How to Scale Your Creative Team: Part 3
A Conversation With AJ Herrera at VMware

Every team is different, but with the right combination of talent, technology, and strategic planning, you can determine the best way to flex and scale your team for positive results and creative inspiration. 

In this episode, Adam Morgan sits down with AJ Herrera, vice president of Brand and Advertising at VMware, to discuss how he structures his team and what scaling looks like for them.

Discover more about the actual practice of scaling:

  • Learn some methods for maintaining communication between teams
  • Examine how real companies tackle strategy and managing projects
  • Learn about the realities of working with agencies and how to maximize those relationships
mentioned in this show:
adammorgan
Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
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The Stoke Group
Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency

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Transcript

Adam Morgan:

Welcome to Real Creative Leadership, a place where creative leaders can find insights and practical guidance on the day to day job of being a creative leader. We focus on real issues, topics, and insights of creativity in the business world. Join me as we explore the best strategies for developing your team, getting others to embrace your vision, and generating amazing experiences.

Adam Morgan:

This webinars series is produced by The Stoke Group. I'm your host, Adam Morgan, Adobe Executive Creative Director and author of Sorry Spock, Emotions Drive Business. And this is Real Creative Leadership.

Adam Morgan:

All right. Thanks everyone. Welcome back to Real Creative Leadership. I'm your host, Adam Morgan. And I'm excited to have a guest with me today. We're going to be speaking with AJ Herrera. He's a marketing leader, brand strategist and storyteller with over 20 years of high tech marketing experience working on both client and agency side. He's created above and below the line of work. But says his best expertise is in company level branding and positioning advertising, creative strategy, and messaging. He's currently Vice President of Brand and Advertising at VMware. So welcome AJ to Real Creative Leadership.

AJ Herrera:

Thanks, Adam. Really excited to be here.

Adam Morgan:

And today we're still extending our session on scaling your team. So we've talked, this will be the third episode in this series. The first one, we've talked about how to scale your team externally through agencies and freelancers and other groups. And then the second one was all about how do you scale your team internally. But today we want to talk to you directly about how you've handled all this stuff. And get some personal experience from your career as in your current job of how you handle some of these problems.

Adam Morgan:

So I'm just going to ask you some questions and we'll get your response and have a wonderful chat for the next 20 minutes.

AJ Herrera:

Great. I appreciate it.

Adam Morgan:

First of all, just knowing you come from both the agency side, it's the same as me. We both worked in agency and then now we've come over to the client side or the corporate side or the brand side, whatever you want to call it. But just tell me about your thoughts about as you went through that shift and move from the agency side, how has scaling or hiring or growth changed at all for you?

AJ Herrera:

Well, it's changed in some really interesting ways. I think one of the things that I needed to do coming over to the client side is just get a sense of ways in which the agency ways of doing things can be an improvement to maybe the way VMware had been doing things before. And also the ways in which it was different. And it kind of took me a little bit of time and kind of had some trial and error to figure some of that stuff out.

AJ Herrera:

I think on the agency side, I always think of agencies as raccoons. And by that I mean they're extremely nimble, very smart, extremely omnivorous. And you have to be very flexible as an agency. I mean, there are these really big kind of muscle bound agency. But the really sharp, strong, small agencies that really bring the great thinking and the great work, they have to be super flexible. And they scale up and down kind of ruthlessly, to be honest. And I've been on kind of both sides of that on the agency side.

AJ Herrera:

Corporate side, you don't really do that. You pick a team and you stay with that team. And that team, you got to grow and nurture that team, hopefully over five to seven years and more. We have folks on our team ... I've been at VMware for six years. And I have a bunch of folks in my team that have been there a lot longer than that. So the way you think about your people and how you nurture them over their career is different. So the way you scale is less about hiring and firing and, "Oh, I need an HTML5 person. So sorry, Julie. It's great that you know internet Explorer 3, but we don't need that anymore." It's not like that. You really have to embrace a longterm journey for your people. So I think that's one of the big differences.

AJ Herrera:

I think another one of the big difference is you have to really understand what your value is as an internal creative team. And it's sometimes you're scaling up in terms of people, but what you really want to be scaling is your value. You've got to be scaling your value up. Even if your head count is flat or if your head count and budget are declining. You have to be scaling your value. And that means understanding what are you saying yes to. And for the stuff that you're saying no to, how do you say no in a way that's basically a yes.

AJ Herrera:

It's like, yes, you can do that. Here's what that will cost. Yes, you can do that. This is the agency partner that you can work with and we're going to help make that happen. But the things that you're really going to take on and say yes to have to be more and more and more valuable. So you're trying to make sure that your people are more skilled and more valuable. And that the work that you're taking on is higher value to the company.

AJ Herrera:

Because a full time head count at a big company is a very, very expensive ... That's a very expensive chair. And so every one of us needs to be delivering value and continuing to increase the value of what we deliver. And so that's kind of the guide is every quarter, have you figured out a way to deliver more value than you delivered last quarter?

Adam Morgan:

From my experience in agency, it was just part of the culture that you would have people who are transient. There were certainly the moments where it was like the hiring and the firing frenzy that happened annually, for sure. But also, it was the culture of like, "I'm going to try this game for a while, then I'm going to move on." And people were okay with the coming and going. Whereas the culture at the company site is much more of like, "I'm here to stay. I want to bet my career on this company. I'm sticking it out."

AJ Herrera:

Yeah, it's a different mindset. It's a different kind of career path and career goal. That's absolutely true. Yeah. Going to a different agency every two years is a mark of success in a lot of ways. Going to a different company every two years is probably not.

Adam Morgan:

Yeah. And I love what you said about how it's really about deciding what your creative department or team is all about. Like what you stand for. So many times it's like you have the positioning statements of companies, but it really is a positioning statement of your team. Like what do we do and not do. And therefore, how are we adding value to the company? I love that. [crosstalk 00:06:17].

AJ Herrera:

Yeah. We went through that process ourselves pretty early on just for our own team. And the purpose of our team is to make VMware human. That's the purpose of our team. We take this fiction of a company and try to take from behind it, the real effort and passion of these 30,000 people that work there. And instead of filtering it through this kind of corporate kind of look and feel, we got to bring the humanity back to it. That's really our job.

AJ Herrera:

And we do that in three ways. We define the brand, we enable around the brand, and we execute the brand. And so that level of clarity really helps us to say, "Yes, we're going to do this." Or, "No, we're not going to do this." Or, "We're going to help help our internal clients do that in a different way."

Adam Morgan:

No, that's awesome. Yeah, I'm totally on board with it. That's exactly what we've been going through the last couple of years as well. So let me ask you some other details of that.

Adam Morgan:

So as you've been building this, sounds like you've got the structure of what you stand for. But tell me more ways of how you structure your creative teams or how you're currently operating. The pros and cons of different structures. We'd also talked about that on the last podcast of you have a pool mentality of where everyone just works on everything? Or do you assign specific things to people? I'd love to know the structure and how you-

AJ Herrera:

Great question. When I first arrived, it was really more of a creative services organization. Which is tickets come in and jobs go out. And there was no prioritization in terms of, this is more important than that. It was a FIFO. It was a first in, first out system. And if that refrigerator flyer got in before the end user computing campaign, then that probably got done for it. And managing around that process and then trying to apply human judgment around that process was just challenging for people.

AJ Herrera:

So we put in some technology, we're using a project management system designed specifically for that. We happen to use Workfront for that. And so that helps to systematize the process. We have an input side on that that requires our clients to be more ... We require them to be thoughtful about what it is they're trying to do in order to open a job. And so we use a little bit of process around it. And then in terms of structure, we started to structured more intentionally the way agencies structure. So it's not exactly the same. There's not one creative director that all the creative folks report up to. Although it's mostly that way.

AJ Herrera:

On our team, we have a person who leads our verbal brand and our person who leads our more visual brand. But they work together so well. So that's a little bit unusual, but the people who do that, [inaudible 00:08:53] and Susan, they're both superb in they're superb collaborators. So that works for us. We tend to have, I guess what you might call a little bit more of a pool mentality. In terms of different people work on different things. But at the same time, our client services people. So we built up a client services work that much like agencies have. They tend to specialize in certain stakeholders, internal clients so that they could get to learn the business. So it's a little bit of a hybrid model.

Adam Morgan:

We have a similar model, except we also have the creatives have a primary source. So that they feel like they have the relationship as well, the writers and designers, as well as the client service. So a similar model, but we extend it a little bit further. So everyone has that ... I don't know, just for me, it seems like they get a little more ownership, so they feel like they can connect and they have some longevity with the topic. So that's awesome.

Adam Morgan:

The other thing that I've noticed too, and mostly for us is when we've acquired different companies and brought them into the portfolio. You talked about the ticket system. And certainly a creative services mentality of where your ticket in, ticket out. And you're just kind of a set of hands doing all the work. For us, it's been a process of how do you train and get everyone on the creative team to where they're thinking big picture and more visionary and guiding their work? Rather than just taking in projects and doing them. So talk to me a little bit more about that. Because I know we talked earlier how you have a vision for what as part of that value you bring to the company. It also includes going far beyond just being a set of hands. How do we bring creative leadership into the industry?

AJ Herrera:

Yeah. Great question. So part of it is just being very clear what the expectations are. We're all expensive. We're really, really good at what we do. That's why we're here. And so we're going to work on the most valuable things, and that means we're focusing on X. It also means backing your people when they say, "Listen, this other project, I can't prioritize this project right now." You can have it here, but you can't have it here.

AJ Herrera:

And that readjustment process of training our stakeholders that we wouldn't just jump on everything. And do it because it came in as fast as we can. Was a challenge that we had a lot of difficult conversations with some folks that expected a different level of service. And that change and readjustment is always hard. So it was very important you back your people in those conversations. Because the other client who's not happy, it's going to escalate. So you got to be back your people, have those conversations, go through the pain. It's worth it to go through the pain because it will be painful.

AJ Herrera:

And then the other thing you do is you have to invest in your people's capabilities. So for example, one of the things that we do is we have an internal thing that we call Strategy Academy. And what we do is anyone in the team that wants to participate, can participate. And we go through the process of taking a marketing problem and breaking it down through our strategic briefing process. And anyone can participate. Creative client services, it doesn't matter. And it's something like three quarters of the team participates in most of the meetings just because it's so much fun. And because it helps you see ... Like, if you're a designer, getting more connected to the why of what you're doing is really interesting. If you're a client services person and you spend most of your time setting expectations and schedules and things like that, being able to pitch in on creative ideas and solving the problems is really fun.

Adam Morgan:

All right. So now let's move on a little bit more of like, now that you've got the team kind of structure figured out and how you focus on helping them grow. But one of the biggest issues that people talk about all the time is how do you deal with the constant fluctuations in workload? And then how do you balance that workload with your internal team? Specifically before we moved to outside stuff. So how do you deal with the ebbs and flows?

AJ Herrera:

Yeah. So that's a really great question. And that's the thing that you're always kind of trying to do. an organism has to live in this homeostasis. But you have to create it because the external environment can be very chaotic. So we have a really good production partner that we use. And so that allows us to flex and scale. We happen to use Aquent, there's some really good ones out there. And so they've become kind of part of our team. They use our same project management system. That helps us to do it. We like to check in with people and let them know that they have agency, if you will. They have the ability to say, "No, I can't take this on right now." It's just a lot of communication.

AJ Herrera:

And we have a goal of saying, "Hey, our job is not to be as productive as possible in terms of the number of jobs. Our job is to provide as much value as possible." And what that means is taking certain things and saying, "We're going to lose productivity if you will, in terms of job quantity. So that we can create more space for creative work. For doing the deeper strategic work. For really having the tough conversations around how are we going to solve this tricky marketing problem." So a lot of it's communication. And a little bit of technology and a little bit of having the right sort of partners in partnership.

AJ Herrera:

But I haven't found a silver bullet for it. And it's sort of a constant battle. It's like the metabolism of an animal that's constantly working and there isn't a silver bullet. It has to just kind of use the levers it can pull, maybe. And I don't know, maybe you have a model or a silver bullet that can help with that. But for us, it's just part of the constant challenge of managing the business, if you will.

AJ Herrera:

Another thing that we're doing is we're moving to an OKR model, which is objectives and key results. This is from this kind of John Doerr Measure What Matters book. And the purpose of that is not so much about productivity within the studio. It's the opposite of that. It's how do we make sure that as a brand team, we are focusing on the small handful of things that's going to move the needle for the company and the brand? Because we got to do those two things. You got to run the studio. What you really need to be doing is delivering impact for the whole company. And so that model is, I think, is going to help us just focus more on those high level things. And also have more shorter term and clarity on how we're making progress on those things.

AJ Herrera:

So we're early days in that journey, but I'm optimistic about that and helping us to be, even ... If it'll create a new type of cadence for how we track certain high priority kind of projects and goals.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, that's good. Can you repeat the name of that book? Because we can put it in the notes so people can link to it if they want.

AJ Herrera:

It's called Measure What Matters.

Adam Morgan:

Cool. Yeah.

AJ Herrera:

And it's a system that ... It came out of Intel and a bunch of Google ... Google started to use it early on and it's sort of gotten some currency in VMware within the last year. And so we've kind of embraced it and we'll see where it takes us.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, cool. Yeah. I know from our perspective, we have Essentialism, another book that we've talked about on the show. And it's like-

AJ Herrera:

I love that book.

Adam Morgan:

I love it. It was great book. But I get in debates all the time with another creative leader at our company because he's a hardcore essentialist. And I'm probably not, I'm probably, maybe not the worst, but I definitely wanted to do a lots of stuff. So finding that middle ground where you can focus on the important things, but not leave a wake of undone projects behind you. Because you're only focused on two things. I think what you talked about earlier of the having a model of maybe it's a balanced approach of how X amount of time is focused on the core key three things. And then you still have some time set aside to pick up all the scraps and make sure it's taken care of.

AJ Herrera:

But the problem I have with essentialism is I feel like it works really, really well for individual contributors. But it's a harder thing to do for a team, especially a team that has a broad remit. The way I would attack essentialism if I want it to be kind of snarky about it. I'd say, "I don't want to do dishes. I just want to have dinner. I'm only focusing on having dinner." We don't have any damn dishes. How are you going to make dinner?

AJ Herrera:

So I love the purity and the clarity. And I love that book and that actually influenced kind of my thinking and gave me more reinforcement to say, "We're going to say no to those things and yes to those things." But you can't really say no. What you need to do is find a way to say yes that meets the needs of the business, but that doesn't suck up that precious energy and brain power of your team. So it yes, ish.

Adam Morgan:

Yes, and.

AJ Herrera:

Exactly. Yes, and.

Adam Morgan:

All right. So now talk to me. So you had mentioned earlier that you work with Aquent, so you have an agency partner. So I'm curious to know how do you know what projects go outsourced versus staying on your team. And then I'm also curious of the old school model is that you had a creative department that was just kind of separated. And then you had more of the strategists who had their relationships with agencies. Whereas from my perspective of where I see things moving, it's more of like the creative studio is owning the relationship with agencies because the agency is an extension of their team. So I'm curious to know your model around that whole thing.

AJ Herrera:

Yeah. It's more like that. It's more like that. We don't have people whose role is just to do strategy. I see strategy as a horizontal skill. Not everyone on our team is expected to do it. But the reason we do those strategy academies, aside from the fact that exposes everyone to the whole problem. Is it increases the number of people on our team that we can tap to lead a strategic engagement with an internal client. If it's just me, I don't scale. We need half a dozen people that you can tap at any time to lead those strategic engagements. And that's what we do. One of them is a copywriter. One of them is a client services person. One of them is me. One is our creative director. One of them's our head of video. But we need that skill more broadly.

AJ Herrera:

In terms of agency relationships. We used to have the model where we have one big expensive agency of record and it just didn't work well for us. We moved really quickly. We probably frustrated the agency as much as we frustrated ourselves. And so we took on the role of being the agency and the general contractor.

AJ Herrera:

And in terms of finding the right agency partners, what we're looking for is agencies that have really high self awareness. And by that, I mean they know what they're good at. And they have the discipline to focus on that. And general purpose agencies that are like a raccoon where a raccoon never saw a cookie it didn't want. But a really sharp agency, the type of agency we like working with, we know what they're great at. They know what they're great at. And so the question of, do you give this to an agency and which agency? Becomes much easier in that case.

Adam Morgan:

All right. We're getting on in time here. So let me just ask you one more question of. So now that we've got this whole ... We've got scaling internally, scaling externally, how do we figure out what the vision for your team is. Now, how do you balance getting work done versus the team skills that you need to grow? So you talked about your internal program of teaching everyone strategy. So there's this balance of, I've really got to build up the skills internally, but I also sometimes have a lot of crap that has to go out the door really fast. So do I just quickly scale externally? Or how do you balance that whole load of where you want to put in the time in the right places versus getting everything done?

AJ Herrera:

I think the key to that ... I think you have to work backwards from the end goal. And the key to that is knowing this is the type of work that we need to be doing and the capabilities we need to be building in the core team. So for example, one of the things that we're making big investment in is creating live or simulive, highly produced events that look and feel more like television. So we're making new investments in our studios. The hiring that we've done on video team is supportive of that goal. So that's the thing that we know that we need to do. And that means that you can be more confident about the stuff that you don't do or the stuff that you shed to production agencies or whatever. So that's number one.

AJ Herrera:

And number two, because of what we talked about in the beginning. Where you're not going to be swapping out your team and hiring and firing the way agencies do. It's really important that you believe in your people. It's really important that you see, you know what? They don't have these skills today. And that's a scary place to be as a team leader that says, "We need to be able to do X and we don't have those skills." Maybe you don't have head count right now. What do you do? You really have to make sure that you're hiring people that are really great.

AJ Herrera:

Like design and in creative and writing minds and have the faith that they can learn these new skill. And then make the investment for them to get there. And back them as they go through the process of learning and figuring it out. It might take a month. It might take three months. It might take six months. But if you know that that's where you need to go and you have this model of, we have longterm people. Then you have to believe in them and you have to make the investment to get there.

AJ Herrera:

Because there isn't a shortcut to getting skills, particularly if they're strategic skills. If there's the strategic skills that you know that you need to have, don't hire that out. Or if you bring in an external expert, have your team working side by side with them. And transfer those skills to your internal team.

Adam Morgan:

I love it. My vision of a good creative leader is that you start out with those base skills of, am I a writer or a designer? But you've got to move well beyond that. We're dealing with an interesting proposition here at Adobe. One of our [inaudible 00:22:30] partners says, "Well, why can't we just take a great leader over here and move them over into another zone? We maybe go overseas to MA or APAC or something like that. And just run a team for a while."

Adam Morgan:

And I think on the creative side, we're very hesitant. We're like, "No, no, no, we're all specialists. We're all designers and we can't do all that other stuff." But the reality is when you become a creative leader like you in your position, you have to balance all of it anyhow. So trying some of those things, really stepping up as a creative to move beyond just writing or designing. But understanding strategy, we call it talking khaki. Can you talk khaki? Can you learn to look for vision? Can you figure out all those things and just be versatile in all of it? I think that's phenomenal. That's great.

AJ Herrera:

We've all been given a demonstration of our ability to grow and do new things and be resilient over the last three months. And so I think we're probably now that we're all outside of our comfort zone, we're probably going to be a little bit more comfortable staying there a little longer than maybe we would have otherwise.

Adam Morgan:

Yeah, that's fair. Well, this has been great. Thank you, AJ. This has been a wonderful conversation. I'm sure listeners from the agency side or the brand side will get some good insights into how our teams are balancing and scaling and trying to get more done with fewer resources. So that's been fantastic. And I love that we both have a good library behind us, so we can see all the books as we do this little podcast.

AJ Herrera:

Mines a little smaller than yours. [crosstalk 00:23:55] electronic.

Adam Morgan:

Mine's just a green screen. So we're good. It's all good. Anyhow, thank you so much for being with us and giving us your insight. We really appreciate it.

AJ Herrera:

I've really enjoyed it. And I think to the extent that our agency partners can understand a little bit more about some of the stuff that we're dealing with and how we think about things, I think it allows us to be better partners together. So thanks for the opportunity to share some of this.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, you bet. All right. Thank you everyone for listening in on this episode on how to scale your team. We really appreciate AJ joining us today as the VP of Brand and Advertising at VMware. We're super grateful for the insights into how you manage teams and how you scale and how you make sure there's both brand purpose for your team and also value for the company. So thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

Adam Morgan:

And join us on RealCreativeLeadership.com for the next episode. We'll be continuing down this track of figuring out all the topics that creative leaders need to have and understand as we move forward in the new reality. So thanks for joining us. We'll see you next time.