The newly installed CEO of Publicis Groupe, Arthur Sadoun, rocked the advertising boat in a big way last month when he announced that Publicis would take a hiatus from Cannes, and all other awards shows, for the next year. His rationale was that the time, energy, and considerable money invested in applying to and attending these shows would be much better spent on internal ventures, like its AI initiative Marcel.
If his intentions were partly to generate impact and attention as the new sheriff in town, he certainly succeeded. Much discussion was generated, some supportive but mostly critical of his move, and the Cannes organizers are convening a panel to engage in some soul searching about the future of the event. But the most interesting aspect of this whole dust-up is how it sheds light on the marketing leadership challenge of inspiring great creative work and setting a high bar of excellence across an ecosystem.
The most important first step is to make it unmistakably clear that you care deeply about the quality of the creative output. This doesn’t always come naturally to all CMOs. Some are more oriented to be great administrators of functions, strategies, and resources; some are more quant-focused and less personally compelled by the creative part of the equation; and increasingly more CMOs come with a digital pedigree that may or may not bring with it a gift and a passion for the creative exercise.
Regardless of what flavor of marketer you might be, and whatever your personal level of creative ability, it’s critical to show that you are interested, that it matters greatly to you, and that you are prepared to hold a very high and unmoving standard of excellence. Encouraging participation in awards shows can certainly be one component, but here are others:
• Engage in the creative process: You need to roll up your sleeves and get into the work. Ask tough questions at the brief stage, attend working sessions with agencies and internal staff, and look at rough work in process. Many leaders take the notion of empowerment to the point of abdication in many of these processes, leaving it almost entirely to their staff. I believe that’s not only a loss of coaching opportunities, but it also implicitly shows that creative work is executional, functional, and less important than other matters on your plate. This is not, of course, encouragement to micromanage and discourage your team; you need to selectively and judiciously engage in ways that teach, energize, and inspire.
• Talk about creative regularly: Create forums for discussion about creative work in all forms. These can be very formal sessions with agendas or more loosely structured dialogues. The key is to provide opportunities for off-critical-path discussion of internal and external work. What worked, and what missed the mark? Why is an idea powerful? What are the nuances of execution that distinguished a piece of work? How did format, channel, concept, and location align or disconnect? Bring in special guests to participate and provide a seasoned voice with a different perspective. Engage your external creative partners to participate in and lead these sessions. Some of the best learning comes from hearing others walk around a piece of work and share their thinking out loud.
• Find outside sources of inspiration: Certainly awards shows provide one forum for drinking in creative work from other industries and other markets in order to inspire and refresh the creative brain cells. But there are others ways. One agency CEO who spoke on a panel with me at Cannes told me that he no longer brings his team: “It’s just a great way for them to network for other jobs,” he said. Now he takes his team to art festivals, where they can get all the same (and perhaps more) inspiration and energy, but without all the recruiters. Bring in outside speakers to tell inspiring stories. Collect and share provocative work from around the world. Share a steady stream of articles and case studies that showcase bold creative thinking in marketing and other functions.
• Demonstrate courage at the five-yard line: “Almost there” is the most dangerous place. When a team has been slogging through the mud and finally gets close to the goal, the team can feel a great temptation to go ahead and settle for pretty darn good—especially when timelines are getting tight and teams are getting tired. This is when you need to summon and foster the bravery to say, “It’s not quite great yet.” It’s often the last 5% that makes the difference between a work-a-day, serviceable piece of creative and one that is truly powerful. The creatives behind the “Most Interesting Man” campaign for Dos Equis tell the story of swapping out the approved tagline at the last minute before the presentation in favor of, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
• Be the ogre on the bridge: A marketing leader must play the difficult role of the one last, immovable guardian of a high standard of quality. Think Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”: “You shall not pass!” You may be sorely tempted to let medium-good work slip by from time to time because it’s not a huge program, or the team really loves it, or it’s their sixth time at bat. But this is the moment to be the unyielding ogre that sends them back again for another try; otherwise you will implicitly tell them that your passion for greatness is situational and not fundamental. I’ve torn my hair out after a meeting in which my CEO said, “Good, but not yet great,” but was always ultimately grateful when we returned with work that I knew was better and that cleared our collective bar.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy a glass of wine on the Croisette after a stimulating discussion with creatives from around the world. But it’s certainly not the only way to make sure you inspire an organization to strive every day to produce powerful, brand-defining work.