The art of appraising creatives

How do you rate and quantify how good a creative's performance is so they can learn, develop and progress in their career? It's not suitable to apply the same criteria to a creative as you would an accountant, but unfortunately this is often the case within the industry.

When appraisals go wrong, creatives can stay in the same position for years on end and never seem to be paid exactly what they're worth. This has a lot to do with how they are appraised as well as an inability on behalf of the creative to effectively explain their thinking processes.

Small or medium-sized agencies usually farm out human resource tasks to an offsite HR department. This is where things can go wrong; this type of company will produce HR appraisal forms for a diverse range of sectors such as blue chip financial institutions and recruitment, but it's unlikely they will understand the very specialised needs of a creative.

These out-of-the-box solutions may seem to be saving time, but they don't work. Onerous statements such as "Give examples of how you exceeded the requirements of a creative brief" are hard to quantify. If the creative brief was locked down at an early stage by the client, it would be hard for a creative to do anything but to focus instead on delivering their work on time and to a high quality.

Similarly, asking creatives to show "sound design skills" precludes design experimentation and producing something inspirational and innovative. It's important to work within a brief, but to rate a creative on criteria that are so obviously irrelevant to them hurts their career path and the perceived impression of whether they're a good creative or not.

Asking an artist to rate their software skills from one to 10 is no indication of how creative they are. Knowing what every panel, button and drop-down menu does in Photoshop doesn't make for a great artist or designer. It's how you use that bit of kit as an extension of yourself and your creativity that will help achieve greatness in your work.

Therefore it's up to creative directors to come up with criteria for their own teams and to effectively create tailored appraisals that appreciate and are sensitive to their individual needs.

Appraisal meetings shouldn't be confrontational. If a creative director has had regular one-to-ones with team members there should be no surprises in the meeting itself. If there has been a problem with a campaign or something went horrifically wrong along the way, then this will already have been dealt with - not harboured for six months and then discussed at the meeting. It shouldn't be an excuse for dishing the dirt either, or (as in one all-too-real case we've heard about) asking, "would you carry on working here if you won the lottery?"

On the other side, creatives themselves need to be more expressive about what they do and how they did it. If they did something wonderful, credit should be taken. If something went totally wrong, or they decided to reinvent the brief on a whim, then the thinking behind this needs to be explained.

The creative appraisal should be tailored to the individual and be less about uniform criteria. It needs to be a two-way discussion, with an understanding on behalf of the creative director of the needs and strengths of the individual in front of them, and how they essentially tick. The creatives themselves need to be aware of how their talents fit within a team, and should not be fearful of explaining how their creative process works.

Doing it right
Tried-and-tested appraisal advice from industry veterans

Costas Michalia
Creative director

Crab Creative
I'm not sure what it is like in other agencies, but in my career I always felt appraisals were a bit of a joke - something the agency did to tick a HR box. With that in mind we wanted to make them worthwhile at Crab. So we use them to listen to our staff, and as an opportunity to understand what we can do to help them - which in turn should help Crab. A creative director should understand that the designer in front of them has their own goals and career path, and they shouldn't forget what it is like to be in the hot seat. It's important for a CD to figure out if someone is not performing and why, and then try to help them and be constructive - always! Finally, if you don't like something, don't let it fester - say something. This works on both sides.

Nicholas Mir Chaikin
Creative director

We don't do anything like appraisals - maybe because we're too small, and also because I think we function, for better or worse, somewhat like a family. I don't really take to those sorts of formalities very well. I think if you work here you are a good designer. We think ahead, so we'll say, "Ah, Virginia will be perfect for this job," or, "This kind of brief requires the skills of Liz." That's how we roll over at Spill!

Nicolas Roope
Creative director

Poke London
Appraisals for creative people are indeed difficult. I steer clear of rating and prefer things to stay loose and anecdotal. Good creative people are complex animals with complex tasks to solve, so it's cruel and unfair to compartmentalise their tasks in order to be judgeable. That said, there are clear screw-ups and flake-outs that stand as clear indicators of failure - and on the flipside, very clear signs of genius and brilliance that can be recognised. Creative people need to be quite autonomous, self-guiding and self-filtering, so I prefer to try and heap the responsibility on them to self-govern. Performance rating can undermine this if it's implemented in the wrong way. It's a close team here, so we can treat every case individually, giving space and sensitivity that allows for each person's unique mix.

Henry Daubrez
Creative designer

I think every designer who is involved as much as they can be in a project will always give their best. You can't expect a designer to be at their best when you only dictate orders to them and treat them as a small cog in the agency engine. You need to share your point of view with them and listen to theirs - insight matters. You should have these discussions to bring creativity and to motivate a team. We're supposed to work as communication professionals and yet we often have trouble just speaking with each other! Everyone needs to be challenged in their ideas because it's the only way to improve. I guess a little pressure when needed is good as well.

Ben Reece
Creative director

Artwork Love
For us, a small boutique creative business, performance of designers is based on factors including: was the relationship with the client good, respectful, friendly and efficient wherever possible? Was the outcome innovative, surprising and representative of the standards of the studio? Sometimes we have difficult clients, so the evaluation then would ask, did the designer keep their cool, try to turn a difficult situation into a solution? Sometimes we have difficult jobs where the output is directed in certain directions by the client. In this case we'd evaluate if the designer didn't spend an inordinate amount of time producing work that will be unpresentable for the studio, or which is way out of budget.

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