Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Start-ups need to balance processes with CREATIVE FREEDOM

As an entrepreneur, your idea of the business needs to be complemented with your sensitivity to the demands of the creative team.

ANYONE who has watched music channels in the late 1990s will recall the MTV Lift Man. It was a 70-plusyear-old man, with a horrible set of teeth, standing in a iron-grilled lift, cursing MTV in a raspy voice. Does “Mad in India” and “Blousefull” ring a bell? It did for Amitabh Bachchan. The Lift Man’s popular impact was so widespread that at a social event, the actor who played the part was recognised by Big B himself. That’s when everybody knew that the ‘dentally-challenged’ actor had made his mark.

Before the promo was aired, however, few were sure of its success. The promo was not a raving hit. Creative director Cyrus Oshidar says, “There was a heavy silence. And then someone said ‘Chee. It’s so downmarket’. It was quickly followed by ‘Why use such an old person?’”. This opposition came largely from the marketing team which was, understandably, looking at it from an advertiser’s perspective. The then general manager of MTV India, Sunil Lulla, was also in the room, but on a different plane. Looking back, he says, “I drummed my fingers, laughed and thought ‘Thank God someone got it right!’”. The Lift Man was a hit.

Running a business that depends on the creativity of its employees is tricky. Not only does the entrepreneur need to have an idea of market demands and the process, but must also be sensitive to the needs of the creative team. Every creative person is, in a way, an entrepreneur in his own right. He could be a musician, a fashion designer, a filmmaker, a painter or a writer.

They can be free thinkers and pretty independent. To fit such a person into an assembly line of sorts can be a tough balancing act, especially if the manager is not familiar with the creative process. Ideally, a creative person ought to play leader for a creative team. This role, however, can be also played by a man in a suit. Mr Lulla’s past colleagues cite him as an example. “Creative people have strong ideas and they come with a sense of ownership of these ideas. You have to respect that. They also tend to know that and expect some leeway. They do need softer handling,” says Mr Lulla. He says that points of contention between management and a creative team usually tend to revolve around requirements of the processes, like targets and deadlines. The reality remains that a business depends on a process.

“Tell them the situation. Show them the big picture and the outcome that is expected. That should do. If they still don’t agree, tell them to bugger off. Show them you don’t give a damn, and they will come back,” says Mr Lulla.

To maintain a creative environment, the founding partner of advertising agency Ambience Advertising, Elsie Nanji, believes that the atmosphere has to be light-hearted and child-like. “You need to have mutual respect for each other’s talents. Do great work yourself and you will inspire people. The people working under you are there only because of what you can do,” she says, adding, “You also want to help them reach new heights. If your team won the Silver Lion at Cannes this year, next year you get them to aim for the gold. Take people with you towards such goals.”

Having a team of people with diverse backgrounds also helps stimulate creativity. Ms Nanji did this and marvels at the range of people that have come together to produce award-winning works. Mr Lulla says that the idea that creative people respond only to ‘beer, music and beaches’ is wrong. Instead, he says they respond better to people with new and fresh ideas.
“Creative people are looking for constant stimulation. If they don’t find it they will move on,” says Shelagh Wright from London. She works with Demos, a think-tank that analysed the impact of creative industries on the British economy. Mr Oshidar corroborates this when he points out that the creative kind are not interested in numbers. Instead, he says, they are interested in ideas that are new and different. He now runs his own creative boutique, which works in the multimedia space — Bawa Broadcasting.

A mistake would be to treat the creative team as labour. Mr Oshidar says, “Managerial departments very often treat the creative team like dirt. We as Indians tend to be very hierarchical. After all, we do have the legacy of the caste system. Creative people don’t know how to deal with this and they will walk out.” He says that creative people require a little more understanding. “You can tell them to ‘give me an idea in two weeks’. But saying ‘come in at 9 and leave by 5’ won’t work. It has to be less process-driven and more taskoriented,” he says.
Creative people work through networks of relationships and conversations, says Ms Wright. “It’s more likely that you will find the person that you need through a recommendation, instead of an advertisement. Once you find that creative person, it’s important to treat the find as a relationship instead of as a contract,” she says.

In its latest study, Demos found that contribution by the creative industries to the British economy was larger than that of the manufacturing sector. The study showed that two million people are employed by the creative industry, which contributes £60 billion a year to the economy.

Even creativity needs scaling up to become a successful business model, says a leading venture capitalist. “As a VC, we want to know if the business from this creativity can be multiplied. This would become an issue if the creativity solely depends on one guy’s or one group’s work,” says Sidbi Venture Capital CEO Ajay Kumar Kapur. Creativity leads to ownership of intellectual property that will give shareholders the best value in the long term.

Article Resource:
Author: Jacob Cherian is the Chief Editor in the The Economic Times, Mumbai and the article appeared in one of their successful columns on Entrepreneurship/Start-ups called "Starship Enterprise".

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