March 9, 2018

Creative Director or Player-Coach?

With the Olympic Winter Games freshly wrapped-up and March Madness on the horizon, I’m always watching sports and drawing parallels with other forms of performance-based professional achievement, including my own. This led me to the recent thought that the best creative directors (generally the highest-level creative roles in design and advertising) are the ones who are our industry’s player-coaches. Allow me to explain.

Wikipedia defines a player-coach as someone who “is a member of a sports team who simultaneously holds both playing and coaching duties...They may make changes to the squad and also play on the team.” This means they have a deeper involvement in the daily machinations of the team and a pulse on the individual dynamics involved.

My favorite fictitious player-coach is Jackie Moon, Will Ferrell’s character from the movie “Semi-Pro.” While Jackie did a handful of things right (and an arena full of things wrong), his team stuck with him and was able to deploy their newest weapon, the Alley-Oop, to win the big game. He understood that change was needed if they were going to win, and had the trust of his team to help make those changes happen.

My favorite real-life (and unofficial) player-coach is LeBron James. While The Cavs have an official head coach, LeBron is clearly a consideration for them on and off the court. He often shows unselfish play by giving his teammates opportunities to better themselves. He also delivers clutch plays himself when he needs to and the game is on the line.

Aside from basketball, what do these two examples have in common? And how does this relate to what I and others like me do on a daily basis? Thinking, doing and measuring. The best players, like the best creative directors, aren’t just “idea people” who make suggestions without showing us how to make it better. They truly understand the challenges their squad has. They roll-up their sleeves. They dig in. The best creative directors get their hands dirty mentoring others in tools and techniques that will strengthen the players on their team and increases the likelihood of continuing to win bigger and bigger games.

Also, staying in the game keeps them relevant. As long as they’re able to contribute through both thinking and doing, why not? They say youth is wasted on the young and wisdom on the old. Player-coaches help flip the script by being a consistent, encouraging presence. It’s much easier to have confidence when you know your teammates have your back. And the burden of a victory is always lighter when you play with a deep bench.

The best clients are also engaged player-coaches. They not only provide guidance for us, but they also make themselves available for gametime decisions when quick, informed feedback is needed.

With a deep bench of confident players, bigger promises can not only be made, but also delivered. Skills grow. Business grows. Client happiness grows.

I consider myself a player-coach for my team and wish for all our clients to see each person at Fifth Letter as a member of their team as well. My personal goal is to never stop learning, not only for myself but also to bring fire back to the people whenever I can. And as our bench continues to deepen, there will always be a spot on the team for tomorrow’s LeBron to begin taking their shots.

Photo of Elliot Strunk

When Elliot isn’t coaching the team at Fifth Letter, he can be found scouting out the next business opportunity to stay in the game.
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