The making of a creative leader

Conrad laments the lack of creative leadership in today’s world of advertising. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli
Conrad laments the lack of creative leadership in today’s world of advertising. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

PETALING JAYA, Oct 19 — An advertising great most known for making Leo Burnett Worldwide (LBW) the global agency it is today, Michael Conrad thinks there is a need to revive the creative industry and believes the key lies in creative leadership.

With 23 years of experience in advertising, Conrad, who is LBW’s former chief creative officer (CCO), founded the Berlin School of Creative Leadership in 2006, which focuses on training practising creative people on being effective leaders.

“The creative business is a people business. A good creative leader recognises this,” said the 70-year-old when met after a workshop here yesterday.

Conrad said he started the school out of frustration over how good young talents go to waste under bad management. His run-ins with budding designers and copywriters often showed they had amazing portfolios but ended up with mediocre work once they entered the industry.

“The reason for that, I realised, was a lack of creative leadership. Great creative leaders would know how to utilise their talents and make the work happen,” he said.

“It came back to my mind that if something is needed to help the young generation perform better, then it’s the leadership skills of the existing creative leaders.

“Most creative companies are led by business and financial people. It is only a creative company if they have a creative leader on top.”

An important component in the workshops and the core programmes in the School of Berlin, said Conrad, was the focus on being open to change. He found it perplexing that creative people also happened to be people who were not willing to evolve.

However, he admitted it was easier said than done. Which is why his school spends a long time equipping creative people with the actual way to do it, instead of just talking about it.

“What is this resistance to change? It is something natural within us. If we don’t get a handle on dealing with change, then we will be changed,” he said.

Despite being an advocate for keeping up with the times, part of Conrad’s goal is to bring back classical advertising values into the industry. He finds it frustrating that there is so much advancement in technology and media but core values of brands and concepts are poorly communicated.

“I think the more digital platforms appear, the more the world is doing promotions and sometimes I feel that has led ad people to forget its core,” he said.

“Do you even remember the people who did that video where they had two people meeting for the first time kissing? Of course not. That is the point I’m trying to make,” he said, in reference to the viral YouTube video “First Kiss”.

“Social media and the internet are all just new communication platforms that have made things faster. You can do faster research. Get faster answers. Everything is faster but the concept of communicating ideas is still the same,.

“It may be faster but there is also the tendency of being superficial.”

Conrad did not deny the fact that in advertising, there is the age-old friction between ad agencies and their clients. In an industry where pressure is high, and clients constantly wanting changes made, he believes there is a simple solution.

“This can easily be fixed. Cross functional brand teams involving the client. Get everyone involved to sit in a room during discussion and make sure the button pusher of the client that can say yes has to be a part of the team. It’s very simple,” he said.

“We managed to change that old culture in Leo Burnett. We wanted everything done right the first time. It was the time when Yasmin Ahmad was working here. She was a great creative leader. When she saw that something wasn’t in sync, she had the confidence to go to the CEO of a company and communicate the issue.”

As CCO of Leo Burnett Worldwide, Conrad was responsible for making sure the global network of creatives working for the agency were in line with the company’s creative values, which was how he met Yasmin, who had served as executive creative director in Malaysia.

“We need to have human relationships, not a business relationship. That is creative leadership. We have all these hierarchies and barriers, but everyone in the company has the same goal to move forward. So break down the hierarchies,” he advised.

Conrad was here with other teachers from the school to teach an advance leadership programme to industry leaders in Malaysia.

Organised in collaboration with Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Malaysia (4As) and Astro, it was participated by 15 seniors and 25 junior leaders of the advertising industry.

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