Creativity as a discipline.
Let’s treat creativity as discipline rather than natural talent!
Zofia Bugajna-Kasdepke interview with Gabriela Lungu, the founder of WINGS Creative Leadership Lab.
Gabriela Lungu is the founder of WINGS Creative Leadership Lab, which helps companies elevate their creativity through training and workshops. She has worked for more than 20 years in the creative sector for top firms in advertising, PR and social media, in different countries and cultures. She is an award-winning creative director and a creative entrepreneur, building The Practice agency in Romania from scratch and growing it to become one of the most awarded agencies in the world. In 2013, she sold her company to Publicis Groupe and moved to London. In the UK, she was EMEA Chief Creative Officer for Weber Shandwick and Creative Partner for Airbnb at TBWA/London. She currently is Global Creative Director at VMLY&R Commerce. Gabriela is often invited to judge creative competitions such as Cannes Lions, Clio Awards, Dubai Lynx, Euro Best, Creative Moment Awards, Women in Marketing Global Awards, D&AD, EFFIE UK, Campaign Big Awards, Ad Stars, Luerzer’s Grand Slam, etc.
You’re regarded as one of the world’s most creative people in the communications industry, with a spectacular list of awards and a long list of creativity workshops led in Europe, Asia and North America. When did you realise you were creative? How do you recognise talent?
You won’t believe me, but it all started with me being born with a big head! You seem surprised, but yes, it’s true. Until I was two, my head was disproportionately big and caused me a good deal of problems – I was unable to hold it up on my own. Naturally, it was a source of concern for my parents, which is probably why the doctor consoled them by saying that a big head contains a big brain, and that means outstanding abilities. Since then, everyone saw me as a genius and that is how they interpreted every clever remark I ever made. I grew up in an environment that fostered creativity, where I was rewarded for every unconventional idea. And even though my body eventually “grew into” my head, the confidence in my talent has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Can this story be transposed into the agency world?
Of course! Believing in the ability to generate great ideas and supporting people in their creative growth translates into the quality of ideas. The most important thing is to start by cultivating a mind that is open to new ideas and strives for fresh, original solutions.
This is most evident when you look at the differences between PR and advertising agencies. The latter are called “creative”, even though all agencies are there to create and monetise ideas. In PR, any team member can deliver a solution; everyone is a participant in the creative process. Coming to an advertising agency, I was surprised that only the creative department could respond to a brief creatively. A strict separation of responsibilities stifles creative potential at what are aptly called “creative” agencies.
As you can see, there is an enormous difference between how creativity is perceived in PR and advertising, which translates into how creativity is manifested in both practices.
In advertising, everything revolves around creativity, which is why the core of an advertising agency is its creative team led by a creative director. In those agencies, every person focuses on selling ideas, with everyone from strategy to client service knowing that it is the idea that is the core product. By contrast, in-house creative departments in PR agencies are a relatively new invention, and not everyone understands their role properly. Often, it is initially perceived as a threat; people start asking whether the arrival of a creative director means that they weren’t creative enough, that creativity had to be “outsourced” to a dedicated team?
Does this mean that a creative director has different responsibilities in the two industries?
Fundamentally! In advertising, it’s proper “directorship”, where your job is to approve the draft creative brief sent over from the strategy department. Or, if it’s not good enough, to question it and force a reworking! A creative director decides how creative teams will approach a task, which path they will follow in the creative process and what techniques they will use. Their role is to judge and select the best ideas, tweak and fine-tune them until they are “mature”, which is when the concepts can be shown to the client.
By contrast, PR agencies lack narrow specialisation, and any team member can participate in thinking up ideas. Here, creativity is an element of everyday work. Except that when everyone is responsible, no one is really responsible… In advertising agencies, you know who is responsible for what, which translates into greater accountability and precision in setting creative objectives. Everything is structured in advertising and dispersed in PR agencies. A PR specialist’s job is to sell a story to journalists, deal with clients, deliver projects, manage crises, handle social media and generate ideas along the way.
Do you know why transfers from advertising to PR are rarely successful? Because their habits are different – give me a creative team to manage, get client service off my back, where’s the bloody planner! We have a different structure and culture. In PR, you have to act as a facilitator and mainly try to create proper conditions for unconventional solutions to emerge. Your role here is more of a team leader than a “ruling director”. In PR, work is more democratic; here, everyone is welcome and has the right to suggest their idea. Sometimes this is surprisingly effective, especially if you approach creativity seriously.
What do you mean?
Let’s treat creativity like discipline rather than natural talent! Without proper training, every talent will merely become a promising aptitude. If every outstanding athlete works out like crazy to win medals, why do we still treat creativity as a “stroke of brilliance”? You have to work hard to develop your creative skills!
How to create optimal conditions for creative potential to grow? How to structure a team?
Gabriela: Personally, the approach I promote is to create a small creative of 2-3 people working with all PR agency employees. Stimulating creative ferment through the understanding of creative techniques, the ability to take an idea and run with it, all of it can translate into a completely new quality and ultimate success. Much like simply excellent craft. In my experience, however, it is awfully difficult to explain the role of the creative team in a PR agency.
Why do you think so?
Gabriela: Because it is a completely different approach to the same subject, which you can see only if you look at mediocre agencies. You won’t see this among the best, but have a look at the companies that never get any awards. Even the worst creative agencies have a creative team, which means they recognise the importance of creativity and at least try to come up with original ideas. Something that can’t be said about mediocre PR agencies… it’s a tragedy. Through my training company, I get to meet with agencies from different parts of the world. And I keep hearing ideas such as “give patients a voice” or “let the young generation speak up on the matter”. That makes me want to scream that we’ve seen it a thousand times already!
Where does this cultural difference come from?
Conflict drives advertising agencies – the three sides of the advertising triangle are in a constant fight with each other. Is the creative brief good enough? Does this strategy make sense? Did the creative department deliver a strong idea? Will client service be able to defend our concept? Unfortunately, the lack of this type of tension weakens PR agencies; nobody asks thought-provoking questions or challenges decisions. No brainstorming, total doldrums…
Healthy rivalry and collaboration are something that PR agencies could definitely learn.
Instead, there is a phenomenon in PR that I personally like to call a “small league”, where everyone is a “champion”. Much like with little children, who don’t care about who’s actually better but keep shouting “I am!” over one another. By contrast, the creative industry is a “big league”, where competition is commonplace, where it is the awards that count rather than feeling good about yourself. Here, the pursuit of awards is a powerful driving force that determines your position in the industry, job offers and salary. Consequently, the drive for promoting your name and achievements is incomparably greater in advertising than in PR. Here, you know who invented what right away. A lot of energy goes into it, and rightly so! In PR, it is very rare that you even have any idea who’s behind a campaign; you don’t know these names, there are no “celebrities” here. It is teams who are promoted, not stars. Consequently, there isn’t as much hunger for recognition that then translates into ambitions to create unique things.
Also, there is no awareness in PR that it is the PR agency that determines its creative culture. You have to answer the question, “What risk are we ready to take?”. Because every unconventional solution is a risk; no one has ever done this before us, there are no benchmarks. The team must feel how far they can go in thinking boldly. This is up to the owners.
And what about tactics? After all, advertising and PR use different tools.
Big ideas are completely neutral media-wise, meaning that they defy simple categorisation into “advertising” or “PR” ideas. This is why a creative brief shouldn’t specify forms of exploitation because it’s an unnecessary limitation at this stage. If there is anything that can be a touchstone of a good idea, it’s… generosity! If concepts for how to implement a creative idea keep flowing, you’re in the right place. You simply know that you have something really strong that generates execution ideas that are clear to everyone.
In PR, there is a long-standing belief that there is too little money for truly bold ideas here.
Creativity doesn’t depend on money! I led a PR agency in Romania and now I work in London. I’ve come up with unconventional solutions in both places. Not only that, creativity is the answer to the problem of no money – let’s use our heads and think about what we can do even with a very small budget. The worst thing you can do is say there are no barriers and nothing is limiting . Then you have no jumping-off point.
For 10 years, I worked at Ogilvy, where I learned the phrase, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief”. A comparison with a pitch seems fitting to me here – if you fence it in, children will make creative use of the entire area of the pitch. Barriers will make them feel safe and channel their creativity. But if you tell them to do the same but the size of the pitch is unclear, they will be definitely more cautious and stay in the centre. Limitations only drive us. The strategy shows our ultimate goal. If we define it, it will be easier to create unconventional solutions. As a result, structuring the creative process paradoxically helps.
The bigger the budget, the lower the creativity. This is when you have scale on your side; you know you will get by without that strong of a “big idea”. When your funds are limited, the idea is key because it will do all the work for you. With the “pull marketing” approach, you need to stand out somehow. There is no such thing as “cheap and boring”.
On that note, I have to ask about mistakes you see in our industry.
Let’s start with the most common ones: overthinking it! You should never have to explain your BIG IDEA. Brilliant ideas are based on simple insights where everyone gets it right away. If the client shouts, “oh gosh, it’s so obvious but I never thought of that”, it’s the key to a successful campaign.
Another thing is commercial intuition. The answer to trivial questions such as “Will this sell?” or “Will this cause a specific change?”. If not, you should ditch the idea. Creativity in our industry is not about making art but serving a client’s specific goals.
It is a common mistake of inexperienced people and some clients to seek the economy of messaging, the desire to convey multiple messages at once. In reality, as the campaign creator, you have to make your choice and say, “that’s what we’re going for!” Too many messages all at once can destroy any campaign; it’s an illusion that you can cram a campaign with diverse content.
I remember we once found out we share a dislike for brainstorming. Would you tell us why you dislike it so much?
Contemporary studies have shown that brainstorming is the least effective creative technique, and worse still, we use it completely wrong in PR. The “all hands on deck” mentality of shepherding the whole agency team into one room doesn’t sound like an idea for originality. The whole team goes in one direction suggested about five minutes into the meeting.
It’s usually just dawdling, where the 2-3 most active people speak while others either throw in ideas casually or simply stay silent. And it’s not the most creative ones who do the talking, it’s the loud or determined ones, who will then be responsible for writing down a presentation.
What do you propose then?
If you have 10 people’s time at your disposal, divide them into teams of two who will work on the same brief simultaneously. Let them talk the assignment through and generate ideas – each team! See, in a single move, you get 5 times as many very diverse ideas at the same time! Everyone has a chance to speak and no one is overlooked, even the quiet ones.
Then the teams present the product of their work, and you ask the others how the idea could be expanded or improved… Now stage two begins – teamwork. It’s a true explosion of creativity. As a creative director, I turn it up with additional questions, counterarguments, provocations.
The last lap is, naturally, evaluating the ideas and selecting the Big Idea.
What do your work methods look like?
I never rely on others doing the research, I always do mine. That is, I do it in parallel, hoping to stumble on a trail someone else has overlooked before. Clashing with someone while discussing these findings can be a very creative process in itself.
I never begin a creative session without at least a small warmup, without indicating a direction. I also have a set of techniques that help me generate more ideas. I give myself an assignment: think up an idea using a gadget, and now a big PSA, and now something very funny. Even if it’s not in the brief, because we’re a PR agency, what would we do if we were to do a video ad? I get more diverse ideas right away.
Even the worst creative techniques are better than none. Even the well-worn ones like starting the creative process with the question, “What would a wizard do?” or “if you had a superpower, what would you do?”. Ask the team to think up the boldest idea they can muster. Something that gives you goosebumps, and you’ll see how many different proposals you’ll get. Say, we have no money, we’re going all in.
Rather than brainstorming, you need to organise collaborative sessions where people can draw on others’ ideas. Only then will you use the brainpower of your entire organisation.
What helps you keep up a high creative level?
We all have to generate good ideas repeatedly. There is no such thing as a flash of inspiration. When I feel tired or in a slump, I watch great campaigns and analyse case studies of ones that won awards. But I also draw inspiration from other sources, watch films or listen to podcasts. The mind must feed on ideas from various sources.
Is this why it is worth going to creative festivals?
Yes! When you watch others’ works, you’re developing a taste for creating more above-average campaigns – the best in the world. Equally importantly, you can also analyse the techniques you can use. I try to abstract structures that can be used in a new way. Those are neither ideas nor implementation methods, because that would be theft, but finding a single thing the campaign is built on. A catalogue of these “starters” is great fuel for the creative process, a starting point.