Resetting the role model for a new creative generation

When a generation looks to the top of business with the thought 'That's not what I want to be', it reflects the virtual and physical evolution of the nature of role models within creative leadership.

"As a founder, I can say that WPP is not just a matter of life or death, it was, is and will be more important than that," WPP’s departing chief executive wrote in an email to staff. Yet Sir Martin Sorrell’s reference to former Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly’s famous quote had something of a hollow ring to it in 2018 – a time when bringing your "whole self" to work demands the time to have a life out of the office. The adversarial command-and-control form of leadership is not only running out of steam, but alienating the next generation of creative talent.

Compare Sorrell’s words with those of Ronan Dunne, executive vice-president and group president of Verizon Wireless, who recently penned an open letter to his daughter. In it, he wrote: "Remember, leadership is not about who is in charge. It is about bringing people to a place they wouldn’t otherwise go. I know you will do great things and I will always be here for you with open arms and an open heart. Go out and make the world a better place." 

If leadership models of the past were based on hierarchical structures and emotionless corporate jargon, their future affords the opportunity to carve out a truly inclusive and progressive culture. 

Sereena Abbassi, head of culture and inclusion at M&C Saatchi, believes these traditional structures are coming undone. "Influence is no longer determined only by tenure or title. Influence and leadership are about how you engage and mobilise through sincerity and authenticity," she says.

This is a shift that has particular resonance in the marketing and creative industries where the drive to deliver "more for less" has shrunk not only agencies’ margins, but also, in some cases, their capacity for empathy and inclusivity within their own organisation. It is a strategy › that puts them at loggerheads with millennials and Generation Z, whose impact on the workplace is profound – not least because their view of what constitutes success has fundamentally shifted. 

The tyranny of ‘more for less’

Many companies in the creative industries have failed to recognise this change and therefore struggle to attract, retain and motivate talented staff, because they are relying on outdated notions of success and validation. 

"We’re seeing more people feeling that even reaching the top won’t buy them a house or more happiness. As a result, it’s forcing people to prioritise satisfaction over wealth. People are quitting jobs that feel one-sided," Bruce Daisley, vice-president EMEA at Twitter, says. 

Employee expectations have changed dramatically, but workplace cultures and reward systems have often remained stagnant. Pip Hulbert, chief executive of Wunderman UK, says employees are much more demanding than they once were. Their expectations have risen because they are surrounded by brands that offer an amazing experience, competing for their attention. As a result they set the bar similarly high in the workplace. 

"It’s really hard to wow people now," Hulbert says. "As a leader you have to recognise this and be ahead of the curve, working hard to meet expectations and provide the extra activities and resources that are going to make the difference, both for employees and the business overall."

At Grey, the agency has been addressing these challenges by looking at how to inspire and motivate a crew, who, "rightly, expect a lot of return for their investment". 

Instead of traditional teams, Grey has developed "sprint units" to respond to certain briefs. The aim is to stop bottlenecks, which can frustrate everyone. Leo Rayman, the agency’s chief executive, says it is vital to adapt structures to meet new demands. He argues that creating a "genuinely open culture" is crucial. 

"Be upfront about everything, including mistakes," he adds. "Being honest shows mutual respect and proves you care that success means different things to different people." 

Shift to self-validation

Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J Walter Thompson, says "the Mark Zuckerberg generation" has had a very different experience of working and been deeply affected by the recession. 

"They entered the workforce in a period of intense job stagnation and, at the same time, social media has placed a sharp lens on their careers," she explains.

They are increasingly deriving self-validation outside the traditional realms of the corporate ladder. "Personal brands have become more important than any job, and in a mercenary job market, where millennials stay in roles for an even shorter time, validation comes from outside the office," Greene adds.

This shift demands that those industries which traditionally burn out employees and constantly demand "more for less" urgently reappraise their values. Daisley predicts that there will be a wholesale separation in the way that our jobs are configured. 

"There are set to be enlightened workplaces, which allow employees to recharge themselves and to enjoy the rewards of stimulating work, and then places that optimise for relentless hard work based on the replaceability of workers," he says. "Success will be getting a job in a positive, productive environment, rather than the old success measures, like corner offices and expense accounts." 

Role realignment

Against a backdrop of social-media-driven transparency, creating these productive, positive environments is about far more than brand-positioning documents or internal HR systems. 

Gemma Greaves, chief executive of The Marketing Society, contends that the future of marketing leadership will focus on the human side. "Forget data, forget digital; leadership is all about people. By guarding our team’s wellbeing, whether it’s the chief marketing officer, the brand manager or a new starter, the human side of leadership is key," she says. "You can easily forget your team members might also be parents, children, carers, rock-climbers, pub-quiz masters, marathon runners or rugby fans. Alongside their roles as brand guardian, customer voice, growth-driver, value-creator, they are real people with real pressures."

‘We’re seeing more people feeling that even reaching the top won’t buy them a house or more happiness’Bruce Daisley, Twitter

Dan Cullen-Shute, founder and chief executive of Creature, says this means that the agency wrestles with what exactly "leadership" should look like. "The extremes are easy – dictatorial to the point where you piss everyone off, or collaborative to the point where nothing ever gets done. › But finding the right balance, where everyone in the building knows where you’re going but feels like they have a role to play in planning the journey, that’s trickier. At our best, leading at Creature is probably more about guiding. That, and making sure you’re listening, and not being afraid to admit when you fuck up."

The talent crisis

So how can the creative industries attract and retain the best talent in such a high-pressure and, at times, mercenary marketplace? Have role models become more important? 

Amelia Torode, founder of The Fawnbrake Collective, thinks not. "If there’s one thing that I hate more than the concept of the side-hustle, it’s the idea of role models," she says, going on to explain that she finds the notion inherently flawed.

"The idea that we should all be looking for people that you want to be like, in a kind of Single White Female way (excuse the early-90s movie reference) is scary. No-one has got it all figured out; no-one’s life is perfect. Role models just leave both parties disappointed."

Instead, Torode advocates the idea of "professional pacers". 

"I’ve been thinking about the marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge and his attempt last summer with Nike to break the two-hour marathon mark – #Breaking2," she says. "To run faster than anyone had ever done before, Kipchoge needed to run smarter than ever before and he did that with the help of ‘pacers’. A squad of elite-athlete companions, stars in their own right, who helped him speed up, or slow down, to break a world record. The pacers ran in small groups of three alongside Kipchoge and each mini-team focused on a different section of the marathon distance." 

According to Torode, we don’t need role models to emulate, instead we need pacers to run alongside. She adds: "It doesn’t matter how old that person is, or what level of seniority, the only thing that matters is impact. Often the best pacers I have worked with have been younger than me. They all help me to run further, faster, and I hope that I did the same in return." 

Rise of humanity

Purpose may well be one of the most overused and misunderstood words in the marketing lexicon, but there is no question that younger employees are seeking more meaning from their work. From jumping ship from the big networks to smaller shops, such as 18 Feet & Rising, which has B-Corp accreditation, to challenging gender stereotypes head-on, the next generation of creative talent is publicly challenging businesses that don’t reflect its values.  

Chris Pearce, chief executive of TMW Unlimited, says that we are seeing a move towards more humanity in business. "Most people want to work for businesses that care about something. Brands want to work with agencies that are aligned with their values and customers want to engage with brands who show a commitment to them," he adds.

Smart businesses recognise that far from being something to defend themselves against, it is a trend to embrace. As Kate Howe, chief executive of Gyro UK, says: "We are more aware than ever of the power, potential and, frankly, necessity of business to do good in society. It’s not easy. It can be exhausting. But it’s exciting and it has the potential to be immensely fulfilling."

Yet it also requires some difficult conversations and humility from leaders who have built their businesses upon the kind of command-and-control mentalities that are no longer fit for purpose. 

‘No-one has got it all figured out; no-one’s life is perfect. Role models just leave both parties disappointed’Amelia Torode, The Fawnbrake Collective

Sadly, many businesses that pride themselves on being "innovative meritocracies" forget that merit is in the eye of the merit-giver. To those merit-givers who are white men surrounded by other white men, perhaps those Glassdoor reviews describing agencies as "old boys’ clubs" will act as a wake-up call. Especially when so many client-facing companies and marketing directors are addressing these challenges head-on.

"As an industry, we used to talk privately about the things that matter, now we are doing something about it on a public stage," Greaves says. "We are having the uncomfortable conversations, addressing big topics like sexual harassment and lack of diversity, and uncovering the unacceptable, like lack of flexible working for parents. We have an opportunity to make change, have an impact and, importantly, an impact at scale. And that’s exciting and brave. One thing is for sure: together we are stronger and we need to recognise the humanity in everything we do."

Progressive leadership

From the impact of #MeToo on business to evolution in working practices, there is no question that the time for progressive leadership is now. Yet progress is difficult. As one female creative recently declared: "There are some [leaders] who just don’t get it and they need to be managed out."

Progressive leaders need to build more inclusive, supportive working cultures, not just as window-dressing, but as a genuine business priority. Cindy Gallop, founder and chief executive of MakeLoveNotPorn, believes marketing’s role models of the future will be female. 

"‘You cannot be what you cannot see’ applies to men just as much as to women," she says. "In an industry whose primary target-purchaser/influencer of purchase is female, the lack of female creative and leadership role models for men to learn from is absolutely shocking. It’s holding men back, and our clients’ business is the poorer for it."

She expects that men will learn fresh, disruptive and innovative approaches to great creative work from women. These will involve working smarter, not harder, so that people don’t spend every night and every weekend in the office. They will be empathetic, humanised adtech approaches that use creativity, not fraud, to deliver engagement and reach, and rethought, redesigned business models that ensure everybody makes a great deal more money.

The future may be impossible to predict, but the change in what constitutes business leadership is inevitable. From quotas to ensure more diversity and gender parity in the workplace, to an end to the non-disclosure agreements that have, historically, kept bad behaviour out of the headlines, the age of ultra-transparency is here to stay. Moreover, its effects are only just beginning to be felt. 


Greater than the sum of its parts

What bringing your ‘whole self’ to work really means and how creative and marketing leadership is changing

Lindsay Pattison

Chief transformation officer, WPP 

Bringing your whole self to work benefits both the individual and the business. It is, frankly, way too taxing to be a different person at work and at home, and in today’s working environment, successful leaders are those who are approachable, collaborative and empathetic.   

Bringing your whole self means bringing both IQ and EQ to the office. You need the intellect to run the business successfully – to set the vision and strategy and to deliver it – and the warmth and empathy to lead and manage talent. 

As the talent that makes up marketing communications is changing, so, too, is the leadership. Today, Gen Y and Gen Z make up the majority of the workforce – they expect flatter structures and thrive on different leadership from the old-school, "suited and booted" executive style.   

Today’s leaders need to create a more open, collaborative, empowering working environment and be more human themselves. People need to have faith and confidence in their leaders and actively want to work with them. The key is to build meaningful relationships: you can be friends with people at work and also be the boss. Leaders should not wait to speak but should never speak over colleagues. Being reachable and transparent is vital, and it is OK to reveal vulnerabilities. Leaders set the culture, and so must embody the company values. This, above all, will encourage and excite talent.    

Mark Evans

Marketing director, Direct Line Group 

The marketing landscape is getting more complicated as the media environment evolves and the pace of change in the world in general accelerates. Also, many marketing leaders’ remits are expanding to incorporate additional accountabilities, such as customer experience. 

As a consequence, it is unrealistic to expect marketing leaders to be able to be an expert in everything. The antidote is for marketing leaders to create high capability, self-empowered teams. This requires more general leadership skills, rather than technical leadership skills, and is about context and culture, rather than content. Marketers need to harness the full capability of their team. 

It’s not rocket science, though, and essentially entails enabling people to be the best version of themselves. It was an explicit thing when I worked at Mars that the primary responsibility of leaders was to build leaders. It was inescapable and therefore something that has stuck with me throughout my career. 

In that context, a key value for Direct Line Group is to "bring all of yourself to work", which talks to the celebration of difference. This spans aspects of diversity that are in the public spotlight, including gender and sexuality, but also stretches into some less visible aspects including neurodiversity and the diversity of skills, experiences and personalities. 

We’ve deliberately created a culture where personal experience is as highly valued as professional expertise; where ideas and thinking are recognised and rewarded. This is demonstrated by our company-wide "Ideas Lab", which has generated thousands of suggestions to date, with a revenue share for successful contributors.

We make it clear to employees that they are coming to work for a place where they can be confident to be themselves, rather than a clone of an established norm. One of the ways we do this is by celebrating and raising awareness around the way we think about mental health, neurodiversity and diversity as a whole, whether that be celebrating mental-health days or inviting inspirational speakers, such as Livity’s Michelle Morgan, The Dots’ Pip Jamieson, Plant for Peace’s James Brett and Huge London’s Wayne Deakin, to help to de-stigmatise issues. 

Role models are crucial in changing perceptions. As an example of this, I had been aware of three members of the marketing team having dyslexia. However, after diversity advocate Jamieson came to speak to the team about her personal story and asked people to put up their hand if they were dyslexic, eight people in the audience did so. This is testament to how giving employees the right stimulus and opening up the conversation really works. These conversations take time, effort and nurturing, but there are no regrets in terms of building sustainability and an enduring legacy as a marketing leader.

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