"They used to shoot collaborators." So said a very senior and well-known creative leader when discussing the idea of collaboration in the creative industry. While that luminary clearly believes in the good old combative, solitary and siloed ways of working – and that people working together to solve problems in some way guarantees creative compromise – most agencies these days profess a strong belief in collaboration.
However, there’s a big difference between saying you believe in it and actually doing it.
Four-and-a-half years ago, my partners and I founded our creative business on the belief that collaboration is the most effective way to solve business problems.
Over that time, we’ve learned a lot about collaborative working and what it takes to succeed.
1. You can’t collaborate with just anyone
Collaboration can never just be tolerated. You must actively want to work that way.
You have to believe that every second you spend working is not just for your own personal gain but for the greater good: solving your client’s business problems. And that, if everyone concentrates their efforts in the same direction, together you’ll sprint to where you need to get to – and have fun doing so.
You need confidence and humility in abundance. Crave input from those around you and relish feedback (both positive and negative).
It takes a special kind of creative. One happy to share ownership of a piece of work with their colleagues.
It takes a special kind of strategist. One happy to share ownership of a brief with their colleagues.
Critically, it takes a special kind of client. One happy not just to email a brief over and wait for the work to be sent back, but to roll up their sleeves and invest time in helping to solve their problem.
You can’t collaborate with people who think they have all the answers. And it’s impossible to collaborate with people you don’t respect or who don’t respect you.
2. Collaboration means great ideas really can come from anywhere
Most agencies say: "Ideas can come from anywhere." What they mean is: "Yeah, but the right ones will come from the creative department."
A collaborative culture enables and encourages great ideas to come from anywhere. And when you’re open to ideas coming from anywhere, that means they won’t just come from inside your company.
Your clients and target audience, for example, when brought into the process of solving their own problems, can come up with ideas that are just as effective as those that emerge from many creative departments.
Speaking of creative departments – what happens if you don’t have one? Just a whole company full of people whose job is to be creative? What do you get then? You get groups of people who actively will each other to solve the problem. And who are happy, not secretly furious, when that happens. So you get more solutions. Faster. With less friction.
That doesn’t mean a weirdy-beardy world full of group-think, where everyone always agrees with each other. It means everyone feeling free to advocate a great idea but having the humility to know that if it doesn’t solve the problem, it’s of no use.
3. Collaboration needs the right structure and environment
Collaboration doesn’t mean "everyone working on everything". Effective collaboration radically accelerates the process but only if everyone knows exactly what part they play in it.
Roles and responsibilities need to be dished out so everyone remains jointly responsible for the success of the enterprise but certain people take accountability for specific elements of it.
Importantly, working this way can’t just be forced on to an organisation that has been established on the traditional model. Processes, tools and working spaces need to be designed from the ground up to encourage people to spend time together as well as by themselves.
4. Collaboration needs strong leadership
Collaboration needs clear creative leadership and decision-making. It’s definitely not "ideas by committee", with all opinions taken into equal consideration and ideas being watered down until they’re worthless.
A team of ten people might all have a valid point of view about what the right solution might be. But someone in that team has to have the final say on what direction is the right one. That someone is the person chosen to be accountable for the quality of the creative output. And the whole team must trust and respect them.
5. Collaboration takes hard work
A culture where everyone feels collective responsibility for solving the problem is the antithesis of the way our industry is used to working.
It can feel scary not having anyone to blame when things go wrong. It can feel odd not being able to say "that’s nothing to do with me" as we put on our coat to leave.
No matter how carefully you create a collaborative culture, there’s a gravitational pull back towards the old behaviour. It takes constant vigilance to keep checking for signs of that happening. And a hell of a lot of effort.
Which, thinking about it, may well be why so many companies talk about collaboration but so few actually manage to achieve it.
Damon Collins is founder of Joint