Michael Lee: W+K New York’s Karl Leiberman on the secrets of creative leadership

I mentioned in an earlier post that ad agencies have a dreadful record in appointing new creative leadership.

Agencies proudly announce a new star hiring, that is a “great creative and cultural fit with the agency,” only to announce 18 months later that person has decided to “pursue other opportunities” but, they have uncovered another “star” who is really going to turn the agency work around this time and lead them to the promised land.

There’s a reason Agency Spy has a section called Revolving Door.

The Creative Director, Executive Creative Director, Chief Creative Officer, call it what you will, is the heart and soul of an agency, basically the sexiest job in the agency.

It’s also the most volatile. Probably up there with the tenure of a CMO.

It’s the job everyone in the creative department wants, although I have a theory that deep down they don’t actually want the job, but they sure as heck don’t want anyone else to have it.

Most agencies assume that if you are a very good creative, you will make a very good creative leader. Wrong. It’s a different job, different skill sets, different needs and abilities.

Very few great creative people make good creative directors.

So I thought it would be interesting to chat with friends at Wieden+Kennedy who seem to get these appointments right more often than not, and see if we can pick up a few pointers.

I spoke with Karl Lieberman (below), who has recently moved from Wieden + Kennedy in Portland to assume the role of Executive Creative Director in the Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office.

Karl and his partner Neal Arthur (WKNY’s Managing Director) run the 200 people WKNY office together, reporting back to Colleen DeCourcy, Global Executive Creative Director and Dave Luhr, President. Their client roster includes Bud Light, ESPN, Delta, the Jordan Brand, Equinox, Sprite and Spotify.

Karl was one of the originators of the Dos XX “Most interesting Man in the World” campaign… (no really, many people have attached their name to that campaign, but Karl was one of the original team who came up with it) and has been with W+K Portland since 2007 where he was recently running KFC, Yoplait, the P&G Olympics “Thank You, Mom” brand work and Travel Oregon.

I hired Karl to work on Volvo when I was ECD at EURO/RSCG. Some people you feel are not only going to have stellar creative careers, but have the personality and focus to become a great creative leader.

Karl, I believed even then, was one of the latter.

As we’re in a political year, I thought it would be worth a chat and see how his first 100 days were going as a freshly minted Executive Creative Director.

Michael Lee: You’ve been ECD now for about four months, is it different than expected?

Karl Lieberman: I’ve actually found that the jump from CD to ECD is not too dissimilar from the jump from being a creative to being a CD.

When you’re a creative, you’re basically trying to drive a 2007 Buick LeSabre that’s on fire down a winding mountain road in a blinding hailstorm.

When you’re a creative director, you’re trying to do the same, but you’re in the passenger seat and you’re not supposed to touch the steering wheel.

And when you’re an ECD, you’re still trying to do the same thing, but now you’re in the trunk and everyone keeps texting you.

Lee: Is W+K’s approach to establishing Creative Leadership different to other agencies?

Lieberman: We talk a lot about W+K’s work, but the work is really just a by-product of the company’s culture.

We value humility, experimentation and a certain degree of chaos. As cliche as it may sound, we really do believe that ideas can come from anywhere and that failure is a super valuable part of the creative process.

Dan and David’s original “rules” — rules that were actually borrowed from some little kids — are still as relevant as ever: “Don’t act big, no sharp stuff, follow directions and shut up when someone is talking.”

A lot of places and people out there can make great work, but what’s important to us is how we get to that great work. Promoting from within is a good way to protect that part of the agency’s ecosystem.

It also saves money on printing new employee handbooks, which is really what we’re most focused on right now.

Lee: Do you think agencies could do a better job helping Creative Leadership succeed rather than just saying good luck,and letting them sink or swim?

Lieberman: I think a lot of it is on the creative leader.

It’s about just accepting and not worrying about the fact that the countdown to your inevitable dismissal starts the second you walk in the door.

An ECD job coming to an end is as inevitable as life coming to an end. It might not happen in the next two, five, 10 or 15 years, but things are going to end at some point.

So I’d rather just know that there’s a bullet with my name on it somewhere and that it will make its way into the chamber for me at some point.

When you know that, it really frees you up to operate and behave in a way that you’ll be proud of how you handled things when it eventually runs its course.

I love my job, but it’s just a job. There’s no chance my job’s going to be at my funeral, so I approach it accordingly.

Lee: How have W&K clients reacted?

Lieberman: Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work for some really incredible clients – people like Marc Pritchard at P&G and Kevin Hochman at KFC – pretty much the best clients in the world.

The only reason I have this job is because people like those two and others like them have helped us make great work.

Most of my clients have always been incredibly supportive of me, of the work we do and of Wieden and this instance has been no different.

That said, I am still waiting for the people of P&G to send me a congratulatory fruit basket.

Lee: You’re a very good writer. Do you worry that you won’t be able to do any creative work yourself, that all you’re going to do is creative direct from now on?

Lieberman: I feel like most of the instincts and behaviors that make someone a great creative are actually completely counter to what makes someone a great creative director.

I’ve tried to put most of my copywriter and art director instincts and habits into the garbage over the years and instead I’ve just tried to be the kind person I would want to work for.

The person I’d want to work for is highly empathetic. They are more interested in giving people space and inspiring them than just solving the problem that’s in front of them. They know that they don’t have all the answers and are always very reluctant to pull out their pen or open up their laptop. They push me because they believe in me.

In my opinion, no matter what the title is – be it a CD, an ECD, a CCO or an ECD-CCCOOO-EVP – a creative leader should inspire their teams and their colleagues to do the best work of their lives.

They should constantly be finding new ways to make space for their people. And that space should give their people the freedom to explore, to experiment and to use their own voices to bring truly unique work to life.

A creative leader should know when to get out of the way.

And they should know when the time is right for them to shape and influence the work.

All of this is much easier said than done.

Lee: When do you feel comfortable giving input into the work?

Lieberman: When an idea is formed enough to be on some firm footing, that’s when I’m game for throwing some thinking at it.

Because at that point, it’s going to be really clear for everyone to decide whether or not we think what I’m offering up is right for the idea, if the idea can grow or change to accommodate what I’m suggesting or if what I’m suggesting is just garbage and everyone should ignore it.

Jason Bagley, a CD in Portland, gave me great advice once which was basically around this notion of how he typically works from the assumption that the person giving him feedback doesn’t want to completely derail his idea and that they are just trying to build on it, so he treats that feedback accordingly.

That kind of thinking has been immensely helpful to me over the years.

It’s made me more collaborative and less defensive about the work.

When that’s happening, everything’s getting better.

The other time I feel comfortable is when we’re in a bad spot – when we really need to figure it out.

So I guess it’s funny in that way. I’m only going to really throw stuff out when we are on either end of the spectrum: when we’re in a great place or in a terrible one.

I imagine that could get confusing, so I should probably clarify that with everyone.

Lee: Any CCO that you admire, that has inspired you, given you tips on how to succeed?

Lieberman: Because of a slightly nomadic career path early on, I’ve been lucky enough to work for some of the best creative people in our business over the years.

It’s actually a pretty long list that includes you, Greg DiNoto, Jeff Kling, the Swedes, Gerry Graf, Scott Vitrone, Ian Reichenthal, Dan Wieden, Colleen DeCourcy, Susan Hoffman and Mark Fitzloff.

I’ve also worked alongside some amazing creative colleagues – Brandon Henderson, Eric Baldwin, Danielle Flag, Jeff Williams, Ryan O’Rourke, Jason Kreher, Jason Bagley, Craig Allen and Eric Kallman.

I’ve learned a ton from every single one of them.

I’ve also worked with some crappy creatives and have probably learned just as much from them as I have from the good ones.

The good ones never tried to control or command people.

Most of them tended toward some form of “servant leadership.” They created space for their people to succeed. They encouraged autonomy. They never made it about them. It was always about everyone else.

And I think that’s really the only sustainable way to lead in a creative business, because authority, hierarchy and process are basically the enemies of creativity.

We have one of the best creative departments in the world here in the New York office, so we want a building full of individual voices doing their own thing and not a bunch of people trying to assimilate to one.

Lee: Well Karl, thank you and good luck with that Buick LeSabre. Any parting thought you’d like to add?

Lieberman: I am so very happy to be back near the greatest sandwich shop in NYC: M&O’s. Turkey Tuesday will change your life.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

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