The conventional path to becoming a CEO is well-trodden.
A distinguished career in finance. Or a marvelous journey through operations. Or a climb up the corporate ladder of account management.
But unless you are a creative and you founded your own agency, rare is the bird that flies into the corner office whose first nest was the creative department.
But here I am.
And frankly, there’s no better training to run a creative enterprise than rising through the ranks of the creative department.
In fact, the skills of a copywriter and creative director will be put to good use should you ever decide to become a CEO.
Those skills being: the ability to formulate a vision. The ability to synthesize and prioritize dense and complicated information. And alas, the ability to tell a story.
Creative skill #1: Articulating a Vision
When I took the helm of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY, the agency was on rocky shoals. It had lost a sense of itself. It was listing without direction.
The first job of a CEO is to craft a Vision for a company. See something on the horizon. Articulate it. And inspire the company to move in that direction.
I framed up our Vision using TBWA’s proprietary methodology: Disruption.
I identified the Convention, first. The status quo. The Chiat NY office was the “forgotten office” in the TBWA collective.
But the history of the office revealed signs of greatness. In the early 1990s this office was a powerhouse. The inventors of the ingenious and prolific Absolut campaign. In 2008, Chiat NY was the most creatively-awarded agency in the world thanks to its brilliant Skittles work.
These moments were the inspiration for the Vision. We would be the “3G,” the third generation of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY creative greatness. And I expressed the Vision as: “The center of strategic and creative excellence for all of TBWA.”
I figured if we could be TBWA’s best, we could be one of the best in the world.
To get the company rallied to achieve the Vision, I deployed the last part of the Disruption methodology — the Disruption itself.
Being a “recovering copywriter,” I wrote our rallying cry: “New York Hustle. Global Muscle.”
This was our positioning. This would be the phrase that would get people out of bed in the morning, appear on T-shirts and tote bags, and shine from our slides in new business pitches.
Creative skill #2: Synthesize and Prioritize
One of the most important responsibilities of your remit, when you transition from creative to CEO, is finance.
As the CEO generating revenue and protecting it are key priorities.
As a copywriter, you have actually been around this your entire career.
Every brand that is written up on a brief is looking to you to come up with ideas to help them increase sales to make money.
And as a creative, you have spent the better part of your days trying to understand complicated stuff.
You’ve had to learn how a transmission works if you ever worked on a car brand. You’ve learned about equities, bonds, and the miracle of compounded interest if you ever worked on a financial piece of business. Who knew about franchise system owner-operators, “cheese pulls” and “mouth feel” before they worked on a food brand?
You learned this stuff. And you learned how to find the most important and compelling things to highlight and focus on.
Same for CEO life and the world of corporate finance.
When the P&L spreadsheet shows up in your inbox for your bi-weekly financial discussion, you use your copywriter skills to synthesize and prioritize.
You don’t read and obsess over every single line item.
You focus on the big stuff.
What’s the revenue? What are the earnings? What’s the margin?
Sure, there’s plenty of follow-up and detail. And don’t you worry, your bosses, the finance team and ultimately the shareholders will want to know the ins and outs of why the numbers look the way they do.
But your first task as the CEO is to understand the big picture: what’s coming in? What does it cost is to operate? How much are we making?
Once you digest that, you can bite into all the other juicy items like compensation ratios, CapEx, and amortization.
Creative skill #3: Storytelling
A major part of your job as CEO is telling the story of your company. And telling your story inside. And outside.
I had learned as a copywriter that the best brands knew their stories inside, then out.
Apple is a story about living at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. Creating “tools for creative minds.” And inspiring people – inside and outside — to “Think Different.”
There’s another famous TBWA brand story about Pedigree dog food. The idea was to re-orient the brand from being a “dog food company,” to becoming a “dog-loving company.”
Again, this is about getting people inside to believe in a brand story before it is told outside to consumers and customers.
Our story at TBWA\Chiat\Day NY is about being a “legacy start-up.” Our “killer app” is Disruption. Our product is breakthrough creative. We work with “hustle.” And have the “muscle” of a global collective called TBWA.
As CEO, I deliver this message daily, weekly and monthly.
Daily, in conversation. Weekly through an email I write to the agency every Friday. And monthly via a new business announcement or town hall.
And of course, we tell our story in pitches. We meet with Brand CEOs and CMOs and talk about Disruption, creativity and breakthrough business outcomes.
The Bottom Line
As a CEO, you’re judged by your results. And I’m proud to say we’ve grown revenue and profit every single year over the last 5 years (and we’re holding our own right now during the COVID19 crisis.)
We’ve also grown the office from 170 people to close to 500.
And we’ve been named to the prestigious AdAge A-List two years in a row.
All thanks to copywriting?
Well, a lot of it.
After all, being a copywriter taught me how to see and articulate a Vision. It helped me understand how to learn difficult subjects and break them down to understand them and take action on them. And being a copywriter trained me in how to tell compelling stories.
Stories that inspire people to do their best work.
Stories that compel brands to partner with us to help them increase their presence and fortunes.
So if you’re a copywriter there’s a future for you.
As a creative director? Sure.
But maybe, just maybe, you’re doing all it takes to be a great CEO.