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Creative Ops

Scotts Miracle-Gro’s Nick Bayne on the difference between in-house and agency work

January 18, 2023 · 8 min read

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

Nick Bayne is a creative director and writer with well-accomplished years of experience at world-class agencies like RG/A. He’s won a bevy of awards, from Cannes Lions to Webbys, and worked on brand accounts like Verizon, IKEA, and Kodak, to name a few. Currently working as Group Brand Creative Director at The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, he also teaches a class on “Big Ideas” at the Denver Ad School.

Below is our conversation with Nick, edited for length and clarity.

What does your work as a creative director entail?

I worked in Manhattan for about 15–20 years, working my way up from copywriter to brand creative director. Eventually, I went in-house at WeWork, which was famously a disaster — that didn’t last long. I went back onto the agency side for a moment, which I ultimately left because I was fed up with the client-agency dynamic. 

I essentially convinced myself that if I was in charge of the agency, I could change things for the better. There were bright spots, but ultimately too much emphasis on not upsetting the applecart. It was difficult to always have to overcome the restrictions of fear — rather than the typical creative challenges inherent in having a limited amount of time and money to accomplish a major goal. The latter is the essential conundrum of the creative director, honestly.

But, as these things go, I had made some acquaintances that wanted my help at Scotts Miracle-Gro, I’ve been here now for a few years. It was purely a creative brand knowledge exercise at first. Which was a lot of fun! That initial exercise blossomed my current role as Group Brand Creative Creative Director here, overseeing a whole bunch of areas and projects across the company.

The easiest way to describe it is: I'm overseeing anything that goes out as marketing. Sometimes I’m intimately involved in the work, sometimes I’m the creative director of the creative directors at agencies we’re working with. 

My day now is focused on getting the best possible thinking out of all the people and resources we have available. I run a newsroom, essentially, which is very 2013, but it's just about utilizing the brains of everybody in-house to their maximum potential. So everyone gets to come to the table and say, “Hey I have this idea. What do you guys think?” 

Then we  work together to figure out how their ideas could actually exist. Anything from an article, to an email, to a repost of something, to a TikTok, to an entire campaign. It's about enabling those who aren't traditional creatives to participate. 

That's a really important function I play, whether or not I'm actually “making something,” just being a creative voice in these conversations that are usually based on sales data, or traditional planning structures and timing. In all this, the most dangerous thing is subjective opinions masquerading as objectivity through data. I see that as the most problematic factor of in-house work, more than anything else.

What are some of the biggest differences between being a creative director in-house versus at an agency?

Generally, when you're in an agency, you have a very established role. If I'm coming to you, it’s as the idea guy. I'm not going to come and try to sell you, for example, a different planning cadence for your spring season — that’s not my role. There are some exceptions to this, but ordinarily the quid pro quo is that the client brings a problem and the agency comes up with a solution, then executes it. 

In-house, roles can get very blurry. Sometimes I’m asked to give an opinion on what is basically like a business situation, not a creative decision. Then there are times when my opinion is circumvented, because the answer that somebody wants is not what I'm going to tell them, and they know that. The defining aspect  of being in-house, is that you’re in-house! By which I just mean you don't get a clear division between church and state, like  you do at an agency.

In an agency, shepherding work is such an important skill — it’s also the most soft of soft skills. The top secret skill is literally just: don't show it to this person before that person has seen it, or you’ll screw the approval process and it’ll take twice as long to get this out the door. 

In house, you need to be cognizant of the same thing, but with the ethereal as well as the literal. As in, don't even let anybody know that you're thinking about this. Or make sure everybody knows that this is happening, so that when you put it out there, people aren’t taken by surprise. There's so much political posturing, strategizing, and gaming.

What are the hardest parts of shipping good creative work, working in-house?

What I’ve always loved about New York, and being a New Yorker, is that you're cutting through the noise, the fluff. You don’t beat around the bush, you just say “no, I really don't want to do this because of blank, blank, blank.”

When you take that away, it can become very difficult to talk about the viability of an idea, because you inevitably receive a subjective reaction. There's no such thing as a right and wrong idea when you’re pitching and talking about concepts. But if you're getting a subjective opinion, nested in a euphemistic phrase, hiding behind a business assertion…you start to deal with false truths.

At an agency, when there’s this division between church and state, my managing director or partner — who handles the business side with the client — just tells me,, “here's what they're actually nervous about.” I just get the Cliff’s Notes, which is all I need to function. In-house, you’re in the middle of the jungle with everybody else and suddenly it’s: I've got to figure out why this guy won't talk to me right now. This person is pissed but trying to be nice to me. This person's pretending that they love something when I know they really don't. 

What creative directors have always done is attempt to make sense of it all and cut through the noise. For decades, my work was to figure out everybody's motivation around the table as I'm presenting. Figure out why the guy who's actually in charge of the money is looking at his phone the whole time. Why the person with the biggest title in this room is the one who’s most engaged. 

For me, I'm here in New Jersey, and most of my colleagues are out in Ohio. I go out there every couple of weeks, but this “figuring out” is so much of what I feel like I spend my day doing, and it’s difficult when you’re not actually in the room. 

How do you know when your team setup is working really well? When your creative operations practice is solid? Is there a way to measure that? 

There's the obvious markers, like hitting deadlines. But when things are working really well, it's just when everyone is actually behind a great idea or plan. When there’s a unified sense of purpose. More often than not, this work involves lengthy plans with elements in between. You have to keep that unified excitement to sustain momentum. 

Communication is deeply important, but more isn’t necessarily better. Going back to the politics of it all, the answer is really, the less politics my team and I have to deal with, the better. And that’s just a reflection of people being on the same path — ultimately, it’s trust.

You know it’s working well when your team is agreeing, like: “Yes, absolutely. Francis' concept is the one we're still going with. We like it, we're good. What's the next step?” as opposed to “Wait, something is wrong with this.” If you keep getting caught up in arguments and questioning the concept, you’ve failed. 

The obvious difference in-house versus at an agency is your exposure to the day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out sales numbers. It really changes how you’re looking at the creative you’re putting out. Yes, there's flexible retail media and such, but it affects your strategic thinking. If you lose momentum on sales, you'll lose momentum in an intellectual way, in how you’re conducting creative.

It makes me appreciate, in hindsight, how much sugarcoating clients used to give me. I’d be blabbing on about how great an idea I had was, and they’re sitting there thinking, “Sweetheart, you have no idea how bad things are here. The fact that you guys still have a retainer…just relax.”

The way people on the account team dealt with that was always frustrating for me. Why don’t you just let me just talk to them, to the client? Now I understand, oh yeah, that's a pain. Being on the client side now, I don't want to spend my whole day talking to these people, these idea guys.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received, in terms of how you operate as a creative director? 

Easy. It’s what I tell my students: Love your babies; kill your babies; love your babies. You’ve got to be able to put your heart into it, then be able to distance yourself, because it's not personal, and then put your heart right back into it. And that is really, really hard, for very obvious reasons.

Actually living this advice was almost impossible for me to really put into use until I'd reached a certain point in my career, once my shelves had enough trophies on them that I felt I didn't need to constantly prove myself. Before that, every project was just a chance — a need — to hit a home run. That is unfortunately a big part of how many agencies work. Again, in-house has a different vibe. You can take a deep breath, let this one go. You have to pick your battles. You're always on the team; you’re basically always going to play.

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

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