As senior VP of creative and operations at Eclipse, a full-service marketing agency, Michelle Azzopardi has worked with some of the biggest studios in Hollywood.
She says just as filmmakers tell stories; she sees marketers as storytellers as well.
She talks about the role of creativity in her work, as well as some of the day-to-day of working in an agency, like powerful ways of mentoring junior employees, how to channel creative energy in the right direction, management and leadership strategies that work best in this industry, and more.
We also discuss…
- How to make sure creatives “play nice”
- What to look for in hiring a creative – and what doesn’t matter as much as you think
- Finding the balance between fighting for your ideas… and taking criticism
- Creating a supportive company culture that pays off in more ways than one
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. Today, we’re going to talk about how to engage diverse teams of creative talent to shelf their egos and work together. Here to speak with me about the topic is Michelle Azzopardi, who is the SVP creative and operations at Eclipse, a full-service integrated agency.
She’s a creative and operational executive with over 20 years of experience in entertainment marketing, Michelle’s creative passion and drive coupled with her strategic thinking and operational expertise have developed award-winning campaigns that inspire and engage audiences around the world. She works and has worked with companies like Netflix, Warner Brothers, Disney 20th Century Fox to name just a few. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Azzopardi: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Steffen: Michelle, before we dive into the main topic today, I’d love to find out a little bit more about you. How did you get started in advertising?
How Michelle Got Started as a Creative
Michelle: Well, when I was living on the East Coast, I knew I wanted to move to Los Angeles and I knew I wanted to work in entertainment. That was really where my initial focus was. I studied writing in college, you know, creative fiction writing and then some marketing writing and wanted to come out here and learn the ropes and kind of just marry my passion, which is, you know, the great storytelling and film, television, music, anything in the entertainment which is what I’ve always been passionate about.
I always call myself like a lover of content in any form. Podcasts, reading, novels, articles, movies, TV, anything. I love to engage and, you know, take in as much as possible. My first role when I moved out here was working at EMI Capitol Records in their special markets division. And, you know, I started out like, on the ground for like anybody as an assistant to the head of sales, who all had the marketing department under him.
And I was just an eager kid who kept saying, like, Oh, we could do this, or Oh, we could do that and was very, very fortunate to have a wonderful boss and mentor who was like, yeah, you might just be fresh out of college, but you’ve got some ideas. So let’s see what you can do. And, you know, from there, I just kept growing and growing into marketing and creative, leading creative teams, being a creative director, working across print, digital AV, social, you name it. And still working in entertainment today, which is my passion and my love.
Steffen: Interesting. And was there a particular point in your career where you veered off towards creative? Was there a particular reason why you ended up in that area?
Michelle: I think that the number one reason is storytelling. As, you know, I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. Even as a kid I would tell great stories, most of them fiction, most of them to try to get out of trouble. But, you know, what I looked at with creative is that creative is the opportunity to tell stories, whether it is traditional advertising where we’re trying to get people to buy a certain product and to do that, we’re crafting a story around why that product is important to them, specifically in entertainment.
My deep love of storytelling was something that I really, you know, recognized and wanted to be a part of. And I found entertainment to be such an important part of my life. I think it’s something that takes each of us, you know, to different places and helps us cope with what’s going on in our daily lives and whether it’s escapism or it is recognizing something that is a similar journey that you’re experiencing and helping you with the tools to sort of navigate your own emotion through that.
And I felt like being a part of the creative and marketing process for film and television especially, is my way of helping people find those stories that are going to help them in their lives just like they have helped me in mine. So I almost look at creative marketing as like the original influencers, if you will, you know? It’s our job to find ways to get people to see these shows, these films, these series and think, oh, that’s something that’s really engaging to me and I want to watch it or I want to partake in it too.
Steffen: That makes sense. Michelle, a second ago, we talked about how more junior creative people need more guidance. They are, compared to more senior creative people, they might struggle with situations that we’re in at the moment. So while we’re just recording this, we’re all shut in place here in California. And you had mentioned that, you know, when you’re in a room with people, you can see when obviously, a more junior person is hesitant and therefore you can kind of encourage that person. You can get that person to speak their mind, so to speak.
Next step from that is what is the number one rule for you to get creative people, creative directors to put away their egos and partner with each other. So I can imagine more junior people might not have the problem because they’re interested in soaking up as many information as possible. But if you have a couple of senior creative directors in the room, it probably sometimes can be challenging for them to play, we’re not doing that of course, play with each other and work together compared to just saying, No, this is my idea, and I want to take it forward. And no one touches it.
Steer Clear Brilliant Jerks
Michelle: Yep, it is definitely my number one rule of thumb, no brilliant jerk. You know, sometimes there are companies or people that will hire as a creative because they are brilliant but they are terrible people in the way that they manage things or they’re egotistical. And it’s only their idea that matters. And in my opinion, it doesn’t actually matter how great their creative is. It’s not worth having those people on the team because of the damage they do to the rest of the team.
My favorite part of creative is not being the person that has the great idea, it’s being the person who recognizes a great idea and helps that person get it out into the world. And having a team of people also recognize that and continue to elevate it so that it becomes something even bigger and greater than the person initially thought of. And that is not something that can happen when you have that negative force or that negative energy in the room. So for me, that’s the cardinal rule for great creative culture and environment. It’s really easy for junior creatives to be intimidated.
Oftentimes, they’ve heard of these creative directors before or it’s their work that might have inspired them to get into the business in the first place. If they don’t feel that they are in a safe environment where they can save their ideas, then they’re not going to and they’re not going to grow, and we might not be getting the next amazing creative out of that person. And so that, to me, is the most important.
Steffen: Does it require even, especially when you’re a junior doesn’t require a certain person to make it and then too to kind of progress in a creative career? Do you need to have certain skill sets? Certain personal traits?
Michelle: I think the most important thing, anybody can do it, what they have to do is they have the tenacity to keep going, right? If you have good ideas and you believe in your ideas, then you should be able to move forward. But you also have to be humble enough to take criticism and you have to be able to develop a thick skin. You know, we try to be kind in our criticisms and to say the positives as well as the negative but it is my opinion that you have to be really honest.
And sometimes the honesty is that’s just not the right concept for how we want to move this idea forward. And you have to be able to talk to somebody that way without breaking their spirit. If they’re too sensitive, it could push them back into a shell where they feel very, you know, they feel a lack of confidence and they’re not able to move things forward. So that’s just something that has to be worked on. You know, most people don’t come into it with that thick skin. But that’s again, why it is so important to not have somebody in the room that’s going to be intentionally rude or hurtful in regards to those ideas.
You know, some of my most exciting or greatest moments leading a creative is watching the seniors recognize a more junior staff person’s idea and really supporting them. In my previous role, we had a situation where we were working on some logos and every single person on the team was working on them, creative directors, senior art directors. And we actually had one of our most junior fresh out of college, you know, junior designers come up with a concept that was really great.
And it was so encouraging to watch the creative directors and the art directors just walking by her desk and giving her feedback and just checking in on her and really supporting her and making her feel like her idea was valid. And her logo was one of the top three that were in the final contention for the project. So it was a great moment. And it’s moments like that, that remind you of why it is so important to create that culture and to not allow somebody just because they’re talented to treat people like they’re not as important. Everybody has a great idea. Anybody can, you know? It’s where it comes from is and how you treat it is what’s important.
Steffen: How do you help creative leaders to really understand that sometimes it’s okay to step back and be in a supporting role, right? You cannot always have the best amazing idea. Sometimes you just, as in the example you just gave, right? Sometimes you just be a bystander, and sometimes you just motivate someone that has a great idea to take it over the finish line, so to speak.
Establishing Trust is Vital
Michelle: Yeah, I think that that’s first and foremost most important thing to get creative directors and senior-level creatives to work in more of a supporting role than they want is to have first established a really respectful trust with them. If they don’t trust me and trust that I am not going to guide them incorrectly in terms of their career growth and that they know that I have their best interests in mind, they’re going to already be willing to take different roles, the biggest challenge is that, you know, every single creative spends most of their career trying to be the person that gets to make the decisions on the creative, and to be that lead, right?
That’s the ultimate trajectory that most people are looking at in their careers. So once you’ve achieved that, it’s very hard to take a step back and be like, Oh, I’m only going to do this part when I’m used to taking all of this or doing all of this or giving all of the direction. But, you know, I kind of have always kept in my mind, you know, if you go to, you know, the Kennedy Space Center and you ask the janitor what his job is, his response is, I help put people on the moon.
And to me, that is like one of those quotes that I’ve heard in my life that has been incredibly important because every single person that works in that environment is working towards that same goal of putting a person on the moon. And the janitor who is cleaning up is just as important as the engineers, is just as important as the astronaut, is just as important as all of the other individuals. Everybody has to do their job.
And it’s something that we’re obviously seeing right now with the shelter in place and the positions that are essential and the people that we need. And so in a creative environment, it’s really important that you’ve established a culture that is not an egotistical, me me me culture, that it is a culture that we are a team working towards a unified goal and that goal is what’s best for our clients, for our company, and then for the individual. It’s not for the individual first, it’s always for our client and what they are hoping to achieve and what our goals, our creative brief has been from them.
And if we can keep everybody trained on that Northstar and focused on that, it becomes, and you have that trust and that respect and confidence in what their role is and that them taking this more supportive role isn’t because of something that they have done wrong. It’s not a negative situation for them. That it’s just this is where we see you being the best support to creating that ultimate goal. What I have found is that they tend to enjoy working together in that way. It kind of takes the pressure off a little bit. And they can kind of get back to their roots of just being a great creative and coming up with those ideas.
It takes a minute to get them out of their heads and out of their egos and out of their, you know, their career ascension planning that they’ve been doing their whole career, but it does work and I’ve seen it in multiple situations where you have really strong creative directors, then come back and say, Hey, I’d love this other creative director to see if they have any ideas or thoughts that they can contribute because I like their thinking and I think they can bring something exciting to the table and see that collaboration. It then also inspires the rest of the team to have that confidence and to play in that space.
Steffen: I think that’s probably a really elemental part of a company’s culture, right? To also recognize when someone more senior helps someone that is more junior, or another person, it doesn’t have to be senior versus junior, but another person to be successful to generate something that excites the client. I think, you know, there are, the companies out there where the only thing that counts is you have to deliver you know?
And that means for that person who takes it on, like I have to have the best creative, you know, otherwise I will be seen as weak. And I might not justify my salary or my position and then I get let go, etc, etc. So from my perspective, it’s a responsibility of a company to build a culture where people feel confident. That they’re okay with not always having to have the best idea in this particular scenario.
Michelle: Yeah. And it’s hard because it actually goes against the grain of how we’re sort of trained as creatives, right? You’re always building your book or your reel as a creative. These are the last comps that I did that went to finish. This is the last trailer I put together that I fully edited or I created, directed. And it’s what is out in the world. And that becomes your calling card. So when suddenly you’re being asked to support, it’s now no longer that it goes up.
So it feels less valuable in a way based on everything that you’ve been taught. And to your point, it can feel like Oh, is this now I’m not as valuable as a creative director anymore? Is the company going to look at me as less valuable? Is this going to impact my salary or my growth, or my opportunities? And that is where that culture of trust and respect is so critical.
And I’ve seen it where there’s that culture from the very top, the president or the owner on down and I’ve seen it where it’s not at the very top. So you have to build it within your own department itself to still create that feeling. And that’s obviously a much more challenging scenario because if you don’t have that trust and confidence and culture mindset from the, you know, the very top of your company, your president or your CEO, people are less likely to have that more collaborative and team-driven spirit.
They become much more focused on what’s in it for me, what does this mean for me? So then your job as the manager of the department, the head of the department is that much more critical to try to buffer that potential direction that people will take and keep them motivated in this team space and contributing in the ways that makes the most sense at that moment, again, for the client and for the company, not just for them individually.
Steffen: Yeah. Ideally, you create an environment where everyone feels okay, even if they are a supporting part in a big team. But I’m sure you cannot always take competition out of the equation when creatives work together. How do you deal with a situation where you identify that there are two creative people in your team that seem to have competition going on and it’s not healthy for the greater good, which is delivering a project or creative solution for a client, which is the ultimate goal at the end of the day, right?
Keep Competition Healthy
Michelle: Well, you said the keyword which is unhealthy versus healthy, right? I love healthy competition and I definitely want all of my team members to feel competitive. I want them to see something somebody else has created again, whether it’s a TV spot, or, you know, a digital campaign or a key art campaign and be like, Oh my god, I wish I had done that. That’s amazing. And we also do that with our competitors, right?
When our competitor releases something and we’re like, that is so cool. I wish that was mine. That competition fuels inspiration and collaboration and excitement and enthusiasm and digs people back into the reason they did this in the first place. Most people that are working, especially on the entertainment side of advertising, are working in it because they grew up looking at one sheet or key arts or, you know, their favorite thing before a movie is the trailers or anything in that space.
So it reinvigorates that. But when it’s unhealthy competition, you know, that can really be the poison apple in the bunch. It’s really, you know, when it becomes about again, doing it individualistically and not for what is the best for the client and for the overall company, it can ruin things pretty quickly for the team. And so it’s important to, you know, provide a safe environment for healthy competition, but to immediately be able to suss out when something is veering into an unhealthy space and manage it.
And, you know, I see my role as the head of a creative department as twofold. It’s one to always make sure that aesthetically, we are meeting the level that we need to and that we’re meeting our client briefs, but the other part of it is really the people management. And managing creatives is a very, very challenging and tricky thing because they do tend to have a little bit more emotion out there and are more passionate and can get a little little bit more intense about things. And you don’t want to stifle that, but you want to channel that in the right way.
And, you know, that’s something where you also want to take juniors and give them the safe space to grow in that and develop the right behaviors. And for seniors, sometimes you’re getting them fully baked from somewhere else and you’ve got to sort of like, help them reconfigure because the last environment they were in was sort of a dog eat dog world. So it’s really important to create that separation between the unhealthy and the healthy competition because you do want competition. You want people to feel like yeah, I want my idea to be the one to win, but not at the expense of the rest of the team members. And that’s critical.
Steffen: Earlier you mentioned don’t hire creative jerks. Just now you said, you know, obviously when you get people from other companies, they come with certain traits, and not to call it baggage right? You sometimes need to shape to make them fit into your team. But when you hire people, Michelle, what else are you looking out for to ensure you’re hiring the right people?
Eclipse’s Methods for Hiring the Right Talent
Michelle: The number one I’m looking at is their language. How are they representing the work that they’re showing? There’s never a situation where, or incredibly rarely s there a situation where it’s all just you, that created something. There are so many team members that helped put that together. So the we versus the I is really important to me. How people describe their process, I always like to understand, like, how did they get to where they are at with the work that they’re showing me at this point? It really becomes the most important. I always look at it like skill can grow and be trained, but personality is personality and they rarely change.
So how they’re engaging. I have, you know, oftentimes they’ll do an interview panel to see how they react and respond to different people. I’m well aware of as the head of the department, I will get one face from people. And then a more junior person or an, you know, somebody that is at the same level will get a different face from that person. So I want to set that up. You know, there are always going to be times where you think you’ve hired an ace and you don’t, and you’ve got to deal with it right away and you’ve got to manage that immediately.
You cannot let it fester and grow because it will poison the well of everybody else that’s working there. But to me, that language and how they describe themselves, their success, the actual work that they’re doing, how they’re engaging with their team, how they even talk about their clients, all of that is really critical information to help you understand how they see themselves and how they may behave in that team environment.
Steffen: Well, there was a great last word on the topic of how to deal with creative talent in a work environment. Michelle, we actually already came to the end of our podcast episode today. Thank you for joining me on the Performance Delivered Podcast and sharing your thoughts on how to get creative talent to work together and shelter egos. If people want to find out more about you and, or your company, the company you work for, how can they get in touch?
Michelle: Absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn. Michelle Azzopardi, AZZOPARDI. And our company is eclipsead.com. So you can find us online. We’re also on social Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, so you can find us across any of the social channels.
Steffen: Wonderful. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered Podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.