CLOSE-UP: CRAFT - JEFFE LABBE AND KASH SREE. Burnett creative heads Labbe and Sree keep on taking risks

Standing up for their ideas has helped Labbe and Sree flourish.

Calling all creatives. Are you frustrated that if you stand up for your ideas you may risk the boot? If so, don't panic - you are not alone.

Conceiving genius without rocking the boat is impossible. And seeing great ideas watered down to toe the party line is never 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 be truly creative is to be unafraid of getting fired.

Both speak from experience, having received pink slips and probation in their time, but they assert that pushing for what you believe in pays dividends in the end.

It has certainly done their careers no harm. The two are behind some of the most awarded and talked-about work worldwide. After a brief partnership at Wieden & Kennedy in 1998, the art director Labbe went on to produce some powerful work, including Nike's "beautiful" in 2000.

He has also worked at TBWA/ Chiat/Day San Francisco on Levi's and Adidas and was behind the campaign for Fox Sports, "Beware of things made in October".

Meanwhile, the well-travelled Sree, a copywriter, worked at agencies in the UK, Singapore, India and Australia before joining W&K. He was the toast of Cannes last year for the Nike "tag" spot.

Now the pair has come together at Leo Burnett Chicago as the vice-president creative directors. In their new role, they vociferously urge 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, and Nike hires guys who take risks and allows you to do great advertising," Labbe admits.

Even so, they've really had to fight to get work through, even with Nike.

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 fun and entertaining.

But the client turned down some of the more wacky ideas, leading the team to make a series of "forgettable" spots about golf balls.

However, on one shoot Sree caught Woods on camera swinging his club mid-air during a lunch break and, despite the client's reluctance, persuaded it to spend $4,000 dollars on another spot. It became by far the most memorable execution in 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 director of photography," Labbe explains. The final scene proved worth fighting for, though, and the result was one of Labbe's most high-profile ads.

"It's often the most adversarial relationships that are the most fruitful," Labbe says, making reference to Eric Silver, now at Cliff Freeman & Partners, who he knew from his time at W&K.

It was there that 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 Silver's space, stopped at the poster, claimed they loved the campaign and commissioned it. He was fired on the spot.

Confidence in 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 duos around.

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

"Burnett hired us because we have a voice and opinions. It may take months to adapt to a new agency structure and it may take time to adapt to our way of working but, ultimately, Burnett hired us because it respects our voice," Labbe says.

"When you are young, you've got nothing to lose so it's easier to take risks. Suddenly, you start doing well, buy a nice house and have some children. That's when it gets harder to sacrifice security for the sake of your ideas. But you have to believe that if the company you are with doesn't value you, you are better off being snapped up by someone who does because you may never make exciting work," Sree says.

Both Labbe and Sree say that the reason they work so well as a team is that there is no set formula in terms of who does what. Although Labbe is officially the art director and Sree the writer, they work collaboratively.

"We both write, we both art direct, we both execute, which keeps us on equal footing, the secret to any good teamwork," Labbe says. While Sree is a self-confessed introvert who observes life from the balcony of any party, Labbe will be in the middle of the action, experiencing it to the full.

Their boundless confidence and willingness to fight for their ideas can border on arrogance and is a strong reminder of how hard it can be to manage creative egos. So far, their work has been good enough to justify their confidence.

The team has now been at the agency for more than six months and they are convinced 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.

- For the full interview, see Campaign Screen, issue 37.


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