Close-Up: Campaign Essay - The best creativity comes in building true partnerships

For an agency to be successful, there needs to be a solid partnership at the top, as well as a good executive creative director, Mark Wnek writes.

The second-most serious mistake people make when hiring a creative director is misrepresenting the job. The typical example is the over-enthusiastic hirer who paints an unrealistic, over-positive picture of an agency's creative potential. This leads to all kinds of debilitating collisions between the new executive creative director and the actual agency culture.

The outcome of these collisions is at best fitful and hard-won successes, but eventually the executive creative director is either assimilated or shown the door. Either way, the agency output, the agency culture, remains fundamentally unchanged. It is quite simply amazing how often this process is repeated.

Most creative people aren't martyrs and have bank managers or ambitious significant others and dreams of beautiful cars, clothes, homes and wonderful schools for their children. Quite right, too.

The most creatively stodgy behemoth can buy the most brilliant talent if they pay enough; maybe they can buy an entire creative department. But what is harder to buy is an effective corporate culture, creative or otherwise. These are the things that ensure that the talent, once bought, stays and takes root.

Agencies are as different as people. One agency's high creative standards are another's un-businesslike indulgence. These things are rooted in an agency's cultural foundations. I imagine that Nigel Bogle and John Bartle, for example, started a business with John Hegarty because they all shared a commitment to a certain kind of creativity; a commitment differently oriented people might find bad for business. This commitment would demand, perhaps, turning down creatively unpromising business; or parting company when a client's creative ambitions fell short, however painful the immediate financial consequences.

This clarity of values, however challenging at times for the immediate bottom line, is why an agency like Bartle Bogle Hegarty remains successful over the long term: it's a brand that knows itself and is, in turn, known and respected by clients. Not every agency wants to be or should want to be BBH. There are many reasons for an agency to exist, many other viable and honourable places to position an agency other than at the creative cutting edge. Many admire, say, CHI & Partners for all kinds of reasons. CHI is no Mother, nor does it aspire to be. The shared agenda and collaborative culture at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners is attractive to some people, as is the positive atmosphere at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. Such companies have no need to misrepresent themselves in hiring and tend not to have creative directorial issues.

Underpinning the success of all such enterprises is a beautiful, magical thing called partnership. Partnership is the fertile soil from which all the most wonderful things grow. Clients are not stupid. They see or read about highly paid creative supremos who come and go with no real overall improvement in an agency's creative output or culture. They recognise the culturally dissonant grafting on of an award-winning or hotshop agency creative director as the desperate cosmetic surgery it is. It is again simply amazing how often multinational network agencies plough this barren furrow.

Network chiefs are invariably business people first. When they survey the companies under their control and seek to make improvements, they seem almost always to look at the business leadership of those companies in isolation and put in place a chief executive to then put in place the rest of the team.

This seemingly sensible and natural business move, in fact, guarantees underperformance. Because it's a fact that all the most successful agency brands past or present are partnerships, not dictatorships (however benign).

Thus, the most serious mistake you make when hiring a creative director is that you should instead be looking for a partner. A true, full partner with true power; a soulmate. It seems extraordinary that global chiefs do not seek to put together agency partnerships from the get-go. On the very rare occasions that they do, they succeed spectacularly compared with the chief executive first route.

Take the creation of Fallon UK. Or the addition of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe to the previously, at best, dowdy Y&R. Or, hey, it's my article, the teaming of Brett Gosper, Chris Pinnington and myself by Euro RSCG.

We were no Fallon, far from it, but then ours was a salvage mission: to rescue the London office of a proud French brand threatened with extinction following the devastation of being awarded the only ever zero in Campaign's annual School Report. To go from there to the winner of Campaign's new-business league, and runner-up in Agency of the Year two years in a row, is mission over-accomplished by anyone's standards.

It is my contention that every agency in the UK led by a chief executive, rather than a partnership, cannot be truly successful.

So, the question isn't whether any single creative director can effectively preside over the entire creative output of a big, multidisciplinary ad agency; rather, how can anybody imagine that any individual can effectively preside over such an agency alone?

Yet these lone agency chief executives who cannot and are not doing a good job, continue in seemingly unchallenged employment, even as they fire the creative directors whose alleged failure is the principal, glaring and indisputable testimony of their own failure.

If you want to be the creative conscience of the whole company, it is incumbent on you to grow and be able to encompass everything the agency does, whatever the channels, whatever the tools, traditional, digital, interactive and otherwise, and not to hunker down and snipe from the silo of your personal prejudice.

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but for the first time in advertising history, it is not enough to be brilliant at coming up with ideas; you don't need to know how to create, say, a wireframe. But you do need to be switched on to and excited by the way all manner of widgets, wikis, wireframes and channels, which allow ideas to be magnified and resonate in a different ways and on different levels. And you can't be intimidated at being surrounded by people who know more than you: you need to welcome that.

It may be that the "traditional" creative can no longer preside over a big multidisciplinary outfit. One big agency is currently reacting to this by hiring a little-known executive creative director from an interactive/digital background. This will, I suspect, fail not only because the guy is being hired and not made a full partner, but because you wonder whether he will have the overall scope of strategic and creative thinking necessary to see the wood for the digitally trendy trees.

Bottom line, no agency can thrive without a fully qualified overall creative conscience and management partner. To even suggest this smacks of a self-serving power-play tantamount to business suicide.

- Mark Wnek is the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe NY.