I Stayed Out of Your Way

I Stayed Out of Your Way

Back in the ’90s, we had a very talented designer who was art-directing projects for several of our clients. At the time we were mid-way through a 13-year relationship with a national appliance brand, and much of this employee’s time was spent on the print material we were producing for the client.

Like so many agencies, back in the day, each year we would spend a week preparing entries for the local ADDY Awards in hopes of being recognized for excellence in our craft amongst our peers. This Art Director had just single-handedly completed a full-line catalog and it was a great candidate for the ADDYs. The catalog did, in fact, win an ADDY at the Saturday evening gala.

On the Monday after each ADDY Awards, I made it a habit to bring in that year’s awards and proudly display them across the receptionist desk in our lobby. This particular year had been very good for J.W.Morton & Associates and while I was taking the trophies out of a box, she approached me with a question:

“Jeff, I’m curious about why you get top billing as the Creative Director and I’m just the Art Director on a project you had absolutely nothing to do with?”

My response was immediate, “I stayed out of your way.”

I went on to explain that all too often the role of a Creative Director, at most advertising agencies, is to feel obligated to get involved in a project whether the team working on it needs their help or not. My point was that she had just been honored for her design achievement and while I was listed on the credits it was not for my involvement but rather my insight that the project didn’t need my involvement. I understand that this may not have given her any comfort in that the outward appearance the night of the ADDYs was that I was somehow involved. Someone like Michael Jordon didn’t really need much coaching, but when the Bulls won a championship, he didn’t suddenly get the title of coach.

Over the years Dave and I have interviewed a lot of people that are interested in coming to work for us. A common response to the question “Why are you interested in leaving your current position?” is “I got hired to do a job but my boss isn’t allowing me to do the job I was hired for.” They will go on to elaborate that there is too much “oversight,” too much “intervention,” and how they don’t have ownership in the things they were hired to do. The result is feeling discouraged to the point that they are now sitting in our conference room trying to figure out if we would treat them differently.

After nearly 40 years in the business one of my underpinnings is to seek out exceptional talent—hire them—and then stay out of their way and allow them to flourish.

Jeff Westrom is JWM’s Co-Founder, Co-Owner, President of Creative Services, designer of historical displays and groan-worthy puns.

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