Running a creative team is often the complete opposite to being a ‘creative’. You have to get used to the fact that you’re no longer the genius, you’re the idiot. I’m not sure who, but someone put it brilliantly when they said: “take none of the credit and all of the blame”.
If you’re doing it right your job is to get out of the way of others and let them be as good as they can be. You want to be almost invisible. A few years ago I realised that my work was no longer the direct output of the company. My creative output had become the place, the culture, and the people around me – if I’m helping others to do good work, I’m doing my job. I shouldn’t be looking at individual pieces of work or looking for my fingerprints on them.
But it is really hard to sit on your hands while other people are making things. I guess the dark art is how to influence people to do what’s right, but let them feel like it’s all their idea.
How do you organise projects?
As part of lots of changes we’ve been making recently, we’re trialling dividing the agency into smaller, more autonomous groups. Each group has responsibility not only for the work they do, but also for how they want to do it. Smaller, more empowered groups, with the right support from management seems to be the right way to do things. But like I said, we’re figuring it all out as we go.
A huge part of the management team’s job becomes creating a brilliant culture and environment in which to do great work. And when new opportunities arise, we work with the teams to cast the work appropriately. But beyond that it’s down to them to decide how best to tackle it.
Instead of ECDs (Executive Creative Directors if you’re not in the world of pompous made-up long titles with acronyms) being overseers and signoff-ers, this new structure uses us more as coaches or supports. So instead of sitting at the top of the organisation we’ve put ourselves at the bottom (figuratively). Helping to push people up.
Having worked at both tech companies and agencies, the biggest difference is in where the bulk of time is spent on a project. In most ad agencies, there’s historically been a lot of time spent thinking, conceptualising, packaging work, presenting, re-presenting, amending, etc. Then you have a relatively small window at the end when you actually make the thing. And that’s entirely appropriate when you’re working for big clients who need things to be ‘certain’ before proceeding.
The culture at Google, well Creative Lab anyway, is often the complete flip of that. And the same is true of digital agencies I’ve worked at. The initial ideas are figured out more quickly, and you get into the execution as soon as possible. The process of ‘making’ is actually where a lot of the figuring-out gets done. The idea that might have sounded amazing on paper can often be less good once you start playing around with it. And, personally, I’d much rather know that earlier in the process than later.
A lot of people think prototyping is just something you do with technology but actually you can prototype anything – you can prototype ads, films, a book. It’s just about putting something in front of someone and saying “it’s going to be a bit like that, but better”. I find it incredibly liberating to get out and just start shooting, editing, writing, or coding a rough version of something. As creative people we love making stuff more than sitting in meetings talking about making stuff, don’t we?
There’s real collaboration and there’s fake collaboration, where you appear to want to work with people but really you just want to control it all yourself. The extent of these fake collaborations is unfortunately ‘make what I’ve got in my head, and don’t deviate from the programme’. Which is incredibly disempowering, and doesn’t get the best out of anyone.
I’ve always found this way of being most odd. I guess it’s coming from a tech background where everyone shares and comes up with ideas together. It feels like advertising agencies are starting to figure out how to bring in all sorts of people and allowing them to make the work better.
Proving your value
I mentioned earlier one of the differences between Google and Wieden+Kennedy. But in terms of proving the value of what you do the two companies are actually incredibly similar: it’s all about what you make.
At Google it’s about the projects you’re involved with and the problems you solve – and ultimately what you ship / launch. The same is true at W+K – everyone talks about how ‘The Work Comes First’ and that’s really one of the driving principles of the company. Both cultures are incredibly meritocratic and highly-talented people who do great stuff will rise as far as they want, as quickly as they want.
Principles that define good creative leaders
People have to find their own authentic version of what it means to be a leader. Assuming that all leaders are the same shape and size is completely wrong. There are brilliant quiet leaders and brilliant shouty, extroverted leaders – I’ve worked with both. The one thing they have in common is authenticity. You need to find a style that you’re going to wear proudly and, most importantly, comfortably every day.
The biggest challenge is that, as companies, we hire great practitioners and expect at some point that they’ll transition into great leaders. How do we give these people a more stepped form of progression, where they are gradually given more responsibility as they develop, rather than one day just turning round and expecting them to suddenly lead? How can you start training the most junior people in your company to be leaders from their very first day?