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Calvano heads up the Media Services group, a 70+ multidisciplinary in-house
creative team at Merck, one of
the leading pharmaceutical companies operating in today’s global marketplace.
In this edited three-part conversation, he outlines the strategies and tactics
he and his group are employing to raise their stature and increase their
impact—and offers valuable insights to help you do the same.
Part one of the conversation focused on marketing and account management. In part two,
Bob discussed the structural changes he made to his department. In this third and final
segment, Bob addresses the fundamental challenge that most in-house teams
face—how to become a truly strategic partner within one’s organization.
Working in a large, policy-heavy organization and positioned in Shared Business Services—a division often perceived as a transactional service provider—Bob
has a deep appreciation for and understanding of this challenge. Here he offers
some practical insights on how to best address it.
What is it that you’re doing—or planning to do—with your team to
raise the bar in terms of their performance and to get them thinking more
strategically, in the same way you or your managers are thinking?
I think one of the best strategies is to lead by example, so a lot of what I’m in the process of doing is disseminating information as quickly as possible. I’m
pretty transparent. I think I include everybody when I can include
everybody—probably too soon and too often—and say too much, but I do think
there’s some value in that. Trying to get everybody to think strategically or
more like an entrepreneur, or trying to get folks to look at the
creative and elevate that, starts with me asking a lot of questions.
of the things I’ve been communicating to the design team and to folks that are working on any type of creative solution is to make sure they’re in tune with the
“why.” They need to be able to articulate the “why.” Don’t tell me it’s a
poster for oncology—tell me exactly why those things are on that poster, what
it’s communicating and how it supports the business need. When we understand why we’re doing what we’re
doing, I think the work tends to move toward better creative. People will look
at us more like strategic partners because we’ll really be solving business
needs instead of just creating a poster that looks cool or is nicely laid out.
of being strategic is knowing where to expand an idea. Say someone comes to me
and says, “I want a poster.” I need to have a designer act more strategically
and not just respond with, “Okay, we’ll give you that poster.” Perhaps the
designer needs to make a suggestion about an expanded scope of work that would
actually communicate the client’s message better or more efficiently or with
more impact. We need that designer to continuously think, “What else can we do?
How else can we grow? Where else can we make an impact?”
lot of the mindset over the years has been, “Okay, we’ll have that poster to
you by Tuesday.” And a nice poster goes out by Tuesday. Well, I want to know why you want a poster. I think by asking those types of
questions and engaging with my team that way, they get it. They’re seeing how
I’m thinking and how I’m working. What does the client want to communicate
about their idea? Why is that important? By continuously breaking it all down,
that’s one way to get strategic and show the client that we’re not just an
order-taker. We show them we’re really interested in understanding their
business, what their needs are, what they’re trying to communicate. And then we
present work that supports those needs. We don’t just hand them a poster and
call it a day.
What about from a larger structural perspective?
a larger structural perspective, we’re actually putting in an official
associate creative director. I had been playing the role of director of the
organization and trying to creatively direct where and when I could, and that
wasn’t working. I just didn’t have the time. I would have time to swoop in, lay
out some big, blue-sky idea, give people a direction and then go away. I
usually didn’t have enough time to nurture and manifest the idea. And when I
did, it was too far between design iterations and that was probably frustrating for
to raise the bar creatively meant identifying that there was a gap there and
saying, “Well, let’s get someone to address it.” Someone on the team is going
to address this on a daily basis with high-profile work. Let’s have another
creative director on the team looking at all of this stuff and working with the
designers to make it consistent—to make sure we’re implementing master brand
strategy and understand what that strategy is.
a little bit more than color palettes and fonts. There’s a real strategy behind
the direction the company’s going, from a visual communications perspective—to
understand that, to be in line with it and to prove to the company that we have
mastered it and can do it better than anyone on the outside.
And in terms of the workspace? Anything that
you’re doing there?
Like I’ve said before, when you open up the space and have it be more collaborative,
there’s an energy and a creative vibe that just happens. It’s very natural when
you have an open space versus that closed cube space. There’s a buzz that I’ve
experienced in those environments that I’m banking on as the team gets into the
new space. It’ll allow for vision across the floor that I’ve never had. I can
see something really cool on someone’s monitor and go over and ask them what
they’re working on. It’s going to be a whole new level of awareness of who’s
working on things and what state they’re in. Hanging work up on the wall and
getting people to comment on it. It’s going to take time for people to get
comfortable, but hopefully that’s going to raise the bar.
Any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Tell everybody they’re on the hook. From an organizational perspective, there
are people on the Merck side that own certain functions and they’re on the hook
for the work that comes out of those functions. So the person who’s leading the
print and interactive work, they’re ultimately on the hook for the work coming
out, too. Those people need to work with the creative director, and they need
to start to look at these things and ask if that’s the direction we want to go.
If it’s really good and solves a business need, great! But I’m the kind of guy
who’s going to push back and ask, “Well, what else can we do?”
Andy Epstein started his career as a freelance designer and illustrator with clients as varied as Bacardi, Canon, Bantam Books and Merck. Jumping into the world of in-house in 1992, Andy created and grew in-house design teams for Commonwealth Toy and Gund.
He later restructured and expanded the hundred-person creative team at Bristol-Myers-Squibb and consulted at Johnson & Johnson. After a three year stint at Designer Greetings leading an in-house design team responsible for the company’s product lines and Point
Of Sales materials, Andy moved back into pharma heading up a 65+ managed services team at Merck.
Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative”, a book on in-house design, in partnership with F&W Publications in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, an association dedicated to providing
support to in-house designers and design team managers. Most recently he was head of INitiative, the AIGA program dedicated to in-house outreach and support where he expanded on his efforts to empower in-house teams and raise their stature in the design and
In part one of a three-part conversation, Bob Calvano, creative director of Merck’s full service in-house agency, describes how he’s carving out spots for his team to play a bigger role in the company.
Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, advertising, in-house design, studio management
In part two of a three-part conversation Bob Calvano, creative director of Merck’s full service in-house agency, shares how he’s literally and figuratively knocked down the walls within his team.
Section: Tools and Resources -
INitiative, in-house design, collaboration, project management
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Section: Tools and Resources -
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Section: Tools and Resources -
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Section: Inspiration -
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