Interview: How Keith Reinhard Mastered Creative Leadership

Contagious spoke with Masters of Creativity chairman Keith Reinhard about the qualities of successful creative leaders, and his own process. Reinhard is chairman emeritus of DDB Worldwide and the creative force behind award-winning, memorable campaigns for clients like McDonald’s and State Farm.

How does being a creative leader differ from being a good leader generally?

Any leader’s job is to inspire greatness. And there are many different ways to do that. If you can create a culture where people want to follow you, and they believe that if they do they are going to be better at what they do, or that they will be more fulfilled, or that they’ll have more fun. A leader has to depend on followers. Back in the 80s at DDB, we wrote four freedoms that are still in place at today. We wrote about freedom from fear, because management by intimidation has no place in a creative organisation. Freedom to fail — if we’re going to ask our creative people to explore untrodden territory, they might not always succeed, so we have to grant them the freedom to fail if they are to get anywhere. Freedom from chaos — the chaos that occurs when management says one thing and does another, or there are lots of closed door meetings, or memos without any real understanding as to why such a dictum was issued. The fourth and the most important, is the freedom to be. To celebrate diversity — as a group we are more effective and more interesting because of our diversity. So the leader of a creative organisation has to understand these things and create a culture that nurtures, rewards and celebrates creative thinking.

How separately do you see the functions of planning and creative — do they overlap?

They absolutely overlap. We know that because we see so many creative people become planners and the opposite is also true. I never knew how to work without the help of a planner and the insights they provided. But even with the planner’s help, I still think that my goal was to know even more about the client’s business than the client did. If I could bring an insight about a client’s business that had not occurred to her, then I really had the client’s attention and then I could start to gain the trust of the client. Clients tend to be suspicious of creative people and marketing jargon. So if you can understand the client’s business and say, ‘Have you ever thought about your customer this way?’ and you provide an insight, suddenly, she starts to trust you. And once you have that trust, then she’s willing to buy some pretty brave ideas because she gets that its coming from an understanding of her business.

How important is trust to creating great creative work?

It took me a while to learn that great relationships actually beat great work. If you had put together a reel of ‘great work done by agencies who were subsequently dismissed by their clients,’ it would be astonishing. But once you have a great relationship, you can do great things together.

Take the Wassup? campaign for Budweiser. You can imagine trying to tell one of the greatest brewers in the world that this is going to help him sell more beer. But he said was ‘Look, I’m still not sure I understand, but you haven’t let me down all these years we’ve worked together, I trust you so give it a try.’ We explained that we are going to add an ingredient to his beer that his best brew masters can’t add — youth, hipness. We thought it would be one commercial, and it turned into a whole campaign and for a while, a global phenomenon. We even built a website that explained how to say Whassupppp in 36 languages, and guys were spending 45 minutes on that stupid site. But we could not have sold that idea without that bond of trust with the brand.

You’ve made some iconic campaigns for a multitude of successful brands. Can you describe how you go about tackling a brief?

The process is quite easy to describe, much more frustrating to actually execute. The very first thing you must do is the information gathering stage — just learn every bit of information you can about the brand, the market, the category, the customer, the competitors. Cram that into your brain.

Then comes the second step in the process, of trying to take those bits of information and connect the dots. Way back in the day when research suggested that Ronald McDonald needed a nemesis to make him look more heroic, we thought: ‘Okay, well what could be a good bad guy?’ We read all we could about villains and heroes, we went to visit the creator of Wylie Coyote.

And then you come to the third step which is just to walk away from it. You go for a walk, get on your bike or go to the theatre, and then the idea pops up. In this case, it was four in the morning and it suddenly popped into my head that ‘burger’ sounds like ‘burglar’ — that was the creation of the Hamburglar. It’s like an island on the horizon, the idea will come into view.

Finally, you can’t hold that idea close to you. You have to share it with like-minded creative people, they build on it and improve it.

That’s how you have to approach it. At least, that’s what I’ve done in my first 60 years. But maybe I’ll get some new thoughts in my second term.

(This article was originally published on, 13/6/16).