As you plot the return from WFH let the new class of ECD be your guide
A view from Maisie McCabe

A new style of creative leader is championing their people, not barking orders

The 2021 class of creative directors is carving out a new way of leading. The industry should take inspiration from them as it plots its return to work.

Campaign’s creativity issue is out today. Copies won’t be packaged up as excess baggage for an easyJet flight to Cannes this month but it is important to use this moment in the year to celebrate the work and the inspiring people creating it.

Kate Magee interviewed some of the hottest new(ish) executive creative directors in the business for our cover feature, brilliantly art directed by Chris Barker and Sam Scott. We have used butterflies as the motif to present the evolution of their role. Like Havas London’s Vicki Maguire (interviewed for our Headliner slot), these are managers who have their teams’ backs rather than their backs up against the wall. They’re cheerleaders not sergeant majors. They’ve grabbed an oar and are paddling as well rather than barking orders from the front.

This new style of leader considers how other people’s brains might work differently from theirs, gives people the freedom to make mistakes, shares ideas and helps colleagues get creative projects off the ground. It’s a far cry from the queue forming at the empty desk of an ECD out lunching, as recalled by Maguire. The regular weekend creative reviews detailed in Magee's piece on the long-hours culture last month. Or – my personal favourite – the velvet rope one creative boss instituted to demarcate his open-plan desk. 

It is important to think about leadership styles and features of the best working relationships as the industry plots its return to the office. 

Whatever the government decides today about the final easing of lockdown, it seems likely adland will spend more time under its exposed metal beams in the coming months. In a recent Campaign survey of more than 20 agencies about their return to the office, Mark Read, chief executive of WPP, noted: “We will never go back to exactly how we used to work.” 

But many businesses will be mandating which days people are in the office – even if that’s only two or three rather than five. Smaller, more agile companies such as Now and New Commercial Arts plan to be completely flexible. Now, there are lots of reasons why fixed days are helpful – for the business, its clients and its facilities department – but don’t let it be the beginning of a slide back to full-time office working.

From the attention some UK agency CEOs have apparently been paying to their staff's Instagram posts, I'd say there are some who'd like the new normal to be rather a lot like the old one.

Many offices worldwide are full again already. In the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has removed the need for the double-jabbed to wear masks in most indoor settings. Many agencies are busy with bare-faced people all week, like the last 15 months never happened.

I'm not saying I don't welcome the reopening of offices. I haven't seen any of my colleagues in person since I returned from maternity leave last year. I miss sitting around talking about our weekend, chatting things through, sparring ideas, learning from each other and seeing stuff laid out on a piece of paper.

But it would be a shame if the creative sector learnt nothing from the biggest work-from-home experiment in history.

Maisie McCabe is the UK editor of Campaign