Lessons in creative leadership from a soccer legend

Getty Images
Getty Images

What creatives can learn from Rinus Michels and Total Football.

A man whose philosophy is shaping the future of creativity never set foot in an ad agency — and certainly never heard of a creative brief. 

Rinus Michels was one of the most successful soccer coaches of all time. He coached the AFC Ajax Dutch team to four national championships and the European Cup, and was named FIFA Coach of the Century.

But he did more than win. He revolutionized football by teaching his players to master every position on the field, not just their own. It’s a philosophy known as Total Football. 

Creatives need to borrow from Michel’s playbook if we are to succeed in the years ahead. We need to embrace Total Creativity: the ability to shape, mold and control an advertising process in which creativity can flourish. We need to learn how to master the entire field of play.

A great idea is only part of the job 

Powerful ideas remain the lifeblood of our craft, but we can’t stop there. We need to sell the idea. Build it. Promote it. 

Today’s creative environment is more complex than ever. Creatives need to master so many moving parts, especially to become a successful leader. Our business will always be idea-led, but must also be data-driven, tech-enabled and digital-first. Executing an idea means taking that kernel and bringing it to life across a plethora of touchpoints, from products, services and experiences, to TV and out-of-home, to Snapchat and Twitch. Not once, but many times, and in a culturally relevant way. And lest we forget, in a way that is outcome-driven and measurable.

For an idea to even get executed, we need to get buy-in from an increasingly complicated set of stakeholders: Strategists, account executives, media planners and data scientists are just a few. When we’re pitching clients now, very few people in the room are creatives. We need to be able to speak their language. 

We have to nail the fundamentals, but with an open mindset. Creativity is still the magic, and the purest ideas always break through. But we have to anticipate the motivations of other specialists on the field. If you don’t do that, the idea you’re selling is lost. Having the charisma and conviction of Don Draper can help, but that’s far from enough. We need to understand media, strategy, data, analytics and PR. We need to know our agency makes money and how our clients make money. 

Spotting and developing talent is key 

If we’re going to deliver what we’re selling, we better spot talent and develop it too, like Michels coached players to win.

To play for Michels, an athlete needed to be unbelievably fit and unmitigatedly adaptable. They also needed to leave their egos off the field. Ego is an impediment to learning, and Total Football required each player to learn skills outside the ones that had made them successful. 

Total Creativity requires creatives to understand all aspects of the advertising business – which means accepting the fact that there’s always more to learn. It requires a willingness to accept failure and learn from it, and an eagerness to jump into new areas and adjust.

This is true for rookies and seasoned creative chiefs alike. Ego is our biggest obstacle. What got us here won’t get us where we need to be. Whatever we think we know is not enough, especially in an industry that evolves as fast as ours.

Frankly, we need to overcome a cultural expectation that creatives are rebellious and don’t have to get along with others. It’s time to kill the damaging perception that we’re the smartest and edgiest ones in the room. Finishing the game isn’t the same as winning. If we want our brilliant ideas to flourish, we need to respect that building consensus is as important as crafting an idea. 

We can’t do that unless we speak to everyone else in the room. Are we ready to learn? 

Menno Kluin is Chief Creative Officer of Dentsu in the US

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