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How do you solve a problem like... adland egos?

Can you take ego out of the creative process – and should you?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners.

In the creative industries, it can be hard to divorce an idea from its author. But big characters can often put colleagues in the shade – and push through bad ideas by force of personality rather than consensus. On the other hand, pride in one’s work and a little self-confidence can go a long way – and who among us has never felt the sting of rejection?

This isn’t just a problem for creative teams. So, we asked strategists and planners, as well as top chief creative officers, creative directors and art directors, for their advice on how to sidestep ego.

How do you solve a problem like... adland egos?

Kathy Delaney, global chief creative officer of Publicis Health and Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness

Creativity is an inherently vulnerable process and while we don’t want to stroke unfounded egos, we also need to be careful not to crush nascent ones. There is, of course, ego involved in creation, but leaders set an appropriately supportive and collaborative tone by ensuring all team members have equal opportunities to have their best ideas seen and heard.

In the ‘before times’ we’d anonymously display creative work, so people wouldn’t be biased based on the creator’s title or seniority and could democratically vote for the best work. Processes like this are more time-consuming, but worth every extra minute.

Max Pinas, executive creative director, Dept

From big ideas to executions, creative concepts are group efforts from agencies and clients; providing a dynamic that can be nurtured into a positive outcome. When something memorable is made, it’s a moment to be shared. But, ultimately, everyone that matters knows who’s the main driver of the creative process.

By helping these drivers shine as individuals in talks, pitches, posts and award shows, we can fuel their humble egos in a positive way. It’s about striking a balance between sharing creative concepts and creating a celebratory podium. This is the way to foster positive team spirit while making creativity shine brightly all around.

Alex Grieve, chief creative officer at AMV BBDO

Ego emerges when people feel insecure. Like fame, it is a mask that eats into the face. Therefore the way to dampen ego is to create security. The single most important thing I have come to understand is this: small, empowered teams get shit done. The raw thrill and challenge of autonomy ensures people have to come together. It enables a culture of first among equals to thrive. It requires everyone to be authentic; a person, not a ‘personality’ (God, I loathe that word). It unites because, simply put, there is no other option. Fail to do so and you will fail. And so it creates trust and with trust comes security. When the individual ego defers to the collective ego extraordinary things happen. Shit gets done.

Livvy Moore, head of creative and production, This Here

Here are the things we’ve done to help stop the ego-driven ways of working within our own teams, projects and culture. Firstly: power to the juniors. It’s my firm belief that creativity isn’t enhanced by seniority – you simply learn how to articulate it and steer it better. In any creative situation, we give as much chance to the intern as we do the creative director to come up with the perfect ideas.

Secondly: make your own fucking coffee. I once worked with a creative director who sent the female interns to the shop to get him chocolate and coffee. I vowed from that day on I would never do the same or allow it to happen under my watch. We instill a no-ego policy across all aspects of working with This Here, down to making your own brews – even when you’re the most senior in the room.

Thirdly: it’s not my idea, it’s ours. Many agencies have creatives go off on their own and come up with their masterpiece. They present something deeply personal with little room for edits. This is old, exclusive and ineffective. Instead, we opt for brainstorming together – and by the end of it, the idea feels like it has been created by, and is owned by, all involved in the project.

Finally: we, not me. Our chief executive officer (Jemima Garthwaite) once gave me this piece of advice and I’ve carried it ever since. We encourage everyone to use the phrase we instead of me wherever possible when talking about creative work. This enables group ownership and pride in work, empowerment of the entire team down to the intern, and leaves less space for egos to fill.

Nikhil Panjwani, creative director, BBH Singapore

Based on LinkedIn, every ad creative today is either judging, or winning, or at least shortlisted for an award. We’re all killing it. Yay to all of us!

When the ego wins, the work loses. It’s good to remember that we make ads for a living. We don’t save lives or change the world. We are not maestros like Beethoven composing original symphonies. At best, we are DJs entertaining people with a catchy remix. Another thing that helps is to work with people who are more talented than you. And whenever you’re suffering from delusions of grandeur, ask your five-year-old kid to take a look at that award-winning masterpiece you’re so proud of. See if you get as many likes from him as you did from your last social feed.

Rachel Clarke, founding partner, Strat House

One thing that would help separate ego from creative work is a blind review process. We all know of the blind hiring process – removing identifying elements that could lead those recruiting to make assumptions about the applicant in order to increase diversity in the selection processes. Some news publications run a blind process for their journalism interns, making the choice from the work alone.

It would work just as well for the assessment of creative work. Removing the team names and the creative personalities from the review mix lets the work stand by itself. Not only does this remove the ego element, but it also removes the impact of conscious and unconscious bias.

Rosh Singh, managing director, Unit9

Removing individual ego from the creative process is the only way to ensure longevity. Individual success is worthy of celebration, of course. But there shouldn’t be any one individual who is more important than the company, the work or the merit of an idea. We succeed as a group and we fail as a group; no one individual owns success, but we can all join in it. The idea that creativity is an individual pursuit is dangerously antiquated. The old-school notion of an individual creative deity has been replaced by real-time collaboration, G-suite and Miro boards – creation via a hive-mind.

Nicola Kemp, editorial director, Creativebrief

Have you heard the one about the agency chief executive officer who called up his PR agency in despair on a Sunday morning ranting and raving about the coverage given to a fellow agency leader? Or the creative director who talks about himself in the third person without a hint of irony? A level of confidence that leaves you wondering why there aren’t as many headlines surrounding men struggling to contain their own egos as there are on women battling ‘imposter syndrome’.

We might be coming out of a global pandemic that has confined us to the four virtual walls of a Zoom call for much of the time, but industry egos are still alive and kicking – and not always in the right direction. High self-confidence is not in itself a bad thing, but combined with zero self-awareness, it can be a potentially toxic combination. As we look to build back better in the wake of the crisis, active listening should be at the very top of the business agenda. We all need to be asking, whose voices aren’t being heard and how do we amplify their points of view?

The radical act of bringing your whole self to work often involves leaving your ego at the door, owning up to your mistakes and acknowledging the strength of the three most underutilized words in business – I don’t know. For the ultimate folly of ego is you are so busy concentrating on polishing your own answer, you fail to listen to what anyone else has to say.

Kristine Axsater, lead creative strategist, Imagination

We’re fortunate to have a wide range of disciplines within the same building, so we include a diverse group of people (not just creatives) in brainstorms. Seniors are also obliged to bring a junior to creative meetings, and they are responsible for having their junior team member’s voice heard.

Sometimes we favor ‘brainwriting’ over brainstorming. Brainwriting is when you ask participants to write down their ideas independently, rather than generating ideas orally in a group setting. We start a session by allowing everyone to share their ideas, and then we work as a team to build on the ones that we feel could work.

Lucy Barbor, global strategy senior partner, Carat

Egos have no place in creativity. Instead, focus on creating the right conditions for helping people find the best in themselves and, therefore, the best ideas. Start by ensuring there is a diverse mix of people in the room, demographically and across disciplines, who are less likely to agree with one another. This contrast, blended with respectful working practices, challenges egos in the room and breaks down the myth of the ‘brilliant media planner’. It leads to better work that stands up to scrutiny.

In theory, we should be working towards a common goal, but this is a reputation-led industry and we’ve all experienced feeling that an idea has been ‘stolen’ from us. The more marginalized your voice, the more likely it is this will happen to you. Great leaders make space for people to speak up, they acknowledge all contributions, and this ultimately creates happier teams.

Dan Jude, executive creative director, Google and YouTube at Redwood BBDO

What does it mean to be an ECD? A decade ago, it was to be an Extremely Confident Dude; a gunslinging Don Draper, riding in on a tidal wave of creativity to save brands from the fate of mediocrity.

But as male and pale ECDs became increasingly stale – dining out on past glories while the world around them moved on – the Dude became a Dinosaur. Clients stopped buying reputation. They started buying the ideas, not the people who came up with them.

As a male and pale ECD, I can say from experience that the only way to avoid extinction is to extinguish the ego. Lose the ‘I’, embrace the ‘we’, and remember that you’re only as good as the team around you.

Tom Kennedy, senior art director, M&C Saatchi

To work as a creative, you need a bit of ego. We spend every day presenting our thoughts as the best answers to clients’ seemingly impossible tasks – and we need to believe in them. But for me, that’s where it should end. We aren’t important. The work is. In terms of taking credit, our industry is a diverse network of talented people collaborating to bring these concepts to life. By the end of any job, we’re small parts of huge teams. If you’re only focusing on ‘your bit’, you probably weren’t as important as you think you were.

Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer, Cheil Worldwide

Since I’m constantly collaborating with diverse teams across many geographies, there’s always a mix of egos involved. To avoid wasting energy on resolving ego issues, I have a method of working in sprint cycles; sharing ideas really early on, then collaborating on these initial ideas from the get-go. This way, no matter who the initial spark came from, the team are all involved in developing it. This means we end up building the ‘ego’ around the idea, not one individual. Counterintuitive as it sounds, this seems to strengthen the pride individuals have in the work over any ego they may otherwise project.

Gareth Leeding, executive creative director, UK, We Are Social

One of the key principles that we implement is a belief that an idea can come from anywhere. Sometimes people just need an opportunity to be heard. We look to empower every voice across the business in a number of ways; arguably the most celebrated is through Open Briefs, which is done via collaborative Google Slides. All our 200 people have been able to respond to six briefs for our biggest brands in the last year – it kills the idea that only creatives create. Three of our most successful projects last year came to life via this format, including our Snap Safe lens. It’s democratic, it’s fun and everyone celebrates when the unexpected voices are the ones that make an impact.

Emily King, commercial director at Tug

Big egos destroy creativity, particularly during collaborative team meetings. At Tug, we like to set an agenda so everyone’s clear on what’s expected of them. This also avoids too much focus on one person or idea. When leading a group discussion, we encourage people to ask direct questions – yes, it puts people on the spot, but it also means people are given the opportunity to be heard. Circling back to client objectives is also a good excuse to shift the conversation away from one person’s idea, encouraging wider debate while keeping the client front of mind. It’s important to keep what’s right for the client at the center of every conversation; never make it personal.

Dulcie Cowling, head of creative at Hell Yeah!

We operate a strict ‘no gits’ policy. This applies to everyone we work with; from intern to client. If we happen upon an oversized ego we politely decline to work with them again, no matter how great their talent or how fat their wallet. We’ve noticed that creativity flows better in a collaborative, positive environment, where people are unafraid to voice ideas or make seemingly silly suggestions. The best solutions are a result of a process, not a single person – to seek ownership over an idea is futile and a distraction from the job at hand. We are firm believers that an egoless, gitless environment makes for stronger creative, not to mention a more enjoyable experience.

Wayne Deakin, executive creative director, EMEA, Huge

Ego is often the enemy of creativity, but let’s not confuse passion and personality with ego. Making great creative is about hard graft and seeing all opportunities without personal agenda getting in the way. Ego is too often a one-dimensional perspective that stops people seeing things bigger than themselves and their experiences.

But let’s be real – friction and tension are necessary for good ideas to be born, even if it’s not trendy to say so. The trick is to create safe spaces where people can speak their mind and disagree without feeling judged. It’s about being passionate but not personal.

Each week, we pick a new topic for discussion. If you feel like sharing your tuppence worth, email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com to be included in future editions of this series.

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