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The Influencers

Less a Creative, More a Director

INFLUENCER: Creative directors focus too much on creativity and not enough on leadership, writes TBWA\Helsinki's Ville Ohtonen

Less a Creative, More a Director

Paul Polman is the head of Unilever, but nobody expects him to be able to make soap. As CEO of a global corporation, his expertise lies in leadership skills – as it should.

Jose Mourinho, manager of Manchester United, can’t score like Lukaku, save like de Gea or pass like Pogba, but he doesn’t need to. Instead, he knows how to develop his players’ skills, adapt team tactics and communicate efficiently, both internally and externally – as he should.

In order to be a great leader, one doesn’t need to be a great maker, but rather possess the skills and traits that allow them to get the best out of their team. Being communicative and motivating, sharing information and responsibility, and recognising and adapting to the unique needs of each team member. This applies to all leaders in all fields: business, politics and even sports.

In the advertising industry, however, creative directors are allowed to make an exception. According to some unspoken agreement, the best creatives tend to become creative directors, whether they possess leadership skills – or indeed, do not. What’s worse is that most CDs don’t even take the slightest interest in developing themselves in this respect.

During the past few weeks, CDs throughout the world have been buzzing about the amazing creative work awarded in Southern France. But when was the last time your creative director was over the moon about a leadership book they read? A podcast they had listened to? A learning they had grasped? And whilst your CD would never hesitate to demand the 3000€ Cannes Lions pass, has he or she (although all too often it’s a ‘he’) ever spent a tenner on a leadership tutorial on Amazon? Or ever read one?

In any other industry, the best leaders invest significant amounts of time, effort and money in developing their leadership abilities. And this makes perfect sense, since their job is to lead, not make.

Similarly, a creative director’s job is – or at least should be – to lead: to pay attention to their team members’ worries, wishes and professional ambitions, help solve problems, enable their team’s growth and open communication. All basic stuff really, if you ever read as much as the back cover of a leadership book.

The stereotypical creative diva fits this description very, very poorly. A creative director who loves the limelight, enjoys picking out the best ideas (and especially pointing out the worst) and takes the team’s credit for success, is more focused on the well-being of the idea, than the people who created it.

The reason for the mismatch is simple. Most, if not all, CDs have been promoted to their position as a result of climbing the ladder from junior to senior creative. For many creatives, the title feels like proof or validation of their professional success and seniority. In numerous cases, the title is also treated as a reward, even a slightly questionable means for keeping the most successful creatives from fleeing the agency.

However, creative directors have seldom, if ever, taken leadership studies, nor do they have any professional experience in being a supervisor. They are the 'best soap makers' or 'goal scorers', but not necessarily best qualified leaders.

Now, I’m not saying we need more 'leadership enthusiasts' sharing quasi-deep quotes on LinkedIn. But what I do want, and what the industry desperately needs, is creative directors who are selected and promoted on the basis of their leadership skills, capabilities and personal motivation. The title should not be a reward for awards.

CDs should be people whose ambition is to nourish and support their creatives and build creative teams with respect to their members’ needs and chemistries. People who prefer placing their team members into the limelight instead of themselves. And obviously, people who have an ambition for creativity and exquisite ideas, too. That ambition should simply be equalled with a passion for true leadership. Such requirements are self evident in all other industries. 

The most skilled soap makers didn’t get promoted to CEO of Unilever, but a leadership professional did. Mourinho, rather than Maradona (thank god), became the manager of Manchester United.

So why should advertising be any different?

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