Feeding creativity

When economist Richard Florida claimed in 2002's Rise of the Creative Class that 'creativity has become the driving force of economic growth,' it was a breakthrough concept. And in the six years since he wrote the book, the idea has taken root throughout traditional creative industries.
September 1, 2008

When economist Richard Florida claimed in 2002′s Rise of the Creative Class that ‘creativity has become the driving force of economic growth,’ it was a breakthrough concept. And in the six years since he wrote the book, the idea has taken root throughout traditional creative industries.

In the UK alone, creative industries currently employ close to 550,000 people across a variety of sectors – from advertising and architecture, to design and film. According to the country’s Creative and Cultural Skills council, 200,000 more creative jobs will be generated by 2014. And in the face of the growing demand for talent, it’s becoming increasingly important to know how to suss out inventive new thinkers, and at the same time, keep the key creatives you do have content.

Members of the creative class seek out business cultures that welcome those who deviate from the norm. They want to live in diverse, tolerant, interesting and lively cities, where they are free to express themselves personally and professionally. Stock options and big paychecks are also not as high on their priority list as flexibility and a stimulating environment. In fact, a September 2007 Ipsos Reid poll found that 21% of US employees said they would change jobs, even if it meant a lower salary, to be allowed more creative freedom at work. A further 29% indicated they would move to a different city if it meant being part of a more creative community.

The question is how do you create such an environment in the children’s entertainment industry – which is under so much pressure that it has to evolve faster than kids outgrow their shoes?

The importance of employer branding

‘At the recruitment stage, it’s good to think through what kind of organization you want to be and what kind of people you need to make it happen,’ says Gillian Russo-Gill, founder of Cohesion HR, a UK-based consulting firm that specializes in helping staff creative-driven businesses in sectors such as digital media and communications. ‘You have to develop the culture of the organization and be quite clear about your strategy and values from the outset.’

But the sobering reality for employers is that the creative class is not necessarily a loyal group, and a solid corporate culture may not be enough to keep them interested and en pointe. The key to engagement, however, may lie in employer branding – a concept that is quickly gaining interest and credibility outside of the traditional HR circles that spawned it. An employer brand should be an organization’s values, systems, policies and behaviors towards the objectives of attracting, motivating and retaining current and potential employees. More simply put, whatever the image projected by the employer brand, it must engage the hearts and minds of employees and generate a vision that answers the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ And more importantly, the image must match the employee experience.

Employer branding and its role in defining corporate culture is also quickly gaining credence with the creative class (a.k.a. the C-suite). As part of its process to determine the winners of the 2007 Top-10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures, Canadian research firm Waterstone Human Capital conducted 185 one-to-one interviews with senior execs. The good news? A full 93% saw the correlation between corporate culture and corporate performance – a far cry from the 14% who did in 2005.

This development is heartening, since the C-suite can enhance or hinder culture development. The secret is to keep your people ‘informed, involved and invigorated,’ says Studio B’s Blair Peters, who has just welcomed Anne Denman as head of HR and recruiting to the Vancouver-based prodco he runs with partner Chris Bartleman. ‘We’ve made it a point not to have Studio B be the Chris and Blair show after 20 years, so we’ve been introducing more of our senior staff to the industry. They, in turn, can communicate more effectively and directly with their crews, which is key to keeping good people.’

Instilling ownership

Also key, particularly for creative studios, is to find ways to make employees feel like part of the process and create a sense of ownership. Many studios now run internal shorts programs that are used as incubators for series development. Corus Entertainment’s Nelvana and Studio B have such initiatives, but Studio B has taken it a step further with the BHive, which launched in 2006.

‘What’s different about the BHive is that we don’t work on shorts and then think about series development afterward. Instead, we hold seminars on what the networks are looking for, what goes into a strong pitch, and trends in the market,’ says Jillianne Reinseth, Studio B’s director of development. ‘A lot of artists don’t get exposed to the writing and pitching end of the business, so we encourage them to think from a broadcaster’s perspective.’

Shows that are creating buzz beyond the BHive include Kid vs. Kat, a new series chronicling the misadventures of Coop and his nemesis – his spoiled little sister’s adopted stray feline, Kat. The show, slated for a winter 2009 launch, has been presold into 100 territories, and creator Rob Boutilier remains involved with his brainchild as director. Studio B will have a new slate of BHive development projects to shop around MIPCOM in October, including preschool series Caveboy, created by staffer Sam To.

For its part, Nelvana also casts its creative net outside the studio walls. ‘We host open-house events and invite industry professionals from several different companies,’ says Luis Lopez, director of studio operations. ‘We showcase innovative work and share ideas and concepts. This promotes friendly competition, provides a healthy professional environment, and strengthens our relationships with potential partners.’

Within the studio, Nelvana focuses on professional development and rewarding creative work. ‘Our state-of-the-art training facility is a hub of creativity where we empower our staff to innovate,’ says Lopez. ‘This is a place where people are able to try new things, develop new ideas, and associate with fellow staff members from other Corus divisions and companies they may not normally deal with.’

Lopez says that training, managing and retaining top talent is imperative to Corus’s success. The 3,000-employee company credits its Corus U program with playing a key role in achieving these goals. This internal education facility offered 3,500 technical, strategic and personal growth training hours in 2007. Courses available include honing negotiation and presentation skills and developing creative thinking.

Additionally, Corus ushered in the Creative Spark Awards in 2006 as a way to recognize creativity internally and provide two recipients each with a US$3,500 bursary to study their craft and expand their creative horizons. Last year, Treehouse and Discovery Kids director of content Jamie Piekarz and Nelvana Enterprises art director Mark Picard got the nod. And the long-running Innovation Fund, open to all Corus employees, provides up to $250,000 every year to fund new ideas. In 2007, the company greenlit the Voice Bank, a concept hatched at Corus’s Calgary radio arm. The bank provides a one-stop digital catalogue of all voice talent that can be used to source the best on-air talent across the country for local creative and ad-driven projects – a first for the industry.

Moving beyond tradition

Professional development needs aside, creatives crave rewards and recognition that go far beyond the traditional benefits and compensation packages. Fun, for example, is something akin to a corporate value at Studio B. ‘This is a creative place and the energy is infectious,’ says Denman. ‘We all spend the majority of our waking hours here, so it has to be fun and fulfilling.’ To beat the stresses of the day, the company has a gym for its 150 full-time employees and brings in an on-site massage service once a week. Relative to employee well-being, the costs of these services are small, says Denman. And the environment helps attract new talent and retain good employees. Currently, Studio B has staff members that have been with the company since it started up 20 years ago, and Denman notes that the length of employee tenure has increased as the studio has moved from service work into original production. Career growth is also encouraged through classes in production management and new software implementation, along with pitching clinics.

But beyond the perks, what it all comes down to is honest, open communication, respect and empowerment. ‘If you give people a challenge, they can surprise you,’ notes Studio B’s Reinseth. ‘If you don’t give them a chance to surprise you, they never will.’

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