What Paul Venables Learned from Maya Angelou

Creative chiefs compare notes on how to lead

Being a creative leader means taking a bullet for an underling and identifying other leaders. Rarely does the job involve actually making ads, but it’s healthy to do a bit of that too.

Those were among the key points that creative chiefs like Wieden + Kennedy’s Mark Fitzloff and TBWA\Chiat\Day’s John Norman made today during an Advertising Week discussion about creative leadership. The chiefs also stressed that chief creative officers need to contribute to business conversations and focus on what Paul Venables described as the soft stuff: human values like honesty, empathy and respect.

Paraphrasing poet Maya Angelou, Venables, the co-founder and executive creative director of Venables, Bell & Partners in San Francisco said, “People aren’t going to remember what you said. They’re not even going to remember what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel. And that’s how you manage, from that standpoint of how are these people feeling?”

Fitzloff, co-global ecd of Wieden + Kennedy, knows this lesson first-hand, having worked under legendary cd Jim Riswold, who, although crotchety, understood the importance of backing his troops.

Fitzloff, then a copywriter, created a long copy print ad for Nike that many found offensive, including an executive at Nike, who called Dan Wieden to suggest that he fire the writer. “And Jim went into Dan’s office and said, ’If anyone should be fired over this, it should be me.’”

“In Jim’s mind, it’s my job to push the boundaries and it’s his job to decide whether the boundaries have been passed. Therefore, it wasn’t my fault,” Fitzloff explained. “That was the type of leadership that you can learn by example.”

Riswold, who had been at Wieden about 20 years at that point, was taken off the Nike business.

Big picture, creative people need to be central to running agencies, not just creative departments, stressed John Patroulis, the CCO at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York. On a finer level, Norman, the CCO at the Playa del Rey, Calif. office of TBWA\Chiat\Day, likened his role to being a teacher, adding that it’s important to “be yourself, be who you are.” Sometimes, however, creative leadership is less explicit.

Rei Inamoto, CCO at AKQA, said the design of his agency’s offices underscores its approach to creativity. “It’s one open floor and nobody has an individual office,” Inamoto said. “It’s a very physically and visibly flat seating arrangement and I think that intrinsically and metaphorically says that creativity can come from anywhere, right?”