Lessons from Creative South (for the Non-Designer)

4 min read

Creative South 2018

If you’re a graphic artist, you probably know about Creative South, the annual conference in Columbus, Georgia, that brings together designers from across the country. It’s the kind of warm, fuzzy event that uses slogans like “Come as Friends, Leave as Family” and isn’t shy about hugging.

But make no mistake—the focus of this conference is all about the graphic and visual arts. So when Well Done Marketing’s operations manager Abbie Spahn decided to go, we were curious: Was it worth her time?

WDM: Maybe we can start by having you explain what an operations manager does for an ad agency.
AS: Part of my work is to act as facilitator between the account teams and all the creatives to make sure we’re getting work through the shop on time, without burning people out. I also have to make sure people aren’t sitting around idle. Basically, my job is to help create and protect brain space so people can focus on the work in front of them while I worry about capacity planning and the logistics of hitting deadlines.

So you really bridge the gap between the business and creative sides of the agency.
Right, with the goal of allowing people to do their best work. Which is part of why I like attending conferences like Creative South—it’s a chance for me to sit down and listen to the emotional challenges creatives deal with, and to see how the creative mind works.

In my role, I think it’s important to have a good handle on how creative people think and solve problems, so that I can create processes that get out of the way and encourage people to do their best work.

Before this interview, you mentioned that the first time you attended this creative conference you were working in the finance industry. Have you always had your head in such different places at once?
My dad is a pilot, and a very process-focused person. My mom is an artist, the kind who will put every available second toward her work. So I grew up in a household where I was always aware of those two mindsets trying to work together. I also have a husband who’s a designer, so at this point I’m used to flipping back and forth between these different ways of thinking.

But in an agency setting, there are complications. You want your creatives to feel confident about the work they’re producing, but you don’t want your account executives to have to tell clients that you need more time, or that a project will cost more money. It’s a balance. Fortunately, Well Done is a very collaborative environment, which makes my job a little easier.

What were your big takeaways from Creative South?
I thought a lot about teambuilding. It’s easy to come here, do our work, and maybe do some diagnostics after a project is done, but we don’t always get vulnerable with each other. Taking time to foster those positive relationships reminds us we’re only human, and we’re all doing our best to do good work and deliver good ideas.

A big theme at the conference this year was anxiety and depression, and how prevalent they are in the design community. Sometimes that’s from the nature of the work—you put yourself out there hoping people will like what you’ve done, but you’re very vulnerable to criticism. It’s tough stuff to manage alone.

Which is why I think communication and teambuilding is so important. Two of the speakers, Jen and Amy Hood, talked about how, despite the fact that they’re twin sisters, they still have to talk and really listen to one another to understand each other’s viewpoints. It’s a good reminder for anyone working collaboratively: You really can’t assume you know how other people think.

Were there any lessons for you personally, as an operations manager?
There was a quote from Tara Victoria and Brad Weaver, cofounders of The Banner Years, that really stuck with me: “I’m sorry I solved your one-million-dollar problem four hours late.” It was kind of a joke, but it made a good point. Obviously deadlines are important, and as an agency we want to deliver on time. But in my role, it’s important to recognize that the creative team is trying to produce something really good that solves a problem our clients are struggling with. If I can give them a little extra time, and it results in something better, then maybe it’s okay to make that space.