creative leadership

From power-hungry arseholes to empathetic enablers - the evolution of creative leadership

In a new era of leadership, a new gen of creative captains is emerging. Ahead of a series of profiles of them we spoke to some established leaders

By ian darby

There's no doubt the nature of creative leadership has changed - a reason, therefore, for the emergence of a new generation of creative leaders. Creative Salon will be launching a series of profiles of these fresh and exciting creative captains of our industry, but ahead of this series we spoke to some established leaders.

Creative leadership in advertising isn't something that's formally taught yet provides a vital spark in firing the best work from agencies.

Today's more established CCOs and ECDs have seen major changes in the nature of leadership style required to succeed in both nurturing talent and creating the very best ideas for advertisers.

But what's changed and why? And how do experienced creative leaders view the vital skills, whether practical or emotional, that are required to succeed in future?

Few of the current crop of experienced creative chiefs started off aspiring to the role. They were driven mainly by their interest in ideas, and creativity more generally. As Alex Grieve, the global and London CCO at BBH, puts it: "I just wasn't the type".

However, they were heavily influenced by those who led before and, broadly, they came through a system that erected barriers between the top creative(s) and the rest of the department. An "us and them" divide that saw creative teams granted an audience to be told which of their ideas, if any, were up to snuff.

At times this could be a "cold interface" not conducive to the best work, says Jules Chalkley, chief ECD at Ogilvy UK. Grieve says agency creative departments in the 1990s were about "command and control". He adds: "The men, there were little or no women, who assumed those roles were big characters with big egos who thought empathy was a new brand of perfume. Or that was the impression because that was the expectation."

Those "big characters" could be more encouraging up close than they first appeared. But Grieve says: "I was lucky. I also know, and let’s not mince words, that there were some narcissistic, power-hungry arseholes who made people’s lives hell."

Things were different for Laura Jordan Bambach, president and CCO at Grey London. Inspired by Simon Waterfall, founding partner of digital agency Deepend, she left Australia to move to London to take a role as designer at the agency in the late 1990s. She found the creative leadership there to be open and inspiring: "There was a real spirit of being the pirates of the advertising world. It was very interesting, very experimental leadership. There were all sorts of different models, and a lot of experimentation and bravery from clients."

A new breed of leader

The impact of new technology and this wave of fresh agencies can't be understated in terms of an impact on leadership styles. Alex Grieve says that a more collaborative approach became necessary in the early 2000s as the growth of the internet reshaped creative ideas: "Not out of some sudden collective realisation that we should all be kinder to one another, sadly, it doesn’t work like that, but rather because the nature of our work changed."

Grieve feels that this led to a greater focus on "empathy over ego", and "autonomy over autocracy", and to a situation where "people no longer worked for the creative leader, the creative leader worked for the people."

Rob Doubal, co-president and CCO at McCann London, points out that this shift is antithetical to the broader autocratic political stirrings around the world. "We are becoming more Swedish, less Trumpian" he says.

Greater diversity in creative departments is also having an impact on the nature of leadership. Laura Jordan Bambach is excited to see more variety and balance among the emerging leaders, whether that's in terms of ethnicity, gender, or skillset. "People who've never been in charge of agencies before finally have the opportunity to do so," she says.

Rob Doubal says that the most important strengths a leader can bring today are "humility, clarity, reflection, and proportionality." Being accessible to people is part of the role, says Jules Chalkley, because understanding a wider creative community and helping them to be in a position to create new ideas is essential. "It's about how you set the agenda, culture and space to be brave and creative."

Future leadership styles

There's room for the model of creative leadership to evolve further but this could be placed under threat due to the looming spectre of recession, and lack of faith in political systems. "Some may be encouraged to think tough times require a return to tough leaders. The absolute opposite is required," says Alex Grieve.

Rob Doubal argues that successful future creative leaders will espouse the values of "diplomacy, truth, passion and courage". While Jules Chalkley believes that new ways to deliver great work will emerge from inspired leadership: "You've got to show people the potential that lies within themselves. At the beginning I think creatives were there to kind of feed the machine, and now they're here to grow and develop, and evolve their creative brains. And creative leadership is about helping them to achieve, to find their true potential in the creative sphere."

Leaders talk about a future that is more open-minded, connecting people not only in the creative department but across the agency and in other organisations with new ways of exploring the world and expressing themselves. In achieving this, empathy will remain the most important value, says Laura Jordan Bambach, in terms of "getting into the shoes of the audience."

However, there's a flipside, she argues, in that tomorrow's creative leader will be stronger if they embrace the business side of the agency world. This is vital because clients have become more structured, procurement departments play more of a role in decision-making, and "everyone's had to get more, dare I say it, suited."

From the perspective of her current position at Grey, combining a business leadership role with a creative one, she says: "I'd like to see more creatives get into the business. We often get sidelined as not wanting to know about the numbers because it will spoil creative ideas. But there's a lot that creative people can bring in building a really exciting business. I'd love to see more of that."

Tomorrow's creative leader as a dynamic blend of Frida Kahlo and Sheryl Sandberg? It's a compelling notion.


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