The time has come to sacrifice our creative Gods: Trevor Beattie says so

Leadership in adland is due for a wake-up call on what really matters (hint: it's not awards), writes The Open Arms co-founder, Jess Lilley.

Could there be a more brutal way to learn how valuable good leadership is than a pandemic? Probably not. But this is where we find ourselves. Both politically and on a micro level, ineffective leadership has truly shown itself.

I despair at hearing from young creatives, whose lives are messier and stressier than ever, being put through the ringer by seniors who can’t seem to course correct. In creative industries, leaders are often promoted on awards won over an ability to, well, lead. Some rise to the occasion, others do not. But there’s one variety that could do with being led down to the back paddock and retired for good: those swaggering untouchables, the ‘creative gods’.

Let’s be clear about who we’re slaying here. It’s that self-styled guru with a grand platform who is feted as the sole kingmaker of creativity in whichever kingdom they reign over. Who seems bullet-proof no matter the HR boundaries they cross. No matter how many people they send crying to the bathroom, or careers they squish via favouritism or sexism or eradicating the competition-ism. Who makes it to the top then drops shiny award-shaped bombs on whoever’s coming up behind them. Who grows horns when things don’t go their way. Who controls the flow of ideas — often with sticky fingers — but are quick to assign blame if something flops. Whose every direction shall be obeyed.

If that’s you, I’m sorry — you’re not helping anyone in this hellscape we find ourselves in. It’s time to clear out your awards cabinet and move on.

I jest. But I’m also deadly serious. The fallout from pandering to a big ego at the expense of others is real. According to the 2020 Mentally Healthy survey — compiling responses from 1,500 people working in media, marketing and the creative industry — 68% of respondents are crying out for “empathetic, more educated leaders”. In the absence of this, 56% of respondents displayed high levels of depression.

I’m in a quandary, though, because the kinds of leaders who need to hear the message will most likely dismiss this uppity messenger. (We’ve never rubbed shoulders on the Riviera, that’s for sure.) I need some big ad guy energy in my corner.

So I email British advertising stalwart Trevor Beattie. And while I interrupt his preparations for becoming one of the first regular humans to be launched into space (aboard Virgin Galactic), the man who once changed the fortunes of French Connection with four little letters has the good grace to respond.

“I have to say, I find the idea of a bunch of overpaid ‘creative’ ad-Herberts being referred to as ‘gurus’ utterly laughable,” he says, delighted to help put an end to this nonsense. “If that happens to cause some mischief or put a few pompous, powdered noses outta joint, then so be it.”

He signs off, Trev. 

So we chat. And Trev doesn’t mince words. Regarding the notion of ‘creative legends’ in advertising, he is incredulous. People think banging out a few irritating pop-ups for Skittles or Anusol is the equivalent of the lifetime’s output of Prince or David Bowie? Creative Legend, my arse. Have a word with yourselves.

Of course, the industry needs to take some responsibility for rogue egos. For one, they are readily given a platform and have plenty of enablers who buy into the status and the myth. Then there’s the incessant awards system that gives some creative leaders the misguided notion that their sole purpose is to torture underlings’ nervous systems with demands that every idea be ‘award-worthy’.

“I do understand what is meant by the phrase ‘award worthy’,” Trev says. “But for me it’s nowt to do with glittering Lions or Pencils (I threw mine in the Thames but that’s another story). For me it intrinsically means a FAMOUS piece of work, a winning idea that makes a brand famous.”

This is the crux for Trev. He loves the way advertising impacts the real world: “Honourable, worthy commercial enterprise which creates jobs, entertainment and turns the wheels of industry.” But the industry bubble itself is a trap. 

I ask how important he thinks compassion and empathy are to creative leadership. “They are more than important. They are everything. Without them, we’re doomed.”

Without a doubt we need inspiring creativity and brilliant ideas. Arguably, more than ever. It just isn’t cool to elevate yourself at the expense of others to get to them. Better to nurture and reward the thought noodles firing from eager minds. Learn how they work best and lift them up. Get tickled by seeing them crash into ideas. Most importantly, support them when they’re overwhelmed.

To anyone suffering at the hands of an ad-Herbert, I’d encourage you to use your voice or vote with your feet. It might seem scary but your life is too valuable to spend it in thrall to someone else’s antics. As Trev says: “They are jerks. And they know they are. It’s shallow, insecure behaviour. To quote Lennon: How do you sleep at night?”

And to those who let obnoxious leaders get away with it, I’d simply say: stop. Confronted by our collective mortality, we must tap into our inner humanity. You can still be fiercely ambitious and hard working. A little ego here and there, no worries. Just do it with respect and with heart. Don’t be an ad-Herbert, be a mischief maker in chief. It’ll be infinitely more rewarding—it might even take you to the moon and back.

Jess Lilley is a writer, broadcaster and co-founder of The Open Arms.


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