How to successfully mix business and creativity by Martin Lambie-Nairn

How do you make great creative work that brings incredible business results? Drawing on his years of experience working for brands including the BBC, O2 and Channel 4, Martin Lambie-Nairn has drawn up a list of crucial rules to follow

Over the last 40 years, I have worked as a designer and creative director on many different projects, in many different countries, with many and diverse cultures, writes Martin Lambie-Nairn.

It finally dawned on me that there are some basic principles and laws that govern the making of great creative work. No matter what the technology, medium, product or geography, these principles remain true, and, if applied, can make the difference between effective creative work, or mediocre and ineffectual work.

What follows is a personal perspective, based on my experience of attempting, and occasionally succeeding, to get brave creativity to see the light of day. And more importantly, getting my clients’ businesses to benefit on their terms, which of course means on commercial terms.


1. Business and creativity are not natural bedfellows

Very early on in my career I realised that business people are not at ease with creativity and especially not at ease with creative people.

If your ambition is to liberate creativity in your organisation, then know this: business and creativity are not natural bedfellows. This is because what may seem obvious or relevant to the business mind, may not be so for the creative mind, and vice versa. This is important to know, because in our business, the one needs the other, which can often bring about tension. So expect the creative process to be challenging.


2. A democratic process does not deliver great creative work

Great creativity requires the client to be at the centre of the creative team, which means the client/agency relationship must be one of partnership, not of master and servant.

It may sound odd coming from a creative director but great global brands are not great because they are creative. They are great because they are managed.

The strategy is managed. The processes are managed. The budgets are managed. The briefs are managed. The agencies are managed. The creative output is managed. The research is managed … from a centre.

One company is not one company to its customers, if it has many faces. When I went to work on the BBC brand I discovered that it owned over a 150 different logos or brands. They were producing them at a rate of two a month. It seemed that anybody with a budget could commission a version of the brand … and did. The result was expensive chaos in the organisation and confusion in the market.


The answer was to centralise the management of every aspect of the brand. My first action was to bin 150 logos and recommend one. Telling the directors of Channels, Networks, Online, Resources, Finance, News, Sport, Light Entertainment, Outside Broadcast, Corporate Affairs, Engineering, The Press Office and most difficult of all … Drama, that I had just trashed their logos was like telling them I had eaten their children. They were not happy.

But if one is serious about having an effective global brand it must be directed from the centre. That doesn’t mean that the centre ignores the needs of specific parts of the business. It means that one devises a system that delivers flexibility, that fits in an overall ‘one company’ brand scheme.

Now, I know that there will be people for whom the word centralisation conjures up visions of 1984, of the dull hand of bureaucracy,
restrictions and constraints. Not liberation. I think the opposite is the case. My view is that a centrally managed brand is liberating, because it gives clear direction for the way ahead to everyone in the organisation. It gives a reference point by which one can make judgments. And it delivers consistency. And consistency is the Holy Grail of branding.

Democracy is all very well for nations, but it is disastrous for managing brands.


3. Client and agency are in this together

The basic requirements in a partnership are mutual respect, openness and honesty. Egos, internal politics, self-importance, bullying, throwing toys out of the pram, will not deliver great creative work, only partnership will.


4. A brave leader is fundamental for great creativity

As I have said, building a creative brand is not a democratic process. It requires one leader who has the confidence of the CEO. Normally the leader is the Marketing Director, but sometimes it’s the CEO.

O2 would never have seen the light of day without a man called Peter Erskine.

He was the new CEO of what was a rag-bag of companies which included BT Cellnet and four other European mobile brands. BT had bought the companies and a load of 3G licences and was stuck with a £2bn debt. The plan was to launch the new company on the stock market, pay off the debt and fund the new company. My company [Lambie-Nairn] did the brand strategy, naming and identity work.

After the press launch, the most influential business paper in the UK, The Financial Times, ran the headline: ‘O2, the most ridiculous name for a mobile company ever’.

Given that the entire point of the exercise was to encourage investors and influence the stock market, this was not good news for the new CEO, who came under enormous pressure from his board to change the name. He was almost a lone voice on the board. But stood firm.

One of the O2 values is ‘bold’ – a characteristic that Peter Erskine regularly demonstrated by his support of outstanding creative work.

So, no Peter Erskine. No O2.

Ad agency: VCCP

5. Small teams must be empowered

It is important that the client is one of the team. But as you have just read, it’s no place for the faint-hearted. But of course, whilst the clients are busy risking their careers, they are not actually doing the work.

Would you believe me if I told you that the team responsible for creating all the BBC work I did was four people? Client. Creative director. Planner. Account director.

Once this group was in agreement, the recommendation went to the channel controller or MD of Television for sign off.

And for O2 the team numbered it five. CEO. Marketing director. Creative director. Planner. Account director.

In this instance the CEO was one of the team. No committees. No feedback from dozens of stakeholders. The O2 client did research their identity, but not the name.

Small teams are a great asset to delivering great creative, but what glues them together is even more vital, which brings us to my next point…


6. Choosing to trust your team is essential

Often a client says they have come to us because they expect mould-breaking creative work. We explain that the experience will be as much of a challenge for them, as for us. And if I felt they hadn’t taken my point seriously, I would show them an amazingly scientific chart, which is called ‘the creative rollercoaster’.


This chart shows the level of client’s confidence in the creative solution from a project’s outset to its conclusion. For the entire process, their emotions have ridden the rollercoaster from nervousness to sheer unadulterated raw fear.

The point of all this is to warn the client to be careful what they wish for. Creating mould-breaking work is often a frightening experience for all involved. The only thing that will see you through this is mutual trust and respect.

If there is no mutual trust between agency and client, there will be no great creativity. Trusting one another is a decision not a feeling.


7. Creativity delivers business results

Given all this, why on earth would sane people aspire to producing great creative work, if this is what lies ahead?

There are several answers. The main one is this: great creative work can deliver spectacular commercial results.

In 1990, O2 had a debt of £2bn. In 2006, O2 was sold to Telefonica for £18.5bn. The balance sheet value of the brand was £9bn.

There is another answer to why sane people aspire to producing great creative work, even though it may be painful.

When you get it right.
When the competition emails their congratulations.
When the boss is asked to address the IOD, on the New You.
When colleagues tell you that they saw the ad on TV last night and think it’s great.
When in a quiet moment, you and your team remember that it all started with a problem and a blank sheet of paper.
When your contribution has made a real difference.

For all involved, there are few things in business that are so satisfying.

Martin Lambie-Nairn recently joined design studio Red&White as Non-executive chairman and creative director.