Columns / Voices

Promoted to Fail

A creative’s journey to leadership

Xanthe   Wells
“You can only ask him one question!” warned my creative director upon ushering me into Lee Clow’s office for a very rare one-on-one sit-down with “the Legend,” as he was known around TBWA\Chiat\Day. Stomach clenched in knots, and just a hair past 30 years old, I sat before Clow—a nervous art director hoping for a few magical clues.

“How do you pick out great work in a room filled with ideas?” I asked, thinking I would hear an answer about taglines or typefaces. I should have asked his advice on how to be an effective creative leader. But on that particular day five years ago, when Clow appointed me associate creative director on Pepsi, the crown jewel account of the TBWA network, I just thought I could wing it.

I walked out of his office feeling like a rock star. And then promptly began to fail at my job.

Yep, that’s right. Completely, utterly fail. In epic ways I could never have imagined. I yelled at project managers. I was rude to the creative directors. I crashed meetings. I cried in public. I cried in private. I acted like a fool at the Christmas party. I even ended up having a nervous breakdown with one of my dear friends over a booklet that was printed incorrectly. Why? I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. I couldn’t let Clow down, I couldn’t let TBWA or Pepsi down, and I couldn’t let myself down. I just didn’t know that being an art director was a whole lot different from being a creative leader.

Were it not for a few important people and some talent on my part, I would have been fired.

Creative people aren’t natural leaders. Everyone knows that. But more and more, our industry demands that we be great storytellers, good salespeople, decent joke-tellers, occasional project managers, dutiful meeting attendees and wildly inspirational creative visionaries. We must be confident, but not brash; kind, but not meek; tough, but not off-putting; challenging, but not obstinate. Oh, and win awards at the same time.

So what keeps the great creative directors on track? What keeps them doing all of the above and never straying off course?


I’ve found that the most successful creative people in advertising are the most tuned in, not only to great work and industry trends, but also—and even more important—they’re tuned in to people, to the atmosphere of a conference room, to feelings and to all the other intangible things that move business forward.

Sensitivity is the most underrated skill in a leader’s quiver. Being able to feel the pulse of your team almost intrinsically, to spot a spark of genius in a passing whisper and even to stop a tear before it needlessly falls on a cheek are the very things that can turn a creative into a true cross-department agency leader.

So how do we become those creative leaders?

We start by being led. We start by letting go. We start by listening when we feel pressured to speak. We start by looking for answers, not giving them. We start by choosing the improvement of others over ourselves time and time again. We start by working for the people who work for us. We start by framing every decision we make within the parameters of what’s best for the people, clients and brands around us.

Account directors need partners, not children. Planners need pushing, not pushback. And clients need clarity and consistency, not agendas and assumptions. Creatives must leverage the very thing that makes them different—the ability to empathize—and use it to become stronger.

Even though advertising is becoming more tactical, hard-edged and results-driven every day, we as creative leaders must never lose sight of the brilliant—and very tender—hearts and minds at our fingertips. Just because we have to face earnings reports and CEO lashings doesn’t mean our teams have to.

We must protect our teams. The creatives and their ideas are the very reason for our existence. And we must seek to make them better all the time. We must let them unfold. We forgive their blunders and occasional tantrums. They’re human, not robots. If watered with enough empathy and encouragement, they grow very big and strong.

Looking back on that auspicious meeting with Clow five years ago, I realize now that the sensitivity of his reply to my seemingly random question actually hinted at the answers I had needed. He took a moment to consider my query: How do you pick out great work in a room filled with ideas? Then he answered very simply, “I hate killing everything.” When I asked him why, he said, “Well, it sucks to have everything die in a meeting, so I usually try to find at least one good thing in there and make it better.”


Now, this doesn’t mean that Clow has never killed a roomful of ideas. But it does mean that there is sensitivity behind the decision and how to handle it. He cares. And we need to

© Rob Schwartz

Prior to becoming chief creative officer of Pitch in Los Angeles, Xanthe Wells ( worked as a creative director on Pepsi, Kraft, PlayStation, Pinkberry and numerous other accounts at TBWA\Chiat\Day LA. As Pitch’s CCO, she helped the agency gain national recognition in 2014. The agency won a Silver in Ad Age’s Small Agency Awards and was dubbed an Ad Age A-List Agency to Watch.


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