How to lead creatively: Let people shine, build a decent culture and don’t lose sight of craft

Creative leadership panellists at #CEFutureLeaders

What does it mean to be a creative director today? Executive creative directors from Valenstein & Fatt, Adam&EveDDB, AKQA and Isobar recently shared their insights on effective creative leadership – clue: it’s all about the people.

Speaking at the #CEFutureLeaders event last week, held by Creative Equals in London to promote the growth of female creative leaders, agency creative leadership discussed the importance of allowing creatives to shine, the role of craft and how leaders can build the right culture within agencies.

Here, we share our three takeaways of what it takes to lead a creative team.

1. Build a culture that’s more than beanbags

Culture is not about beanbags and football tables, said Vicki Maguire, executive creative director at Valenstein & Fatt. Instead, it’s about building an environment that empowers and understands creatives.

“I’ve worked in a number of agencies; I’ve written plenty of mission statements to go up on agency walls and sat on a lot of beanbags. But that isn’t culture. Culture is about ownership, leeway and empowerment.”

Richard Brim, executive creative director at Adam&EveDDB, added that it is the responsibility of the creative leader to ensure teams are fulfilled when they leave the office at the end of the year.

He said: “You’ve got to make sure that when people walk out of the door at Christmas, that they have at least one piece of work from the year that they’re insanely proud of, and it’s easier said than done. It’s hard, but as a leader you need to start looking at that very early on.”

2. Let your people shine

Creative directors have a responsibility to build up other people instead of just focusing on their own success. “Hire people that are better than you,” said Maguire. She raised the issue of the specific breed of creative leader “who thinks that their credibility is how big their title is”, adding that the behaviour of such individuals means that creatives working underneath them simply aren’t being given a chance.

“I’ve made a conscious effort to build a legacy, rather than a folder. My legacy will be the teams, talent and the work that I’ve built around. It is your job to get the best out of people,” she added.

The traditional measure of success for creative roles is the progression to creative director and executive creative director, but what if the industry introduced a different track for creative progression – for those who want to focus purely on the craft?

AKQA executive creative director Wayne Deakin said: “Not everyone wants to be a creative director – don’t lose the value of that. Just because you get more senior, doesn’t mean you have to take on leadership roles automatically – some people don’t want to.”

Maguire said it is the job of creative leadership to identify people’s skills and strong points as opposed to forcing a particular route. “Whatever you want to do, we will accommodate that. If you want to be a craftsperson, do not think that the next obvious progression has to be creative director. It’s our job to evaluate your skills, whether they are leadership skills or whether they are craft, and manage those accordingly.”

3. Don’t lose your craft

Meanwhile, Cheyney Robinson, chief experience officer for EMEA/APAC at Isobar, said it is still important for creative leaders to maintain their connection with the work itself, or risk being deemed irrelevant.

“It’s vitally important not to lose your craft. You cannot become known for direction. You cannot lose your core of being a creative. Never become disenfranchised from what you’re actually making. You need to have a seat at the table.”

However, she added: “I’ve never met a chief executive who gives a shit about a typeface. You need to understand the strategic value as well as understanding the value of the creative process.”

Creative Equals works with agencies and recruiters in the creative industries to redress the balance of equality; currently, just 12 per cent of London creative directors are women.

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Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the monthly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

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