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Julie Hough, Content Strategist, Berlin School of Creative Leadership Marketing

Are Ethics and Creativity in Conflict?

“Creativity has the potential to lead innovation, disrupt the status quo, and set new standards. Unique to every creative business leader is their ability to inspire, educate, and to surprise. But what should never come as a surprise are a leader’s ethics.”

- Michael Conrad, Berlin School President

At the Berlin School, we believe that authentic creative leadership begins with a true examination of values; those that influence everything from day-to-day interactions to wider organizational goals. But what are the ethical challenges facing creative business leaders today, and what are the shared values that should be applied to face these challenges? In November 2018, we hosted a panel discussion, “Leading Ethics in Creative Leadership” in New York, as part of our Executive MBA US Module, to unpack some of these ethical dilemmas. The panel, which took place at the R/GA HQ, featured Hervé de Clerck (Founder, AdForum), Mukti Khaire (Girish and Jaidev Reddy Professor of Practice, Cornell Tech), Tom Morton (US Chief Strategy Officer, R/GA), Jeff Jarvis (Director, Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism), and Pippa Seichrist (Co-Founder and Head of Innovation, Miami Ad School). With backgrounds in journalism, technology, education, and innovation, the diverse panel examined the risks of misaligning ethics and leadership, and explored the potential of ethical leadership to incite positive change, not only in business but in wider society.


What is the Role of Creative Business Leaders?

Creative leaders are in a unique position to influence ideas, innovation, conversations, stories and culture. As drivers of business, their impact is seen across industry standards and in the headlines of news stories around the world, touching everyday lives through products, social media, entertainment, and purpose-led initiatives. As Tom Morton points out, “We have become accidental ethicists. We never set out to be the abettors of right and wrong.” But things have changed dramatically over the years, and with the phenomenal reach and responsiveness of the mobile era, there is undeniable potential to influence people and the way they see the world. But, how is that role defined?

Mukti Khaire succinctly describes the unique positioning of creative leaders as being at a “trilemma” between creating successful commercial work, successful cultural work, and creating work which upholds ethical norms. “You can’t prioritise one at the cost of the other.”

It’s one thing to recognise the responsibility of encouraging ethical behaviour, but it’s equally important to define where the line is between encouragement and preaching. In other words, the line between being thought-provoking and dictating demands. Usually, the most profound actions are taken when and audience reaches a conclusion themselves, through conversation, debate, and questioning. As Jarvis proposes, “It is our job to convene communities into civil, informed and productive conversations. That’s a mission for journalism, for media, and for technology companies.”


What is Our Definition of Ethics?

Ethics are not rules. They are moral guidelines driven by core values. If the creative industries are to become more united in ethical purpose, how can it be assured that they are operating from the same page? “We have to have a definition of ethics that actually works and can inform what we do,” states Tom Morton. Jeff Jarvis notes that this isn’t a question to be answered by one industry alone. “I think that we have to recognise that we have a common cause here – across media, across journalism, and across technology.” In the context of increasingly polarized political and societal rhetoric, Jarvis suggests that one common goal should be to help “strangers seem less strange” by “daring to deal in ethics” in communication and how cultures and lifestyles are portrayed and perceived – celebrating differences and commonalities alike.

There is almost certainly no single mantra or bottom line which creative leaders can be expected to rigidly adhere to. However, Tom Morton uses Aristotle’s approach to ethics to proposed a shared question for creative leaders to reflect on in their work. “Are we creating things that allow other people to flourish? Are we designing things that are aimed to appeal to your best self, rather than your worst instincts?”


What is the Ethical Impact of Creative Work?

When it comes to creative work, nothing stands alone. Whether it’s a product, a piece of film, an article, or a company mission. Even the most ethically motivated creative work does not exist to simply be morally superior. There is always an influence and reaction to consider. Hervé de Clerck refers to this as “footprint.” And so, the question becomes less about a project or piece of work on its own and more importantly, about the thoughts, behaviours and actions that it triggers. “What we have to bear in mind is our footprint; the message. What do we leave in the heads of the people we are talking to?”

More so than any set of rules, creativity has the power to connect emotionally and to trigger behaviour and action. With this in mind, then the impact of creative ideas should not be considered as operating in a time-capsule and should be approached with a long-term vision, considering future generations, sustainability, globalization, scientific development and more.


Diversity and Inclusion

If ethical creative work is to serve a global, human purpose, then addressing diversity and inclusion is crucial, both from an internal organizational perspective and looking at the whole of society which it serves. Looking at the way in which advertising is cast and written, Hervé de Clerck points out the pitfalls of using stereotypes. “We use all sorts of tricks to get to the point. The stereotype can be very useful, but at what point does it become offensive? The question we have to ask there is whether we are a ‘mirror’ of our society or a ‘shaper’ of our society.” Jeff Jarvis adds, “I think the notion of a mass audience is fundamentally insulting to the public. We treat people as if they are all the same and we don’t recognise their individuality or their communities.”

But looking at the audience perspective is really only one side of the coin when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There is no question that if a creative business wishes to serve this kind of purpose, then representation is crucial, and comes down to empowering diverse voices on teams and in leadership roles. Pippa Seichrist explains that a lack of diversity has led to repeated “disastrous” examples of story-telling in which large portions of audiences have been misrepresented and offended – a problem that could have been avoided by having more diverse creatives making the work. “But the agencies just didn’t have that perspective and they weren’t able to have that empathy.” Pippa notes that this is not an issue that begins in HR, but one that stems in education and privilege. At the Miami Ad School, they looked to their own positioning to see how they could impact this problem from an educational standpoint, increasing their level of diverse enrolment to 45% over two years in the hopes of increasing recruitment and attrition rates in the creative industries.


The Challenge of Moderation

Having established the need for shared values, future-focussed vision and greater action on diversity and inclusion, the conversation comes back to the very nature of creativity itself, and the essence of creative expression in art. Namely, at what point does it become hypocritical to insist that art and creativity serves a particular ethical purpose? As Mukti Khaire notes, “we have a responsibility to create content that has a ‘good’ impact on society. On the other hand, as a champion of artists and creators, you can’t really tell them that he or she should not be creating art of this kind.” Using Beavis and Buttheadas an apt analogy, she points out that “we would be a very sad society if we didn’t have any art that didn’t, at the beginning, make everybody ask, is this allowed?“


Accountability is Key

If the true nature of creativity requires this level of trust, freedom of expression and even risk, then it’s apparent that creative leaders can really only dictate their own decisions. They can set out to make an impact through creative work and by empowering generations of creative leaders through their teams and organizations. Recognising this responsibility will require transparency, open mindedness, and accountability, especially as audiences become more critical of how products, services and communications are created. As Jeff Jarvis says, “we have to accept responsibility for the role that we play. We’re too quick to blame technology because it’s new.” Tom Morton also points out that no industry is exempt from this discussion. “It doesn’t matter whether we’re building services or designing campaigns.” As the role of creativity becomes relevant across more and more complex business scenarios, then nobody can expect the question of ethics to become simpler, or to even truly be answered. But by continuing to define and refine shared values, to encourage debate, to investigate their footprint and to ensure that diverse voices are brought to the conversation, creative leaders can further integrate ethics into their organizations’ DNA and, ultimately, make a more ethical impact on society.


Scholarship Opportunity : Supporting Ethical Creative Leadership

This year, The Berlin School and IAA have announced the “Helga and Michael Conrad Scholarship Focusing on Ethics in Creative Leadership and Communication in Creative Businesses.”

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