Creating value on the board

Creatives have much to offer beyond the confines of the artroom. Guy Lane thinks they should have a bigger say in the boardroom

I’ve been advising corporates on creative communications for 20 years. It’s been both frustrating and rewarding.

I know that if I were client-side, I’d never end up on the board. This is a shame because creatives can be business people, but business people rarely become good creatives.

So, should there be more opportunities for creatives, client-side, to penetrate this glass ceiling?

It’s hard to measure. First, there are hardly any plcs with creatives on the board. And second, even if there were, it would be very hard to apply key performance indicators that would identify the value added by their input.

Let’s look at the big picture. Today’s companies have to struggle with many things: tough markets; a global economic shift to Brazil, Russia, India and China; the problems and opportunities presented by digital technologies; the demands of a lower carbon age; sustainability and corporate responsibility; increasing EU and Government regulation; and, more fundamentally, there is the loss of trust in corporates and disloyalty by stakeholders.

Boards are typically made up of 40- to 65-year-old white, male accountants and lawyers.

In addressing today’s challenges, wouldn’t public companies be much assisted by creative, right-brain thinkers? People like Steve Jobs, rather than Bill Gates.
After all, the mantra of many boards – and the investment analysts who follow them – is ‘value creation’. Yet creating value is what creatives are all about.
Companies need to adapt, to change, to deal with a new economic order, and meet the needs of all their stakeholders.

It’s a lot easier for smaller, unquoted companies and businesses, still run by their owners, to change. This is because the managers have a greater acceptance of risk, which is intrinsic to creativity and innovation. Many of these board directors are entrepreneurs who started the business in the first place and risked their own capital.

For the larger plcs, and certainly FTSE100 companies, the default behaviour tends to be doing more of what they’ve already done, rather than innovating. That’s partly because the board members tend to be corporate civil servants, who are essentially providing stewardship rather than innovation.

We must also bear in mind here that, according to codes of practice, boards of public companies have fiduciary responsibilities to ensure good corporate governance.

This means that board agendas are mainly taken up with historic numbers and risk management.

Let’s take the example of mergers and acquisitions, invariably put together by accountants and investment bankers, sometimes without sufficient reference to corporate values, brand strategy and, indeed, the lives and wellbeing of critical stakeholders, not least employees and customers.

Many are the times when creative consultants are brought in after the fact to make sense of these mergers. Too bad that they’re not on the board of the company when those deals are being planned.

In terms of corporate crisis and failure, could a few creatives have helped avert disaster at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Enron, MG Rover, Woolworths and Lehman Brothers? Maybe this isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.

So, as creatives and consultants, how can we best influence those accountants on the board? Here are five simple guidelines:

  • Relax, you won’t get on to the board, so accept that you have to use the channels that lead to the boardroom.
  • Don’t be overawed by big job titles and the private language of lawyers and accountants, and remember, guys in suits can be creative.
  • Use plain English rather than the comfort blanket of marketing jargon. Be yourself: avoid the two extremes of timidity and the stroppy creative approach. Always give the best advice and deliver it with confidence and conviction. Be passionate about best execution and delivery.
  • Make your client contact an internal hero, who can shine in his/her boardroom or management committees. Always support your channel.
  • Get your recommendations on the board agenda and into the board papers circulated before board meetings, if you can. When you’re proposing innovation, accompany it with risk management procedures, adopting some of the legal and accounting language that board members find comforting. Add success measurements, including return on investment, to demonstrate the commercial logic of your proposals, and get a slot as an annexe to a board meeting if you can.

Creatives…

  • Challenge the status quo
  • Understand the emotions of brands
  • Think of new things and change as positive
  • Accept that change carries risk
  • Have a wide and longer term sense of social responsibility
  • Tend to think of money as a measurement, not a goal

    Guy Lane is a partner at creative consultancy The College

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