PROFILE: Labbe and Sree

The enfants terribles of Leo Burnett even made Nike balk at their ideas. How do they get away with it?

Calling all creatives. Are you frustrated that if you stand up for your ideas you may risk getting the boot ? If so, don't panic, you are not alone. Everyone knows that conceiving genius creative without rocking the boat is impossible. And seeing those great ideas watered down to tow the party line can't be an easy pill to swallow.

It's this contradiction that led the dynamic creative duo, Jeffe Labbe and Kash Sree to come up with their theory that the only way to truly be creative is not being afraid to get fired.

Both speak from experience, having received pink slips and probation in their time, but assert that pushing for what you believe in pays dividends in the end.It has certainly done their careers no harm.

The pair are behind some of the most awarded and talked-about work worldwide. After a brief partnership at Wieden & Kennedy in 1998, Labbe went on to produce some powerful work including Nike 'Beautiful' in 2000. He also worked at TBWA/Chiat/Day San Francisco on Levi's and Adidas as well as the award-winning Fox Sports 'Beware of Things Made in October' campaign.

The well-travelled Sree, meanwhile has worked at agencies in the UK, Singapore, India and Australia prior to W&K. And he was the toast of Cannes last year for the brilliant Nike 'Tag' spot.

Now the talented team have joined Leo Burnett, Chicago, where they are urging fellow creatives that risk-taking is a necessary evil.

There are, of course one or two factors that make taking risks somewhat less precarious and in this respect, Labbe and Sree have been lucky. "In order for the theory to work, you need support from a certain type of client, as well as being in the right agency. Nike hires guys that take risks and allows you to do great advertising,"admits Labbe.

Even so, they've really had to fight to get work through, even with Nike, which may come as a surprise to some.

One of the best illustrations of this was their desire to break the conservative mould of golf advertising. Using Tiger Woods, they hoped to come up with a campaign that was far more fun and entertaining. But the clients refused to accept some of the more wacky ideas and so the team made a series of completely "forgettable" spots about golf balls.

However, on one shoot they caught Woods bouncing balls on his club during a lunch break and despite the client's reluctance, persuaded them to spend $4,000 dollars on another spot.

It ended up becoming by far the most memorable moment of the Nike Golf campaign and an award-winner. It was Nike 'Hacky Sack'.

A similar situation occurred when Labbe set out to shoot Nike Beautiful with Frank Budgen. The production was fraught with tension, heightened by the fact that Budgen didn't want to shoot the last scene of the ad.

"We went ahead and shot it anyway with Budgen's DP," Labbe explained. The final scene proved worth fighting for though, and the result was one of Labbe's most successful ads to date, again, a massive award-winner.

"It's often the most adversarial relationships that are the most fruitful," says Labbe, drawing reference to Eric Silver, now at Cliff Freeman & Partners, whom he knew from his Wieden & Kennedy days.

As an art director at Wieden & Kennedy, Silver once created drafts for a poster campaign featuring two fish in a Playboy centrefold. The ad was deemed unacceptable to present to the client. But Silver was so proud of his work, he pinned up his designs next to his desk. When the clients came to visit, they walked past his space, stopped at the poster, claimed they loved the campaign and commissioned it. Silver was fired on the spot, but the now executive vice-president, creative director has never looked back.

Confidence to express their opinions no matter what the risks involved is what drew the team together and is why they are one of the most sought after creative forces around.

So why was a traditional agency like Leo Burnett prepared to take the risk and allow two such unorthodox employees to create havoc in their creative department?

"They hired us because we have a voice and opinions and they want us around for that. It may take months to adapt to a new agency structure, and they may take time to adapt to our way of working, but ultimately they hired us because they respect our voice,"says Labbe.

And now they sit at the helm of a 200-odd creative team, where they will preach their philosophy to the younger generation.

They have now been at the agency for over six months and are convinced that their best creative work has yet to be seen. But in the words of Sree: "Watch this space, it's about to happen any second now."

That is, if they don't get fired beforehand.

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