How to build a creative culture

Advertising has changed, but has the creative director? In this series, Wunderman UK chief creative officer Ian Haworth explores the changing nature of the role in the modern media world.

How to build a creative culture

Every agency’s dream is to be creative. It’s the ultimate goal, not just for creative directors, but the client and the rest of the agency too.

But building the right environment in which an agency or client team can foster and produce great ideas is easier said than done. From my own experience, gained working with a host of creative teams in agencies across the globe, where some agencies won a shedload of awards, I can testify to that.

And it’s not until I’ve looked back retrospectively that I’ve begun to truly understand and identify the key ingredients which made these agencies produce great work and campaigns so naturally.

Agencies have the right personnel and talent, it’s all about how you can create an environment to help great ideas flow and foster.

Looking back, I believe that a creative culture has four key elements to it.

Everyone has to be on the same bus

The first crucial part lies in an understanding that everyone has to be on the same bus, heading to the same destination. My favourite example of an organisation enacting this rule is Nasa during the space race in the 60s. When JFK visited in 1962, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor, and asked what he did at Nasa. Instead of explaining that he was a janitor, and quite clearly cleaning, he responded: "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

In our world, this means they’d answer "making great work". In a really strong creative agency culture, everyone’s job is to help create good ideas regardless of what their job title is.

A clear sense of purpose is what matters. This means everyone also has to have ownership when ideas fall flat too. In too many agencies there’s a sense of abandonment if an idea doesn’t quite land with the client or, further down the line, with consumers. Everyone, from top to bottom, has to own, live and breathe the drive to create great work.

Believe everything is possible

Our own knowledge and experience has the ability to serve as a springboard, freeing you to let you think differently, or it can serve as an anchor. It’s key that everyone in your agency and team believes that anything, no matter how absurd or crazy the brief is, is do-able, and do it at the best of your ability.

I remember once we were given a brief for a dog horoscope. Seriously. But instead of everyone baulking (or barking) at the idea, we all got behind it, put all of our creative strength into the idea and we created a piece of work that everyone was proud of.

Similarly, it’s our role as an agency to help our clients believe everything is possible too. And just because an idea didn’t work with a client a year ago, it doesn’t mean it should now be left on the chip shop floor.

Clients are key

The biggest problem with creative work is usually that the ideas aren’t brave enough, so they fail to inspire when they get to market, or that when they’re presented to the client they’re too brave, and the client hits the safety button. The solution therefore has to be that you work collaboratively with the client, and create the same ownership of an idea, and belief that everything is possible, like you have with your team. You’ll need to push them at times, and you shouldn’t be afraid of doing so – they should feel uncomfortable about an idea, because it’s through taking risks that you make good work.

Remain humble

My biggest peeve lies in the belief that if you’re a creative director then you will have an ego the size of a planet, and you’ll be an arsehole. Some of the greatest minds I’ve ever worked with have been the most humble.

The best creative leaders don’t rule through fear. And they understand they’re only as good as their team. They don’t have an ego, and accept and respect that a great idea can come from anyone, no matter what level, on their team.

To really foster an atmosphere that builds great ideas, you have to be willing to let everyone contribute, develop their talents and share in the glory. It’s only then that you can create a true creative atmosphere.

Ian Haworth is executive creative director at Wunderman UK and EMEA

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