Ultimately, the skill we prize is the ability to get other people to do things.
We might call it leadership, as if it has something to do with being in the front line when you’re asking people to go into battle, but you can motivate people in so many different ways that selecting one style is a bit disingenuous. Some people at the top of organisations or departments get the best out of people by positive reinforcement, while others use fear, or guilt, or double bluff, or leave it up to the person they’re motivating to work it out for themselves.
The annoying thing about that is that they can all work. I’ve been scared into doing better work, but I’ve also just seen how high a boss’s standards are and resolved to live up to them, all by myself. I worked for one guy who I’d show a script, chat about the previous night’s TV, then ask what he thought of the work. He’d hand it back approved even though it had been in his hands upside-down the entire time. He presided over departments that won Agency of the Year several times, so despite appearances he clearly knew how to get the best out of people.
And if you’re an advertising creative, that’s how you get promoted. I once asked a boss whether I should follow the advice of the highly awarded copywriter down the hall, who suggested I tell the client to fuck off. ‘Ben’, my boss replied, ‘that’s the reason why (copywriter X) isn’t an ECD’. So the better writer (but also, alas, a massive, somewhat cantankerous, boozer) had been surpassed in his career by his less talented but people-friendlier colleague. That’s not to say that somewhat cantankerous boozers can’t make it to the top – plenty have – but copywriter X was never going to be the guy to fire up a department for a big pitch or make a callow junior happy to go back for a tenth revision on an endline. It was difficult to put my finger on why I was not motivated to impress him, but overall he was just a bit of an arsehole who didn’t seem to like anything much. The stick/carrot balance was weighted too heavily towards the former.
So if you can write a great ad but alienate everyone in the process; get a reputation as a brilliant maverick that nobody wants to work with; inspire grudging, resentful, reluctant admiration; and win the hearts and minds of precisely no one, you’ll only go so far.
However, if your creative work rarely breaks 7/10 but you can persuade a client to give you business; a writer to (gladly) work the weekend; a trade journalist to write favourably about your agency’s recent quiet patch; a superstar MD to join your agency; and a delightful person to marry you, a happy life will be yours.
When in doubt, connect.