Innovation : Leadership in a Creative Organization

Graham was a regional CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, based in Japan , where he was responsible for major multinational clients across Asia Pacific. 

Cats ?

Creative talent is fiercely independent, aloof, rejects any form of training or discipline, temperamental, egotistical and completely selfish.

As a leader, you are regarded by creative talent as someone who will deliver the perfect environment for creativity to flourish, no more and no less, just as cats perceive their owners solely as providers of food and safety. You can nurture but you cannot direct; you can contain but you cannot train and you can discipline but cannot control.

So endeth the first lesson of the day.


The notion of organizations becoming creative and hence ( I assume ) more successful is currently in vogue. Unfortunately, as a leader within an advertising agency, it is not a matter of choice as our business is based on innovation, ideas and creativity and if we falter, our clients will walk away. To borrow a cliché: we’re only as good as our last ad. Past pedigree means nothing to a marketing director if his sales are going down, the CEO is wagging his finger and the shareholders are grumbling in their financial towers.

So we have no choice but to try to deliver successful, business-building creative ideas day in day out, on time and every time. But an advertising agency is also a business and needs to deliver a budget, every year improving its margins, increasing profit and growing. And as part of a publicly-quoted multinational global network, we have to do this to keep our shareholders happy.

Profit in an advertising agency is primarily top-line driven, that is by revenue or sales. Our costs are primarily accounted for by people or salary packages - typically some 60%-70% of total costs - because it is people who have ideas and more often than not these types of people do not come cheap.

People and costs are at the crux of the debate about building a creative organization albeit a debate that in reality only needs to be swift and to the point. For there is no profound, complex answer to how to build a creative organization. It is very simple. You have to employ creative people; people who have talent and, to steal an ethos from the organization I work in, people who are passionate and relentless about having ideas on everything that they work.

Forced ?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can manufacture an environment that can transform duffers into geniuses because you can’t. Creativity cannot be taught or forced. It is innate and all that a leader can do is to give rise to a working environment where creativity will flourish and where good ideas can build into better ideas; into the truly unexpected.

That’s really the second lesson and the third will really be a series of building blocks that you as a leader can employ.

But first, does leadership demand that the leader is the most creative individual in the group ? No. In fact, whilst not quite the opposite it is important to understand that leadership in this instance comes from uncovering and then nurturing ideas, and stimulating the creative talent to do even better by offering guidance and direction. It’s rather like the soccer ( or any team sports ) manager or coach.

Rarely are the best managers, the best former players. Good - yes - but rarely the best ( think of Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United, the most successful soccer team in the U.K. of the last five years. Even by his own admission, he was only an average player. )

In contrast, often the world’s superstars have made the duffest of managers, often because their own ego gets in he way, blinds them to accepting that others maybe as or more talented, leading to a stifling of new thinking. It’s only natural I guess. If you spend your career accepting a constant stream of adulation, it is difficult to fully accept that someone maybe better. And that has to be the case.

Creativity is not about democracy or compromise or second best. Ideas work or they don’t. They are good or bad. There is always one which is better than the rest.

Leading a team of talented people is not for the faint-hearted liberal or the social worker. It’s about rejecting the mediocre and then rejecting the very good until only the very best is found and then raising standards even higher. No matter how hard we try, we can never deplete the Pandora’s box of ideas.

So, back to the building blocks or tips.


You can only lead a creative organization if you have absolute belief in it. Commitment, faith, strength and resilience are the demands made upon you. Curious and agile minds cannot be turned on and off. If you try to do this, people/talent will walk.

Distaste ?

The familiar and proven offers a level of comfort that most people find hard to resist and fewer still want to disturb. Creativity is about uncovering and discovering the new, the heretic, the previously unsaid.

Leaders in creative organizations have a sense of surprise and have a lifelong desire to search for a richness beyond their own experience and capabilities.

Unknown ?

Control freaks need not apply. No matter how much we believe we understand or know, creativity is mercurial, a puzzle that ultimately cannot be fathomed in its entirety. You have to allow a certain degree of suspension of control; perhaps even be prepared to promote constructive anarchy where the means, no matter what they are, are always acceptable if they always get to a constructive end.

Afford it ?

You need to invest in a team of the best minds. Which don’t come cheap. True creativity costs money and you need to be sure that you have the resource to invest in it. You are looking for talent, not enthusiasm. Talent delivers, enthusiasts talk. But at worst it is investment ahead of the curve. Ideas will build your business, will build your revenue and will build your profit. Have you ever heard the opposite ?

Jealousy ?

Maverick, creative groups are magnets to jealously, gossip and sniping. You need to be ever more supportive of your team even when those great ideas dry up for a while or are less successful.


Yes, a vision, a set of objectives and goals are utterly essential. What is the end result of all this creativity, what time frame are you working within and how are you going to get there ? You’ve got this busload of talented individuals but to get to the match, they need a driver who can navigate. That’s you.

Rope ?

... but prepare to be hung yourself. You cannot become paralyzed by fear of failure. Success will only come if you can also live with the consequences of failure. Everyone will need to be pushed to only do the very best and to be able to do it in their way. That’s a rule. You can’t tell people they can only be creative in a particular way or style. If they succeed, it doesn’t matter how ( OK, within moral and ethical standards ) but if they fail, the house will come down around your ears ( see Cope with jealously above. ) Can you deal with that ?

But why ?

Why be creative ? Well, creativity is about invention; showing imagination not just routine skill. There are perhaps some organizations where the latter is more appropriate but for most, to survive, creativity in ideas, form, systems and processes needs to take place constantly. That’s how life has evolved, through constant and consistent change.

Your degree of creativity will undoubtedly vary. Not every organization needs to be wild, wacky and unruly. But if it doesn’t evolve to take account of its changing competitive environment, it will stagnate and die. Nature has evolution and genes being mixed and remixed to create what is an optimal balance at any one given moment.

The organisation’s genes need to be the mind of the people who work for it. Ideas are DNA that are combined in sequences to form, from the ephemeral, the tangible.

Being creative means moving away from a dependence solely on the rational, the planned, the low risk but well thought.

And isn't it only the world’s most creative organizations that succeed and last ?

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