Grey Group’s Michael de Wit on fostering a collaborative creative environment
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 be a creative director?
For me, the main thing is sharing my past experiences with the people around me who are coming up in their careers. I’m coaching them to a level where they could eventually replace me — it’s my responsibility to prep, mold, and shape my team. I’m here to make sure they don’t have to go through mistakes I made when I was younger, mishaps I went through, mismanagement I had to endure.
I’ve been a product designer as well as a creative director in advertising, which has given me a fairly variable point of view on how to approach creativity. There are many ways to storytell.
As a creative, I think it’s safe to say you’re not necessarily that powerful. You’re generally given a brief and you have to deliver on it; you’re at the whim of whoever has hired you for your services. But you can be as powerful as your team is strong — which is why mentorship is so important! Better teams come up with better ideas and tend to be better at actually getting those ideas approved and made.
What do you look for when you’re building out a team?
Personality is number one. If I sense that someone has the right personality, it usually follows that they have the right approach, the right intention, and the right passion to produce great creative. Of course, you do need to have the right skillset — to be able to do the job, literally — but that’s easier to teach than passion.
I was hiring earlier this year, and I must’ve done 30 interviews and looked at 50 books in 3 months. There were plenty of times where the book was amazing, but then I did the interview and the attitude wasn’t right — egotistical, my-way-or-the-highway. I’m not always sure if I can trust someone with that attitude to have enough empathy to produce the best work for a given project.
I’ve been on the client side before and now I’m on the agency side. When I look back, in hindsight, certain projects were successful largely because of the team dynamic. I always tell my creatives, ‘listen, we’re gonna hang out more with each other than with our own families. We have to make this work. We have to get along, even when we disagree.
Creative is a business, but even still, there’s always that human element. A strong personality, empathy — you need these things to get along with a team and understand the work.
How do you, as a leader, foster a collaborative environment and build that empathy within a team?
Try to have less serious and formal conversations with each other. I always put one-on-ones or little hangout sessions on the calendar at least once a week. I’m human, you’re human, let’s not put on airs — want to talk about some party you went to last Friday? Great, I’ll tell you about the party I went to. Be friendly, but appropriate.
It’s just about building personal connections with everyone on your team and encouraging them to build those connections amongst each other. Put your guard down, help them put their guard down. I don’t want people to feel they’re working within a ranked system. Yes, I’ve had 30 people working under me, I’ve had more, I’ve had less, but no matter the size of the team, I find a way to make everyone feel comfortable. I need my people to know that no matter if I’m their boss, if I have ‘director’ in my title, I’ll be the first one to roll up my sleeves. If I need to Photoshop something, I’m gonna do it. Lead by example. Help your people out when they need help.
I make sure the people on my team don’t feel like everything falls on them, weighs on them. If they don’t feel okay on a given day, they shouldn’t be afraid to tell me. If they’re stuck on something, I don’t want them to stew, I want them to tell me and I’ll figure out a way to handle it. I’m not here to dictate to you, I’m here to help you. We’re all here to help each other; nothing great happens from a single person.
So many great ideas end up on the cutting room floor — how do you make sure the ones you really believe in get made?
It's tough. I don't believe there's a method to the madness, to be honest. It’s also different for each brand or client. For example, most brands are looking for work that they recognize as very culturally relevant. But that’s not as clear as it seems, right? It’s on you as the creative to figure out what culturally relevant means to them, and to frame the ideas you believe in for that context.
Right now, I work on a few different accounts, including Formula 1, the Super Bowl, and Coca Cola — three huge but completely different accounts and cultures. It’s on me to stay informed on what’s relevant in all the cultural niches that have bearing on what I’m working on — but if I’m just focused on that, the work isn’t going to be as good as it should be. Maybe it gets approved, but you’re underachieving — your goal needs to be beyond just getting the client to approve it, you have to push for something better.
You have to sprinkle a bit of progression, a level of discomfort, into the ‘culturally relevant’ ideas you know the client is going to easily accept. It’s about finding the balance between clear cultural relevancy and risk. I don’t want to claim that this is ‘the formula’ to success, though. Every day is different.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
The team is number one. Anywhere I’ve ever worked, I would’ve been nothing without the team around me. One thing I want to make clear — it’s our team, it’s not my team. I personally cringe when people talk about ‘my’ designer or ‘my’ team in a certain tone, because you don’t own these people! It’s so important to me to respect every member of the team as individuals, because they’re unique. The designers, the project managers, the assistant, the recruiter — together, we’re one team. I can only do my job because it’s part of a whole, you know? I can’t do all this stuff alone, I’m only one piece of the puzzle.
Time to myself is really important. I’m so busy with my job, I can’t sustain that without taking time for myself. That might be reading a book, going to the skate park, going dirt bike riding. That’s how I find balance, that’s how I keep looking forward. I’ve had some health scares in the past where I’ve ended up in the hospital, in terrible condition, purely because I’d been overworking. Knowing how to take time to yourself is incredibly, seriously, important. It’s also a bit of a forgotten art! I see people who feel like it’s unnecessary, or too indulgent, and it disappoints me.
The third thing is music. It gives me energy, gives me motivation, gives me inspiration, all of the above. It helps me write. I grew up with 90s hip hop and punk rock, but I can easily switch to Taylor Swift and be just as happy. A Tribe Called Quest, Slayer, Disclosure, Gil Scott Heron, Lana Del Rey…all of it. Music gives me a type of energy that no drug, no cup of coffee, could. It’s this amazing art form that’s so accessible.
What's a piece of advice that somebody gave you years ago that really stuck with you and has guided your career?
I’ll be up front, I had a really rough upbringing. I moved out when I was 15 and moved to America on my own when I was 21. I never really had too many people or peers that were able to guide me. But somebody told me ‘never give up,’ and it’s always stuck with me. It’s as simple as it gets, but that’s the power.
It taught me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. You can put yourself in an uncomfortable position and figure out how to be comfortable. You’ll figure it out as long as you trust yourself and trust the process. It’s about embracing the unexpected. Somebody once told me, totally unrelated to my job, that expectation is a psychological killer. It blew my mind! We’re expected to make such-and-such amount of money, have kids, all these expectations in life. If that’s all you focus on, you’re probably not going to get it — you’re going to destroy yourself. These things come to you if you focus on what’s happening in the present.
Someone sent me this Bill Burr quote, which I’ll paraphrase: “People are too worried about the things that haven’t happened yet.” Again, expectation will kill you! Don’t worry about getting that promotion or not getting that promotion, because that hasn’t happened yet. Strive for doing great work today and not getting awards, since great work organically will get rewarded.
One reason I still do BMX and skateboarding is because that’s the only time in my life when I don’t have my phone on me and have to stay hyper-focused on what I’m doing. If I’m not focused, I’m going to get hurt. I broke my neck, I broke my shoulder twice, my lower back, my ankles…all these times, it was because my mind was somewhere else. Just focus on what’s in front of you.