When creatives quit

As creative managers, we take it personally when creatives quit. How should we cope?

A person going down dark stairs

When we quit

I don’t have a good track record of quitting or doing well when people on my team/at my company quit.

First, about my track record of quitting.

I didn’t last long in my first job. Fresh out of school and after having applied to several hundred positions over ten months in New York City, I finally got hired as a junior designer by a small but rapidly growing digital marketing agency. But after about 18 months, the agency that hired me got acquired, my boss left (or got pushed out, not sure), and overnight, the company that I had joined disappeared.

After that, my first steady job was at R/GA, a celebrated design and technology company in the special effects and computer graphics industry as it was transitioning into a digital creative and marketing agency. For the first two years, it was a revolving door of various bosses. The transition R/GA was going through was quite drastic. In hindsight, as a more mature-and perhaps slightly scarred-creative with perspectives on change, it made sense there was instability and high turnovers. For someone in their early/mid-twenties, however, it was disorienting. That led me to look for other jobs and I almost quit.

But then I couldn’t.

For those of us who are “legal aliens” (yes, an actual term used by the government) in the US on a visa, specifically an H-1B visa which is what I had, we are tied to the employer. For us to switch jobs, the new employer would have to agree to sponsor our visas. That process could take months and there was no guarantee that the visa would be granted. In my case, one company was willing to hire me until they realized that it would take too long.

I ended up staying at R/GA for over five years but didn’t officially have a boss there. That exposed me, for better or worse, to Bob Greenberg, the legendary founder and CEO of R/GA and the industry icon. With that, I inevitably got opportunities-or more accurately, had no choice but-to present work to and in front of him.

In his late fifties at the time, Bob had some heavy hitters as clients. Ian Schrager (the founder of Studio 54, Ian Schrager Hotels, and Edition Hotels), Richard Saul Wurman (the founder of TED), and Edwin Schlossberg (the husband of Caroline Kennedy), to name a few.

For such high-profile clients, projects I got to work on were similarly eclectic: a website for one of the hippest hotels in the world. An event opening title sequence for the most sought-after conference. A 50-story, multi-screen display for a building in the middle of Time Square. Though they could be challenging and intimidating for someone half their age, I got to do some diverse and interesting work.

The experience I got at R/GA during that era was invaluable. I consider myself a product of that company. Many designers and colleagues of my generation stayed there for a decade or more. Those who left became design and creative leaders of companies like Apple, Instagram, Google, and so forth. In a way, R/GA was the design nursery of Silicon Valley. It may have been good that I couldn’t quit in the first few years. The universe works in mysterious ways.

So why did I quit?

I mean, with those clients and diverse, interesting types of work I was doing, I was very happy.

There were a few reasons for me to move on at the time I did, though.

One, opportunities came knocking on my door. In my late twenties, I started to get phone calls and emails from headhunters of other agencies and that got me curious about what was outside the fences, literally as R/GA’s building in Hell’s Kitchen of NYC was surrounded by fences.

Second, I didn’t know if I was doing good work just because I was at R/GA or because I was actually any good. Am I just benefitting from the name and the team I’m on? Or am I making the team better? I wasn’t sure.

I decided to leave because I wanted to really test myself, challenge myself, and even make myself uncomfortable.

However, quitting R/GA didn’t go so smoothly. R/GA was the digital agency of record for Nike in the US. When I told people that I was going to AKQA, less prominent and not well known in the US at the time, their reactions ranged from “AK-what?” and “Why?” to “You are making a mistake.” AKQA was also working with Nike but in the UK and Asia. Someone even told me, “That’s like going from the Premier League to MLS.” Okay, the regions are mixed up in this metaphor, but if you know, you know.

One team was essentially stealing talent from another for the same client. This caused a lot of tension between the two agencies and a strain on the client. So much so that the client had to intervene and mediate a gentlemen’s agreement between the two to not poach talent from each other. This lasted for years.

I thought I’d try to give it five years at AKQA and see how things would turn out. I stayed for close to 11 years.

When others quit

Now about my track record of having creatives quit.

I did a little bit of hiring and managing creatives when I was at R/GA but it was at AKQA where I spent a significant amount of time recruiting, managing, leading, and very occasionally and unfortunately, letting people go.

Between 2005 and 2015, the agency grew tenfold organically. I went from managing a team of about 25 people in one office as an Executive Creative Director with another colleague, PJ Pereira, to representing hundreds of creatives across 14 offices around the world as the Global Chief Creative Officer. We became the first agency to receive five Agency of the Year accolades in a span of just a few years. By the time I left, AKQA was pushing 2,000 employees. I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything else. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for AKQA.

During my tenure, I reviewed probably more than 10,000 resumes and portfolios, interviewed hundreds of, if not over a thousand, people, and hired quite a few. I’ve seen numerous cycles of people coming and going.

When that cycle happens and people are about to quit, there are some tells.

When we used to see each other in person almost every day before COVID, some of those tells were more noticeable. So-and-so is gone in the middle of the day for no particular reason. Or they show up to the office late but rather well-dressed. In the post-pandemic, remote work world, those tells have become less visible.

But the lack of visibility is another kind of tell.

A turned-off Zoom camera, blocked calendar slots with no particular agenda, or people being oddly distant and disengaged on Slack, are such invisible tells. These then are followed by a “Can we have a chat/do you have a minute?” Slack message, or more commonly, a “Quick check-in” calendar invite that shows up on our calendar suddenly and randomly.

Geez, I sound like a f***ing creepy boss.

When I got into the position of hiring and managing people in my twenties, I wasn’t mature enough (note: I’m a man) and I didn’t know how to deal well with people quitting. Now in my forties, I’ve developed an occupational spider-sense. Even after more than 15 years, though, I still get a pit in my stomach when I see such a Slack message or a calendar invite pop up. I hate it when people quit.

We, as bosses to others, aren’t machines. We have feelings. Having someone quit can be an emotional process even if we put up a facade that might not seem so.

Here are a few coping mechanisms I’ve developed as a boss over the years.

1. Don’t react. Listen.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of someone staying or leaving, when one of our reports comes to us to have that “chat,” it’s natural to react on the spot. Even if we suppress our emotions on the surface, it hurts on the inside.

To compensate, we subconsciously end up talking more than we normally do. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve certainly caught myself talking more than the person who came to resign. In those cases, I almost always regretted later that I said too much or what I said.

That’s precisely when we need to hold back what we want to say and listen to what they say and don’t say. And even if we have things we think we should say, we need to wait at least overnight and digest it first.

Don’t react. Listen. Especially when we feel those emotions inside of us.

2. Counteroffers are useless (9 out of 10 times).

By the time one of our creatives comes to us to have the “chat,” it’s usually too late.

Earlier in my managerial career, I was told by a more experienced manager colleague that I should always try to counteroffer, especially if I wanted to keep them.

However, I’ve learned that if I convinced people to stay with financial incentives, they would end up leaving in six to twelve months. It was just a matter of time before someone else would offer more money than we could.

What felt even worse was that we made counteroffers and they would still leave. For these reasons, I stopped making counteroffers a long time ago. Competing with money, even more so now, is futile.

What we need to show people isn’t just more money. We need to show that we care about and value them. Sometimes, part of the reason for that “chat” is people subconsciously just want to know how much we value them.

So when is that one time we should make a counteroffer? It’s when we think we can cultivate a mutually beneficial path forward for the individual and the company. Be generous with the money within reason but more importantly, about their future with us.

3. Creatives are like flowers. They need the right amount of sunlight, water, and space.

This statement might rub some people the wrong way. But I used to be one of those flowers.

If I got some critical feedback about my work, I would take it personally and it would take me several days to come back to my normal self on the inside. If I didn’t get praised for my work or my work wasn’t chosen, I would feel insecure and worry that I wasn’t good enough. But too much praise would have made my head too big.

The thing about flowers is that they don’t tell us when or how much sunlight and water they need. It’s our job as a boss to approach the creatives, nurture them, and help them bloom. Don’t put it on them to come talk to us. Approach them ourselves and talk to them proactively and regularly, with enough space. Otherwise, they’ll suffocate.

4. If you love them, set them free.

Sometimes, we just have to accept the fact they want to move on for whatever reason.

If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If not, it was never meant to be.

This quote applies to managing creatives but part of this quote that doesn’t apply is that they aren’t ours.

There are a few, not many, creatives that I’ve hired more than once. Many that have left, they’ve kept in touch with me-and I give them credit for keeping in touch-for many years, even after more than a decade. They’ve become my brothers and sisters, many younger, some similar age or older.

What’s ours to keep isn’t their employment. It’s the relationships. And it’s up to us, not them, to keep them.

A year after I left R/GA and joined AKQA (and before the aforementioned gentlemen’s agreement was in place), Bob called me and asked if I would be interested in returning. I said I wasn’t quite ready. Another year after that, he asked me if I would be available for lunch. Of course, I said. And just last year, he asked me if I could contribute to a side project he was working on. It had been 17 years since I left R/GA in 2005.

It’s nice to know that one of your old bosses still thinks of you almost two decades later.

The true character of a boss shows when one quits.

Thanks for reading.

Originally published at https://reiinamoto.substack.com.

When creatives quit was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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