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Fighting Creative Burnout: How Creative Managers Support Good Content Marketing

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James’ company is in crises.

His mid-size lifestyle brand has been doing so well, but suddenly they’ve hit a wall. Sales are flat and web traffic is stagnant. His site’s content hub hasn’t grown in performance for a month now. After a check-in with the team, the root problem becomes clear. James’ company is suffering from creative burnout.

A dogged content marketing approach that’s been hammering the same keywords, the same ideas, the same halfhearted attempts to hide CTAs in-text has resulted in an editorial team that’s had enough. One writer has already left, while others are beginning to report their dissatisfaction with the work they do.

James’ problem isn’t a one-month issue. Dissatisfaction, burnout, and lagging content are a slow erosion that often comes as the result of poor creative management.

The “Burn and Churn”

Burnout has been a hot topic in office departments nationwide for some time. Recent surveys show 46 percent of HR leaders attribute large turnovers in their workforces (20 to 50 percent) to burnout.

While we might hope that content marketing teams—with their comparatively more creative work—would be insulated from some of this burnout, the opposite is actually true. Adobe’s “State of Create” study found an enormous gap around the globe between how companies value creativity, and what proportion of their employees actually feel creatively supported. In the US specifically, while 76 percent of respondents reported that creativity was a valuable skill, only one in four people actually felt they were living up to their creative potential. Drilling down even further, 80 percent of creative workers reported that they felt that their companies placed emphasis on productivity, not creativity.

And so James’ company, like many others, falls into the same trap. They see the value of creativity for their business, hire a group of creative employees, and then tell them to be productive rather than creative—as if the two must be separate.

Image of colored pencils lined up in a neat row

Image attribution: Miguel Á. Padriñán

Creative Productivity

Peter Drucker once summarized how most people think of management by saying, “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”

This is often the case when it comes to effectively leading a content marketing team, where you’re constantly caught balancing the needs of your creatives, from editorial feedback to professional development to general business administration and coordination, with the business objectives of your company. A constant emphasis on business goals results in creative burnout, while whole devotion to creativity without business guidance results in a lack of direction.

Traditional management thinking would say that good creative managers should be able to support their creative employees while also producing results. But the growing prevalence and need for creatives in the marketplace and new attitudes towards management have resulted in a new approach: Creative managers drive business results by supporting their employee’s creativity.

So how can James redirect his content manager to help save his burned-out team? Rethinking these ingrained business practices can help.

Rejuvenate Your Meetings . . . By Getting Rid of Most of Them

Everybody, at some point in their career, will come to hate meetings. They break up the workflow of your day. They vary wildly in length, usefulness, and interest. And sometimes you leave after a forty-five-minute discussion and think to yourself, “Did I even need to be there?”

As a manager, it’s largely up to you how your team approaches meetings. You’ll often be in charge of organizing and leading larger team discussion, laying frameworks for smaller meetings that happen incidentally, and overall determining the atmosphere in which your employees interact. Make sure to keep your meetings as creatively supportive as possible by:

  • Keeping them small: Jeff Bezos likes to use the term “two pizza meetings” to gauge the appropriate size for a group. Too many voices will make it hard to reach collaborative consensus and keep on target. Specific groups meeting to tackle specific ideas will often produce the best results.
  • Keeping them succinct: What ever happened to meeting agendas? Make sure meetings have a clear goal and a clear topic. A simple outline email sent ahead of the meeting can accomplish this, and it minimizes how frequently your creatives feel that their time is being unnecessarily taken.
  • Keeping them creative: A bad habit we sometimes fall into as creatives is knee-jerk criticism of ideas. Much of this is born from informed experience, but some of it is also just due to cognitive biases based on our creative habits. In brainstorming or creatively oriented meetings, consider having a format where the first half is criticism free—all ideas go up or are offered free of criticism or interpretation. The second half then gives you a space to pare down and hone these ideas. You’ll often find that ideas that you normally would have vetoed can lead to other more fruitful ideas when given some space to breathe.

Create Feedback Loops

For content marketing teams, there are typically two forms of feedback that workers get: the editorial process that reflects what your target audience needs, and the performance review that reflects what your business needs.

Where in either of those two processes is there anything about what your creatives need?

Consider creating a third space for creative feedback that is centered around your creative worker and their relationship to you. These meetings should act almost as a sort of creative workshop, in which you share with your creative what strengths you see in their work, space where you would like them to explore more, and field any questions or struggles they may be having.

Creative feedback meetings not only build trust between you and your team but they also provide a space for you as a manager to receive feedback about how you can better support your team’s creative needs. This will help you nip conflicts in the bud, improve your workflows, and grow creatively alongside the business metrics that are built into your other feedback systems. Ideally, both you and your employee should leave the meeting with a creatively oriented goal to complete by the next time, whether it’s experimenting with a new style or getting trained on a new tool.

Monthly or quarterly (depending on the size of your team or the pace of your workflow) is a good cadence for these types of meetings.

Image of two artsy professionals talking

Leave Some Space for Your Creatives to Decide

Last, but certainly not least, good creative managers find ways to protect creative spaces for their employees to try new things that might not normally be a part of their job description. You can gauge this to the time and resource constraints of your company (for instance, while Google struggled with their famous 20 percent time rule, other companies have found it could be easily adapted to their needs) but essentially this should be some sort of built-in space during the work day that allows your workers to stretch out of their regular shells. This helps keep your creatives feeling limber to try new ideas, while also providing breathing room that can be critical for preventing burnout.

This, at the core, is the essential rule of good creative management. Constant repetition without some variety or reiteration will always result in creative people feeling stunted. Good creative managers should constantly seek to find ways of breaking up the work week in spite of the demands of rigorous production schedules. They should seek to insulate their workers from the criticisms of stakeholders who might not understand how such breakouts are necessary for preventing burnout. And above all, managers should seek to remember that their creative team as a whole comprises a group of creative individuals who will require more one-to-one nurturing.

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Featured image attribution: Chris Barbalis

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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