On Creative Leadership: You’re No Longer The Genius, You’re The Idiot

W+K London’s Iain Tait talks about being a creative director now, and the creative leader as ground-up supporter, not a top-down ruler.

+LDNOctober 4th 2017

Excerpted from "You're No Longer The Genius, You're The Idiot," written for Creative Review by W+K London executive creative director Iain Tait.

Running a creative team is often the complete opposite to being a “creative.” You have to get used to the fact that you’re no longer the genius, you’re the idiot. I’m not sure who, but someone put it brilliantly when they said: “take none of the credit and all of the blame.”

If you’re doing it right your job is to get out of the way of others and let them be as good as they can be. You want to be almost invisible. A few years ago I realized that my work was no longer the direct output of the company. My creative output had become the place, the culture, and the people around me–if I’m helping others to do good work, I’m doing my job. I shouldn’t be looking at individual pieces of work or looking for my fingerprints on them.

But it is really hard to sit on your hands while other people are making things. I guess the dark art is how to influence people to do what’s right, but let them feel like it’s all their idea.

How do you organize projects?

As part of lots of changes we’ve been making recently, we’re trialling dividing the agency into smaller, more autonomous groups. Each group has responsibility not only for the work they do, but also for how they want to do it. Smaller, more empowered groups, with the right support from management seems to be the right way to do things. But like I said, we’re figuring it all out as we go.

A huge part of the management team’s job becomes creating a brilliant culture and environment in which to do great work. And when new opportunities arise, we work with the teams to cast the work appropriately. But beyond that it’s down to them to decide how best to tackle it.

Instead of ECDs (executive creative directors if you’re not in the world of pompous made-up long titles with acronyms) being overseers and signoff-ers, this new structure uses us more as coaches or supports. So instead of sitting at the top of the organisation we’ve put ourselves at the bottom (figuratively). Helping to push people up.

Having worked at both tech companies and agencies, the biggest difference is in where the bulk of time is spent on a project. In most ad agencies, there’s historically been a lot of time spent thinking, conceptualising, packaging work, presenting, re-presenting, amending, etc. Then you have a relatively small window at the end when you actually make the thing. And that’s entirely appropriate when you’re working for big clients who need things to be "certain" before proceeding.

The culture at Google, well Creative Lab anyway, is often the complete flip of that. And the same is true of digital agencies I’ve worked at. The initial ideas are figured out more quickly, and you get into the execution as soon as possible. The process of "making" is actually where a lot of the figuring-out gets done. The idea that might have sounded amazing on paper can often be less good once you start playing around with it. And, personally, I’d much rather know that earlier in the process than later.

A lot of people think prototyping is just something you do with technology but actually you can prototype anything–you can prototype ads, films, a book. It’s just about putting something in front of someone and saying “it’s going to be a bit like that, but better”. I find it incredibly liberating to get out and just start shooting, editing, writing, or coding a rough version of something. As creative people we love making stuff more than sitting in meetings talking about making stuff, don’t we?

Read the full piece, on how to organize projects, collaboration, and the principles that define good creative leaders here