AWeber’s Mike Smith On How To Manage Your Team, Your Time, And Your Personal Creative Passions

Mike Smith is an-house creative with a passion for high-quality design and a knack for branding. He first realized his love for graphic art in middle school and has been nurturing it ever since. We caught up with the art director at email marketing company AWeber late last year to talk about growing his career in-house, managing a team and his life as a creative multi-tasker.

Can you tell us a little about your team? What sort of roles are involved and what are you responsible for?

When I started, there were three team members — I’m part of the first of several people who have built the department.  We have about eight people in the creative team, split between software product designers and brand marketing designers. We have a creative director who oversees seven to eight people. I oversee the brand side, and we have a senior web designer who oversees the product side. We also have an email marketing manager. We have a critique or as we call it, crit, twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays with the whole team. Crit is around 45 minutes to share specific feedback and get help with your own work. Sometimes, it’s busy and sometimes, it’s slower. It’s a time for quality control. If you have creative issues, you can get feedback from the team. Generally, it’s very informal. It’s five minutes of banter, and then people start showing their work. The content team is also present to speak to their contributions and make things more structured. It’s a valuable ceremony that helps us through the ebb and flow of the creative process.

How do you approach the responsibility of mentoring and overseeing the work of junior designers? How do you strike a balance between creating yourself and managing the creative output of others?

I like to give my staff more freedom to explore, but I have found that sometimes that is frustrating for them, too. I have to strike a balance between being directive and being supportive. There are times where someone is working on something and is just not getting there, and I want to just do it myself, but I have to guide them. The challenge for me is to design really cool things that others can build upon.

How much time are you spending in meetings vs. your own work on a daily or weekly basis?

I’d say I spend roughly 10-20% of my day on my design work, with some additional time doing photography for the company as well. Depending on the week, half the day is spent in meetings, plus a few hours of time helping others on the team, answering questions and giving feedback. Our team is making strides in developing the content strategy AND design together, vs. one team completing their portion and then handing off to the other. Certain projects have been really successful when the content and design team work together.

Why is improving collaboration between creative and marketing at AWeber one of your priorities?

We are integrated with many different other departments within AWeber. We work through requests, which is helpful when everyone asks the right questions. Sometimes, if the other team doesn’t have all the right information when they are doing content, there can be issues. The communication needs to be started ahead of projects. There is a difference between departments cooperating and collaborating. There are improvements to be made if you’re only cooperating.

What strategies or activities have worked for you?

Every other Monday mornings at 9:30 we do “Abstract Mornings.” We play games, do improv exercises, or tell stories, etc. It breaks down barriers and we get to know each other on a different level while expanding our minds creatively. I can’t quantify the results, but it raises our level of energy and allows us to think abstractly about solutions to our work.

As a creative who balances a lot of interests (spoon carving, blogging, writing a children’s book), how do you manage all of your non-work creative pursuits and allocate time to them?

They don’t all happen concurrently! It’s been a struggle to keep up with writing my blog. I have experimented with cadences like doing two blog posts a week, but it was too much and it turned into one post per week. I work on spoon carving in spurts. My family goes to bed way earlier than I do. Nine to midnight is my second wind. It’s when I read, carve, write, and my time to be genuinely creative.

How important is it for creatives to have outlets for their inspiration outside of their 9-5 jobs?

I think it is very important. We actually look for it when we hire people on our team. We want someone passionate about other things in their life, whether they freelance, knit, or something else. We know they can get away from work and recharge.