“Our job is not to control but to enable & inspire”

Federico Gaggio spent eight years at Discovery Communications, latterly as VP Brand and ECD. Now an independent consultant, he is one of the most respected creative leaders in the world of television.

What are the qualities needed to run a team of creative people and how do they differ from running any team?

A fundamental quality of leadership is authenticity. A leader’s primary job is to inspire and mobilise people around common goals, and this can only happen if the person is truly passionate about their own values and beliefs, and is able to build trust by staying true to them. To mobilise others also requires understanding what motivates them. Creativity is a mindset: those who develop it tend to be motivated by the opportunity to create something bigger than themselves.

Other essential qualities for creative leadership include empathy, curiosity, kindness, imagination, humility, passion and adaptability. Most of these qualities, as indeed goes for creative leadership itself, may well be essential for leaders in any field, not just the ‘creative’ ones. Most people are vastly more creative and capable than they recognise.

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Federico Gaggio

Leadership is about defining a clear vision for the team or organisation and being able to execute against it. There is a common myth that the leader doesn’t get involved in execution. That makes no sense to me. Sir John Hegarty reminds us that great work is 80% idea and 80% execution. A creative leader’s job is to enable others to excel and give their best. Leadership is about aligning all parts of an organisation around a common vision, and, crucially, the management of everyday changes. It requires adaptability, the ability to listen and to understand people, adjusting one’s behaviour according to their level of autonomy and maturity. Since everyone is different, a leader needs to know when to empower and delegate, when to challenge, and when to direct and support.

Creative leaders understand they need to nurture human relationships over business relationships. Our job is not to command and control, but rather enable, inspire and support, so the key is to build a culture that cultivates talent and develops creative leadership at all levels of an organisation. DDB Worldwide chairman Keith Reinhard suggested  that the right organisational structure for a creative-led organisation is an inverted pyramid, an upside-down hierarchy with the leaders at the bottom — supporting the rest of the team, up to the most junior practitioners at the top.

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Eurosport ads featured close-ups of athletes during gruelling moments or victory. The sharemypassion hashtag will also be used on social media to encourage fans to share their own sporting stories

What is the best way to employ research effectively?

I have a love-hate relationship with research. I love research because it is an essential part of any creative endeavour — in the sense that you always need to know the problem well, and study, even empathise with your audience or customer in order to identify key insights on which to base your ideas for an appropriate creative solution. The question is how to design the research, and how to use the findings. Good research identifies authentic needs and provides essential insights. It brings you as close as possible to walking in the customer’s shoes. Companies who solve problems in the real world (like IDEO) do extensive ethnographic research, and iterate on it, prototyping and testing repeatedly to inform the design process and refine the solution. Ethnographers observe people’s behaviour in their own environment, sharing their experience and talking things through. We don’t often see this in branding or advertising.

Bad research, often consisting of sampling opinions about concepts or ideas, can be deadly to the creative process, as people tend to prefer what they recognise and dismiss new ideas at first. It can be manipulated and used as cover to avoid taking risks. Focus groups can produce valuable insights, but that largely depends on the questions and the type of analysis.

The most useful way to test an idea is to release it into the real world and measure people’s responses; live testing and iteration are now possible thanks to digital media, so you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket before going live.

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Corporate communications use the brand’s navy and red colour palette, while a secondary palette of brighter colours will be used on merchandise
Corporate communications use the brand’s navy and red colour palette, while a secondary palette of brighter colours will be used on merchandise

How do you prove the value of creativity to non-creative people?

By using it to help solve problems in the real world. But I don’t really think anyone is ‘non-creative’. As Sir Ken Robinson famously said, all humans are creative, even those who think they aren’t. To help solve a problem you need to understand it well, and make decisions on what strategies and resources are needed. That is challenging, because those who don’t see themselves as creative assume a creative person’s job is to make things look good, that we are only needed for craft and execution. This often results in excluding creative practitioners from the earlier, crucial stages where insights are gathered and briefs are set. The key to proving value is to go upstream. The brief can be the portal connecting the two worlds, which is why it is essential to have the right brief from the start. A good brief ought to be clear about focus and purpose, providing key insights about the people for whom the story, product or service is intended. Some client briefs tend to focus on the what and when. This is a clear sign the person who wrote it does not appreciate the value of creativity in solving business problems.

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On-air graphics feature a dashboard-style device, with Lineto typeface Alpha used in white against a photographic background

A useful brief focuses on the whom and why. A first step in proving the value of creativity is to work with your client and rewrite the brief. You both need a good grasp of the business context as well as the creative process. It is essential to learn the language of business, immerse ourselves in the problem and demonstrate our value through making, then measuring the impact of the work. If you use subjective, abstract or purely aesthetic language you reinforce the preconception that you are just a decorator.

Failure is an important part of the creative process — how do you allow people to fail and learn from failure?

This is one of the hardest things to do in a corporate environment. We ought to give ourselves permission to fail, but we can only really do it when we can afford to build in time and resource within the parameters of the creative process (rarely). In big companies, generally, failure is not capitalised upon as learning: it often gets brushed under the carpet. I often hear grand C-Suite talk about creativity and risk-taking, but no one in the organisation dares to follow that up with actual permission to fail. It really depends on organisational culture: whether or not leaders, senior executives and managers consciously and consistently nurture a creative culture of innovation, allowing people to fail as a necessary step towards success. Behaviours that celebrate success but conceal failure actively discourage experimentation.

Does the leadership engage in long-term planning for creativity and innovation? Does it create a safe environment built on mutual trust, where people have space and time to fail and feel they have permission to take risks? When it does, it allocates enough resources and encourages managers to reward people for trying.

This does not mean putting the business at risk. Failure is a natural occurrence in creative problem-solving, but creative leaders need to balance exploration with exploitation. In leadership jargon this is called ‘ambidexterity’ — the ability to explore and invest in new ventures while exploiting already established and profitable activities.

How difficult is it to engender a specific culture within a department? How do you do it?

The key challenge for creative leaders is to build and nurture a creative culture that enables collaboration, risk-taking and innovation. Understanding the elements that shape the culture makes you appreciate how intrinsically connected those elements are to the other parts of a business. In simple terms, culture is defined as ‘the way things are done around here’. Whereas a team or company structure is its formal organisation, the culture is the informal organisation.

My last big project started as a brand-building effort and turned in a culture-building, organisational transformation and change management project all wrapped into one. This, it turns out, is the most effective way to evolve an established brand into a truly modern one. The process is still ongoing, but the course is set. However I do not think this would be possible without the vision and resolve of a new leadership team, unburdened by deep-rooted assumptions and empowered to burn existing silos and challenge the old culture.

As an example, in a team where work is allocated competitively, egos are nurtured and heroes are celebrated, people tend to avoid sharing ideas for fear of losing ownership. That makes collaboration more difficult.

People tend to resist change unless they are leading the change. It takes a lot more to change a culture than to devise a new strategy. Culture is what happens when people interact with other people. Culture ‘eats strategy for breakfast’ because no matter how good the new strategy is, it is the people which need to implement it that will make it succeed or fail.

Modern brands are people-centric organisations driven by a shared purpose that meets human needs. Their leaders know they need to build  and nurture an organisational culture that will enable every person to pursue the common vision to the best of their abilities. They focus on the relationship between individual and organisational values.

Building a creative culture in a large organisation that still operates as a traditional, industrial-era corporation can be very challenging. Top down behaviour, hierarchy, command and control, career ladders, vested interests, silos and short term thinking are all obstacles to building a creative culture and a modern brand. Endorsing and communicating positive values like ‘customer focus’, ‘innovation’ and ‘accountability’ is great, but it needs to be followed by actions and behaviours that shape a culture living and breathing those values. Too often the pressure of quarterly results leads to behaviours that prioritise short-term goals.

I believe that the actions you take are even more important than the stories you tell. My own experience at Discovery shows that: if you can gain the trust of business leaders and work with them to align people around values they authentically share, the actions and behaviours of relatively few people can be infectious and help build a strong creative culture throughout the organisation.

Our new Creative Leaders initiative is also introduced in the June 2016 issue, out now. Order your copy here.

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