How to have REAL creative control in the workplace

How to have REAL creative control

The toughest part of having a “creative job” is that it’s oftentimes not very creative at all. When I was a graphic designer, I spent maybe 10-20% of my time doing the creative part (coming up with ideas), and 80-90% of my time making endless rounds of revisions or in meetings. It was super frustrating to realize that I actually had very little creative control. I often felt more like a “keyboard operator” than a creative professional. It’s a feeling that I’m sure any creative can identify with, and it fucking sucks.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a world in which you can have creative control over your work.

The main thing you need to realize is that we all live by the golden rule: the one with the gold makes the rules. Or to put a finer point on it, the person with ultimate creative control is the one who’s paying for it. You might be the one with the art school degree, but the one with the checkbook has final say on any creative, because they’re the one whose ass is on the line. With this in mind, there are essentially two ways you can use it to your advantage as a creative (both of which come down to a concept you’ll hear me say a lot, “put yourself close to revenue”).

1. Align yourself with the person who controls the money

Since we know the person with the checkbook is the one with creative control, the smart move is to build a relationship with them. Over time you’ll earn their trust as an ally, and they’ll let you do what you want creatively.

If you’re in an agency environment, you want to align yourself with the account managers. Traditionally there’s a contentious relationship between account people and creatives, where the account people bring in work and the creatives complain about the timing, direction, etc. If you are the designer who bucks this trend, you’ll quickly become the account manager’s best friend. Have a can-do attitude, let the account manager know that you’ve got his/her back, and you’ll quickly have their trust and greater creative freedom. If you’re an in-house designer in a corporate environment, the same applies except that the person you want to make friends with is usually a marketing person.

The key here is that sales and marketing people generate revenue, whereas from the perspective of an accountant, designers/creatives are an expense. But by positioning yourself as a valuable ally to those people— the go-to person who helps them execute against their business goals— you can basically move yourself from the “expense” column to the “revenue generator” column. And if you recall the golden rule from above, people who generate revenue have a lot more creative control.

2. If you can’t beat em, join em

If you want even more creative control, instead of simply aligning yourself with sales and marketing people, you can BECOME a sales or marketing person (like that really bad Earth Crisis song where the chorus is “I turned myself into a monster to fight against the monsters of the world”).

This is the path I took. After spending several years as a designer and video editor/director, I realized that if I REALLY wanted the power to do put my ideas into action, I needed to join the dark side and went to business school. After several long, hard years of calculus, statistics, finance, and accounting, I came out of it with not only a shiny degree in Marketing & Management, but a newfound appreciation for business as a creative discipline in its own right (read more about that idea here).

The thing to keep in mind here is that you will no longer be the one actually doing the work— you’ll be working with and giving direction to designers/editors/etc who will be the ones with their hands in the clay. I’ll admit that sometimes I do miss getting my hands dirty and bringing an idea to life, but to me it’s worth it to have more control over the big picture. And hey, if I ever feel the need to scratch that itch, I can also do a personal project in my free time, right?


If you find yourself on the verge of sticking your head in the oven over a lack of creative control in your supposedly creative job, don’t give up— you can win the fight! Just remember the golden rule, find a way to put yourself close to revenue, and the creative control will follow.

Finn McKenty's picture

About Finn McKenty

I am a survivor of the 90s hardcore and graffiti scenes and spent my youth going to basement shows, making zines, and writing my name on other people’s stuff. Somewhere along the way I channeled my passion for DIY culture into a passion for business and entrepreneurship, and my secret mission is to build an army of hardcore-kids-turned-CEOs that will take over the business world.

I am currently the Executive Producer of Music & Audio at CreativeLive. I used to do marketing for Abercrombie & Fitch, was Creative Director of Flo Multizine and did product development for clients like Procter & Gamble, Whirlpool and Motorola. I also run The Punk Rock MBA and have written for a bunch of media outlets like MetalSucks, Substream, Decibel, Terrorizer, and more.

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