Behind the Creative: The path to Studio Manager
If you’re a designer looking to make the move into a role that is more focused on operations and processes, don’t miss this instalment of Behind the Creative. We spoke with Amanda Mikkelsen, Content and Creative Lead at Medibank and manager of their in-house creative studio about the transition from designer to manager, what it was like to build Medibank’s studio from the ground up and the best career advice she has for those looking to follow a similar path.
Amanda, let’s start with your design career. How did you get into design?
I studied design at RMIT and really just fell into it from there. I did a placement down the road from my house at a boutique design agency and they hired me on the days off I had from uni. Being a small company, I did anything from coffee runs to mounting up presentations (yes this was a long time ago) to helping out at photo shoots or bump ins for exhibitions. It gave me a taste of all things creative and I found the more I said yes to opportunities, the more experience I gained.
A fun tidbit – when I first started in design about 20 years ago, we literally had one email server where you could send emails from the group company email address. No one had email on their computers, you had to get up and go over to the main server to send emails and finished artwork, before then couriering the artwork to where it needed to go.
At what point in your career did you realise you wanted to move into a Studio/Project Management position?
I loved the people side of being a creative, I naturally loved forming relationships with my clients and understanding what their business needed. As the agency I started with grew there became a need for more process and structure with all the briefs coming in. I put my hand up for the role and we went from there.
You built Medibank’s in-house creative department from the ground up – what was that experience like? What learnings did you take away from it?
I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m really proud of the team and what we’ve been able to achieve. Early on I realised that you want to surround yourself with people that have a diverse background and share the same passion as you as it makes for a strong team culture. I believe in playing to people’s strengths. I’d much rather hire someone that culturally fits into the team, rather than someone who’s CV reads like a perfect fit.
I knew that process and structure has its place, so coming in I set up the tools we needed to get the best brief possible for our creatives. When someone new comes into the business we run a briefing workshop and set up time to talk about how we can best work together.
As a team we also need inspiration and creative thinking time. We’re a big believer in, and encourage personal development at Medibank, so whilst it could be a more traditional course, we also look at conferences, think tank sessions, encourage secondments or mentors to ensure the team are feeling fulfilled creatively and professionally. We also look to take on the jobs that ‘spark joy’. Yeah we have to do the BAU work, but when we can, we also take on the juicier, fun campaigns too.
People can sometimes feel intimidated working with agencies or creatives – but working from the inside we are the brand. It’s a really unique way to understand the nuances of the customer or problem we are trying to solve.
What’s a challenge that you didn’t expect to face in the transition from designer to studio management and how did you handle it?
Managing different personalities can sometimes be tricky.. and I’ve dealt with many over the years. That’s where mentoring and playing to a creative’s strengths really helps. You become very protective of your team and they become your mates, but sometimes you have to have tough conversations – I’ve learnt that being open and transparent is always the best way forward. Setting clear expectations and coming from a mutual place of respect is always key.
Are there any key characteristics you strongly believe a good studio manager must have?
You have to be able to roll with the punches. Sometimes it feels like you’re herding cats, there’s shifting priorities and you get those moments where you’re like “oh, I forgot this brief” or something urgent has just popped up. Basically shit happens and you have to get on with it.
The ability to plan is really important. We do sprint planning and quarterly planning, so nothing should be too much of a surprise for us. It also helps us manage our resources and the team’s workload, so they’re not working until 11pm or over the weekends to get work done.
Finally, you need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into the work yourself. I would never ask someone in my team to do something that I wouldn’t do myself.
How do you find working in an agency versus in-house?
It’s night and day. I was recently talking to a freelance copywriter, who does mostly agency work, but she has started to work with more corporate/in-house businesses and she felt that the difference between the two was a massive secret that no one was talking about!
Honestly, it’s the best. I have an amazing work-life balance, and it’s not boring at all – we do some really creative and interesting work. Plus we get to work on the brief with our stakeholders, seeing the project from an idea right through to in market.
Don’t get me wrong, agencies are fun, fast paced and character building, but as you get older, you get more confidence in yourself and you think, “there has to be more” and I’ve found that in-house.
What is the best career advice you can give to someone looking to become a Studio Manager?
There’s a quote from Steve Martin that I really like, “if opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door”. So be that person who offers solutions, is proactive and goes above and beyond to make your client’s life easier.
Be honest, stay true to your values and don’t be afraid to try something new. Just give it a go and if you don’t like it, do something different. If you want to move from design into studio management, put your hand up. If your manager goes on leave, can you help out looking after the briefs, or if there’s overflow work when times are busy, suggest that you help. If you see a gap or a process that could do with improvement, suggest it, don’t just sit back and look at the problem.
Keen to chat with Amanda about design or studio management? You can get in touch with her on LinkedIn today.