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Pixar’s President Shares Trade Secrets for Managing Creative Teams


Video marketers can learn from the team at Pixar, the storytelling masters Sure, you’re probably not producing the next Finding Nemo, but whether it’s developing online videos for your brand or blockbuster cinemas for a movie studio, both involve navigating the creative process and comes into contact with creative squads to stimulate your narrative come together.

That said, marketers are now entering increasingly creative territory with online video. Visual storytelling are likely to be tricky business, and if you’re thinking of hiring a videographer, a director of video strategy, or other rolls devoted to video production- heck, even if you’re outsourcing with an bureau- it’s best to look at how storytelling pros have been handling the creative process for years( and what they’ve learned along the way ).

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 2.13.44 PMFrom the groundbreaking Toy Story trilogy to Monsters Inc. and Up !, Pixar has pumped out fourteen number 1 box office hittings in a row, and has been a leader in the film industry for almost two decades- so who best to learn from?

Ed Catmull, Pixar co-founder and president, recently co-wrote a book titled Creativity, Inc. and in this post I’ll outline some of the insight he shares on how to better manage any creative squad and encouraging the creative process.

As you can imagine, it all starts with improving your storytelling abilities.

1. Guide your creative vision with candor

One of the coolest behind-the-scenes parts of the Pixar process is what’s known as the “Braintrust”. This is a group of individuals the director of any film gratifies with on a regular basis- usually comprised of successful directors, story artists and novelists- who will candidly critique the narrative reels of upcoming films. The Braintrust’s job is to uncover improvements and, while they can provide notes, the director isn’t required to take their advice. The whole phase is to ensure the company is always generating outstanding work, and collaboration has proven to be a key way to do this.

As the team has found in the past, a creative might work on something for ages independently, but they’re “polishing a brick in secret”.

The lesson for your marketing team?

Be candid with video feedbackFrom the brainstorming process to the final edits of a video, be collaborative and candid with your feedback. Whether it’s after scripting a piece, or after a first cut, leave some room for feedback. If you promote honesty, you’ll likely be called out on cheesy jokes, insincere lines that “sound like lines”, poor quality audio, or content that doesn’t actually appeal to your target audience like you thought; but all of these aspects, when improved, make for a better video.

Overall, run your content by key stakeholders or your very own internal “Braintrust” as a commitment to quality. If you select Braintrust members based on their knowledge of or experience with video and tale, your videographer and creative team will respect rather than resent their opinions.

2. Acknowledge and learn from failure( don’t make it the worst)

While everyone has a favourite Pixar movie, Catmull is quick to point out that the studio is more familiar with failure than you might think. The trick is how they handle when something bombs.

Don't foster fearWhen working on Toy Story 2, for example, Pixar had to take the two original directors off the project. This difficult decision was after multiple revisions of the near-complete film, and after a significant amount to expenditures. Nonetheless, it was necessary for creating a sequel that would solidify the studio’s reputation.

Although taking directors off a movie is pretty soul crushing, the original tale wasn’t “re going away” even after revisions and Catmull insists that you have to treat failing as a route to learn. Instead of dishonor the directors or the team, Pixar came up with a style to ensure new directors with limited experience had a mentorship program in place to be drawn from those who had attained major Pixar films before. This way Pixar could maintain innovation by taking opportunities on newbies and ensure their squad felt trust rather than fear.

There’s two lessons here. First, even if you’ve spent fund or period on a piece of content, it’s important to consider whether it’s successfully communicating your brand message, if you’re offering any real value, and if it’s “worthy” of your logo. If there’s no real phase, if it’s lacking the magical, or if your team is unhappy in general, it might be best to rework your vision and develop something worthwhile. Secondly, utilize failures as a route to learn. Creativity never thrives in an environment of anxiety- It’s built in an environment of trust, so make sure your creatives know it’s “safe” to fail. As Catmull points out, it’s management’s undertaking to make sure your squad is supported with adequate failsafes and the mentorship program is a key example.

3. Run, then re-work your story

We all know Pixar stories, but they usually transform in developing before they reach the silver screen. For example, Monsters, Inc. was originally about a middle-aged guy who receives a volume of monsters he drew as a kid( each representing his childhood dreads ). These monsters start are to be found in their own lives, but nobody can see them. This notion is plainly style different than what we know to be true of the movie, but Catmull says it’s critical to have your team review and improve upon your ideas.

When you create a script or notion, consider if there are better ways to convey your message. Add a sidekick, play around with genre, experiment with different scenarios. Don’t churn out another median brand video, or your very first idea; stand out with an original notion( one that usually takes a few iterations ).

4. Balance the Beast and the Baby

balance the beast and the baby

After the release of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Catmull notes that Disney had accumulated a massive animation squad and was feeling the pressure to render a lot of content rapidly to avoid wasting resources or leaving money on the table. This unrelenting demand for content was known as “Feeding the beast”( something a lot of content marketers can certainly relate to ).

However, as the demand for sum sometimes trumps quality, Ed suggests that most people forget about caring for “the baby”. As he says, new movie notions at Pixar are undeveloped. They begin as messy, tiny, unrefined notions that require protection; basically, newborns. While these notions are new, there’s a lot of potential( even if you don’t see it at first ), and as creatives there’s a constant struggle to protect the newborns despite the demands of the content beast.

The lesson?

Marketers should find a way to balance both the baby and the beast in their organizations. If you have a terrific notion for a video, don’t hurry-up it out the door without considering how to make it better. Consequently, if you’ve got a timely, highly-relevant video that applies to the consciousness of the working day, don’t hold on to it too long before setting it free.

While the management of your company may impose deadlines( the beast ), management should work with creatives and compromise to ensure there’s a fine balance between relevance, quality, and genuinely inspired, helpful content. Time constraints are plainly necessary, but each side needs to pick its battles.

Overall, Catmull’s book is full of great instances video marketers, B2B managers, and content folks alike will enjoy. Which piece of advice for managing creative squads do you think is best? Have you tried any of these approaches before? Let us know with a comment below!

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