Our thinking

Owning creative accountability

In a speech first given at the TexPrint annual dinner for its board, supporters and retail luminaries, Susanna Kempe argues that businesses should be run by creatives not accountants and for that to happen, we, the creatives, must finally, fully, and unequivocally, reject the false opposition between creativity and commercialism.

Good evening,

Thanks for the introduction and for inviting me to speak. I am absolutely delighted to be here.

When Barbara* asked me to speak she said just talk about something you are passionate about. Fortunately she also mentioned insight, marketing, and is there any point to the runways in today’s digital, super-fast fashion world, which was a helpful nudge away from the other things that I am passionate about:  The Artisean bar at Langham’s, Preen, Homeland, Net a Porter, Daniel Craig….

Instead I am going to ask you to join a crusade which I am equally passionate about (and that is perhaps a tad more realistic than having cocktails with Daniel Craig at the Langham) and that is:

To have businesses run by creatives, not accountants.

And to do that by finally, fully, unequivocally rejecting the false opposition between creativity and commercialism.

Because it is a nonsense.

In every creative discipline we are more successful when we:

  • Have clarity of purpose and vision
  • Know best practise rules
  • Execute with discipline
  • Measure the results

Let’s take cake baking:

  • Purpose + vision - a pirate birthday cake
  • Rules - a recipe
  • Discipline of execution - all the ingredients, an eyepatch (not a tutu)
  • Measurement - does it taste yummy and look like a pirate.

This doesn’t limit the creativity: you can substitute one ingredient for another (but you need to have an idea of what the original ones were), you can have a treasure trove of jewels made of crystallised sugars or a parrot of multi-coloured icing or a whole network of islands and seas in green and blue within the sponge. What you cannot have is a box of cereal.

Great art, dance and music all start with a vision, have agreed rules (which get re-written as purpose and visions change), discipline of execution and measures of success.

Why would the business world be any different? Effective creativity surely follows the same format of purpose, best practise, disciplined execution and measures of success. By definition, these will be commercial. There is no conflict. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Design, VM and Marketing must all combine imagination and discipline, art and science to a measurable end goal.

Let’s take marketing, because it is most entrenched in my DNA.

I sat in a Chief Marketing Officers breakfast meeting recently where the CMO of a bank had the sheer audacity to say it wasn’t realistic to expect marketers to be both numbers driven (to understand data) and creative. As if somehow in our rarified world, we couldn’t possibly be both. The CMO of a large financial services company then went on to say that he created spurious KPIs for his board which he paid no attention to. Half the room laughed uproariously.

It probably wasn’t the politest question I’ve ever asked when I queried what kind of a message he thought it gave his staff about integrity. Seriously though, if as a marketer, he couldn’t define the objectives he was trying to achieve and the key performance indicators which would tell him how he was doing against them, what on earth was the point of him? In retrospect I think I was quite polite not to mention that.

Being creative is not an excuse for lack of measurement or accountability. There has to be an objective a purpose and we have to be able to say how did we do against that. We have to know what good looks like and what are the rules that makes good most likely to happen.

A child knows this. When a child draws a picture they know who it is for, Mummy, Daddy, Auntie; they know what it is for, Birthday, Mother’s Day, to say Welcome, Thank you or I love you. They know what the rules are: even when they are tiny, that colouring in the lines are good. That they should choose a picture and colours that you will like.  I am always struck how quickly children start writing my name in purple when they realise it is my favourite colour (I have 7 godchildren and 6 nephews and a niece – I get a lot of drawings) and then remember that.  Because they know it produces the desired response.

Yet it took Cannes, the Festival of Creativity, over 50 years to introduce an effectiveness award and even then, it has all sorts of caveats around it.  Don’t blame the Cannes team, they are masters at meeting the industry where it is.

It is almost as if we are afraid to stand up and be counted for what we do.

Yet creativity in isolation is at best self-indulgent and at worst dreadfully wasteful and downright damaging. If we as creatives don’t own accountability, creativity becomes woolly and a matter of opinion. I made it infuriating when accountants, sales staff and editors expressing uniformed opinions about marketing campaigns. I don’t express an opinion about the balance sheet -  I question within given rule sets. I don’t express an opinion about sales because either the pipeline is the right shape and the numbers are being hit or they aren’t and I don’t express an opinion about the editorial because it either meets the style guidelines, is newsworthy and people are reading it or it doesn’t, isn’t and they aren’t. There is no room for lay opinions because the rules are clearly expressed.

Marketing in all its facets needs both the genius of art and the methodology of science. The wonderful Beatrice Warde, the typographer from whose fabulous This is a Printing Office, Flying Trumpets is named, wrote “vulgar ostentation is easier than discipline” – she was talking about fonts but I believe it is true of most things. It is easy to create a screamingly noticeable piece of collateral, but if it is illegible (body copy in 10 point font, reversed out on black is not cool, it is just illegible) and doesn’t sell, then it has failed. It is easy to pay a fortune to a celebrity to endorse your product, but if the brand match isn’t there, or you are looking to drive footfall and it doesn’t, then even if the PR value was through the proof, you have failed.

Neil Rackham, multi-millionaire author of SPIN selling likes to say that process allows mere mortals to behave like rock stars. In a world of creativity, I think that data and best practice discipline allows us to be scalable and credible and bold.

It doesn’t stifle creativity, rather it unleashes it. When you know what the rules are you can choose which ones to break to create a new world order. And you can quickly work out how to exploit that. And when.  Whether you want to be the first to create a digital front row to the catwalks. Or the last. Or be the Steve Jobs, and be second to market, when you have taken someone else’s idea and finessed it until it becomes totally desirable.

Innovation supported by insight trounces all dreary market research because it marries facts with vision. Henry Ford knew that a car would be a better idea not because he asked his customers about it but because he knew that they wanted to go faster. So he enabled that. 

Creativity supported by analysis, means that if you are ASOS, you can optimise your marketing campaigns, you can measure which customer groups respond to your different promotions. You don’t have to alternate free delivery and product led offers, you can test which one works for whom.  And you can test the subject header and the from line and the length of the copy and where to place the links. If you are Whistles, you can measure whether your Grazia coupon outperformed your billboard spend and change your marketing mix accordingly.

Which is another way of saying that marketing needs both the art and the science. In a slightly greedy way, I like to think of it in terms of ice-cream cones: you need the cone to support the yummy ice-cream, otherwise you just have a goey mess.

When we own CREATIVE ACCOUNTABILITY we quash wittering opinions.

Creativity needs to align to strategy and to results. Demonstrably so. If we can’t behave as grown- ups, that know those things, why should we sit at the grown ups’ table?

And we so need to be there.  For businesses to thrive they need to be led by people who get brand. Because it is everywhere. From tax havens to remuneration, what businesses do affects the brand.  The VP Marketing at a global investment bank which has become the poster child for excess told me that she had a $60m dollar budget for improving the brand image. It would be fair to say that’s not delivering a great ROI at the moment. And it won’t, until the senior team actually think beyond allocating a big fat line item into the budget and patting themselves on the head that they are doing something about the problem. Spend is not an objective. Measuring spend is not what marketing measurement is about either. It is only one data point. Be very worried about any businesses whose marketers proudly tell you they came in under budgeted spend and think that’s good.

Businesses need people who get digital. One of my favourite [name of a well-known now retired CEO of a high street retailer] stories is that after listening to a whole presentation about their social media approach asked “where is the book kept?”.  I am sure he was joking but the woman who told me the story and who had to explain to him that Facebook was not a physical book was really not 100% sure.

The world is changing at speed. David Gilbertson, former CEO of Informa and Emap, Author of Wine Bar Theory, likes to say if you are aiming to stand still when the rest of the world is moving around you, you are going backwards. Too often, financiers, lawyers and MBA theorists live in a world of looking backwards, analysing the past. It takes guts to look forwards and do something about it. To be the first one to say we’ll change the way the world works because it is changing anyway and we can cry about it or we can own the change. We’ll make everyone able to sit in the front row – because we’ll stream the runways live. We’ll offer free returns; we’ll ship internationally; we’ll pay our advertising agency on results.

Yet, of all C-suite job functions, the CMO and the CCO who live and breathe innovation are some of the most under represented on boards, and as springboards to becoming CEO. The Chief Creative Officer doesn’t even have ownership of its CCO title: as well as chief creative officers there are also now Chief Commercial Officers and my personal bête noir: Chief Customer Officers.  What kind of CMO or CCO doesn’t know its customers inside out? Doesn’t understand who they are, what they value, what will make them loyal to us, recommend us and trust us with their?

The most likely prior role to becoming a CEO or non-exec director, is a Finance Director. Really? As my old boss Irvine Laidlaw, now the Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay who retired with $1.4billion when we sold his company so probably worth listening to, used to say, you want the FD to count the beans, why would you ever think about putting him in charge of growing them? This is not about FD bashing I hasten to add. My late husband was a FD; brilliantly smart, hugely effective and without an innovative bone in his body.

Private Equity partners today, who sit on the boards of the retailers they have acquired, have rarely actually worked in a business that creates anything – if they have worked at all, post their MBA, it is at a consultancy preparing reams of Powerpoint slides full of four box models.

My favourite hideous moment (and there were a few) presenting to private equity was when I was asking for funding for a new digital product. The plan was to use the power of our two leading brands to create a third, new brand, to own an entire, undeveloped market space.

I had worked out who would buy it, at what price, when we would get payback on our investment, I had customers lined up to take the prototype etc. etc. the Chair asked me who had done it before that they could look at. I explained that the beauty of this was that no one had, we would have this space all to ourselves. We then had a very long debate which boiled down to the non execs demanding case studies and “proof” that it would work because someone else had already done it and my becoming increasingly incensed that they couldn’t grasp the simple concept that since this was new I couldn’t provide that. The part that I can now see clearly is that they thought I was being as spectacularly dense as I was convinced they were. Their whole experience was in modelling case studies and looking at past data. They simply couldn’t imagine a scenario which required a new model and a new data set1.

When these sorts of people set the strategy it creates a world of timid homogeneity.

Years ago, when you walked down the stairs into Smollensky’s on the Strand, the first thing you saw was a big sign saying “life is short and uncertain, eat dessert first”.  I was thinking about that, on mothering Sunday, because it was one of my mother’s favourite sayings, and not only did she like it but she lived it. Happily ordering ice-cream or chocolate cake as a starter in five star restaurants and cafés the world over.  Sometimes it is not such a big risk to turn the world order.  To let business be run by creatives not accountants. To demand metrics with our marketing. To marry the creative and the commercial. I urge you to give it a go.

 *Barbara Kennington, Honorary Chairman, Texprint

Footnote 1: I have since worked with truly brilliant PE partners who roared with laughter at this story 

©Flying Trumpets Ltd 2013