Leading the Crazy Ones

The creative industries need to be ever-fresh. Michael Conrad of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership talks about what it takes to create like a boss

He knew there was plenty of talent out there, but the young Michael Conrad was having a hard time hiring creatives for his ad agency in the 1980s. Again and again, he would see portfolios and was repeatedly puzzled: The agency work was only “so-so,” but when he asked to see a school portfolio, it was much better.

“The work was fresh, it was daring.” These were young minds entering the marketplace full of ideas. What was going on?

The problem was, “der Fisch fängt vom Kopf an zu stinken,” (“the fish starts stinking at the head”). The leadership was failing the creatives.

When meeting recently with Michael Conrad, at the classic Viennese restaurant, Plachutta, it became clear that his retirement in 2003 had just been the beginning of a new chapter. After 34 years in the advertising business, his new challenge was to devise an academic concept for teaching inventive people to become more resourceful leaders.

Being approached by the German Art Directors Club was no coincidence. Born in Germany – “a country more famous for great cars than great ads.” He helped Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc. become “Global Agency Network of the Year” in 2000 (AdAge) and “Most Awarded Agency Network” in 2001 (Gunn Report). Under his creative leadership, 27 Leo Burnett agencies were named “Agency of the Year” in their respective countries. Not a bad run for an ad-man.

“You really have to love the problems that come with complexity and learn to analyze them.” – Michael Conrad, founder of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership // © Berlin School of Creative Leadership

Creative judgment

Michael Conrad’s approach to leadership is certainly German. On the Berlin School’s website, famed advertising executive John Hegarty describes it as bringing “German engineering to global quality management in advertising.”

Creativity can be chaotic, Conrad is the first to admit. However deciding what is ready to deliver to a client, he says, requires a process of qualification.

It’s a process of peeling back the layers, he explained over a bite of Tafelspitz, “If I ask a creative director what he thinks of the work we just completed, he might say ‘it’s great.’ Then I’ll ask, ‘Do you really think it’s great?’ He might reply, ‘Actually I think it’s good… or if I’m honest, I think it’s OK.”

Instead of these types of vague judgment calls, Conrad wanted a system of gauging quality more reliably.

He started by asking the key questions: “How can you have a discussion about a piece of work with some structure? Where do you want to be, what do you want to avoid and what do you want to accomplish?”

This led to a system of quality controls he called the “7+ to Heaven”: a system in which concepts and ideas can climb a scale of 1-10 (see below).

Developing a leader

How to judge creative work in a team, though, is just one aspect of creative leadership, explained Conrad.  This got him started on another list of qualities that have become the basis of the Berlin School – qualities not only applicable to the advertising industry: “We sought to turn great creative people into great creative leaders, and to place a creative CEO in every creative business.”

For a start, being competitive means setting yourself apart. One of Conrad’s favorite examples is the Walt Disney Company.  “Disney is all focused around magic,” Conrad explained.  “If you feel you’re losing the magic, then maybe it makes sense to pay $8 billion to buy Pixar and integrate them.” Having and living that competitive distinction is key, he said.

“Creative leadership requires a better understanding of complexity… You really have to love the problems that come with complexity and learn to analyze them.” Conrad stressed the need to find alternate strategies, and making good decision–making a priority.

One important factor is what Conrad calls “alignment.” When companies create something new, many may embrace it, but “there will always be skeptics who say it’s bullshit,” says Conrad. Good leaders need to incorporate the skeptics, to find a way for them to be part of it and support it. The rest is putting understanding into action.

“If you don’t watch implementation… it’s all gone.”

Theory in Practice

Every year companies spend roughly €28 billion on leadership training worldwide. The Berlin School wants to teach creatives good leadership rather than teaching leaders to manage creatives. // © Berlin School of Creative Leadership

While the concepts are simple, the structure Conrad’s ideas provide has been just the ticket for the Berlin School. Not only have they attracted top professors and lecturers, but also some big names in the media industry. Some notable Austrian alumni include Sebastian Loudon, the Publisher and Editor in Chief of Horizont, Austria’s leading weekly for the communications industry, and the communications monthly, Bestseller. Armin Wolf, arguably Austria’s leading television anchor at the Austrian national broadcaster ORF, also completed the Berlin School’s executive MBA, and owns the -nation’s most popular twitter account.

The Berlin School seems to have tapped into a great demand in the creative industries, where spending on new approaches in leadership are on the rise.

According to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends, in 2014 companies spent $31 billion (ca. €28 billion) on leadership programs worldwide. However, they note, “the leadership world continues to be dominated by myths and fads, often promoting superficial solutions” that do not deliver “measurable impact and results” – a complaint underlined by Harvard’s  Barbara Kellerman in The End of Leadership, and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University in Leadership BS.

There are myriad online courses, as well as conferences and programs that teach existing leaders about changes in company structure. Headlines like “How to Manage Millennials,” or “How Millennials Change Traditional Leadership” show just how much companies feel the need to adapt.

In the creative industries, leading younger generations is vital. According to the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers (CISAC), the sector is predominantly young and entrepreneurial.  In Europe, CISAC’s first global Map of Cultural and Creative Industries shows that creative and cultural industries employed more young people aged 15–29 than any other sector. Furthermore, creative industries are driven by individuals or small businesses to become more agile and innovative employers. In Canada, more than half (53%) of game developers describe themselves as independent operators. In the U.S., artists are 3.5 times more likely to be self-employed than U.S. workers overall.

Austrian leadership?

Austrian creative industries accounted for over €21 billion in revenue in 2013, according to Statistik Austria. In the Alpine republic, leadership innovation is already key to maintaining and strengthening that sector. As a road map, some government programs are now in place. A national Creative Industries Strategy, published in 2016 with the help of 100 private sector creatives, aims to reach its ambitious goals by 2025.

But the administration is not satisfied that enough is being done to strengthen and prepare the next generation for dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of the job market.

In a brief conversation at the European Forum Alpbach, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told Metropole about his concerns that students need to be encouraged to strive for innovative jobs and leadership positions.

For example, “It’s the Austrian schools’ job to spark interest in students to pursue professions in the digital industries,” he said, highlighting the promising future in that sector. But more important is the development of character.

“At the same time I don’t think it’s just about what you study,” Kurz said, “but more about whether you believe in yourself enough to be an entrepreneur,” rather than opt for the security of a job in the public sector. More students at the Vienna University of Economics and Business report that they would like to work in the public sector than start or run their own business, according to Kurz. “This means we have a problem that has to be addressed.”

Kurz has launched an initiative for Austria to look beyond its borders for ideas of ways to reduce the red tape for company founders in the private sector. “The goal is to look at how these topic are approached in other countries – not to copy them, but use them as an impulse.”

For more information on the Berlin School for Creative Leadership, visit

Michael Conrad’s 10 Qualities of Creative Business

What to avoid

    1. Clichés.
    2. Being non-competitive.
    3. Being destructive. “If the work tears down the product, or the image of the product.”
    4. Being appalling. “When striving for creativity, sometimes you can go below the belt. It’s not about being politically correct, but more staying humane.”

What to achieve

    1. An innovative strategy. “Does it have something that challenges the status quo, delivers new ideas?”
    2. Translate it into fresh ideas. “Being fresh is very important. You build it, you play with it and serve it up in unexpected ways.”
    3. Excellence in execution. “That leads to people saying ‘I want to see it again, hear it again, I want to share it,’ it enhances the impact.”

What to strive for

  1. Setting a new standard in the client’s industry. “Just think about Dove. They certainly set a new standard in their category.”
  2. Setting a new standard in communication. “The way you visualize, articulate the thing with an idea, can also become your property.”
  3. Most inspiring in the world. “What we need to do is inspire people.”

We made a cut at seven and said our agencies had to produce 7+ work.

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