Brrrn’s J. W. Crump on solving creative ops challenges to set a creative team up for success
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 does it mean to hold a creative operations role — what does the work entail?
It’s a good question — not everyone has heard of the role, but everyone has heard of a director of operations, which conjures images of HR and payroll work. And I have actually done that at a post-production studio in the past — I used to joke that I had the least creative role in a very creative company.
I’m the Director of Creative Operations at Brrrn. If you're not familiar with Brrrn, it's a fitness brand that used to have a boutique fitness studio as well. During the pandemic we shifted to a DTC model, focused on our slide board as well as our on demand workout platform. My role covers anything to do with video, social media, marketing, newsletters, or customer outreach. Anything that has a creative component, I’m in charge of from a line producer, or line item operations standpoint. I’m also heavily influencing the actual creative. What should this look like? How are we reaching this audience?
Creative operations, in my day-to-day, means starting the conversation about what the creative needs to be, then following through. I’m asking — and answering — how do we see this project to its conclusion? What are the operational steps? The way I’m running the creative ops role is more specific to startups or smaller companies. It combines what may be two or more roles in bigger companies.
What I mean is that normally a larger company might have a creative director who works closely with a creative operations person, with a clear division of labor. Together, they cover the actual creative part of a project as well as make sure that it's on time, on budget, properly staffed, and so on. Here at Brrrn, I do both.
What’s the hardest part of shipping good creative — what are the main recurring challenges?
I’ve been in roles where I was not in operations, purely on the creative side, so this question hits home. The first thing that comes to mind is when you have a creative vision, it’s clear and strong, and then someone else — a producer or whoever holds the budget — comes along and says it’s not possible. We don't have a timeline for that. We don't have the budget for that. You have to change what you're created.
As the person managing a budget, you want your creatives to be able to bring their exact vision to life. But it ultimately has to fit the parameters of what is actually possible. That vision is rarely feasible to the exact detail. Being in both roles myself, currently, it’s a constant volleyball match in my head. I have this great idea; but wait, J. W., you know that’s not possible; but maybe don’t limit yourself yet; but you should start from a place of limitations.
It’s a tricky balance, but it's taught me to be more flexible within myself. I’m constantly having to think of new solutions and clever ways to get big ideas done in a realistic budget and timeline. At the end of the day, the challenge is always just answering that question of how to make the best product while making both the creative side and the operational side happy.
How do you approach building a team and setting them up for success?
I talk about this often with colleagues, the idea of team curation. It’s both skill and luck. I have people that I've worked with that I would put on a certain team and project but not a different team and project, even though I think their work is immaculate and I admire their passion. You’re solving a puzzle of team-level chemistry. Not every ingredient needs to go in every recipe.
There’s also the question of contractors and freelancers. Sometimes there’s a certain something missing from your team curation — you need that skill or that spark an external person can bring. That always involves trial and error, if you’ve never worked with the person you’re bringing in before.
Every so often, you bring someone in, and they just don’t work out on that particular team. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be great on another team or project — you want to identify their strengths to see how you might deploy them later. Sometimes you bring someone in and they absolutely flourish and the team is buzzing and can’t wait to work with them again!
When you put a great team together, you just want to keep that team for every project. That’s not how it works — it’s a constant challenge. Things change, people move on.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
My joke answer is iced coffee. I don't even know if I like coffee at this point, but it’s a ritual, I have to do it to get my day started.
First answer is I always have to identify the communication style that works best for a team. This especially applies to remote work. I'm an email person. You send me an email, I will answer it. The last thing I do at the end of my workday is I just go through and clear my inbox. Of course, I've been on teams where everyone wants to use Whatsapp. If you send them a message on Whatsapp, they’re answering; if you send them an email, they’re answering in two days. Some people do Slack, some people are only in person, you just have to find what works.
The second thing is to set expectations as early as possible. This is advice I give to anyone I work with, whether they’re creative or operational. Lay it all out, ASAP. This is what our goal is. This is what our deadline is. This is the experience I want us to have. The first meeting I ever have with a new team or on a new project with the same team, we’re getting firmly on the same page.
Finally, the third thing is you need to reward your team with good systems. I used to wonder how best to reward a team at the end of a project, and a friend gave me some advice that’s always stuck with me: the best reward is a good work environment. Personally, I don’t need the holiday party if the working environment isn’t great. An open bar tab and some pizzas does not balance out an 80-hour work week. I can buy my own pizza! I do appreciate these things, to be clear, just not as a replacement for a healthy work environment.
Give your employees a productive, safe, and equitable working environment. Make sure everyone feels heard, seen, and respected. That’s the greatest reward a company can give you for a job well done.
What’s a piece of advice that’s shaped how you’ve approached your work and career?
Learn how to tell when you have a true gut instinct versus just some throwaway thought. Someone told me this years ago. Just because you're thinking about something does not mean that it’s a decision you need to make, that it’s an idea that you need to bring up to the group.
The best leaders and team members are people who can learn to differentiate between a professional, creative instinct and a wayward thought. It’s been important for me personally to learn, in group settings, when the train is firmly on the tracks and your thought, if you say it out loud, is going to derail a conversation.
I have let what I thought were good ideas fly by the wayside because I could see that my entire team was on to something. They were vibing with each other. They were collaborating, the train was on the tracks, it was heading into the next station. And if I said my thing — it could have been a fine idea — it would have meant everyone got derailed and we would go in another direction and waste a ton of time.
Sometimes the best thing you can do, especially managing and supervising, is to not say anything at all. We can always tell when a manager, a leader, or a boss is just saying something because they haven't said anything for a while. I've had to learn that my being silent doesn't mean I didn't contribute. Sometimes your contribution is simply letting your team do their thing.