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David Puttnam

Wavelength Leadership Masterclass Speech 2012

Delivered at:

Store Street Room
One Alfred Place
1 Alfred Place
London, WC1E 7EB

On Wednesday 25 April 2012

Note: You can also view this speech on the Wavelength Website by clicking here.

It’s a genuine pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I’d like to take a crack at the subject of strategic leadership by attempting to sell you Puttnam’s Seven Laws of Creative Leadership, building on what I’ve learned from my own experience in a variety of business, cultural and creative sectors.

As some of you may be aware, I began my career in advertising. An agency called Collett, Dickenson and Pearce (more popularly known as CDP) was where I got my first real break.

I was 21, had just got married, and was working in a somewhat ‘down-at-heel’ agency called Greenly’s when I saw my first CDP ad. It was for Whitbread Pale Ale and it was very different from anything else around at the time - certainly a lot more classy and intelligent.

I didn’t actually know which agency had been responsible for it, but it didn’t take long to find out.

I think I wrote three letters before I got an interview. Then another interview, then another until, to my surprise and delight I was hired as their very first Assistant Account Executive!
At this point it’s probably worth conceding that, from the perspective of anyone with the slightest degree of ambition, that’s about the lowest form of human life that exists in advertising! However I got my head down and, probably more by luck than judgment, by the time I was twenty three I was holding down a job I had absolutely no right to in terms of responsibility.

I was also earning over three thousand pounds a year, which was a hell of a lot of money in 1964.

And to top things off, at almost exactly the same moment, Beatlemania hit big time, and suddenly, instead of being seen as a hardworking but essentially ‘long-haired git’, I became what I can only describe as ‘intriguingly acceptable’.

I even started to get away with wearing a white suit from time to time; not something I’d recommend to any of you nowadays!

I’d never gone to university; before joining Collett’s I’d spent three years at night school.

But CDP served brilliantly as a University because I found myself working with a number of quite extraordinary people, most of them in the creative department.

The head of that Department was the Creative Director, a tyrannical taskmaster named Colin Millward. But it was he who taught me more than anyone I ever met; and he did it in a most unusual way.

I’d take a piece of work into his office for approval and he’d sit and nibble at his nails for a bit and then, in his thick Yorkshire accent say, ‘It’s not very good, is it?’ and I’d say ‘Isn’t it?’ and he’d say ‘No, it’s not very good at all.’

And I’d ask ‘What don’t you like about it?’

‘You work it out son.

Take it away. Do it again. Bring it back tomorrow.’

I’d leave his office and go back and just stare at the bloody ad. Then I’d calm down a bit and talk it over with a copywriter, or one of the art directors, and we’d sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, roundly cursing the source of our pain.

Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 Colin Millward was right; and we would end up producing something significantly better the following day.

Years later I said to him, ‘You know, you were a real bastard to work for. I don’t remember you ever giving us much in the way of direction, let alone encouragement.’

‘No’, he said, ‘I did something a bloody sight more valuable; I taught you to become self-critical, and to work things out for yourself’.

And it was true, he had.

It was he who taught me an early and very important lesson:

“That which is merely competent, or even good, is only a point of departure; it is seldom if ever a point of arrival”.

In my last couple of years at CDP, as a so-called Group Head, I was lucky to be assigned a new copywriter in the shape of a 22 year old Charles Saatchi who, with his partner Ross Cramer, had just joined the agency; a few months later the even younger Alan Parker, together with Ridley Scott put in their appearance – and I had the hottest, youngest and far and away the most fractious team in town!

A great deal has been written about it, and it’s largely true, the mid-sixties was an amazing period, typified by the fact that everything and anything seemed possible; there was never a sense that any problem could be allowed to defeat us.

Eventually, and I guess inevitably, I decided to leave the agency and go out on my own.

My real passion lay in the cinema, and having achieved a reasonable degree of success at the Agency I’d developed sufficient self-confidence to believe I could make a career of it.

In hindsight, most of that confidence was based on a quite spellbinding level of ignorance. But that potentially lethal combination of confidence and ignorance wasn’t all that unusual in the 60s!

As I'm sure most of you would agree, the film industry is in just about every respect, ‘creative’, and like all genuinely creative businesses it somehow refuses to conform to any ‘conventional’ business model.

To illustrate this, let me offer an anecdote from the world I joined in the late sixties, when the UK’s leading Film Company was still the Rank Organisation - although its image even then was very much set in the 1950s!

It was run by men – and I do mean men, there were no women – and these men habitually dressed in blue blazers which made them look as if they had just sauntered off the eighteenth green at Wentworth golf club.

In fact, all too often they probably had – something which became ever more apparent as the company’s share price drifted downwards year on year, despite the huge injections of cash thrown off by their half-stake in a fairly successful photocopying operation by the name of Xerox!

Over the years Rank had acquired a host of different film businesses – including Pinewood Studios – but now the management wanted to rationalise the way they made movies. Surely, they reasoned, they could squeeze far greater efficiencies out of what they still saw as their core business?

So their late and thoroughly unlamented chairman, Sir John Davis, commissioned a report from McKinsey’s on how the company could make its films in a more effective, and less risky fashion.

After a few weeks pouring over film budgets, shooting scripts, interviews with key personnel and a great deal of head-scratching, the consultancy gurus delivered their answer: quite simply they said, producing a movie was impossible, and no sane organisation would even dream of accepting the level of risk involved!

Exit McKinsey’s, their pockets filled with gold!

The ‘blue blazers’ ambled off to the nineteenth in search of a stiff gin and tonic, and started plotting Rank’s withdrawal from the business – at exactly the moment their smaller U.S. counterparts, Warner Brothers, Paramount and Universal, got their act together and started to grow - exponentially!

In fairness, the consultants at McKinsey’s could well have been on to something. By the standards of any rational business ‘audit’, it may indeed seem impossible to produce a movie.

But it does get done, and sometimes – admittedly not all that often – but from time to time those who produce movies make very decent profits for themselves, as well as for the companies who back them.

I tell this story because it neatly illustrates Puttnam’s First Law:

In any creative or innovative enterprise you cannot simply measure yourself against traditional concepts of ‘accountability’.

Everything moves too quickly, there are just too many crucial decisions to make in too short a period of time. So any serious leader or ‘entrepreneur’ will quickly find themselves working principally on the basis of trust - not accountability.

It’s certainly my experience that an obsession with ‘accountability’ strangles the will to live, let alone the will to adapt and change! It also invariably strangles imagination and, with it, genuine creativity – which for me is typified by originality, and flair.

Which leads me to my Second Law:

Networking among one’s peers early in your career and then carrying on doing it is incredibly important – it enables you to start building that 'web of trust' I referred to. To figure out which people you can genuinely learn from, and even seek advice and support from in a crisis, while all the time remaining true to yourself and the things you believe in.

After my father died I found this quotation from a play by George Bernard Shaw pinned
to the underside of the lid of his desk:

'Be true to the dreams of your youth'

He always was. And as a result I’ve certainly always tried to be.

However, there are occasions when it is important to take opportunities as and when they arrive.

I'm by instinct somewhat opportunistic. I tend to ‘cruise the territory’ and when I spot an opportunity to get something accomplished, I move very quickly - and I avidly follow-up every lead I get.

I'm not sure how attractive it is, but I’d argue that a lack of tenacity of that sort is a huge
inhibitor to achieving your goals.

If I had a pound for every wannabe filmmaker I’ve bumped into in a Soho coffee shop who’s told me that he or she is just waiting for their big break – I’d be a fairly wealthy man.

As I'm sure you by now realise – it simply doesn’t happen that way!

As a nation I’m not sure we’re anything like as ‘tenacious’ as we once were. I'm concerned that we've fallen into a culture of 'entitlement' that all but encourages people, should things not quite work out as they would have wished, to simply shrug and move on.

Back to film in order to better illustrate my third point.

As many of you realise, to make a film, you start with the sometimes lengthy process of development.

That usually begins with a ‘treatment’ of a few pages, outlining the concept, the characters and the narrative. That’s in turn followed by a first draft screenplay and eventually, sometimes many drafts later, a shooting script.

The producer devolves budgetary control to the head of each department and leaves them, for the most part, to hire their own teams. These will be people they in turn trust, people who as “freelancers” live and die by their ability to deliver.

The point here is that this is a world in which there’s no need for ‘performance indicators’ - if, as a freelance film technician you fail to deliver, then quite simply you might as well leave the business - before the business finds you out - and leaves you!

In other words, there’s no room or, more importantly, no time, for micro-management.

If a producer ever really attempted to micro-manage the process they would almost certainly prove McKinsey’s triumphantly right; movies would be impossible to make.

So, to Puttnam’s’ Third Law:

Don’t waste your time attempting to micro-manage the output of any essentially creative environment.

In film-making, as in many other creative spheres, power is devolved; it’s responsibility
and success that are shared.

Making a film is a peculiarly pressured business, in that the actual shooting time you have is only a comparatively small part of the whole process. There’s a huge amount of tension every day of the actual filming, as it’s all but impossible to regain ground that’s been lost.

That’s why the ‘pre-production’ or planning period is so absolutely critical. It’s at this early stage, when cash-flow is sufficiently flexible to accommodate an actor dropping out, or a crucial technician becoming unavailable, that the quality and flexibility of your response becomes vital.

Once you start shooting the process quickly becomes incredibly unforgiving.As a producer, you find yourself juggling increasingly depleted resources and, in fairness, a mistake can cost - quite literally – millions , with the possibility of your own career going straight out of the window as a result!

You’d be surprised how that focuses the mind – or maybe you wouldn’t!

I think it’s increasingly true to say that similar levels of flexibility and speed of response are required of just about any successful undertaking in today’s ‘digital’ world – that ability to ‘turn on a sixpence’, to constantly anticipate and address the entirely ‘unexpected’.

The speed at which the global financial crisis, from which we are all still reeling, spread and encircled the globe is a wonderfully vivid example of that!

Compare the respective 'response times' of markets, governments and international institutions, and you'll quickly get a sense of what I mean!

Returning once again to cinema - the only way to ensure that each movie has the best possible chance of success - with all the challenges of changes in personnel, locations, weather conditions, in fact the wholly different approach required by each new project – is if the ‘Producer’ or leader can bind the cast and technicians together, quickly, into a very tight and efficient unit – a ‘team’.

In my experience it's the ‘team’ that delivers, invariably as a result of sometimes quite extraordinary efforts on the part of the most committed of its individual members.

Now common sense as well as experience tells me that, under normal circumstances, to get the most out of any team, it’s best to coax, encourage – and in some cases even try to inspire them.

Most of all, it’s the Producer’s or team leader’s role to tell everyone what a fine job they’re doing, because encouraging the very best out of them can only build their confidence, and as we all know, confidence breeds confidence and, as often as not, leads to success.

That is what I call ‘influencing’ at its very best. Instilling confidence and – here’s that word again! – trust.

My experience at CDP was that if the inputs weren’t always as encouraging as they might have been, the resulting outputs more than compensated!

But I have to confess that when somebody really screws up - the film has been loaded wrongly, so the shot has to be done again; or the focus puller has misjudged his distance, and the picture ends up being ever so slightly ‘soft’ - at times like that it’s a damn sight easier, and very tempting, to scream blue bloody murder, and seek to apportion blame, rather than try and solve the problem calmly and constructively - as a team.

The increasing prevalence of this ‘blame culture’, most particularly as whipped up in the media, is to my mind a massive distraction from our very real need to develop skills which focus on problem-solving; rather than shovelling out MBA’s in ‘how-to-cover your-back’!

And let’s face it, most politicians, of all parties, as well as a great many business leaders, have hardly been the best possible examples in this respect.

To take reasonable risks implies that things can go wrong. This need not entail blame, but it does require an acceptance of the fact that, despite the best efforts of everyone concerned, things may not always turn out exactly as planned.

A ‘pragmatic imagination’ has historically been considered a great British strength, and I believe that the proper exercise of that imagination should free organisations up to take better and more intelligently calculated risks; and to innovate.

So to Puttnam’s Fourth Law:

Don’t get trapped or tempted into the ‘blame culture’.

To anyone who really knows what’s going on, you are only exposing your own fears and confusion. And always remember: “harbouring resentment, is like taking poison and waiting for the other guy to die!”

Which moves me neatly towards my Fifth law.

Something strangely ‘counter-intuitive’ has been happening over the past few years, because even the most successful employers I talk to have appeared oddly reluctant to go out of their way to develop the talents and confidence of the next generation, most particularly through responsible programmes of delegation.

And yet, as I hope I’ve indicated, everything I’ve learned tells me that commitment, delegation and trust lie at the heart of any successful enterprise – creative or otherwise.

I have always believed that absorbing responsibility should, in turn, carry with it an obligation to share one's learning, through teaching or simply networking, so that people starting out, in the middle or even at the end of their careers, have the opportunity to make the very most of their own talents.

It's about letting them find out what they are capable of, in an environment (rather like the one I enjoyed at CDP) within which you are actively encouraged to be fearless.

And that’s increasingly true in environments in which 'change' can easily outstrip the ambitions of those who are foolish enough to believe they constantly have their finger on the pulse.

In fact it’s my belief that we’ve reached what I’ll call a ‘Radio Caroline’ moment. A political and societal shift, in which ‘mainstream’ attitudes have fallen badly behind what is probably best described as, ‘the cultural zeitgeist’.

I’m old enough to have lived through at least two of these ‘revolutions’. The first occurred in advertising between 1962 and ’64. Believe it or not in early ’62 most account executives still came to work in pin stripe suits - carrying furled umbrellas that made them look remarkably like investment bankers - and their clients liked it that way.

By the end of 1964, such sartorial splendour would probably have lost them both their clients and their job.

The world had changed and advertising had changed with it. As in their own awful way my getting away with wearing a white suit and long hair triumphantly proved!

Similarly, when I first went to Hollywood in 1969 it was run by half a dozen men, all in their seventies and called Sol, who were married to each other’s sister, chewed large cigars and played poker together at the weekend.

By 1972 (just three years later) the ‘Easy Riders’ had driven the last of the Sol’s out of town, and Messrs Scorsese, Coppola and Lucas ruled the roost!

Both the early sixties Ad (or Mad) Men, and their Movie Mogul counterparts had been caught ‘asleep at the wheel’!

I sincerely believe the same is true right now, and to a far greater degree than most people seem prepared to acknowledge.

So my Sixth law is this:

Be prepared to share your learning, your experiences and your mistakes at every possible opportunity.

As I hope by now you’ll have realised, it’s the very best way to ensure that you yourself remain equipped to deal with change.

And, of course, you’ll learn at least as much from sharing and discussing your experiences as those your advising ever will!

One final thought – a Seventh Law perhaps, and certainly something we all need to think about.

As recent global events demonstrate, should we as a nation fail to produce a generation of remarkable leaders - leaders of character, vision, integrity and understanding - then we could all too easily find ourselves facing another of those ‘crisis of civilisation’ that have bedevilled societies down the ages.

In an era of ‘Presidential style’ debates we would do well to remember that there is all the difference in the world between looking good, and being good – our need is for genuine leaders, not those who simply respond to the latest opinion poll, or seek to spot the most recent trend; but those who have sufficient wisdom and courage to spell out exactly what they believe lies ahead – the difficulties as well as the opportunities – and are prepared to help us navigate our way through them.

Leaders who will stop pretending they have all, or even most of the answers; but in whom we can develop sufficient faith to encourage us to take on our share of the responsibility for meeting and defeating both the known, and the as yet unknown, challenges of the future.

Thanks very much for listening to me.