Control and collaboration aren't mutually exclusive

Jan Gooding: Control and collaboration aren’t mutually exclusive
Streisand was the first woman in Hollywood history to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film (Credit: NIH Image Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

Collaboration leads to great ideas, but ultimately a ‘pain in the ass’ still has to make the final call.

One of the surprises of January has been the joy of listening to Barbra Streisand’s distinctive voice as she reads her autobiography My Name is Barbra on audiobook.

She was the first woman in Hollywood history to write, produce, direct and star in a major studio film, Yentl. At 21, she signed a contract with Columbia Records that gave her full creative control, in exchange for less money.

Her obsession with detail and desire for complete control has always been criticised. In her version of events, there is little doubt that, in the male-dominated and overtly sexist Hollywood of her lifetime, her gender was at the root of much of the criticism. Or, as she put it so eloquently: “A man is a perfectionist; a woman is a pain in the ass.”

Collaboration requires psychological safety

What is clear in Streisand’s storytelling is that creative control was never at the expense of collaboration, which she not only enjoyed but was convinced that it enhanced her own creative process.

This is a woman who persuaded Stephen Sondheim to rewrite the lyrics to Putting it Together many years after it had been published so that it was about the record industry, not the art world.

Describing working on a script in a room with her co-writers day after day, Streisand says: “When it’s about making the script the best it can be, when you can say whatever comes into your head, then everybody is free to fly and share their feelings in a place that’s safe.”

Even more than having control, she insists on the truth: “You see, I like facts. I have great respect for facts and the idea of just making something up really bothers me.” This insistence on knowing the facts, as a route to the truth, causes friction throughout her life.

We all understand that the truth can be painful to hear or at odds with what we want to believe. However, at a time when agreement on fundamental facts can seem in short supply, it is an issue on which we all need to be vigilant if we value trust.

Bill Bernbach once famously remarked: “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” Indeed, our industry’s code of practice, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority, declares that consumer confidence can only be maintained if advertising is honest and truthful. Given “honest” and “truthful” are effectively the same thing, that double emphasis has always interested me. I suspect because it’s easier said than done.

A heady mix of control, collaboration and truth

Creative control, collaboration and truth are the boundaries that created the safe place in which Streisand was able to play, explore, create and originate, ultimately enabling her to become such a distinctive artist or, dare we say it, brand.

In this era of virtual and scattered teams, it has felt increasingly hard to get people to collaborate. Particularly the kind of collaboration that leverages the power and creativity of being together in the same space.

But just insisting people work in the same room can’t be relied on to produce good results. Working with others also brings discomfort and conflict as ideas compete for attention. Neither is it easy to surrender decision-making autonomy and cooperate with others.

Not everyone welcomes the input of other ideas into their own thinking process and it may explain the conflict that collaboration can sometimes generate.

Separating commercial and creative decision-making

Control is such an important part of the creative process because it is all about who ultimately gets to decide, particularly in the face of disagreement.

When I worked in an advertising agency at the start of my career, I was surprised to discover how much power the creative director wielded about the work. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I ever presented an idea that had not been signed off by the creative director, I would be fired on the spot.

Over the years that I worked in advertising, even when I didn’t agree with the choices the creative director made, I appreciated the importance of that authority. Barry Bryant (one of the Bs in BWBC) always told our clients that when it comes to creative decisions, “the advertising agency should get 51% of the vote”.

It’s a good principle. If brand owners don’t feel able to surrender ultimate creative control to their creative agency, you have to ask whether they are working with the right people, because it’s what they are paying for.

Certainly, when I was group brand director at Aviva, I tried to hold on to that mantra and aimed to say “no” to creative ideas very rarely. Creative ideas were instigated and nurtured by the market chief marketing officers, their teams and agency advisors who were, by definition, much closer to their local market and what should be effective than I was.

When I found myself in a conflict, it was usually with people who didn’t understand, or necessarily care, about the impact of what they were suggesting on the brand and only saw money to be made.

Important to say no

Naming conventions were a battleground. Joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions filled me with dread as I braced myself for the ludicrous hybrid names that lawyers and their financial colleagues would come up with.

Then there were the sub-brands I was constantly killing at birth as the internal politics of division heads played out.

Streisand put huge thought into the naming of her albums. In fact, she has an ability to explain her choices to an extraordinary degree. And her idea of successful collaboration is that others do the same.

It goes back to her approach of being honest, speaking up, laying out the arguments and then understanding that she will make the final decision.

As we seek to encourage greater collaboration, we should listen to Streisand. You can’t just incite people to work together successfully by putting them in the same space. Someone is going to have to be the opinionated pain in the ass who takes control and leads it.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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