How can agencies create the right creative mix?

Leo Burnett London's chief creative officer explains how her agency is building teams that create a buzz.

Each year, my four oldest schoolmates and I get together for a shindig somewhere on the south coast. "I can’t believe it’s been a whole year!" we all exclaim, before cramming 12 months into 48 fattening hours.

And it also seems like only yesterday that I walked into our west London office. I’ve just chalked up my first anniversary of joining Leo Burnett – I can’t believe it’s been a whole year. After the cheeriest of welcomes from the legendary Freda on reception, I set about getting to know my new home and family.

I think a common mistake incoming chief creative officers can make is not really looking and listening, thinking it’s just a case of out with the old and in with – their own version of – the new.

To use an old dinner-party analogy, the ones we remember are those that place together the most interesting and yet different people.

I loved the fact that Leo Burnett has such a heritage of amazing work. But, as with most places, there were things that could be done better.

To that end, I sought to keep us true to three basic principles:

  1. We all do our best work when we’re happiest.
  2. Autonomy, ownership and trust bring out the best in people.
  3. The right casting will lead to the most interesting and exciting creative ideas for our audiences, clients and ourselves.

And that’s exactly where we started – by looking at who else we needed to invite to our table. Not exactly a new idea but one that has not always been pulled off successfully. It can so easily end up with the same old folks doing the same old strokes.

To use an old dinner-party analogy, the ones we remember are those that place together the most interesting and yet different people – the introvert; the loudmouth; the engineer; the taxidermist. We needed that buzz and excitement of not knowing exactly who you’re going to sit next to and what you might learn from them. 

While I didn’t completely take on the accepted dinner-party seating-plan wisdom of "boy, girl, boy, girl", it was clear – as we in agencies are all too aware – that there weren’t enough women in the creative department. Yawn. Let me adjust my bra.

This has always seemed odd to me, coming from a background in broadcast where the gender divide, while not perfect, is decades ahead of advertising’s. But now more ladies have arrived. And they include people who have traditionally had no place in advertising agencies. How delicious this is proving to be: musicians; vloggers; makers; self-shooters; poets; comediennes; gamers; commissioners; broadcasters… We’ve opened our doors wider. Everyone’s welcome.

The prerequisites are passion, curiosity and the insatiable need to make and do, rather than just talk.

Our new maker studio – LB Studios – has created fresh energy by helping us make more stuff, more readily and more easily.

None of this is rocket science, I know. You could say we’ve just extended the table, invited more guests and added new dishes to the menu. But the most important thing isn’t just the how but the why.

In the words of Lord Reith, founder of the BBC, storytelling in all its guises is there to inform, educate and entertain – particularly the last. These three basic principles have helped us reconfigure the creative output and treat the target markets for our clients’ brands as audiences first and foremost. After all, it’s bloody mad to think you have customers before you’ve got an audience – something that is a given within broadcasting.

The right casting – using people with different skills and from different backgrounds – is the only way the industry is going to genuinely change.

So, we’ve also introduced an informal contract with our clients, where we promise always to put the interest of the audience first and that of the brand second. Only then can the brand have an audience to speak to and potential customers to convert.

Audiences are the most important route to achieving cultural impact, which is what any outstanding piece of storytelling hopes to achieve.

I truly believe that this is one of the agency’s most brilliant and interesting chapters – not just thanks to this internal will to change but also because of external factors that are making all agencies change their business models, their casting and their work.

The right casting – using people with different skills and from different backgrounds – is the only way the industry is going to genuinely change. And it has to. Because beyond all the noise around cultural impact, storytelling or the next new catchphrase, the truth remains that creativity is born out of difference and surprise, rather than similarity or repetition.

We demand that from the musicians, artists and authors who nourish our lives. Why do we not demand it of ourselves? How will we know if this has been done correctly? Well, besides more rich and diverse talent beating a path to our door, our audiences will be the first to tell us.

Like any dinner-party guest, they can smell a phoney additive a mile off. 

Chaka Sobhani is the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett London.

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