A position of influence

Creatives deserve a much bigger say in the boardroom, but David Bernstein thinks making them directors might debase their most useful quality – detachment

Creativity should have a bigger say in the boardroom, argues Guy Lane (DW 5 November), while advising creatives, ‘Relax, you won’t get on the board’. Alas, my experience endorses this view. Creative influence at the top requires a sympathetic advocate, preferably someone with a reputation within the company – not for creativity, but for business acumen.

But do companies really want creative input? Creativity is dangerous. It presages change. An idea is criticism. It questions the status quo, thedefence of which is the main preoccupation of those board members Lane describes as ‘providing stewardship rather than innovation’, like generals fighting battles from previous wars, to whom creative people are loose cannons.

Hence, most company directors are ambivalent, regarding creativity at best as a necessary evil. Creatives may be far-sighted and, by initiatingchange, able to give the company a role in the future, but, muses the corporate mind, how do we control this catalyst? How could the boardaccommodate such a renegade spirit, other than as a court jester, a licensed fool? Creatives today must be able to understand business and be adept in it. Their task is not to solve creative problems but to solve business problems creatively. It is precisely this skill that is missing from the average boardroom.

Never mind, says the corporation, we can always hire it in. And if the new business activity reported in these pages is any guide (DW 26 November), companies are not put out by the word ‘creative’. Four of the successful groups had something in common: The Market Creative, Origin Creative, Lamb Creative Marketing and Sperm Creative. The real test of a company’s attitude to creativity is the way a consultancy is treated – as supplier or partner and, if the latter, as junior or equal. Some industry luminaries have broken the mould by becoming simultaneously non-executive directors of their clients, such as Richard Seymour of Seymour Powell and John McConnell when a partner at Pentagram. Alan Fletcher, of course, was almost always treated as an equal, but then he paid his clients the identical compliment.

Having someone of the calibre of a Fletcher on hand at key times in a company’s development can be truly beneficial. Lane bemoans the fact creative consultants are often ‘brought in after the fact to make sense of a merger.

Too bad that they’re not [there] when the deals are planned’. I was lucky enough to be part of a creative team called in at the planning stage of recent merger. We could act as independent catalysts, extracting by means of phrase-completion and picturecaptioning exercises what eachcomponent thought of the other and how the merged company might look in five years’ time. It goes without saying that we had to earn therespect and therefore the cooperation of the participants.

Our detachment from both parties gave credence to our actions and encouraged frankness. The value of the venture would have been less had we performed as board members of one of the partners. So I, too, am ambivalent regarding the interface of corporation and creativity, endorsing the company’s need to recognise creativity’s role within the organisation while denying it direct representation at the top table, but hoping that seated there is a sympathetic advocate.

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