Charlie Rudd
Charlie Rudd
A view from Charlie Rudd

An ode to the creative department from a lifelong suit

All departments are equal, but one is more equal than others.

As an account man I really enjoyed Ross Farquhar’s recent piece – a beautiful ode to our craft that rightly celebrates the power and importance of account people in the creative process. It’s an area of the business that far too often has to justify its existence and its value-add. An area that unenlightened and lazy procurement see as “process-management” or, worse still, “cost of doing business.

One of the truths about advertising is that ultimately it is a team game. We all know we are utterly interdependent in an agency if we are to do our best work. A creative needs a good strategist to give them that “jumping-off point”; a strategist’s work will never see the light of day without execution; nothing will be made without top quality production and design; none of this would happen at all without an account person, and of course we’d all be doing it for nothing if we didn’t have good finance people around us. So I have always loved and lived Nigel Bogle’s mantra: “None of us is as good as all of us.” And that spirit of team has probably kept me loving what I do for as long as I have.

But I do feel we are mistaken in thinking that means we are all of equal importance and so should be treated equally. As a lifelong suit, I have always believed there is a department that is “more equal than others” and that is the creative department. And I believe we ignore this truth at our peril. So this is my ode to all the creatives in the industry.

In the pandemic I have marvelled at how well our people have adapted to new ways of working while dealing with all kinds of new pressures – both domestic and work. Thankfully the likes of Zoom and Teams facilitated a new kind of working. But it increased that sense that we are all the same – all of us in a little square on a screen with a glimpse behind us of our non-work lives. 

But we’re not all the same. And I could see that for creatives in particular, the pandemic was an enormous challenge. The best creatives have grown up working next to the same work partner, bouncing ideas off each other in random chats or at the coffee machine with a passing creative director. They will have drawn inspiration from their trip to a theatre, gallery or cinema or from the walk to work or the coffee shop or from watching people at the station.

All of this stopped overnight. And they were left with their kitchen table, a screen and Netflix. And yet they still had to look at a blank piece of paper and create something none of us have ever seen before – and which would engage the widest possible audience to make them buy something.  

It’s not just the pandemic that makes me want to celebrate the difference of the creative department. It was always thus. I don’t think there is a role that is as comparable in terms of accountability and exposure. Every day creatives put their hard-thought ideas out there and have to be prepared for them to be destroyed in a matter of minutes. Seconds sometimes. All that work for absolutely nothing. And then they have to go again. With a smile on their face and a new sense of belief and optimism.

And this isn’t just about dealing with ideas dying. This is about careers. A creative is only as good as their book. Ideas dying means no new ideas, which means no new work. And quite quickly that is potentially a stagnating career. Hopefully we all look at a bigger picture when developing creative talent, so we can look beyond the odd barren period. But creatives who are struggling to get work out start to feel very exposed in an agency creative department. And with this added pressure, more than ever they have to come up with something fresh and brave. Good luck with that.

As account people, we can retreat from failing to sell some new work to the comfort and security in the strength of our client relationships. The strategist can draw comfort from how well the brand repositioning has been bought by the client. The producer will be moved on to another job that requires their skills. All of this requires a huge amount of hard work and talent but it’s not that empty feeling creatives have when work dies.

That’s why I think it’s so important to cut creatives plenty of slack. I don’t care about the hours they work or where they work. I don’t care if they’re useless at getting to meetings on time or doing their timesheets. I don’t care if they have massive sulks and become monosyllabic. No names…  

When someone says, negatively, that a creative is “difficult”, it infuriates me. It lacks any empathy for what creatives go through both to arrive at and then fight for their ideas. It’s hard for any good creative not to be difficult to deal with from time to time. And we should feel reassured that they care enough about their work that they want to be difficult.

There are of course limits to how a creative, like the rest of us, can behave. But simply being more difficult than the rest of us is nowhere near that limit.

So as we all get back to our offices and rebuild our agencies, I want us all to reconnect and re-establish our teams. But please let’s always remember creatives are different. We need them to be so if we all really care about making the work better.

Charlie Rudd is chief executive of Leo Burnett London