Burrell Communications’ Quint Xavier Roper-Sirvent on building winning teams with diverse talent
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 and how did you become one?
I accidentally fell into it, honestly. I'm a creative director by way of writing, as opposed to visual design.I just climbed the ranks as a writer, ultimately becoming a manager of other writers, and that’s the point when I grew into creative directing. I do also have a background in visual work; a true creative director should be able to evaluate both copy and design.
The reason I have a background in both textual and visual work is because early in my career, working in television, there wasn’t that separation of church and state. The writers had to handle the visual creative as well, which was tough — you’re working to produce two things and get two things approved.
Now I work in advertising, and in the agency setting, writers work on writing and designers work on design, which is so much more effective. Writers and designers work together as partners, challenging each other while bringing each other’s concepts to life. As a creative director, I’m usually paired with an art director, and they’re focused on the minute details of the artwork — I can just give my two cents while focusing on my own work.
How do you approach assembling a good team, whether just for a project or when hiring?
I'm still trying to figure out how to set up teams. There’s no cut-and-dry approach, because people are different. I know from experience that the best way to set up a team is to focus on balancing individual strengths. Look at what you’ve got in a group, in terms of strengths, and figure out where the gaps are. Then you hire to fill that weakness. I like operating that way because it sets people up to be successful in the lane they’re strong in and not be spread too thin or feel threatened. It’s about creating a healthy ecosystem.
I usually come into teams as a fixer. I usually come into workspaces that aren't working at full capacity, take on the roles that need to be filled, and then gradually hire to fill them with dedicated team members.
What makes any team successful is making sure there’s a culture of open communication — that there’s a safe space. You can't really ask people to not bring their culture to work. Especially creative people, because they’re creating out of their life experience, it just doesn't work.
In my meetings at Burrell, we do have that five to ten minute digression where we're talking about, how was your weekend? What did you do? Believe it or not, those stories we're sharing are going to get put into ideas for clients. Our clients are looking to sell products to Black and Latino Americans — they need that touch of reality. That’s how you produce relatable creative.
Why is it so impactful to have a strong mix of cultures on a team — why does that make a team more effective?
I'm a military brat, both of my parents were in the military, so I was raised to think very strategically. Look: any company I’ve ever been at, there’s always other companies doing basically what we do. No company is 100% original. So the way you win, the way to get an edge on the competition, is to have a stronger problem-solving ability at the team level.
In my experience, the best way to come up with truly original, effective solutions is when you have people with different experiences and different backgrounds on one team; people who hate X, but love Y, working with people who love X, but hate Y.
When everyone on your team is the same, you get into these brainstorm meetings and everything comes out looking the same, every time. The people at the top start complaining, “Why does this all look the same? We hired diverse talent!” You can hire diverse talent, but it so often happens that the diverse talent is not truly allowed to speak up in the creative meetings — it's not a safe space for them. So what do you get? More of the same.
Don’t just hire diverse talent — make sure they get a voice. Let black and brown people, people with disabilities, and women have a voice in your organization, in your meetings. Especially women — I've been in meetings where women have had hands put in front of their faces to get them to stop talking and nobody did anything about it. I've been in horrible, toxic work environments. The thing is, it doesn't work! A toxic work environment costs a company real money and stops talent from producing great creative work.
Corporate America is full of older white men who don’t feel comfortable with aging out of their industries or who really want to maintain that power. But it's changing. If you don't understand multiculturalism or don't even have an interest in it, your days are numbered. That’s just the reality.
What’s the best advice you’ve received regarding your career, and what advice would you give to people coming up in this career?
An improv teacher, Susan Messing — a Chicago improv legend, look her up — once told me that if you find something you hate doing, do it more. If you’re an artist and you hate coloring, then practice coloring until you’ve mastered it. The point is, don’t let your emotions control you; control your emotions.
Something I learned from Martha Stewart: If there's something you want done in an exact, specific way,, always go out of your way to do it yourself. You'll never be unhappy if you do it, but you might be unhappy if you don’t.
Advice I would give someone just starting their career? Don’t be a bootlicker. I never did, you don't have to do it. Have some self-respect, don’t stoop to get ahead.
I don't believe in dress codes. If someone is trying to enforce a dress code and it's not a uniform — some jobs require uniforms, and that’s fine — leave. There's never a reason besides that they're trying to control you.
If you're a person of color, you should decide. If you want to bring your culture into the work environment. You should never have to, but you should always have the option. If you don't want to code switch, you shouldn't have to code switch. In your 20s, sure, you have to work your way up, and code switching might be something you have to do. But if you're still doing that in your 30s, something's wrong.
Lastly, if you're a person of color, or a woman, you're probably underpaid. As you start thinking about next moves, whatever stage you’re at, you should be having open conversations about money with your friends and peers.