The Utah Jazz’s Chris George on the power of opportunity and importance of operations
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
What is your role as a creative director for the Utah Jazz?
As a creative director my role is to help shape the messaging, story, and idea for the brand. I take video, print, or whatever it may be, and help make it the best that it can be to tell the story of the Utah Jazz.
Our goal with creative is to tell a story that inspires a new fan or one that has been with us for 20 years. Even if someone doesn’t care much about basketball, the goal is to tell a story that resonates and intrigues them.
I, along with our very talented team, help shape that story and how it’s told across our channels. Being in sports is unique because at times we’re focused on engaging a fan audience, but at other times we’re focused on the players as our audience — both the guys on our team and on the opposing team. It’s constantly shifting. Telling both the story of this team and the story of Utah is tough, but it's a fun challenge.
You grew your creative team more than double over the past 2 years — why?
Covid had a lot to do with our growth. I started in January of 2020, when we had roughly 18 people on the team, between designers, videographers, editors, a couple of writers, and our social team. It was shocking, the amount of work and content the team was putting out relative to headcount.
That level of output relative to headcount inevitably led to some burnout and turnover. Coming from an agency where we typically would do probably 10 projects a year for 10 different clients, the Jazz team was doing something like 40 projects per month. Some of those projects were smaller, just social post type work, but that’s besides the point.
When you're trying to make an impact and create something memorable, you need time and space. You can’t do that if you’re constantly running and gunning. The process was very news based and reactive, so it was difficult to make space for those bigger swings.
My boss at the time came from Nike, and me coming from the agency background, we wanted to turn the ship around — to be proactive rather than reactive, to tell a story. There weren’t any project managers when I got here, so we brought in some talented folks to do that. That role is so necessary to help with the creative process. Leadership was behind us on these changes, which was great, and that is why we were able to grow the team to where it is now.
Today, including marketing and creative both, we’re about 50 people. In the last 6 months, we brought both teams together, under one hat, and communication has just been way more effective and efficient.
What's the hardest part of actually shipping good creative?
When you’re putting out large volumes of work at a rapid pace, there’s obviously so many moving parts. There’s three main things I think you really need to get right, but are always a challenge.
Number one is to get everyone on the same page at the beginning, be it a large or small project. There can be so many moving pieces within our own team, and especially across the entire organization, so just making sure that you brief things in properly is huge. Get people in the room early and make sure we’re all clear on where we’re headed before the ball gets rolling too quickly.
Number two is to maintain discipline around that schedule and communicate about it clearly and frequently with all the different entities involved.
The third thing is getting everybody to weigh in once a project is in motion and it’s time for feedback. We use Asana to maintain some rigor around that within our marketing department. Of course, inevitably you miss certain people that were supposed to be CC’d on an email, or you forgot to tag someone in the Slack thread. There are so many places to communicate, inevitably something falls through the cracks. Just making sure everyone sees the vision from the beginning all the way to the end tends to be the main challenge to shipping good creative.
What does it take to grow and scale a truly effective team?
“Effective” is subjective, but I know what works for me. As a creative director, you want to have great project managers, producers, or ops people to keep you organized. That’s paramount. When you’re trying to hire for those roles, people might give pushback and say, “do you really need somebody to hold your hand?” The answer is yes! We’re doing so many things at once and I need to be able to compartmentalize.
A creative operations person allows you to compartmentalize and ultimately focus on putting out the best quality work. They speak for the creative when a creative isn’t in the room. They know the timelines, they know what will work, they know what won’t. One of the first things I did when I joined the Jazz was to help implement an ops function.
Creative ops ensures organization, represents the creative team to the other departments, and can function as your right hand, enabling you to focus on the quality and story of the brand.
What are the three things you can’t do your job without?
Creative ops is definitely number one — people and processes in place to keep everything in order.
The second thing is just talented people who are passionate about what they do. My videographers, directors, and content creators are super talented. You can find people who phone in any job — I look for people who go above and beyond, who are invested in the work we’re doing and really care about it coming out incredible. That’s a hard thing to find. A portfolio doesn’t really show you that, and even if someone starts out strong, that passion can fade over time. It’s part of your job as a creative director to stoke that fire and reward that passion in your team in hopes that it never fades out
The third thing is opportunity. Opportunity for growth, opportunity to prove yourself, and opportunity to fail. You need to be able to feel comfortable enough to just try things, even if you fail. Creativity gets killed when you feel overanxious, pressured, and under the microscope. The passion falls away.
When you give someone the trust and flexibility — the opportunity — to experiment, they thrive. It breeds loyalty, it lowers turnover. When I worked at an agency in the past, 80% of what we did was essentially keep-the-lights-on work, but then the other 20% of what we did was the fun work where we were experimenting, pushing the envelope. I call that the sugar. We all need the opportunity to taste the sugar.
I try to operate similarly here at the Jazz. There’s so much work we just need to do, but I try to keep 20% of our time for that sugar work — making sure everyone on the team has an opportunity to flex their creativity and push the envelope both personally and for the brand. That’s how you encourage growth.
What's a piece of advice someone gave you that has shaped your career?
Someone once told me, don't chase the money, chase the opportunity.
That helped me a lot. I was offered a full-time job right out of school and I ended up taking an internship instead at a place that better fit my ambitions. It didn’t lead to a job at that agency, but I had the opportunity to work on projects I was passionate about.
Money is a necessity, obviously. I’m grateful I had the security and opportunity to take a low paying internship instead of a full-time job. I understand that isn’t always possible for everyone. But for me, I feel that choosing that internship back then paid off in the long run, and led me where I am today.
The point is, passion can take you far. One job might pay you more today than another, but if you’re not passionate about it, you might not thrive and grow. Chase the opportunities and the money will follow as a result.