Chief communications officers face a tough challenge in building breakthrough programs in large organizations. Bureaucracies eschew risk, which often results in watered-down creative. Witness the array of merely satisfactory work that permeates the PR, marketing, and advertising of many big companies.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of standout work.
Sometimes, the leadership of a strong and demanding CEO is all you need. I once worked with Brent Thomas, who, as an art director, co-created Apple's "1984" spot, one of the most famous TV ads in history.
In a magazine account of that spot, Thomas said there were many within Apple who found its tweaking of IBM too risky. Steve Jobs reportedly showed the spot to the company's board, where it was met with silence. One member said he would “vote to fire the agency.” Jobs' response: “Learn to live with it.”
Most often, you won't have that kind of commitment. If you want to create a breakthrough program, you need to champion the work of your creative team, not just the input of your executive team. You must lead that creative through to approval, orchestrating compromise that maintains the integrity of the work.
You need to be a leader-diplomat.
Your creative team needs to feel confident of your support for breakthrough work. You need to provide a stimulating, challenging, safe place to develop big ideas – provided you believe they are on strategy. Keep the arguments about the work, not the personalities. Then, you must own the work as you move it through internal review and approval.
This is where you have to be astute and forceful, but attuned to valid perspectives and political realities, in order to broker input. Your creative team doesn't need to be babied. But it's important they understand the rationale for executive changes. Between the two groups, you must retain principal responsibility for the quality of the end products.
A colleague developed the state of California's highly regarded tobacco-education program that went past the traditional public health cautions about addiction and death, putting the spotlight on the tobacco industry itself. His comment: “That program never would have happened without powerful allies in the public health department who pushed it through the bureaucracy. Brave clients make brave work.”
Lawrence Lokman is principal of Lawrence H. Lokman Strategic Communications. He has worked in senior communications positions within and as counsel to major nonprofit, government, and industry organizations.