How Bob Calvano is Building a Strategic In-house Team (Part Three)

Bob 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.

One 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.

Part 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?”

A 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?

From 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 the designers.

Trying 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.

It’s 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?”