Feature

Meet adland's new crop of creative leaders

A new generation of creative leaders has hatched. Campaign asks what drives them as they spread their wings and take the industry in their own direction.

Meet adland's new crop of creative leaders

Behold adland’s exciting new crop of creative leaders. These are some of the people who will shape the evolution of creativity in advertising over the next few years. Many bring a fresh perspective to their work, forged from experiences in filmmaking, trend forecasting, graphic design and more.

Many also believe a good leader acts as a coach, fosters collaboration, trusts teams to come up with brilliant ideas and has a duty of care to help creatives get their ideas made, whether for a client or not.

They have all struggled with a lack of external stimulus over the past year, thanks to the Covid pandemic. But they are also cheered by seeing more bravery from clients, less overthinking and a renewed sense of optimism about what the future holds now the world is beginning to open up. It’s time for creativity to soar once again.

Ollie Olanipekun,

founder and creative director, Futurimpose

Olanipekun is a breath of fresh air. He did not follow the well-trodden path to creative leadership in adland, yet he successfully founded and runs one of the hottest shops in the business. With his infectious energy, positivity and creative mind, he is one to watch.

Having always been passionate about people, Olanipekun was initially a trend forecaster but was sold on advertising during his first campaign – for Barnardo’s – when he realised it could help him give a voice to the voiceless, something that has driven him ever since.

Unusually, Olanipekun started out in the industry as a strategist but made the switch to creative after being frustrated at having to hand projects over to a creative director once the strategy was complete: “I want to be involved in an idea from the very beginning to the very end.”

After a spell freelancing, including at Channel 4, where he won an Emmy, Work Club (now Havas) and We Are Social, he set up his own agency Superimpose six years ago, which specialised in fashion and lifestyle, and was one of the most in-demand creative shops in London. As the business grew, he became frustrated at having to take on briefs that didn’t excite him or his staff in order to pay the “crazy overheads”. He says: “As a creative, I couldn’t give my all to a project because there were so many to do.”

He also realised that by not being selective about the projects he took on, he wouldn’t get the best out of his team. So he relaunched his agency as Futurimpose to focus on “the white space where brands and art meet”. Its clients include Google/YouTube, Adidas and Netflix. The agency has a dedicated budget to help staff pursue their own creative projects alongside their work. Olanipekun also prides himself on the diversity of his agency’s make-up. “We are the audience, we don’t need to hire an insight agency,” he says.

Olanipekun has always thought creatively and has a strong entrepreneurial drive; he set up a clothes shop at the age of 19. This drive, he believes, came from watching his parents, who were academics. “My parents came over from Nigeria in 1982. I watched them work so incredibly hard that I just thought, I will never ever work that hard for anyone. Straight away from a young age I thought, how can I work smart, not hard?”

It is easy to see why Olanipekun would be an inspiring creative leader. When asked where he gets his abundant energy from, he says: “This is the first time I’m going to go on record and say this, but I’ve just been diagnosed with ADHD.”

For him, this manifests itself in the ability to think quickly. “On the good side, I have this brain that can hyperfocus. I can do 10 projects at a time. Give me a brief, and I can finish it for you on the same day. But if you ask me to sit on it for a few weeks, I get bored,” he says.

This has led to issues with his team, something his diagnosis has allowed him to manage better. “If you have to get from point A to point D, most people go through a linear process to get there. But I will have already jumped straight to D,” he explains.

“It was a big revelation when I worked that out, because there was tension before, with me being able to work so quickly and then expecting others to do the same.”

During lockdown, Olanipekun also co-founded Flock Together, a bird-watching group to challenge the underrepresentation of people of colour in the outdoors. The idea is an extension of his own belief in the power of nature. Whenever he struggles with a brief or feels overwhelmed with work, Olanipekun takes long walks, which give him the space to breathe, a new perspective and, usually, the answer eluding him.

He says his alternative career would be city planning, and he is currently consulting for a few architecture firms. “I love the idea of building a city that works for people,” he explains.

People may not traditionally associate creativity with city planning, but, as Olanipekun says: “Whatever your role, you need to be creative and solve problems. To move forward in anything you need creative thinking.”

Tom Drew, executive creative director, Wunderman Thompson

Things have a funny way of coming full circle. Earlier this year, Drew found himself walking back into the building where he had his first placement (VMLY&R), this time as the executive creative director of Wunderman Thompson.

It is the fourth agency he has worked at during his 22-year career: the other three being DLKW, M&C Saatchi and, most recently, Bartle Bogle Hegarty for 10 years, where he ran the Tesco account. “Hopefully, if you do the work, the money comes to you. You only move for opportunities and I thought there was more opportunity to make a difference here,” he says.

He is most proud of his impact on Tesco, which he volunteered to work on when many creatives were sceptical. It was the supermarket’s mass-market nature that attracted him: “I’m not a fan of doing campaigns that only talk to tiny audiences. I chose advertising over graphic design because people would be able to stand at a bus stop and I could say that was my work on it. Basically I just wanted to show off. Tesco was probably the ultimate platform to do that.”

His decision paid off, with work that won many plaudits.

“Tom from Rom” (he grew up in Romford in Essex) has two theories about why he chose a creative career. The first is his surname Drew. He cites the nominative determinism hypothesis, which says people tend to gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. “When I was a kid I just thought I was going to be very good at drawing. I think that pushed me all the way through school to carry on doing art.” The other, he jokes, is that he was “really lazy” and preferred drawing a picture to writing 1,000 words. The irony is that after two years of art direction, he switched to being a copywriter. “I hated the subjectivity of art direction. What you think is good, someone else might think is rubbish, but everyone usually agrees whether a headline is clever or not,” he says.

Drew believes an effective creative leader gives creative teams confidence in their own abilities. “I worry that, over the years, teams have been mollycoddled too much,” he says. “That might be because of time or money pressures but it’s disempowering. Everyone needs the freedom to get it wrong. If a creative director can give that freedom to a team, then you will get better results.”

He recalls a time at M&C Saatchi, when he and his partner were trying to crack a Transport for London brief and they took their underwhelming scamps to their creative director, Graham Fink.

“He just looked at them, looked up at us and said: ‘How many press-ups do you think you can do?’” Drew says. “We got on the floor and did press-ups until we couldn’t breathe any more. And then he said: ‘I’ll see you again in a few days.’”

He laughs: “It’s probably the most random creative director feedback you will ever get, but he was saying: ‘Come on guys, that isn’t good enough.’”

Instead of directing them to a new idea, Fink had tried to interrupt their thinking. The next time the pair went to see him, they had only one idea and it was the answer.

Drew encourages his own creativity through a variety of hobbies. “I’ll go from one to the other, ticking off all the ageing hipster clichés,” he jokes. “Right now, I’m a potter. I make teapots, I don’t even drink that much tea.”

You can see his creations on his Instagram account, @TomfromRom. And if Drew weren’t in advertising? He would like to be a carpenter. “Making things with my hands is a key part of any kind of hobby that I do,” he says. “It’s really cool to be able to say you know that chair you are sitting on, or that cup you are drinking out of, I made that.”

Franki Goodwin, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi London

Goodwin leads a double life. As well as her new role as ECD at Saatchi & Saatchi, she and her husband run independent film company Western Edge Pictures. Its recent movies include Billie Piper’s directorial debut, Rare Beasts. As the saying goes, if you want something done, give it to a busy person.

Goodwin’s first experience of the creative industries was in graphic design, before she joined the film industry and set up her own business, Franki&Jonny, which developed digital and design campaigns for film companies.

After 10 years, Goodwin wanted to make her own movies. An opportunity presented itself while she was freelancing at digital agency Outside Line, which was acquired by Saatchi & Saatchi in 2012. “I came in through the back door to Saatchi & Saatchi in a relatively senior position. It was quite an unexpected career divergence. I had to keep Googling what all the acronyms meant and learn the language of advertising. Once I did, I realised this was a job that allowed me to do all the things I loved,” she says. What Goodwin found eye-opening in adland was the scale of the work and the opportunity that presents to create change.

Goodwin was always good at art at school. “The weird thing is that if you can draw a Coke can for your art GCSE, that means you are suddenly on a path to a creative career,” she says.

She believes that her artistic side comes from her mother (who was a mature art student when Goodwin was a teenager), but that she has also inherited her scientist father’s logical brain. “I could never be an artist, spending a day making a pot or painting a picture. What gets me out of bed in the morning is solving a problem,” Goodwin says.

That drive shows in her favourite work: Deutsche Telekom’s award-winning Sea Hero Quest campaign, a game that brought together scientists and gamers to revolutionise dementia research. It was a personally rewarding project because her father was told about her project independently by the science community.

Goodwin argues that the best creative leaders have a generosity of spirit. They share ideas, hire better talent and ensure teams feel part of something greater than themselves. They also trust their staff. “During this period of remote work, I’ve never thought people aren’t working just because I can’t see them. Trust is incredibly empowering and breeds good feeling,” she says.

Kyle Harman-Turner, executive creative leader and co-founder, Other

There is one word that is at the foundation of Harman-Turner’s career: mother.

It was his mother who lit his creative spark: “I’ve got an amazing mum who raised us on her own, so she was always finding creative ways to make things happen. I think that’s the heart of why I became a creative,” he says.

After joining Mother from Central Saint Martins, where he studied advertising, Kyle never left. He worked in the agency’s New York and London offices before pitching for and setting up Other, a new shop under the Mother umbrella based upstairs in the Biscuit Building (Covid excepting).

He says he has stayed so long because Mother’s founder, Robert Saville, “has always backed the big creative ideas.” The agency has also allowed him to pursue his passions across various creative outlets, including writing for football magazines and collecting and dealing art. “Mother is a consistent pillar of creativity in my life, but I do lots of other creative things around it,” he says.

It is this flexibility and creative encouragement that he tries to provide to his own team at Other. Harman-Turner believes agencies should treat creative people holistically and recognise that they need lots of ways to channel their creativity, not just advertising. “In years gone by, you were pigeon-holed into either being a copywriter or art director. The industry would try to attract and retain talent into an agency so it didn’t escape. It should be the other way around,” he says. “If creatives have things they want to do – write a book, make a song – we should help them to do these things. Then they will be happier to give us really tight bursts of creativity for clients too.”

He prizes resilience. “Having the idea is the simple bit. What’s hard is the ability to keep going and make something happen. I can see why lots of talent would fall away from our industry because it can be disheartening when you are constantly putting your ideas out there and they are being killed or changed to something that you didn’t imagine,”
he says. At Other, he works with creatives to help them get their idea made, whether it is for a client or not.

For all the negatives that Covid brought, Harman-Turner also believes the crisis has helped to make clients braver and now, with the world reopening, it has created hope and optimism. “Coming out of lockdown there’s a sense that we all want to live our best lives, be the best versions of ourselves and really go for things a little bit more. So it’s an exciting time. I’ve noticed more bravery from clients.”

Harman-Turner’s connections with his mother – and now his daughter – remain big motivations. His team sense-checks the agency’s ideas before pitches with “a wide crew” including his mum, a taxi driver and people from different parts of the country. “We want to make sure we are not too far into our own little London agency bubble,” he says.

Indeed, last year, to break up the monotony of Zoom calls, his mother “actually presented our work to a prospective client during a pitch, much to their surprise. She was going through the deck explaining why certain ideas were more interesting than others.” They won the pitch.

Shelley Smoler, executive creative director, Droga5 London

Johannesburg-born Smoler was lured to the UK under false pretences. When she visited London to be interviewed for a role at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, it was a warm, sunny weekend. “I was smitten,” she says. Eight years on, and she’s probably disappointed in the number of times that has happened since. But her love for advertising is not in question.

Creative as a child – “I was always making things” – Smoler started her career as a graphic designer in an ad agency before she was attracted to the problem-solving and big ideas of the creative department and requested a transfer. “I fell in love instantly.” She moved to TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris\Johannesburg, where she created the work she was best known for – a campaign for The Zimbabwean newspaper that took on then president of the country Robert Mugabe’s regime by turning the country’s bank notes into protest messages on billboards. She was later poached by BBH London and moved to Droga5 London in 2017 as group creative director, until her 2020 promotion to ECD.

Smoler believes it is critical to create the right environment for creative teams to feel confident and safe enough to be able to express their ideas, as well as keeping them motivated and inspired with fresh perspectives. “It’s important to foster an environment of collaboration where everyone feels like they can contribute and everyone feels like they are heard,” she says.

Covid has made creating this environment more difficult. “Self-confidence just plummets because you don’t have that reassurance of your colleagues encouraging your ideas,” she says. The lack of stimulation is also a problem. “You can’t get quality output without getting quality inputs, and so much of that comes from going to galleries and seeing things around you.”

Smoler agrees with Sir John Hegarty’s recent comments that craft has worsened in the industry. “I don’t think enough people pay attention to it. A lot of work isn’t crafted to its full potential,” she says. “There is this new kind of aesthetic emerging where people want things to be rough and ready and believable. But that only works when it’s intentional and that’s clear in the work.”

As for what makes a great creative, Smoler believes the fundamental principles still apply: “The basics are always going to remain the same – having an open mind, a good imagination and being in touch with the way society is feeling and the ability to reflect that in your work.”

Sue Higgs and Paul Cohen, joint executive creative directors, Dentsumcgarrybowen

In an industry built on long-standing creative partnerships, Higgs and Cohen are an unusual example of matchmaking. When the pair joined Dentsumcgarrybowen as joint ECDs earlier this year, neither had worked together before. In fact, thanks to Covid, they’ve never even been in the same room.

Luckily, in the first few weeks of their arranged marriage, they have discovered a shared outlook on what makes good work. “We agree on the structure of thought that makes a good ad. We’ve got the same language, the same references. We come at things from the same place,” Cohen says.

Higgs believes the fresh start can be an advantage as it doesn’t present the baggage that comes with a long-term partnership. “We can’t get lazy, we’ve got to impress each other a bit,” she says.

Together, they bring about 60 years’ experience to the job and two excellent individual reputations. Displaying her characteristic humour, Higgs calls herself a “32-year overnight success”. She started her career in the “glory analogue days” at Lowe Howard-Spink, before winding her way through M&C Saatchi, Ogilvy, Publicis – where she partnered Andy Bird – and then Grey, as group creative director, before leaving last year. Higgs was laid up in her bedroom with Covid-19 when she had her first interview with DentsuMB chief creative officer Simon Lloyd. “I was rancid, like a total lunatic woman in the grips of Covid doing a freelance job, and he was still interested,” she laughs.

Cohen, meanwhile, is a graduate of Central Saint Martins who started as a graphic designer for art galleries and architects before he became “fed up with being skint” and was seduced into advertising. He learnt his craft at Mother, then worked at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, McCann London, DDB Chicago and latterly Adam & Eve/DDB as a global ECD.

The pair both displayed creative flair from an early age. Higgs found her way into advertising because she “accidentally” bought a second-hand Ford Capri Mk1. She had to postpone her university studies for a year to pay for the car. During that gap, a careers advisor told her to join the ad industry and she didn’t look back. Meanwhile, Cohen was attracted by the ability in adland to “come up with an idea on a Wednesday afternoon and it be on the TV, a newspaper or on fly posters across London two or three days later”.

Both agree that kindness and offering psychological safety are two of the most important things creative leaders should give teams. Higgs rejects the old “master-servant” model of creative leadership: “Kindness goes a long way because people open up when they feel safe. Being kind and generous with ideas allows people to thrive and you get a happier, creative team.”

Cohen concurs. “You have to make people feel safe enough to bring you what might be a weird, crazy idea. There’s going to be tough calls, but you need to nurture a team.”

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