Creative leadership: getting the best from creative people

Billion-dollar brands can be made or broken on a single advertising campaign

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Billion-dollar brands can be made or broken on a single advertising campaign, making it essential to have the right people putting out your message; especially in the modern world of social media, where bad news travels like wildfire
One of the market leaders in the highly competitive advertising industry, Ogilvy South Africa builds and transforms brands and employs more than 900 staff across three offices. For more than 50 years, Ogilvy has created iconic advertising for clients such as KFC, VW, SAB, BP, DStv and Kraft.

One of the stars of their Johannesburg office is awarding winning creative executive Mariana O’Kelly, who managed to secure two Yellow Pencil awards at the 2012 D&AD awards for successfully building the MK Channel brand –the proudest moment of her professional career.

With more than 18 years in the industry, she has worked for all sorts of agencies, with three years at Jupiter Drawing Room, four years at Hunt Lascaris, and six years as a Creative Director at Net#work BBDO. She also won the Radio Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions in 2016 and 2017.

Please describe some of the challenges, the joys, and the considerations around what you do and the industry you work in.

The biggest challenge in my day is to retain the bigger picture and not get lost in everyday battles. It’s about balancing things that seem to carry totally different weights. The balance between delivering on hectic deadlines while maintaining the team’s energy; balancing the value of authentic creative thinking in a world of data and bots; between protecting true craft and the cost-effectiveness of automation. And when we seriously push creative boundaries, remembering to consider the impact it will have on people out there – we sometimes forget the power we have as an industry to shape culture and influence behaviour. It’s a serious responsibility that always needs to be considered.

Please describe your career journey and where you gained some of your insights about creativity and the creative industry.

I studied BA Information Design from 1991-1994 at the University of Pretoria, which gave me a taste of design, advertising, marketing, visual communication and the pure craft of painting, sculpture and screen-printing. When I started working at FCB after varsity, I had no idea what the difference was between design and art direction. My first valuable lesson after a year was when a senior writer called me to her office. She spread all my print campaigns out on the floor, and then she covered all the logos and asked me to spot the difference in art direction. There was no difference!

All the campaigns reflected my personality, my favourite colour palette, my choice of font. I had failed to represent the look and feel of the brand I was advertising. It taught me to become invisible in the work. To never lead a piece of creative from personal taste or opinion. That it’s better to listen to a brand first, learn where it comes from, whom it wants to talk to, and give it more relevance by guiding it towards platforms that will allow that to happen. The same principle applies to leading teams. You have to guide and nudge from the back, let them find their own voice and help them stay relevant, so they deliver work that matters.

How do creative people differ from professionals in other industries, and how do you get the best out of them?

The best creative people are deeply connected and involved with the ideas they work on. If they’re expected to make a last-minute change that affects the work and they ask questions, their passion may be misconceived as stubbornness.

The worst is to tell them what to do with no room to question the changes. Unless they believe deeply in what they’re creating, a successful outcome for all will be nearly impossible. The best way in my experience is to ask them what they think is still missing from the project, not to tell them outright what’s wrong with it. When they can own the shortcomings of the project, they can also own the solution and create even more valuable work.

Where do great ideas come from? And how do you recognise them?

They can come from anywhere, but they rarely arrive perfect. You have to recognise the potential and then surround that idea with the best minds and literally raise it within a village set-up.

In the process of discovering the potential of the idea, it’s important to stay open minded and allow for different viewpoints but at the same time keep the bigger picture of what problem it needs to solve in mind. Every now and again, an idea comes around that nobody can argue with. Usually those ideas come from a real problem or tension. The solution is so obvious, like sugar for bitter coffee. Ultimately, we need to decide if our idea will matter in the lives of consumers.

Is “the muse” a capricious mistress who only sporadically reveals herself, or must we also be able to come up with ideas, on deadline and to spec, as required?

There was an age in advertising where ideas were really hard to crack. It had to read like a perfect linear joke with the brand coming in at just the right moment of the punch line. Scripts were super smart and lateral and the perfect analogies were brainstormed for days. Today I believe ideas are packaged conversations, directed at a specific person or group of people. You have to know whom you’re talking to, or the conversation won’t be real.

When we focus too much on the bottom line do the ideas suffer?

Unless we see creativity as a business, it won’t survive. Unless our clients believe in the potential value of our ideas, then we will never have a commercially viable relationship. We cannot run it like a charity. We also have stakeholders, mouths to feed at home and bills to pay. Our product is as professional as any other industry’s. If clients ask for everything faster and cheaper, something will eventually break—either the team on the account or the relationship between client and agency. That’s why service-level agreements between client and agency are so important.

Exceptions can be agreed upon during a crisis, but there needs to be a sustainable model for all. Creative people can still deliver big ideas on small budgets. It becomes tricky when the budget changes halfway through a project or worse, at the end. If we plan projects with both businesses in mind, the solutions will be commercially viable and highly creative, and everyone’s energy will be sustained.

Describe your personal work process.

Unfortunately, I am a triple A-type personality and my own worst enemy. I see all agency projects as giant anthills. In my head I constantly travel up and down all the little narrow pathways to see what has been dropped, what needs rebuilding, what armies need to be deployed. I wish there were air miles for all the kilometres my brain travels through those anthills!

What advice do you have for aspiring creatives looking to build a career?

Look at the world through the lens of where you can help, what you can change for the better. Look at the people around you to see what products they might need, look at products to see where you can better them. Look at ways of communication and see where you can simplify them. Look at your craft and see what you can specialise in.

How have social changes and cultural shifts affected the creative industry?

I think it’s the other way around—the creative industry has effected cultural shifts and social change.A highly impactful campaign can bring down governments, help win freedoms, address issues of inequality and create platforms for massive behaviour change. It would be interesting to measure the collective impact creativity has had on our world and to see where it would sit as a commodity on the stock exchange.

What is the future for the creative industry? Is it at a watershed?

Real creatives made of flesh and bone will be more important than ever. Social media algorithms are going to isolate us from each other’s worlds and the bigger picture if we don’t keep a healthy mix of creative rebel minds to question algorithm authority. 

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