risk that striving to the right thing will be misunderstood. That’s why it is vital to build a culture of trust.
At the same time, creative team members must have a sense of humility and a willingness to hear from the other side. Nick emphasizes that “doing what is right isn’t just an unbending stubbornness that a held opinion is best. It is genuinely caring about people, executives, clients, and viewers who will be affected by your work. No matter what position you hold, your integrity is valuable, don’t let it slip away from you.”
When to Give In
Nick points out that, one of the biggest challenges creatives of all levels face is knowing when to give in. This applies whether or not you are in a lead role. As an editor, you might find yourself sitting down with your director and having a frustrating conversation about executing his or her vision. In your mind, it simply isn’t working. You know your role is to support their vision, and you don’t want to overstep your bounds, but you want to be proud of your own work. How do you know when you’ve pushed far enough, and it is time to give in?
Nick believes that “the first thing we have to realize is that people pay us for our best ideas. We have an obligation to make the case for the best solutions to creative problems. Secondly, we have to pick our battles. We want to push, be we also need to find things we really believe in and focus on those issues.”
When others know you for picking your battles wisely, their confidence and trust in you grow. They recognize that you care about the work, and not your ego.
These kinds of disagreements happen when highly creative people collaborate. And each interaction spends relational capital. So the key is to have relational deposits long before you get to the most difficult parts of a project. This goes back to caring for people and investing a little time into the relationship. Even a small amount of investment will yield returns when you come to disagreements. Those investments build trust within a team.
Creative Teams are Families
The final point that Nick discussed really sums up his leadership style well. “We are a family,” he says about DSGNHAVN. As an in-house team, that sentiment may be easier to affirm than other circumstances, versus an agency or freelance crew. But the value is the same. We are in this industry together.
Yes there is competition, but at the core, we want to do great work. We all desire to grow. And we are all built up when the team’s best interests are placed ahead of selfish ambition. The result of treating your fellow artists as a family is that you are continuously reminded of how much we need each other. And that is the foundation for building trust as a team.
Photography by Ben Bender.