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June 11, 2020

5 Tines of Great Creative Leadership

David G. Brashears

5 Tines of Great Creative Leadership

In an advertising organization, the weight of cultivating amazing creative work is shared across the entire team.  The ideation process at the most successful agencies requires a collaborative mindset and an overarching desire to serve the client’s problem most effectively. 

When working under tight deadlines and demanding creative briefs, it’s leadership that keeps the process moving in a productive and innovative direction.  While there are those that have a higher expectation of providing leadership to the creative process because of their position, creative leadership can—and should in most cases—be developed and recognized throughout every level of the team.

Here are 5 things that we believe helps a creative leader drive great work within an agency.  These are things that can be implemented by any creative professional, but are critical for those tasked with leading a team to success for their clients.

Tine 1: Own the Opportunity

Our agency went through an organization-wide book review of “Extreme Ownership” last year.  The experience helped give every member of our team the opportunity to own our work.

“The leader must own everything in her or his world.” – Jocko Willink

Ownership is where leadership grows and cultivates in any organization.  A creative organization is a dynamic, diverse, and fluid environment for both staff and clients.  Those that learn to personally own their ability to contribute to the organization are going to lead by default.  This is where habits of displacing blame and cultivating excuses can derail projects, or give opportunity for work to be considered “acceptable.” 

The choice to own whatever is within your abilities to influence doesn’t mean a professional becomes a tyrant or a bully, however.  Great creative owners will seek collaborators that can help improve the end product or offer new perspectives on a client problem.  At the end of the day, however, they will insure the work is completed on time and within the scope of expectations.

Tine 2: Stop.  Collaborate and Listen

 “If each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” – David Ogilvy

If an agency is good at hiring talented creative professionals to join their team, they’re only half way to being truly successful.  You have to be willing, and able, to tap into that new resource of genius in order to truly leverage the investment.  Spending a lot of time on “that’s not how we do things here,” will only frustrate talented professionals to seek other opportunities, or worse stay and become disengaged and complacent about the work. 

Creative leaders crave the opportunity to collaborate with other creative minds.  Having a willingness to listen, dialogue, test, and iterate on ideas at every level of an agency team is how good work turns into industry leading work.

Tine 3: I am The Solution

If you have people within your organization that have the habit of bringing you the problem in one hand and a solution in the other, move heaven and earth to keep them!  We live in a world of “it can’t be done” and “that’s not my job” perspectives, and critics that can only see the problems. 

“The reward for being a good problem solver is to be heaped with more and more difficult problems to solve.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

Great leaders aren’t people that are always right.  They are professionals that are willing to take a stand to navigate a problem.  Every agency has gone through projects or times that just seem untenable.  Every professional has the same decision in those moments; shrink from the issue and wait for someone else to come along and fix it, or to make the decision to find a solution.

Now, being a solutions-oriented person doesn’t mean you will always be out by yourself with only your own skill trying to manage every problem that arises.  Please see the section on collaboration covered earlier.

The point is that in any organization you really only have two choices on what you’ll contribute to—the problem or the solution.

Tine 4: Be a Rock or Your Name is Mud

Creativity requires a lot of flexibility and complex decision-making practices.  So, when I say “be a rock” I’m not invoking a need to be unmovable and stiff.  Being a rock as a creative leader means being consistent and having the ability to be divorced from personal prejudices in order to serve the needs of the work.

“The creative people I admire seem to share many characteristics: A fierce restlessness. Healthy cynicism.  A real-world perspective.  An ability to simplify. Restraint. Patience. A genuine balance of confidence and insecurity.  And most importantly, Humanity.” – David Droga

Personal and professional discipline is core to growing as a creative leader.  It requires the need to take on the criticisms of others and be an example.  Great creative leaders don’t become flustered when things become tense or combative.  Being a good leader requires the ability to disengage when people are undermining other professionals, and being willing to confront directly any issues that need to be resolved.  Great creative leaders are not gossips or manipulative, but willing to be upfront and generous with their perspective in a constructive manner.

At the same time, they can be stubborn to protect the quality of the work being produced.  Leaders at the most successful agencies seem to share an ability to balance the demands of compliance to the client’s needs while creating a seemingly open realm of possibilities for other creative professionals. 

Tine 5: Assume Everyone Is a Professional

Creating a true perspective of empathy is so critical to create amazing work.  It’s also incredibly difficult for most people to see beyond their own personal perspective and prejudices. 

“I think we all have empathy.  We may not have enough courage to display it.” – Maya Angelou

There’s a liberating power in actively choosing to withhold judgment while we develop another person’s perspective.  In advertising, this is probably one of the most powerful tools a great creative leader can invest in. If we want to have a positive influence on those around us, our first goal should be to attempt to truly know who is around us that we want to influence. 

Poor creative leaders can be very self-involved in how they value messaging.  It can cause them to self-validate on past success rather than having the courage to reach out to the next uncomfortable opportunity.  If you find yourself regularly referencing work that was done in years past, you might consider a self-evaluation.  Those around you, especially your client, want to believe that your best ideas are ahead of you and your creative team.  Bring an energy of wonder to every new project, big or small, and see how it impacts your agency team.

This is also critical when working with other departments within your organization.  There is a timeless struggle between the accounts team, the executive team, and the creative team that every agency deals with.  The best way to defend against attitudes and actions that can negatively impact work for clients is to be open to one another’s perspective.

Creative leadership needs to be capable of understanding the equally stressful and complicated tasks that professionals in other departments are navigating, and likewise other members of the agency team need to be able to communicate clearly and give realistic insights to the creative team. The practice of undermining other departments within the creative team is poison and creates a closed loop of compromised communication, which leads to compromised work. 

Having creative leaders at every level of your organization can be one of the most powerful tools to moving work to a higher level of greatness.  The investment one makes in themselves and others can be one of the most rewarding of their career. 

Creativity is a human discipline that can be stressful and deeply personal by its nature.  However, there’s also a satisfaction that comes from creating a message that has genuine and relevant impact on a community that is like nothing else you will experience.  Be a great creative leader, and others will seek every opportunity to share in your success.