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What Can Agency Leaders Learn From The Towering Nelson Mandela?

nelson-mandelaNelson Mandela spent his entire life fighting against injustice. In his early career he fought against apartheid (racial segregation) in South Africa. His actions led to him being convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and he served 27 years of a life sentence in prison. In 1990, after an international campaign lobbying for his release, he was set free, and went on to become the country’s first black president from 1994-1999. Since then he’s remained an elder statesman, taking part in activism and humanitarian work across Africa. He died of a lung infection on 5 December, 2013, aged 95.

Mandela’s life was surrounded in controversy, and he has his share of critics, but no one can deny that he played a vital role in improving race relations in South Africa. For this reason he’s often called the “Father of the People”. So what can this remarkable man teach us about running a creative agency? Here are some of Mandela’s most inspiring quotes, with some thoughts on how they apply to agency life:

1. Don’t underestimate the importance of education.


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Never stop learning or inspiring learning in others. Look at every situation – even the really nasty ones – as a chance to learn something more about your industry or how to interact with clients.

Every time you find yourself in a situation you wish you weren’t in, ask yourself, “what is the lesson here?” Perhaps you need to learn not to ‘look before you leap’ when it comes to speculative projects, or perhaps a nasty altercation with a client over contract terms has shown you that your contracts need an overhaul.

Likewise, when everything is going right for you, ask yourself what you can learn from your successes. What has worked on this project that you might be able to replicate for future jobs?

Always take the opportunity to be the educator of others. Encourage your team to seek out professional development opportunities, and support them in developing their interests and specialties. Teach clients about the process behind their work and about why you do things a certain way. The more a client understands about what you do and why, the more they trust you to do a good job.

2. Have Courage


“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

It can be scary running your own agency. After all, you’re competing against the big guys – who have never-ending budgets and several decades of experience and name recognition. Technology changes in the blink of an eye, and if you’re not constantly vigilant, you’ll be caught off guard. You have a whole team of people relying on you for work and income and security. Many agency directors have their homes, their savings and even their relationships on the line.

As Mandela says, being courageous doesn’t mean that you don’t feel fear. It doesn’t mean that you are immune to all this pressure. It means that you recognise the fear and the pressures upon you as a business owner, and that you find a way to overcome them.

How do agency directors cope with this fear? Well, that is highly personal. You might enjoy daily yoga or meditation. You might take a twice-yearly holiday to relax on a beach or go hiking. You might have a rule that, no matter what is happening, you put the phone down at 5pm and go home to have dinner with your family. You might surround yourself with a supportive team who cares about the business as much as you do, who will support you when you need a break.

3. Be Optimistic, and Move forward toward your goals


“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Creativity cannot thrive in negative space. If you allow negativity, politics, clashing personalities to dominate your office, then the creative work you do will suffer.

Cultivate an attitude of optimism. It can be difficult to do, especially when a deadline has passed and your team has hit a creative wall and the client is screaming down the phone and the printer has gone on strike and one of your leading designers has just announced she’s leaving the company.

Remind yourself that, as bad as things are, they are fixable. Many companies have lived through worse situations and thrived. Focus on what you can change. Create a plan – lay out step by step what you can do to improve the situation. Get the team together to brainstorm ideas for moving forward. Bring pizza; keep a smile on your face even if you’re screaming inside. And believe in your heart that everything will turn out for the best in the end. If it’s not going well, you haven’t reached the end yet.

4. Don’t succumb to resentment. Be proactive in pursuing what you want.

nelson resentment

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Don’t waste your – or anyone else’s – time worrying about what others are doing. It’s a cutthroat industry out there, and it can be demoralising to see that media agency scooping a big media award and that designer being written up in the newspaper. But remember that what other agencies do has no bearing on your own success or failure.

You have no idea about other people’s situations, or the struggles they’ve gone through to get where they are. That top agency director may appear to have everything handed to him on a silver platter, but he may be pulling 80 hour weeks hustling to get those opportunities. He may have connections you don’t know about, and he may have ten years more experience in the industry to draw on.

Focus on the things YOU can change. Instead of feeling resentful when someone else wins an award, say, “Oh, that’s awesome for them!” and look at how you might be able to pursue awards in the future. Perhaps all you need to do is submit an application, or make a note on your invoices that if a client was particularly happy with a project they should consider nominating you. Don’t be reactive – be proactive in pursuing what you want.

5. Write simple and moving copy that connects with your audience


“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

Advertising and branding are all about messages. You send out a message in such a way that it’s understood by your target audience. No matter how beautiful a design is, if the message is muddied or the words make no sense, then you have failed.

Cultivate a formidable team of message-senders – people who dig deep to the heart of the client, figure out what the core message is, and invent a way to present that message to the right people, at the right time, in the right way through the right channels. Do this, and your agency will be a smashing success.

6. Nothing is impossible


“It always seems impossible until it's done.”

Agencies and creative achieve the impossible every day. From sketchy briefs and non-existent brands you can launch and create multi-million dollar brands. Creative ideas fuel the economy – creativity sells cars and dishwashers and insurance and toothpaste.

No matter how impossible a brief, there will be a solution. Think back on all the other jobs you’ve done before, and how you’ve managed to crack the ones that even you felt were beyond your reach. So sit down with your team and focus – draw out the brief into multiple, smaller parts, and tackle them one-by-one. Set milestones. Keep your feet moving forward toward that goal. Because when you’re in the thick of it, and ideas are flowing like a river, nothing seems impossible.

What have you learned about success in the business from great leaders like Nelson Mandela? Tell us in the comments below or share this article with your network.