How Alex Center, Former Design Director at Coca-Cola, Gets Amazing Work from His New Creative Team
WORKING NOT WORKING
At Coca-Cola, Working Not Working Member Alex Center knew how to produce great work for multi-million dollar brands. He also knew how to inspire it in the creatives he worked with (something he’ll share more about in this post). You don’t get to be the Design Director of vitaminwater, smartwater, and POWERADE for nothing.
After working for Coke for over 11 years, his creative spirit grew restless. He had watched his wife (WNW Member Jacquelyn De Jesu) launch her own multimillion-dollar business, SHHHOWERCAP, and was eager to explore new projects and brands and launch a company of his own.
Today, he’s the proud head of CENTER, a small team of designers, writers, and strategists located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and complemented with an army of well-respected freelance creatives around the world. He’s had to build on the skills he used for Coca-Cola — running your own business and setting the rules is a totally different ballgame — but it’s left him free to implement the hiring and management practices he always wanted to.
Those policies are oriented toward getting the best work possible from the people he hires while protecting them, as best he can, from burnout.
“Doing the best work is the number one priority for me,” he said. After all, the agency rests on his name brand — so anything that comes out has to meet his standards of excellence. And that means establishing a culture and management practice that gives creatives the space and compensation they need to take their time and do a really good job.
In our conversation, Alex shared the specific strategies he uses to ensure his team is able to produce their best work, along with where he finds new creative talent for projects.
Note: Are you looking for top-notch creative talent to join your team or elevate your next project? Get access to the 70,000 creatives on WorkingWorking today.
Where Alex Finds Talented Creatives for Every Niche
When Alex first left the comfortable life of an employee behind, he turned to the same platform his wife — a talented art director — had used for occasional freelance work: Working Not Working. Immediately, he was approached on the platform to do work for The Robot Company, which is co-owned by Lebron James’ manager, Maverick Carter. It meant high-profile, interesting work for a number of sports and fitness brands. It’s a relationship that resulted in a steady stream of exciting opportunities for CENTER.
At the same time, the influx of companies wanting to work with Alex meant that he couldn’t do everything personally — exactly what he wanted. “When I left Coca-Cola, I knew I wanted to build a company, so I was pretty quick to bring people in to help me,” he explained.
Since then, Alex has primarily used two channels to find the right creatives for each project: Working Not Working and Instagram. Thanks to his (self-admitted) addiction to the photo-sharing platform, Instagram has proven sporadically useful in finding people whose art he loves. But for consistently successful hiring, he turns to Working Not Working.
“I've never put a job posting on any other sites besides Working Not Working,” he laughed. “So that just goes to show how much I think about the platform. It has the best talent and it’s so easy to use. I can post something quickly and get hundreds of prospects.”
“There aren’t that many products I use from a business perspective,” he continued, “But if you’re a start-up design studio like us, Working Not Working is a great tool. There isn’t anything like it.”
That said, he’s the first to insist that having the right place to look is only part of the equation. Many of the creatives on Working Not Working have great portfolios and are universally considered talented. But Alex isn’t just going to hire someone because they show promise.
“I think the biggest misconception in creative hiring is thinking that talent is everything,” Alex explained. “It’s about so much more than that. It’s about culture. It’s about attitude, intelligence, taste, flexibility… A lot goes into finding the right people.”
In other words, talent and skill are just prerequisites. But many of the so-called intangibles are difficult — if not impossible — to evaluate in one or two conversations and a glance through someone's portfolio. Currently, Alex’s solution to the problem is to build up a roster of talented, reliable freelancers in each of the areas he needs.
Freelance Before Full-Time
Alex has six full-time staff at his agency. They’re people whose attitude and aptitude line up with his vision for company culture and output. Eventually, he’ll add more full-time seats to his agency. But in the meantime, he’s building up a network of awesome freelancers.
Every time CENTER accepts a project they don’t have the capacity to handle alone, Alex finds one (or more) freelancers to collaborate with his team. Sometimes, that means reaching out to people he’s already established a relationship with. And other times, that means putting up a new ad on Working Not Working.
When he does, he often gets over 300 applicants on the platform. And anyone whose work he likes, he’ll talk to. Even if they’re not a fit for the project immediately at hand, Alex believes it’s time well-spent.
“Maybe I'll meet them and not have a project that's perfect for them at that moment. But in a month, or two months, or six months, I might think, ‘Oh yeah, that person I met with that one time, maybe they’re available.’ It’s all about filling the funnel,” he said.
He also hopes that some of his trusted freelancers will one day become full-time employees of CENTER. That said, he’s the first to acknowledge that you can’t count on testing freelancers to provide you with an endless supply of full-time employees. Not every freelancer wants to find a full-time job; in fact, many are happy picking and choosing their projects and working with a variety of clients.
The question of whether to hire freelancers or full-time staff is perennial in creative hiring. For Alex, the answer is a mix of both, heavily weighted toward freelance — for now, at least. He enjoys the ability to get to know creatives on individual projects. That way, if they aren’t a perfect fit, there’s no lasting harm done. And if they gel with his team, he knows he can call them again in the future.
Why Alex’s Creative Team Delivers Great Work Every Time
As mentioned earlier, Alex prioritizes the quality of work produced by his team over profit. That means he’s dedicated significant time, energy, and resources into finding ways to get the best work from his roster of talent.
Here are the most salient takeaways.
Let Them Choose Interesting Projects
It’s hard to give your best effort to something that doesn’t excite you. Every job has its ‘boring’ aspects, but if you’re constantly working on the same old, same old, it’s difficult to spark that innovative fire that results in the most interesting, creative output.
To make sure his people are engaged, Alex prioritizes more interesting engagements and tries to keep things varied. But then he goes a step further than many agency owners in his position do: whenever he’s considering a new client, he runs them by his team.
“Every project that comes in here, my team knows about. We talk about it. A lot of these projects, sometimes they take six months, sometimes they're a year... So if we're going to dedicate a lot of our time and energy and focus on these things, we all have to want to do it,” he said.
Their collective decision-making has brought them to a variety of interesting projects, including work for…
Conbody, a fitness business that hires ex-inmates
Several cannabis brands
Kin Euphorics, a non-alcoholic drink made from botanicals
New Direct to Consumer products in the food, drink, beauty, and wellness spaces
“Our goal is to make them part of the zeitgeist. We want to create brands that people are talking about, that people actually use and are impacted by. Right now, we live in the moment where the brands of the future are literally being born, and that's really exciting. So we want to build the next generation of icon brands,” he said.
This practice requires the freedom to turn down projects you don’t like, something Alex realizes isn’t possible for everyone — yet. But it can be a goal for the future, even if it’s not possible today.
Give Them Ownership Over a Reasonable Number of Projects
Do you do your best work when someone micromanages you? It’s unlikely.
Giving creative people the room to work is a key part of getting great results for each project. That’s not to say you drop a brief in their lap and don’t check in until the project is complete. But it does mean that your role is more advisory than dictatorial.
“I am giving them a huge opportunity to build brands from scratch and to create their vision and build identities for exciting projects,” he said. “You have to give designers a ton of freedom and responsibility.”
He also makes sure not to give his team too much to do.
“It's not about working people into the ground. You don’t want them working until two in the morning every night and on weekends. I want people to love coming to this office and like what we're working on. So I want them to do the work in the timeframe that works best for them,” he said.
“To do things that are really great and that we're all proud of takes a certain amount of time, passion, energy, and attitude,” he added
It’s easy to load up your team with so much work that they have to execute whatever they’re able to instead of what they really want to try. But when they have time to pour themselves into a project, the results speak for themselves.
Create a Work Culture They Care About
“My goal is to build a company that people are dying to work for,” Alex said. “It's a place where people want to stay for a while because they can do the best work of their careers. And that’s because I'm holding myself accountable for doing the best work of my career.”
That means Alex does whatever is necessary to give them that conducive work environment — interesting projects with the time and space to do them well — plus create a culture that everyone enjoys. It’s why he’s so careful about who he hires to his full-time team, and why he focuses on working with impactful products and brands.
Keeping Up with the Balancing Act
None of what Alex has accomplished with CENTER is easy. In order to give his team the best projects, he has to find the right balance between high profile, high-paying gigs, and the clients whose message is worth getting behind, even if they can’t pay as much.
He spends a lot of time making sure the numbers work. But his whole team is happy doing what they do best, and he couldn’t be more proud of how far they’ve come together. It’s made work a place he wants to be, rather than a place he has to be.
And that leads to another exercise in equilibrium — time at work vs. time at home. His wife, an entrepreneur with a company of her own, often helps him stay on track.
“The studio is so important to me and I put so much into it. The hard part is not doing it every minute of every day. But it's so easy to lose sight of what you cared about when you started. It's a marathon. I'm trying to do this for the rest of my life; there's no rush,” he said.
“I have some friends that run bigger studios and bigger companies. And I’ve seen that just because you're bigger doesn't make you happier. I'm pretty happy with a small but mighty team that does incredible things, great design work, and has a little bit of time to enjoy their lives.”