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Creative Ops

Sprinklr’s Jan Zlotnick on approaching a creative brief with the care of an architect

March 22, 2023 · 7 min read

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 the role of creative director mean to you?

Everything, because creating uses all your experiences, all your senses, all your dreams and nightmares. All your largeness and smallness. All your love for your team, each person you give direction to.

What is the job of a creative director, philosophically? 

Creative directors generally come from either a writing or design background, but regardless of background, their passion is creating. Making stuff. When I became a creative director, or moreso an executive creative director, I saw how easy it was, depending on the scale of the operation, to lose touch with what makes me happy. If the role becomes more about managing than directly making things, I’m not going to be creating, so how can I be happy? 

I think a creative director needs to decide how to keep that first fire, that passion for creating, oxygenated — especially when the role is to manage a department. Once you lose that passion, you lose that powerful spark your team is inspired by. I showed management the value of a small but exceptional team. Having that right size of team, for me, is how I find that balance of creating and managing.

So, at Sprinklr, my team — we call ourselves the One Brand Band — is a kind of special ops team within the larger marketing department. We've carved out a niche in brand-building, big-project work. We know how important process is, so we write and design the project briefs themselves to dig deeper into the problems and emotional mindsets of the people our work is intended to help. Reducing the secret sauce to simply helping another person is the best way, the honest way, to go about creating. I love to help my team — as a manager — but I still love creating, making stuff that gives me joy.

What is the relationship between marketing and creative, and the combined teams’ relationship with the rest of your organization?

If the CEO and COO hired the right CMO, the CMO will truly understand and respect, not just pay lip service to, the deep discipline — the art and science — of Creative. The distinction of Different over "better."

Without that simpatico of executive and marketing leadership, creative team, and org-wide depts (e.g., sales emails, events, conversations, IT implementation...), the Memorable Moment of Customer Breakthrough will be lost in the noise of just another marketing pitch.

And with it, the integrity of the brand, and the customer relationship — that determine financial value to the whole organization — is weakened, often mortally.

For us at Sprinklr, my One Brand Band (OBB) of writers — and designers led by the awesome global brand art director Marija Miljkovic — rethought and redesigned the Project Brief to understand, deeply, the Customer Problem. In THEIR words. About THEIR world, THEIR life.

How do you build a successful creative team and what does “success” mean in this context?

I'll start from the end: you know it's successful when you’re hitting your metrics and actually producing sales. That is the business we're in. It also must strengthen your brand — customers must know what we stand for, not just what we're selling. In my experience, when we get that type of feedback — that customers have a feel for who we are on a human level — we know we're doing well; if we don't get that kind of feedback, we know we're missing something.

Sometimes the missing thing can be that the marketing department or whole company is just not devoting resources to brand. It's not necessarily that the creative team or the marketing team is bad. 

How do you achieve good-to-great metrics? Essentially you need to gather a team of people who have the right DNA, people who value strategy as a creative endeavor. Not just people who are great designers and writers, but who exhibit an elevated level of strategic thinking. They are naturally empathetic, both to their teammates and to the strangers we’re creating for — our audience. That's not the easiest chemistry to find.

There’s a difference between high achievers and high performers. You can be a high achiever but perform destructively to a team. High performers are people who generate a positive, creative, and inspiring spirit in a group that achieves great things.

I once took a business course from a SEAL commander. Something I found interesting was this idea that what makes a team successful in a life or death situation is the genuine love the people on that team have for each other. You can be talented as individuals, but unless each truly cares for and respects the other, the team won't generate high performance. 

What advice would you give to people beginning their creative careers?

Whether you're a writer or designer, do and relish that work now. You’re going to get caught up in administrative work as your career progresses. Find ways to make stuff, even if it’s a side gig, even if it’s for friends and family, even if it’s personal. Keep a journal. Design a children's book, just for your own family. Pay attention to your self and your passions.

Be in touch with what other people on your team are about. I mean, from a life standpoint, have one-on-one calls that are aside from the work you're doing, get to know them. When you get on a call and you’re trying to light a fire creatively, it's going to be hard if you don't have a shared understanding of who you all are as people.

You don't really need any advice from me on how to do your work. But at any age or any point of experience, you can learn something different to make yourself happier, and often better. As a writer, for example, I find many writers aren't reading enough. They're reading their screens but they're not reading books, particularly fiction. They think, well, I'm writing marketing copy. I'll just read marketing books. Wrong! 

There's so much to learn when you read fiction because you're reading about humanity, relationships, how humans interact. Not to read fiction as a writer in marketing is a big miss. Non-fiction marketing books can teach you some things, but they’ll never be able to give you what fiction can. 

My last advice is this: there ain't nothing more important than truly understanding the project brief before you start a job. Think about every single step, every single word, and every single sentence in that brief. Take yourself seriously, take the customers seriously, and take the work seriously. Then go play and have some fun!

A good architect interviews their client before they develop a house. Where do you like to read? Where do you want to have your coffee in the morning? What kind of work do you do, what kind of family do you have, what kind of lifestyle do you live? These things will inform how the architect lets the light in, every last detail. And that process creates a trusting relationship between the homeowner and the architect. This is how seriously you can and should take creative work.

What significant changes have you seen in the creative industry over the years?

I think what's going on now with AI is similar in some ways to the early days of stock photography. What it offers is the ability to say, “oh, here's something that we don't need to be terribly original about. We don't even need to hire a photographer for the shoot. There's plenty of stuff we can repurpose here. We can do this faster.” Sure, until you stop to consider what is missed at those high speeds — real, human detail. 

AI is going to be a fact of life whether we like it or not. I'd be thinking about how, not if, you're going to use it, depending on the size of your company and the timelines you’re dealing with, and in what areas — copy, graphic design — you’re under-resourced. Take AI on a case-by-case basis. What AI is not going to do is replace the basic need for writers and designers, people who can think strategically and create those audience connections that can only come from understanding human beings as a human being.

But here's the bigger thing for me: the big “why” of doing creative work is it brings us joy. It’s gratifying to create. That joy produces incredible work, and my hope is that AI won’t replace the parts of the work that bring us joy.

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