CLOSE-UP: Newsmaker/David Kester - Who will keep D&AD on the straight and narrow?

The departing D&AD chief executive is a tough act to follow, John Tylee reckons.

Minutes after a long phone interview marking the imminent end of his eight years as D&AD's chief executive, David Kester is back on the line.

He's worried that what's written about him might give the impression that he's the organisation's single-handed saviour. That's not true. He wants to make clear that D&AD's revival is testimony to the efforts of a dedicated and talented team.

Certainly, the widespread perception is that D&AD's transformation from a shambolic and corrupt organisation facing financial collapse to a super-efficient charity spending £1.5 million a year nurturing the best young creative talent is largely owing to Kester's highly organised management style.

Indeed, if there's criticism of him at all it's that in turning D&AD from a body incapable of running a whelk stall to a well-oiled machine, he has caused it to lose some of its unique character. Kester himself adds some credence to this view.

"Running D&AD isn't like running an ad agency," he declares. "It's more like a small business where you have to keep all the balls in the air."

But Andrew Cracknell, the Bates UK executive creative director, wonders if Kester's D&AD is overdoing the businesslike approach. "After all the previous mistakes and wild excesses, I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far the other way," he reflects.

This, though, isn't a universal view. If Anthony Simonds-Gooding, D&AD's chairman, can be credited with setting out its long-term vision, it's Kester who has been key to the reinvention of D&AD as more than just an awards show, creating an organisation that puts education at the heart of its activity.

"David took a shattered organisation and put it back together again," Tim Delaney, whose 1992 presidency signalled the start of D&AD's rehabilitation, says. "He's turned it from Fred Carno's Circus into a professional body."

A tough act to follow? Almost certainly. But it's a task D&AD's executive committee has to confront with Kester, 38, due to quit in March to take what will be an even more demanding role as the chief executive of the Design Council. He will replace Andrew Summers, the one-time managing director of RHM Foods, who is leaving to pursue "a mix of new roles in both the public and private sectors".

Kester's task will be an onerous one. Not least because his responsibility is to paymasters even more capricious than a group of designers and advertising creatives, namely British taxpayers. However, the job will enable him to work on a broader canvas, promoting design not only as an enhancer of the quality of life but an important contributor to national prosperity.

Doubtless, he can be expected to tackle it with his trademark energy and the deep sense of vocation he seems to bring to whatever he does.

Associates attribute much of his effectiveness to his diplomacy, lack of ego and his perpetual willingness to take soundings to ensure the right decisions are being taken.

At the same time, he likes to play a long game, often planning changes as much as 18 months in advance. All very efficient but as Peter Souter, D&AD's immediate past president, points out, such pre-cast strategies can make it hard for an incoming president to make his mark when office tenure is only a year.

Some find Kester's evangelism a bit overwhelming. "It's as though he's pitching the whole time," a leading agency creative chief remarks. "He uses D&AD's effectiveness to beat you into submission. I don't expect to be sold to by somebody from an organisation that has charitable status."

Kester's background is an intriguing mix of the arts and business. Born in London to a fashion designer mother, he worked in theatre design and direction and for Friends of the Earth before joining D&AD from the Chartered Society of Designers in 1994.

Kester found an organisation struggling to regain its equilibrium. For years, it had been run as a personal fiefdom, losing money and respect in equal measure. "It was in complete chaos," John Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's worldwide creative chief, recalls. "D&AD was unfocused and stumbled from one financial crisis to another." Things had become so bad that the D&AD Book showcasing one year's awards had not even appeared by the time that the next one was scheduled.

The incoming chief executive's first priority was to make the books balance.

That meant getting almost non-existent databases up to scratch and tracking down would-be sponsors. Equally important was finding a real purpose for D&AD. Education has filled that void and Kester is especially proud of the Blood Bank, an online shop window for the best creative talent, which now has 22,000 registered users.

This has provoked some criticism that D&AD is merely adding to the problems of an already over-supplied market and helping keep alive college courses whose survival depends on the number of students they attract. Kester denies this, arguing that D&AD acts as a filter that puts up only a fraction of the young people it encounters for industry scrutiny.

So what are the challenges for Kester's successor? To lead a move out of D&AD's less-than-ideal HQ in Vauxhall to a more central location, perhaps.

To enhance the integrity and global dimension of the D&AD Awards almost certainly. Above all, to guard against a return to its old ways.

"The worst thing D&AD could do is to be complacent about its pre-eminent position," Hegarty warns. "That breeds the kind of casualness that could be its undoing."


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