Advertising guru calls for creative leadership in government

By Shannon Jenkins

November 4, 2019

Russel Howcroft at BiiG 2019

Chief Creative Officer at PwC Russel Howcroft has called for the Commonwealth government to establish a Creativity Commission. 

According to Howcroft — who recently spoke at Queensland’s annual BiiG Network public sector innovation conference — creativity is the driving face of productivity, and is a highly valuable untapped resource in Australia.

“There is such a thing as return on creativity, there’s an X factor that creativity can provide,” he said on Wednesday.

“What interests me enormously is that we don’t pursue it anywhere near enough. It’s something that people think is in the sandpit. Those creative people, they’re over there in the sandpit, and us serious people, we’re the spreadsheet people, and we’re the ones who are gonna make all the decisions.”

He noted that creativity is not about the arts, but about applying creative skills that everyone possesses to business. The government must focus on building creativity as it would be an “investment for our future prosperity”.

“Every single one of us is creative … And we’ve got to get that mindset into everything we do. We’ve got to apply it in business dramatically,” he said.

He referred to Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s recent speech, in which he acknowledged the importance of the creative economy, and argued that imagination and creativity were “great renewable resources” for Australia.

“Our government should be playing more of a leadership role in the development of employment opportunities in the creative sectors,” Albanese said.

“These industries span creative services such as architecture, design, software, digital content, advertising, and marketing as well as cultural production including film, television and radio, music and performing arts, publishing, and visual arts.

“Governments across the world are recognising the creative industries as a key strategic area for development. In Australia, these industries are growing at nearly twice the rate of the broader Australian workforce. And because they require creativity and judgment, they support jobs that are much less likely to be automated.

“The creative industries are of strategic importance to Australia, but are being held back by cuts, lack of investment and outdated policy settings. So I am pleased to announce that Labor will hold a Creative Economy Summit in the first half of next year. Led by Shadow Minister Michelle Rowland, the summit will bring together key players from across the creative industries to chart a course for an expansion.”

Howcroft said it was “a seriously wonderful thing” that a political leader had finally put creativity on the agenda by recognising its role in the economy.

He noted that the United Kingdom has invested heavily in its creative economy, as has China. And in Indonesia, there is a ministry responsible for creativity, which last year held the world’s first global creative economy conference.

Meanwhile, Australia has become “constipated” and has struggled to progress. Howcroft noted that while factors such as the global financial crisis of 2008 have posed difficulties for Australia, it has become too comfortable with resting on its laurels.

“We’re not applying the power of creativity to the progress that we need to make,” he said.

“We have to get creativity front and centre.”

Howcroft noted that despite Australia being ranked in the mid teens for science and economy globally, it is 22nd in the world for innovation. And while Japan is the number one most complex economy in the world, Australia is 93rd, despite being 57th just two decades ago. Furthermore, Australia’s productivity is down, underemployment is rife, and it has the highest CEO turnover in the world.

“That is obviously a problem. Stability at the top and leadership from the top creates the need for innovation. It’s critical,” he said.

Australia has also become one of the worst nations in the world for employee engagement. Howcroft argued that a focus on creativity could unlock purpose, which could lead to happier, more productive workers, and better outcomes overall, particularly in the public service.

Howcroft said branding — finding a core purpose — could be used to “activate” creativity. For example, a department could “brand” itself by identifying the heart of what it does to improve its services and in turn improve the experience of the public.

“We’ve got to all think really deeply about what it is about our brand and who and what we stand for, and how can that then make the experience all the better for the users, our users,” he said.

Leadership plays an integral role to transforming the way government deals with creativity, Howcroft argued. He said leaders must talk creatively, lead creatively, and have a willingness to engage with creative ideas.

“We need leaders who say creativity is important,” he said, and used NSW Premier Joseph Cahill as an example of what creative leadership can do. 

Cahill was responsible for the look of the Sydney Opera House, which Howcroft said has been Australia’s greatest advertisement. Cahill chose the design by architect Jørn Utzon, and “found a way to make it happen”, despite being repeatedly told it would be impossible to build by various engineers, lawyers, and financial advisers.

But employees must not let stubborn leaders hamper their creativity, Howcroft said, as the system cannot change without individuals changing first.

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