News & Views

Opinion / Super Creatives versus Creative Leadership

by Contagious Contributor
Chris Baréz-Brown, founder of creative leadership company, Upping Your Elvis, about creating the conditions for brilliance within marketing departments 

After spending almost 20 years helping the biggest companies on the planet get more creative and more innovative, I have realised that often I have got it wrong.

I am proud of that in the sense that a key foundation of creativity is experimentation, and I have experimented a lot. But, as with all experimentation, it can prove costly unless you learn brilliantly from it.

So, after helping companies like Coca-Cola, Unilever, Cadbury Schweppes, Nike, HSBC, and others make their cultures more creative, here is where I have got to.

Marketing departments are not, and never will be, creative agencies. A marketing department’s job is not to come up with the best creative ideas for all elements of the marketing mix. It would be impossible to find that much talent in so few people and then to harness them into corporate roles, all the time demanding the rigour of brand management – please don’t try.

A marketeer needs to be fantastic at creating the conditions for creativity, and therefore fantastic at being an amazing Creative Leader. It is a mighty fun role.

My biggest mistakes have been made when taking tools and techniques and processes that work brilliantly in agency land in the hands of experts who use them every single day (and to a very high standard), and trying to transplant them into marketing departments.

It's not that the talent in marketing departments is not as good as it is in agencies, it’s that their skills are way broader and less defined – they have many more elements to deliver on.

As we know, when it comes to creative capability development, broader means shallower, and therefore expecting marketeers to become as good as, for example, an innovation agency is beyond optimistic.

When I have successfully trained marketeers in those very specialist skills, it always transpires that they don't practice anywhere near as much as agencies. The people we’ve trained in large multinationals may apply that learning to two or three projects in a year, whereas our clients in agency land find that they are averaging five or more projects in the first week. It's no surprise, therefore, that they assimilate these new skills so much better.

The ambition to help marketers become more creative is absolutely right, but we often get the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ wrong.

Marketeers need to be fantastic at harnessing the creativity around them. They therefore need to be brilliant at facilitating other creatives; getting the brief right; encouraging a ‘feedback culture’; creating the conditions for experimentation; setting up interactions; managing stakeholders; being a resonant brand; and managing the energy of themselves, their teams and the projects that they lead.

In short, they need to be fantastic Creative Leaders.

I had a huge revelation some years back when I was facilitating countless creative projects a year. At the time, I believed it was my job to guarantee the quality of the output of each of these projects and as a result I was exhausted, stressed and wired beyond belief. If creative sessions didn't work well I would spend my evenings and weekends filling in the gaps. I even had colleagues who were so attached to the output they used to do creative sessions before the official creative session so they could feed in their favourite brilliant ideas to guarantee that success.

Now I realise that that was ridiculous.

Our job as creative leaders is purely to create the conditions for the brilliance to come out of everyone else. Sometimes it won't work; that is the nature of creativity. But when it does work, amazing and surprising and step-changing stuff happens. Realising this was a huge liberation.

I now spend my life helping others become more confident, energized, flexible and able to create those conditions so that brilliance can come from all around them.

When people get that, it's a life changer. They can deal with ambiguity. They can deal with difficult people, they can deal with getting lost and getting things wrong, and, because they know that is a part of creative leadership, they love every minute of it and therefore the future is way more shiny for everyone: for themselves and for their agencies.