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Is there a new creative leadership style on the rise?

D&AD Masterclass trainers explain why traditional hierarchies are dead

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

The meaning of creative leadership is changing. There are new hierarchies, new concerns, and new ways of thinking about and approaching creativity. For brand consultant and ThinkAheadConsulting founder Ron Ferdinands and creative coach and The Ideas Business founder Wade Kingsley, this shifting landscape is both exciting and full of fresh challenges — and in their bespoke creative leadership D&AD Team Training Masterclass, they aim to provide a set of tools designed to help the next generation of leaders navigate the road ahead. 

“There's so much talk about leadership, but very little talk about creative leadership,” Ferdinands explains. “Its root structure and branches come from traditional concepts of leadership, but it also takes a lot of its cues from culture, fashion, creativity and marketing.” Here, Ferdinands and Kingsley explain what they think a new cohort of creative leaders — whose backgrounds may be less traditional or agency-based but instead drawn from the wider worlds of content creation, media, video and more — should keep in mind.

Learn the difference between 'managing' and 'leading’

Perhaps the first and best step towards effective leadership is recognising one’s own capacity to be a leader. Long gone are the days when the word ‘leader’ is synonymous with ‘manager’ — or requires a set number of rungs on the career ladder. It does not require a special rank. It does not require a special skill set. It requires someone who's got the mindset to implement leadership immediately. 

In other words, a leader is not a noun but a verb. Leadership happens in action. “You don’t need a title to lead, and some who have a title can’t lead,” Ferdinands says. Instead, it’s about receptiveness and the right attitude — and the capacity to bring agile ways of thinking to the table, especially if you’re not coming from the standard agency background. “Some of those inherent industry biases don't exist for people who are emerging leaders, who have come into the industry as subject matter or technical experts,” he adds. “Their ability to look at problems in different ways and solve them is really strong.”

This principle extends beyond oneself. “The reality is good creative work comes from anyone,” he continues. “You've got to create the right environment, an environment of psychological safety, to allow people to put forward ideas.” Ideally, a creative leader doesn’t just create that safety but also “encourages provocations to try and get more daring, bolder ideas out there.” In this balance between assurance and openness, good work can grow.

Make room for multiple voices

Today’s leaders are keenly aware of the shifting nature of work, and the implicit or explicit shake-ups this may require. “One of the assumptions that we want to challenge is that if you're a young person starting out in a creative agency, you’ve just got to do your time before you have a right to say something,” Ferdinands explains. “We really need to try to disrupt this idea that if you've got a fancy title, like… senior creative, or chief creative officer, then you know what to do, you always have the right answer and everyone follows you.” Instead, it’s about making room for multiple voices. “Sometimes a different perspective might allow a fresh take on an old problem.” 

The last few years have really clarified this. “Through Covid, all of a sudden, you saw hierarchical approval systems go out the window,” he continues, pointing out that the need to move swiftly and adapt to new practices has heightened the potential for new approaches to how teams are structured. Of course, none of this is a one-size-fits-all situation. Smaller, independent agencies may be able to adapt in ways that are harder for larger ones, but there are still useful takeaways. “The role of the leader isn't to have all the answers,” Kingsley adds. “It's not for the leader to say, ‘well, this is the direction we're going in’. The leader’s job is to say, ‘Well, look, I've got a compass, let's do this journey together.’” 

Understand the needs of a changing world

It’s not just Covid. We’re living in a rapidly changing world. “Audiences are becoming so discerning,” Ferdinands explains. “It's not just younger audiences — people are just becoming a bit more aware of bullshit, like greenwashing and virtue signalling and all this fake stuff.” Brands must now vie not only for consumers’ precious attention, but their approval. 

Luckily, a good creative leader will already be one step ahead. Ferdinands characterises an effective leader now as one who wants to “construct a new world, whether it's altruistic, more inclusive, more authentic, more real, more personal or more planet friendly.” Bringing your beliefs to the table is a distinct benefit, both internally and externally. It will strengthen your teams, making them feel heard, and thus shape the work you can create. “These leaders are using creativity as a bridge to their belief in the future they want to see,” he adds. “Creativity starts with a clean sheet. It doesn't start with assumptions, it starts with this journey into the unknown.” 

Unique, collaborative and inspiring, D&AD’s Team Training programmes are shaped specifically to your team’s needs, and always delivered by our roster of exceptional industry professionals. Learn more here. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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