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Creativity, Risk and Fear

The London ad agency St. Luke's Communications has built a reputation as one of Europe's most daring and experimental companies, unleashing extraordinary creativity through a willingness to break rules and take risks. In this excerpt from an interview in the Harvard Business Review, St. Luke's founder Andy Law tells how the company finds and keeps people who are fearless in the face of change.

Creating the Most Frightening Company on Earth

"It's no coincidence that St. Luke's Communications is named after the patron saint of artists," writes Diane L. Coutu in the Harvard Business Review. The London-based advertising agency "is full of free spirits who delight in breaking rules—both as they create advertising and run their organization.

"Given the firm's deep tilt toward the unconventional," she continues, "perhaps the real miracles of St. Luke's are that the agency makes so much money and wins so many awards, even though it refuses to enter contests."

How does this five-year-old firm succeed? "In the opinion of chairman and cofounder Andy Law," writes Coutu, "the success of St. Luke's is driven by the firm's determination to continuously reinvent itself in a world populated by dot-coms and mega-ad agencies.

"The agency's goal is to revolutionize the way business is done and, in the process, provide a credible alternative to the capitalism of both the old economy and the new. St. Luke's pursues its goal by carefully managing a paradox: it pushes its people to take enormous risks, but it has built a working environment that feels as safe to its employees as, say, a small-town bank in the 1950s."

In this excerpt from his interview with Coutu, Andy Law talks about finding people who fit into the unique environment and organizational structure of St. Luke's.

Where do you find your creative risk takers?

Finding talent is our biggest challenge. We go to headhunters, we invite candidates to apply, and we advertise. As a result, we receive up to 100 applications a week. But we still have a bad name in London about recruiting because we take so damn long hiring people. We could double the size of the agency right now if we took all the business opportunities we were offered and just hired arms and legs to do the work. But the catch is, we only hire people who genuinely understand that they've got to take risks, and we don't take on any new business unless it can be serviced by people we trust.

Getting hired here is grueling. On average, applicants go through seven interviews, and the interviewers ask intimate, probing questions that are intended to take interviewees right to the edge. For instance, when we ask about personal risk, we expect people to talk about something substantial—leaving their wives or nearly drowning. We often ask: "What has made you most happy about your current job, and are you prepared to give that up at St. Luke's?" Typically, candidates are questioned about whether they would work here for the same salaries they are earning elsewhere. At each step of the interview, we give people the option to back down. It's the ones who say, "No! No! We want to keep going," that we try to recruit. By the way, we take all our decisions on new hires by consensus. All interviewers have to agree on a candidate; it can't be a majority vote.

Once people are on board, how do you motivate them to unleash their creativity?

We force everyone to live in the moment. Take one small but important example. Advertising companies show reels of commercials when they make pitches to prospective clients. The reels are samples of past work; they can be as old as you like. But nine times out of ten, we show reels from only the last three months. The oldest reel we would show—if, for instance, we needed to make a specific point—would be six months old. We would never show a seven-month-old reel, even if it was great work. This pushes people to the limits very fast.

At the same time, we are constantly experimenting. You don't get creative by staying in the same place. Indeed, there is a hunger, a lust, an impatience for movement in this company. That's why we are opening an office in Stockholm this October. Why Stockholm? We didn't analyze the market to see whether there was an opportunity there. But we analyzed ourselves and saw that we needed a bigger canvas for people to experiment on, and we needed a more diverse group of employees to produce more creative work. So we are going to Stockholm to set the creative process on fire by doing some intercultural experimentation. We are going to learn from people who were taught to think differently than we were and whose culture requires them to communicate in a different way. We are mixing the creative gene pool, if you like. We did work like this before when we created a campaign for IKEA in China using British and Scandinavian talent.

One clear result of this movement within the company is that people at St. Luke's are developing multiple skills. No one is just the copywriter or the TV producer. That means people can often be seen doing strange things. A strategic planner who normally does statistical diagnostics for us has just written a screenplay that will soon be aired. An internal team solicited screenplays for an in-house test project and his was the best. Nobody knew this guy had artistic talent because by conventional business standards, he was a numbers man.

We also encourage creativity by literally destabilizing the workplace. When you come to work at St. Luke's in the morning, you never know where you're going to be sitting. There is completely open space here. It's terribly destabilizing not to have your little desk or space where you can put your photographs up. It's like going back to your house after being away and finding that somebody has moved your bathroom into the garage. But we decided collectively to do this because we want to defeat habit. Creativity is the defeat of habit by imposing originality and change.

St. Luke's is almost maniacal in its commitment to change. When we sign people on, we warn them in their contracts that their jobs, their job titles, their job descriptions—everything, in fact—will change. We ask them to commit themselves body and soul to change. We even ask them to agree to do whatever job other people in the organization think they would do best. Since the founding of St. Luke's five years ago, about 25% of our people have shifted from the jobs they were hired for. One employee who was struggling in client service became a copywriter. Another client service employee is now a strategic planner. The office manager has become a client service representative.

Creative people are famous for not wanting to be managed. Is that the case at St. Luke's?

To a degree. People scream out for individual mentoring, which has replaced conventional management in many ways. Nobody is embarrassed to ask anybody for help here, and I mentor constantly. I go out, almost like a TV-evangelist, and remind people what St. Luke's is all about. Of course, creative people, in particular, need to be brought along. They need to be encouraged and buoyed up. But I find that the main thing I need to do is remind people to give something up, to sacrifice something. I am constantly telling people that giving up the thing they're attached to will take them to someplace far more interesting. Giving up something helps people create spaces in their minds that will allow them to take on new things. Holding onto things all the time makes people—and companies—afraid to change.

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Excerpted from the article "Creating the Most Frightening Company on Earth: An Interview with Andy Law of St. Luke's" in the Harvard Business Review, September-October 2000.

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Diane L. Coutu is a senior editor at HBS.