Culture trumps morale in cultivating creative gangs

Get the right gang together and nurture that culture, and everything else will take care of itself, writes Havas' Ben Mooge.

My news feed threw up an odd sequence last week.

Number one: Campaign US tells us that ad industry morale in the past year has dropped 36% from 2015.

Number two: a Facebook picture from another lifetime. Mother. 2004? I love this picture [above]. This is a rare glimpse of morale in action. I haven’t asked the permission of any of the people in it, but fuck it. I’m sure I’ve insulted them worse in person. Serves them right for all being so annoyingly talented.

It appeared on my Facebook feed the other day, Timehopped by Lolly Thomson. Y’know, Lol Thomson, co-president and chief creative officer at McCann. That guy.

There’s his younger idiot self, second from right. He’s just behind Sam Walker, former creative director at Karmarama, now founder of Faster Horses.

In the front of shot is Lol’s partner at the time, Leon Wilson. He’s now group creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in Australia. He’s about 12 here. On the far left, pretending to work and waiting for the invention of YouTube, is Ben Middleton, one of the Creature founders.

Judging by everyone’s reaction, Stu Outhwaite, Middleton’s partner, is probably taking the photo. Behind Lol is producer Danny Bush, who has most likely been in whichever agency you’re reading this in. And jazz-hands-ing in the middle is John Cherry, creative director at J Walter Thompson.

To John’s right is Lady Pay herself, former deputy executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Cazza’s probably about to grace the Campaign front page again soon. And doing the robot to John’s left is an early prototype of the most celebrated creative in London, Droga5’s David Kolbusz.

Brilliantly, this section of the Mother office was known as "Loser’s Corner." A dog-leg off the big Mother table, away from the all-seeing eye of Bob, it initially featured the freelancers and randoms but was quickly realized to be the best locale in the office, mostly because of the lack of the all-seeing eye but also for the opportunities for impromptu dance sessions.

Not featured here with the other losers in this photo are the rest of that department, including Yan Elliott (joint executive creative director at CHI & Partners), Luke Williamson (founder of Fabula), Rob Potts and Andy Jex (executive creative directors at Saatchi & Saatchi), Al Moseley (president and chief creative officer at 180 Amsterdam), Kim Gehrig (Campaign’s top director in 2015), Darren Bailes (executive creative director at VCCP) and his partner Al MacCuish (co-founder and chief creative officer at Sunshine), Cecilia Dufils and Markus Bjurman (executive creative directors at Acne in Sweden), Rosie Bardales (executive creative director at BETC London) and, er, me.

That is a frankly ridiculous gang of talent, a culture turned up to 11. And if "culture is the behavior of management," then you can imagine how Mark Waites and Robert Saville behaved to create, cultivate and lead this gang of unbelievably confident idiots.

Independent, often stylish and always funny. If only any of that had rubbed off on the rest of us. Mother won Agency of the Decade. Not many morale issues there. In our game, culture is everything. That’s what we’re selling. People, their ideas and their collective spirit. No more, no less. The product of the gang.

As Jexy said in his Campaign article a few months ago, it takes the introverts (Jex himself, Kim, David Kolbusz) as well as the extroverts (Pottsy, Caroline, David Kolbusz) to make sure the equilibrium is equal and brimful.

You can try to cast it to a certain degree: good old-fashioned teams playing alongside good newfangled teams; your English copywriting spine, with tricky Scandinavian left-brainers and a mercurial South American in the hole.

Casting is, as it always has been, everything. As Ron Howard told Marc Maron last month on WTF, George Lucas was such a freak for casting that he spent six months casting the actors to make sure they were perfect for 1950s homage American Graffiti, screen-testing Harrison Ford to the roots of his Brylcreem. Then he spent another six months casting the cars.

But it’s no guarantee. Chemistry is more of an art than a science. Happy accidents happen on a monthly basis and today’s rehoused waifs and strays can easily become tomorrow’s prescient hires of genius. You’ll have to spend hours on a train with them, traveling to and back from a tissue meeting in Staines or Derby, and only in those moments are the true markers of morale laid down.

The only thing I’m sure of is that you should never try to actually strategize it because the minute you publish your values, you’re fucked. Also known as the curse of the "about us" page. Better just to admit that sometimes there’s just something in the water, that the spirit of your particular gang could be a powerful force.

From Happy Mondays to Leicester City to the West Indies of ’76. Or Ukip ’16 with its charismatic frontman and propensity for dishing out the bodyline. Having been in the middle of a couple of creative gangs (it’s no accident we called one Work Club), you really do know it when you see it—that creative, collective chest-puffing.

Whether that’s HHCL of the 1990s, Grey of the past few years or Lucky Generals now—you can feel the culture of the gang spilling out into the confidence of the work. And you know what, those factors that Campaign US cites as instrumental in "failing industry morale"—well, they’ll take care of themselves.

The creative gang trumps uncertainties of "company leadership" (73%), "lack of advancement" (45%) and "dissatisfaction with work" (38%). Everyone knows why they’re here, where they’re going and the work it will take to get them there.

So calling all old-fashioned teams and newfangled teams, waifs and strays, Scandis, South Americans and Remainers ... fuck morale. Let’s dance.

—Ben Mooge is executive creative director of Havas Creative Group

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