2-21: "The Removal Men" - Neal Arthur and Karl Lieberman

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"The Removal Men"

If you’re interested in unlocking creativity in the people around you then Wieden + Kennedy is a real-time case study. Like all great creative companies, it is three-dimensional, and no two sides look the same. Understanding how and why it works means looking at it from several angles.

In earlier episodes, I’ve talked to Colleen DeCourcy, who has a global perspective; Eric Baldwin and Jason Bagley, who had just taken over the leadership of Wieden in Portland; and Jesse Johnson and George Felix, about how the agency/client relationship works when Wieden is at its best.

This episode is a conversation with Neal Arthur and Karl Lieberman, who run W+K New York.  

They came together just over three years ago, following a long period of uncertainty in the leadership of that office. Since joining forces, they have provided focus, consistency, care and hope. They also have clear expectations of themselves and those around them.

So this episode is called, “The Removal Men”.


Three Takeaways

  • Find the truth.

  • Commit to honesty.

  • Compassion inspires.


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-21: "The Removal Men" - Neal Arthur and Karl Lieberman

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

If you’re interested in unlocking creativity in the people around you then Wieden + Kennedy is a real-time case study. Like all great creative companies, it is three-dimensional, and no two sides look the same. Understanding how and why it works means looking at it from several angles.

In earlier episodes, I’ve talked to Colleen DeCourcy, who has a global perspective; Eric Baldwin and Jason Bagley, who had just taken over the leadership of Wieden in Portland; and Jesse Johnson and George Felix, about how the agency/client relationship works when Wieden is at its best.

This episode is a conversation with Neal Arthur and Karl Lieberman, who run W+K New York.  

They came together just over three years ago, following a long period of uncertainty in the leadership of that office. Since joining forces, they have provided focus, consistency, care and hope. They also have clear expectations of themselves and those around them.

So this episode is called, “The Removal Men”.

“…if something’s getting in the way of people saying something that's true, if there's something that's getting in the way of people having fun, something that's getting in the way of people feeling like they're personally passionate and conviction and getting convicted in the work they're doing, we try to help with that. We try to get rid of some of those things.”

When you ask people what leadership means to them, the first thing most people say has something to do with setting a vision. I’m one of those people. I think one of the great failures of leadership in many companies is the inability to articulate a clear, compelling vision.

But once you’ve done that, a great deal of the work of leadership is centered on unlocking the potential of those around you. Some people call it servant leadership - a term I’ve talked about before and which I think is as bad a piece of branding as Obamacare.

The principles behind Obamacare are supported by the vast majority of the population of the western world. And if anyone took the time to ask them, probably a majority of human beings on this planet. But as soon as you stick a name on it that some people have a negative emotional reaction to, then a lot of the people who would benefit from it start to oppose it.

Servant leadership has the same effect. People don’t like the word servant for any number of reasons. And so servant leadership has become a bad name for a set of practices and beliefs that most people agree with in practice. Servant leadership means unlocking the potential of others. Sometimes by inspiring, but more often by clearing the path of obstacles.

Some leaders think this is beneath them or that someone else should be doing it. They focus on setting high standards and challenging their people to meet them.

Vision and standards are critical to the success of any business. But if you’re not using the enormous power of your leadership to clear the obstacles wherever you can, you’re only half leading. And you’re making it harder than it should be for everyone else to follow.

Here are Karl Lieberman and Neal Arthur.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah. It's my tenth podcast today.

Charles:

I’m grateful to you for squeezing me in. Thank you so much.

Neal Arthur:

You're welcome, Charles.

Charles:

The last of ten, but nevertheless we'll do the best we can. Karl, Neal, thank you for joining me on Fearless. Welcome.

Neal Arthur:

Thank you.

Karl Lieberman:

It's great to be here. Thank you for the opportunity.

Charles:

Let me start with you, Karl.

When did creativity first show up as a thing in your life? When were you first conscious that creativity existed?

Karl Lieberman:

I mean conscious is a ... I'm not sure when I was first conscious, but I grew up in a kind of creative environment. My mom was an artist and she had a studio in our house above the garage, so I used to always start my day in there. While she was painting I would go in there and eat cereal, which was a .. my favorite combo was Rice Krispies and Fruity Pebbles combined, and then after breakfast I could just make stuff and there was a ..

Charles:

From the cereal or otherwise?

Karl Lieberman:

No. She had this big box of paper, I think it was from You Track. There's like huge pieces of blank white paper and I would just pull one of those out of the box and then just start like making stuff while she was making things too. So I grew up in this house with like, her artwork was everywhere. So it just was a thing you did. You just like made stuff and hung it in your room and ... it was neat because you got to make, I would just make these little worlds all the time. I could occupy my time because I wasn't a good student or athletic, or couldn't really read or write but I could draw stuff.

Charles:

What did the worlds consist of? What were the worlds focused on?

Karl Lieberman:

It's funny because now I see it in my little guy, my son Ray who's seven, and I am constantly reminded it was mostly just violence. Lots of spaceships exploding and missiles and things like that. They were not very good drawings but I definitely worked on them pretty hard.

Charles:

I was talking to Rick Brim of Adam&Eve/DDB a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about Lego being a big part of our childhood, and we used to like making spaceships and rockets and planes and then blow them up. Right, there's something obviously about being young boys that definitely makes stuff to blow it up as well.

Was creativity part of your progression through teenage and adolescence and how did you express yourself as you grew up?

Karl Lieberman:

I just drew a lot of comic books. So I was super obsessed with comic books. Every … even in high school, I think Tuesday was the day new comic books came out, so every Tuesday I would go to the comic book store and load up and then read all of them that night. And, when I wasn't reading comic books I was drawing them.

Charles:

What did you study at college?

Karl Lieberman:

I was an art major. I went to University of Delaware and was in a ... I have a fine arts degree which kind of focused on design and art direction and photography.

Charles:

So creativity has always been part of how you have expressed yourself.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I guess. I guess just never thought about it.

Charles:

Neal, what about you? When did creativity first show up for you?

Neal Arthur:

I think for me, it was more about finding a sense of belonging. I think that was more of a theme than creativity. I would never have said I was exposed to creativity. I would say now, in retrospect, that my mom's a very creative person but it was very much like I was on a path. You know, I was going to be a lawyer, doctor type of thing. And creativity just wasn't a thing that came up in the household. So it was never seen as a hobby let alone a vocation.

But I think what happened for me is I started to see and consume literature and film, and at early points of high school that made me feel like for the first time I was part of something, that I was understood, in some way. And that's what, I think it was that notion of belonging to something that was unlocked for me rather than like creative expression.

And then in kind of seeking more of that, and more of that sense of belonging, I ended up hanging out with more creative people, and it was kind of like, “Oh, this feels like a tribe that I want to be a part of, and in some ways, some weird ways, to protect,” because I didn't bring anything to the party. It was just kind of like, I just like to be here. For me there was never a moment when it was like creative expression although I guess I did in college, and I ended up minoring in fine arts and doing a lot of drawing and painting acrylics and such, but like it was much more being a part of something and feeling like arts, the arts, communicated to me in a proper way.

Charles:

Where you a risk taker as a kid?

Neal Arthur:

I wouldn't say I was a risk taker. I was definitely like, if there was a continuum, I was definitely the kid that was more worried about getting in trouble, you know what I mean. If I cursed, I would look around really quickly to see if my parents were there. But I think it was much more to do with I felt confident being able to do things differently but I wouldn't say I was a risk taker.

Charles:

What about you, Karl?

Karl Lieberman:

Definitely not. I was definitely a rule follower, I still am. When I'm like flying and if I am ever in a bulkhead and the person next to me has their luggage on the floor and we're in a descent, I'm like in a full on panic. Like there has to be, you have to put that up in the overhead..

Neal Arthur:

The minute they say power down your devices, Karl is like, immediately.

Karl Lieberman:

Definitely a rule follower. As a kid I was just kind of an idiot so I broke the rules by accident but never on purpose.

Charles:

So, two non risk takers have ended up running one of the most creative, chaos driven businesses in the world, actually. How did that come about? What has brought that, what allows that to be the foundation for the leadership team of this particular expression of Wieden + Kennedy?

Neal Arthur:

I mean, I'll start. It's funny, Karl and I actually do have a philosophy on this and I don't know if it's right but I worked in this place for a long time, and it seemed where the idea was, if the notion was, why … we do love chaos, but the notion was always that in order to inspire chaos you had to be chaotic. And I think what we've found is you actually, you inspire or allow for more of that chaos if there is stability at the top. If there's a sense of safety and a sense of sort of protection, and stability at the top level allows more people to feel like they can do all the things that they want to, all the risk taking, all the chaos, all the things ... the truisms at Wieden. So we've found, or at least we believe that us being stable, us providing an environment that encourages safety, or that is safe, encourages risk taking. I think it actually makes sense, it actually thinks, our shared DNA in that respect, actually encourages more chaos.

Charles:

Karl, what do you think? Is that true for you too?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, totally. I think ... when I was in Portland, they have that big wall that says fail harder. And it took me a long time to understand that, but it wasn't really about breaking rules, I think it was about taking risks. And the place is designed to encourage curiosity, and curiosity requires risk versus just rule breaking. It’s just trying things.

Charles:

You've been the author of some of the most famous advertising in the last 10 or 15 years. You were central to ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’, for instance. Where do you get ... actually you told me at one point actually, a really interesting story about how that campaign came to be which I think is actually kind of illustrative of how Wieden works at its best. Just tell us that story about how that campaign came into existence, because it very nearly didn't right. It was kind of on a ... there's a lot more reasons why it shouldn't exist today than in fact that it should take its place in the annals of advertising folk lore and history.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, it’s always a little mortifying when you think of if I'd probably been late to work, I probably wouldn't have written that with my partner at the time, Brandon. We … our boss sort of forced us into taking a shot at that after we had worked on it for a really long time, and had gotten really close to production and it ended up getting canceled at the last minute. They wanted to do better, and make something better, and we were kind of juvenile and bitter about it. But our boss at the time, Jeff Kling came in and was like, “No, I need you to have work for this,” I think it was like a noon meeting, and we're like, “Crap what are we going to do?”

And we just had this notion of making fun of the brief, and so the brief was all about being really interesting and Brandon Henderson and I are all like profoundly uninteresting people, so we just kind of made fun of it, made fun of the notion that this beer could make you more interesting, what other things might it do.

So it was good, because it was the first time we started really finding our voice; kind of stop making ads and started writing more personal things. Giving it a world view, while the world view was kind of mocking this idea that if a beer could make you more interesting, it actually, I think that's why it resonates so much with people because people were out there feeling insecure, feeling uninteresting, the same way we were, and I think that's why it went well. If I'd missed the subway or something that morning I probably wouldn't have gotten around to thinking of that.

Charles:

Was it hard for you to invest yourself more in the work, to actually kind of put yourself, your own perspective, your own sensibility into the work?

Karl Lieberman:

Weirdly, and I wish it hadn't taken me so long to figure it out. Weirdly, it's way easier. Once you figure out how to kind of bend the ask to what you know, that's when it's super easy because you know whether or not it's good. You're not like writing an ad, you're just writing something true about yourself, or about people you know, and then you know if it's good or not. It's not like, “Oh this is the funniest ad, gag,” or “Is this the most interesting ad?”, you just look at it and you're like, “Okay, that sounds like something a human being would say.”

Charles:

You make that sound easy, but a lot of people, to your point, like to put a façade or need to put a façade up to the world, right? We know that objectively, but the reality is a lot of people are concerned about that fact and so therefore hide themselves behind some sort of veneer, so your revelation that when you stepped into that and said let me just show you who I am, and we'll deal with that reality, was actually liberating for you?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, because there are people that are good, they're like super good at making that veneer.

Charles:

Yeah, really good.

Karl Lieberman:

I just am not good at it, so I had to point it at something else. I had lots of years practicing making a great ad and had no success and it was only when I started trying to talk like a human being would, that I started understanding at least what I could bring to the table, and fortunately over time, finding Wieden which is what I think we do here, is not better or worse than people that build that veneer you were talking about, and make really “ads”. It's just very different.

Charles:

And when you're working with other people and helping them to unlock their own creative potential, their voice, is that a lens through which you look? Are you trying to help them get to the truth of who they are first?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah. Mostly, you just sit down and ask people what they want to say. “Alright, what do you want to say with this? What's your world view? What's kind of your take on things?” And then the ads just come from there. The ads are easy once you figure out what someone's trying to say.

Charles:

Is it hard to get them to articulate that?

Karl Lieberman:

Sometimes. I mean it's hard for me too. Like that's why it feels great. Oftentimes I can just spew out a bunch of stuff and then I'm like, what am I talking about. I hopefully help people with that too. I think as creators we don't think that way, creatives kind of just feel stuff and I think it's oftentimes creative directors or even planners and account people’s job to kind of think about, like if we do the feeling, they do the thinking. And they help figure out how to articulate what it is we're feeling exactly.

Charles:

So Neal, you came up through the strategy side of the business right? And have ended up running this incredibly creative company. Does Karl’s definition of they do the feeling, you do the thinking, does that resonate? Does it break down like that for you?

Neal Arthur:

It kind of breaks down in the way that it manifests itself, but it's still two people feeling something very strongly. So, yes, I guess, Karl's being generous, I guess I'm helpful at times in terms of articulating that feeling, but it starts with us going, I feel the same way. If we have a process, it's usually Karl going, “Yes, this makes me mad,” and I go, “Yeah, it makes me mad too.” And then it kind of starts from there so it's like there's a solidarity in the way that you feel about things, so therefore at this point you know it's true. And we do feel when it's something we both feel, it's like, then its definitive. And then it goes from like it's possibly true because it's one person, to definitely true when it’s two people. And that kind of all you need.

I think Karl said that it's so important is oftentimes we've got people coming to me and in every different discipline, account, strategy, creative, they go, “This is what the client wants to say.” And we go, “No, what do you want to say?”

And we can kind of help it get there so its articulated in a way that it works best for the client, but if it doesn't start with what you want to say, then it never has a chance of being truly interesting. So what we're oftentimes doing is trying to break down this idea that we're trying to fulfill what the client wants to say. Nothing, I shouldn't say nothing, but very rarely do good things happen from, “I think, you know, client X would like to say this.”

It's funny, our job gets really reductive in many ways, it just kind of goes, “Does that look true to you?” And we'll just look at each other and go, “Yeah, definitely. I get mad about that, or I get excited about that, or that makes me feel something,” and then from there we work it out, you know.

Charles:

So, getting to the truth sounds like that's the thing we should all want to do, right? Sounds like an easy thing. It certainly is the right thing to aspire to and it sounds simple, but it's not, right. I mean getting people to actually get to their truth is a really difficult thing, I mean people are afraid. As you dig into that, as you have developed your own skill at doing that, what have you found to be fundamentally necessary in order to create the environment in which people can get to their truth?

Neal Arthur:

I think it's just stripping away all the layers. You start by going, “Alright, the client’s problem is X and they have to do this by then,” and there's all these sorts of traps, like these things that are presented in a way that is supposed to be helpful, to make things more efficient, and they're kind of bullshit. It's like, it takes the massive step back to go, “Who cares what the thing is that we're trying to create, let's think about what's the truest thing is that we could say.”

And if you just start with that intention, you get a long way on the journey. And then you go, “Alright, would that be true if I said it to the person on the street?” It's true if I said it to Karl, okay cool. Is it true if I said it to the person on the street? Okay. And then you just start to build it up, this coalition of truth, where you're just kind of going, “Alright, as long as it's true.”  I think we worry less about how it presents itself because the executional elements … the truth I was talking about with the most interesting man, on top of that then they added an entirely different creative filter. That wasn't just a person dreaming of being more interesting.

But if you can start with something that feels fundamentally true, and doesn't fall into the traps of all deliverables and asks and requirements, then you have a pretty good shot at it being good. It's a long winded way of saying that I think we are doing is we're constantly pulling back. We learned this from Dan, I mean Dan was masterful at this, I mean he still is masterful at this. It's like, you present Dan something, and you knew immediately if you were qualifying it, you were in trouble. Like, “Well they have to say this because….” he didn't have time for that shit, and you immediately felt dumb, you immediately felt like that's the time you would feel vulnerable. You'd go, “Oh, I've fallen into these traps,” instead of going, “I think it would be awesome if we said this.”

The minute you're qualifying, the minute your caveating then you're in trouble. I think that filter that Dan inherently imposed on the place and on us, is in the back of my mind a lot.

Charles:

So this kind of approach, this kind of philosophy, creates something, a real breakthrough at work. I mean culture changing is kind of one of the goals that the agency has.

You have to convince the client to then buy these ideas, which I'm sure is not that easy. How do you go about encouraging people who sometimes are risk averse, or have lower thresholds of risk than you guys might, or the people that work here might, how do you go about convincing them that this is in their best interest?

Karl Lieberman:

I don't even know if that's how it goes down. I feel like the clients come to us for what we do. And then are constantly asking us, “How can you do that for me? What shape can my version of that take so that I could do that?”

Charles:

So they're pre-sold to some extent. They're here because they want that kind of thinking.

Karl Lieberman:

It's definitely not me and Neal walking in the room being like, “You got to buy this.”

Neal Arthur:

Yeah, definitely.

Karl Lieberman:

You know, they're usually just asking for it. They come to us and ask for it. We had a lot of conversations we have to give them a lot of versions and a lot of ways at it, and discuss what will be best for them. But for the most part, most of our clients come here because they want to say something, because they want to be part of culture, because they want to take risks. And then we just have to figure out how we're going to do that.

Charles:

And have you guys developed a sense in the new business process about when a client really is looking for that kind of stuff? And when they’re just saying they are but getting them to the kind of work that you want to do is not going to happen?

Neal Arthur:

No, we spend a lot of time talking about that. I don't know if we've cracked it, but we start by saying, “If the thing’s about truth, then let's be truthful about how we operate.” And it's messy as hell. So we don't try to put any sort of polish on the process. We don't say, “Well, there's a trademarked process, and it goes into that machine and then it comes out of this machine six weeks later.” We go, “Oh, it's crazy.” And you're signing up for a window of chaos. We will end up on the other side with order and something true and interesting. But the way in which we get there is a combination of gut, and just shared passion.

Because the clients, don't forget that our clients are part of that coalition. They have to believe it to be true for them too. So unless they see something personal in the work for themselves, then it's never going to go anywhere. So oftentimes what we're trying to do with clients is just demonstrate that this can be their truth. This is their truth too. So it's not just a thing that Wieden feels, that you should feel that too. And if you don't feel that innately, then something's wrong. So hopefully we get to a place where you feel like, “Yeah, that's exactly the way I feel. I definitely get frustrated about that same thing.”

And then from there you get a lot of collective support. But it's rarely like, “We looked at the data from this, that, and the other. And these were all top two tier box assumptions, and then from that data we got to this.” It's just kind of like, “Do you feel the same thing we do?” And if there's like a McConaughey chest thump, then we're getting somewhere, you know?

Karl Lieberman:

There's this part … we have this agency video when we do new business pitches. And there's a part where a lot of clients are kind of speaking on our behalf. And one of them is Tim Mapes at Delta, is like an awesome longtime client. And he says, Wieden and Kennedy can be a huge pain in the ass. And nine times out of ten when the new business client on the other end laughs at that, we're in great shape. We're like, ‘Okay this might work’. And nine times out of ten when they're shaking their head at like, “Why would you put that in your video?” It never seems to go well.

Charles:

So the process is, as Neil was just saying, the process is chaotic, it's uncertain, it's messy. When you're in the middle of that, Karl, when you're guiding creative teams through that process, what are you looking for in yourself? And how do you get comfortable with dealing with that kind of uncertainty knowing that you've got a date for a meeting, or you've got things you have to present at some point? How do you navigate both sides of that equation? The uncertainty with the, yes, we're going to have to deliver?

Karl Lieberman:

I don't have a lot of uncertainty. That's the nice thing about this place, everyone's so talented. You know you're never going to have a blank piece of paper, so you know it's going to get done. So that takes care of that, there's never any worries about whether or not we're going to figure it out because we always do.

And the process is stupid simple, like it's just, “What stuff do we think is interesting?” And anything that's remotely interesting or makes you feel something, we try to keep on the board. We just are like, ‘Alright, that notion's true for sure. And that resonates with me, and it clearly resonated with the people who created it, so let's try to figure out how to keep that thing alive.’ Ed Catmull, the Pixar guy, he always talks about how the whole job is to protect the idea, because the idea's always bad when it comes out. And we kind of have that same philosophy that like, ‘All right, that seems like a pretty good idea, let's do whatever we can to keep it alive.’

Neal Arthur:

And I'd say the other thing is we've gotten better about this, but I think we've taken the pressure off of ourselves to deliver something to the client that's finished. So we just show where we are, and so it's like I don't think we feel as much pressure for deadlines, because it's like, all right there's a meeting Tuesday the 18th. And so we'll just show where we are on the 18th instead of feeling like everything has to be done.

Because if you apply that, if you allow that pressure to be complete, that it actually overrides the importance of the idea. All of a sudden you're just kind of worried about having table tents and coasters, you know, making sure you've got all the ephemera rather than just going, “You know what, this idea feels really interesting and regardless of where we are, even if it's just one thing.” We've had so many ideas that have come up of one image from an image search. And you just take that into a meeting and you go, “This feels really interesting. And we're not totally sure why, but we think it's because of dot, dot, dot.”

That meeting goes better than the meeting that everything's got a bow on it, but you didn't have much conviction in. So we'd rather have conviction in one thing, rather than a lot of stuff that feels like it's just kind of all over the place.

Charles:

What are the characteristics of the kind of people you need to hire in order that can be successful in this kind of environment? Because obviously, the relative lack of certainty, the unpredictability, the willingness to push the envelope by sometimes presenting very little. All of those things are kind of counter-cultural to the way most of the industry works, and most creative companies work in fact. What kind of people are you looking for that fit within that environment and are successful?

Karl Lieberman

I think it's just people that are up for it. You know? And it doesn't get much more complicated than that, because if you're super secure and confident and you're up for it, great. If you're wildly insecure and terrified but still up for it, that's great. That's all we need is just people that are like, “All right, we'll [inaudible] right at that thing. We're ready to go all in and do that together.”

The people that struggle here are kind of like the grievance collectors and naysayers. They don't do very well here, because it's a pretty difficult business at times. So, there's always reasons to be mad, but the people who find reasons to feel enthusiasm do best in my opinion.

Neal Arthur:

And I'd also say people who ... The archetype that we've seen struggle here most consistently is the person who comes in and wants to be considered a star, wants to be famous in and of their own right. Because they're always looking for credit, and they're looking to be treated with deference. And the place just doesn't do that. It doesn't treat Karl or I with deference. It's like, the opposite. And so if you come in here and you think it's like, “I'm going to be the biggest star in that orbit,” it just doesn't go well because it doesn't give you that. In fact, it'll purposefully push off of that and make you feel really insecure. So you have to be comfortable just being a part of a thing, rather than feeling like you're the king or queen of something.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I remember when I started in Portland there was this guy with a big jangly keyring walking around. And he would always do the recycling. And I ended up finding out that was David Kennedy. He came in, he drove all the way in-

Charles:

To do the recycling?

Karl Lieberman:

To do the recycling. And that was definitely like a good lesson to be like, yeah even if you're David Kennedy you're still kind of the garbage man around here.

Charles:

It's a perfect segue to talking about leadership more specifically, because in my experience the most insecure leaders are very much looking for deference. They want the respect, they want the adulation that comes from title and position in the org chart. Your reference point is that doesn't exist here. How do you lead in an organization for whom the org chart is of very little interest?

Neal Arthur:

Good question. I mean I guess we just ... so firstly, knowing that you can't look for that. Knowing that you'll not only not be fulfilled, but you'll find it severely deflating if you are looking for recognition and deference and any sense of hierarchy. Nobody gives you anything when you walk into a room here, you still got to just try to help. And that's not even that you have to try and be the best, you just have to try and be helpful.

So I think in terms of a leadership style, I think when we feel like we're doing our best to support the system, support people, support teams, that feels like the best thing that we can do. And it's like, if something’s getting in the way of people saying something that's true, if there's something that's getting in the way of people having fun, something that's getting in the way of people feeling like they're personally passionate and conviction and getting convicted in the work they're doing, we try to help with that. We try to get rid of some of those things.

And then people will be grate ... I mean it's not like it really works like this, but I think maybe there's some gratitude that comes from that. But it's certainly not like, ‘Hey guys, here's how it's done. You know?’ We'd flame out in a day. So I think trying to add an element of support as much as possible and take out the garbage, I mean it's really like that stuff. You know? Anything I'm missing?

Karl Lieberman:

No, that was great. Good job.

Neal Arthur:

Thanks, Buddy.

Charles:

Wieden is famously creatively oriented, right? The leadership structure is designed to tilt on the creative side. I think either every other office, or most other offices, have two ECDs and one managing director. This only has one of each. Karl gets the deciding vote?

Neal Arthur:

Yeah, definitely. I mean, you always talk about this better than I do.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I mean, I guess I do. It doesn't really work that way. I don't think I've ever been in a situation where I've been like, “Shut up everybody. We're doing this.” The whole idea of being a creative is to make stuff that resonates with people. You can kind of always tell when you're doing that, for the most part.

So from Neal and I down, we hope everyone always works together and that ultimately creatives do make the call here, but we always hope that they're really informed in how they make that call. And that's why we encourage them to have debate. That's why we encourage people to argue and stick up for their position, because it's ultimately best for the creatives, for the work and for the people, when they’re making that final decision with the most information at hand.

Neal Arthur:

But it is an interesting question because I think it points out a flaw of like, or a misnomer of why [inaudible] say, because it suggests that it's account or other, versus creative. You won't make it a week in this place if you're an account person or a planner, if you don't have the best intentions of the work in mind. So we rarely see instances where … it's never like a Solomon's Baby thing. People don't come to us and go, we're in a total stalemate, I want to make money and he wants to make work. It just doesn't happen.

The goal of this place is so simple, and so singular that it's to make the best work. If you don't respect that goal and singular mission, then you're going to get rejected. So while we disagree on things, the spirit of being creatively-led is something I have to adhere to every day too. Or else I wouldn't be an MD here, I wouldn't be anything here. You have to buy into this idea that the work comes first, and creative opportunities and this being a creatively driven place, that's why you work here. If you come here with anything different in mind, it's kind of a disaster.

Charles:

This partnership that the two of you have is, I think, increasingly recognized as one of the most successful in the creative industries. It's certainly very successful within the Wieden wider world. What were you looking for in each other when you came together? What did you want in a partner that you have found in each other?

Karl Lieberman:

That's like, he wants us to be in touch with our feelings.

Charles:

Sorry.

Karl Lieberman:

I don't know. You what would be funny is to tell your wife's story about after we had breakfast she was saying that I was like, lighting you up.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah, I mean, it's funny. I guess ... I don't think it's kind of like if you're putting in a relationship terms. You don't really know what you're looking for, you know what I mean? And I think that's because when you're asked, “What do you want in a partner?” You end up with, it's a little bit of a false guidepost. It's like, “Somebody who’s great creatively, and somebody who knows Wieden.” It's like a list of empty, fairly empty attributes. Not to say they're not important but fairly empty. And I think what I found with Karl, is just, he just understands the place. He understands what we're trying to do. He understands that the work's supposed to say something.

And he's really amazing at it. But as much as that, he's a great partner. You know, so like I think the combination of knowing what we're trying to accomplish as an agency, and then being invested in the partnership. I mean that's half the thing, right, of any relationship is just being both committed to it. And he and I, I think have been through enough to know that that's really important. We take our partnership seriously, you know?

Like again, this romantic analogy is making me uncomfortable, but, I think we take growing this partnership and maintaining it to be a very serious part of what we do.

Charles:

Do you actually spend time on it?

Neal Arthur:

I don't know, we talk all the time. I mean, I think that's maybe the most defining element is we're talking all the time. And not just about the fires that we're fighting, but, “What are we trying to accomplish? Where would we love to see this place go? What can we do better for each other and for the place?” I think it's been a natural cadence that's happened, but we do talk a lot about that stuff.

Charles:

And do you talk about how the relationship works?

Karl Lieberman:

I think we're super basic.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I mean sometimes it's like, “Wait, are you sure about that?” But that's the kind of the extent of where we get to our checking in on each other.

Neal Arthur:

But we know each other's strengths. And it's not just as roles. Oftentimes in these partnerships you're like, “Okay, what's the creative person do? And what's the account person do?” Ours is more, “What is he good at as a person? What do I do as a person?” So it requires a lot of awareness, and that awareness comes from each other. He's like, “No, you're not good at that.” You know, I'm like, “Okay cool.” And so that helps a lot. We've ended up with the very natural roles because we're aware of what we do well, or don't do well. Or, just don't like to do as much.

Charles:

What were you looking for when you showed up here? I mean, obviously you were moving from Portland, it has a very different dynamic, had a very different dynamic certainly back then. What were you looking for that you thought you needed to have this work?

Karl Lieberman:

I don't even know. I don't even know if that was even that much of a thing.

Neal Arthur:

You were really concerned about the job.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah. I was worried about the role.

Charles:

About how you would show up doing what you're doing?

Karl Lieberman:

Well, just more like, “Am I going to move all the way across the country and then be out of a job in 12 months?”, you know? Because it was a place that was struggling, well, that particular position. And so when I first met with Neal, I just wanted to pick his brain and figure out, how's this work? Here's my assumptions about how this job goes, but I have no idea. I've only ever observed it from a creative director position.

And Neal and I had met before and hung out before. And had a lot of mutual friends. So wasn't really worried about any of that, I was more just worried about if I could remotely do the job or be helpful.

Charles:

When you were thinking about ... I mean that's a very fundamental kind of quasi existential question. “Should I move my whole life and my family across the country to take on this position that a lot of other people have tried to fill at that point?” How much did the risk of that affect your ... I mean obviously you decided to do it, but how much time did you spend thinking about what the risk was going to be?

Karl Lieberman:

I didn't think too much, because Wieden's a funny place. Like if you said, “I don't want to do that,” they wouldn't really appreciate that. So I knew it was the thing I needed to do. I just spent more time trying to figure how to not screw it up.

Charles:

Did you need to do it for yourself, as well? Did you need to find out whether you could do it?

Karl Lieberman:

I guess, I don’t know. It was always something that interested me but was never something I actually imagined would happen. I was surprised when I got a job at Wieden. I remember the first day walking into the building and knowing all the people that had been there, Dan especially. And I had kind of come from a long line of different New York agencies that I'd started off very enthusiastic about and then ended up coming in and being disenfranchised with.

I remember the first day walking into Wieden thinking, “It's going to be real interesting when I hate this place.” Just assuming at some point it was going to become disappointing and it never did. So I never imagined I'd get a job at Wieden and I'd never imagined I'd be a CD at Wieden and definitely never imagined that I'd be an ECD at Wieden. Especially in New York, I couldn't even get an interview at Wieden in New York when I lived here. So it was very surreal to be coming back to be the ECD of it.

Charles:

How do you look at it now?

Karl Lieberman:

In what way?

Charles:

Does it surprise you that the office has had this kind of success? I mean, does this now feel comfortable to you? Does this feel now that this is the right fit for you, does it feel like you belong now?

Karl Lieberman:

I mean, it never feels awesome. I just admire the shit out of this place. I love the work. ESPN is some of my favorite work of all time. I came here just hoping that, you know I was saying earlier, just hoping to help. And see if we could ... if anything, I have learned in my time, could come and help this office, with the new perspective.

Charles:

What do you think you bring now? What's the value that you provide, now that you've been here, what three years?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah. I'm told I'm calm. That's the only thing.

Neal Arthur:

That’s the only thing he brings.

Karl Lieberman:

The only thing. Calmness.

Charles:

Calmness. Yeah. Well, everybody … we all need some of that right?

Karl Lieberman:

Absolutely. That's what I've heard. I've heard from Neal that I am calm and that is the most important thing I bring to the table.

Neal Arthur:

It's wonderful to hear that it seems successful from the outside. But we never feel that way. We never for one second feel like, “Oh boy! We are rocking it in New York.” It feels often times like we're just trying to stay afloat. And so, just so you understand where we're coming from. There is no point in a day, in any given day, where you put your feet up on the table and go, game, set, match.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I'm not in the best shape in the world, but I will hit the treadmill a few times a week and it's always terrible. And it definitely always just feels like you're running on the treadmill. I'm sure it's good for you. And I'm sure it's helping, hopefully, prolong my life but I'm never running the treadmill with my arms up in the air being like, “I'm doing it.”

Charles:

What about you, what do you think you bring? What have you learned to appreciate about the way that-

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, what do you bring Neal?

Charles:

-that you lead?

Karl Lieberman:

I'd like to know.

Neal Arthur:

I mean, can I say calmness as well? I don’t know, that's such a hard question to answer, Charles. My first job was as a kindergarten teacher. And that is still the most formative job for me in terms of the way that I approach things in life. And I guess for me this isn't about advertising or success. In advertising, it's just like, “Are we helping to foster a place where people like ourselves and people unlike ourselves can feel comfortable, and can feel like they're growing, and they can feel like they're furthering some sort of journey?”

Our biggest, and we always say this, but our biggest sense of our happiness comes from seeing people just make it, man. When you see somebody, people get married or you see people go and take another job somewhere else, that it's a big leap, would've been a huge leap when they started here. Or just even seeing friends. Surprising groups of people become lifelong friends, is like the most rewarding thing for us because it feels like in some way, if we in some small way contributed to a place that allowed for those types of things to happen, man, that's awesome.

So, that's a lot of, at least I think for me, that passion and interest might be helpful, useful. I don’t know.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, Dan didn't create an ad agency. He created a culture. And it's probably not an awesome word for it, but it feels like a burden when you're handed that culture. That you're like, “Oh shit! Okay, I have to now do for other people what Dan and Susan and David and everyone else helped to do for me.” I'm eleven years in and started when my daughter was just a few months old and had a son here and married to the same woman the whole time and it's not a long period of time in a lot of people's eyes. But for me a decade of my life has been really great, thanks to this place. And so you feel this massive sense of responsibility to help protect that place and help make sure that they can change and evolve and keep up, so that it can provide the same things to others in the next decade and the decade after that.

Charles:

And to that point what do you think, as the world evolves, the industry evolves, the company evolves. What do you think you have to hold onto and what do you think you have to push to evolve? What are the core tenets of this place that you think have to be sacrosanct for it to go on being successful?

Karl Lieberman:

The objectives are always the same. It's super simple. It's just make great work. And work that resonates with the world and is famous out in the world, and then with that simple mandate, everything else is just up for grabs. Everything else we can change and figure out, because they way we make great work, is very different today as it was five years ago. Which was ten years ago when I started. The way we got to work when I first came to Wieden Kennedy is wildly different than what we do today. But the objective is the same. I think, hopefully people still see the place as still doing the same thing.

Neal Arthur:

And definitely, the sustainability of Wieden is built on, if the single-minded goal is to do great work, the belief is that's going to happen by finding people who have something to say and feel safe enough and comfortable enough to be able to say those things. So, if you kind of keep the goal in mind and then keep the culture that fosters that goal, if you focus on that, you're kind of 95% of the way there. I think what you oftentimes see is the idea that process, having a process, having a way, having a trademark thing is what's key to success. Like, ‘If we could just bottle up this thing then it's going to end up in kind of getting to the same result.’

And it's like oh no, no, no. If you have an environment, if you have, like Dan says, it's like a Petri dish, if you have a Petri dish of cells that feel like they can grow, then what you point it at can change. So that's the flexibility of Wieden. The future is all about programmatic advertising. Wieden's going to figure out that future because it's never attached itself to a process or specific output. It's always just focused on, fixated on culture.

Charles:

How do you lead within that context?

Neal Arthur:

I think I'd go back to the same principle of really just caring about it. I know that sounds super trite. But caring about the culture, caring about the people who make it up, in a way that's like when people come and say, “I got a job somewhere else,” it's devastating to think about, but, “Good for you, that's amazing!” And knowing that the care for people exist beyond they provide the place is really important and I think people feel and understand that. I think if it feels transactional in any way, you're in trouble. And it's not anything that you're trying to do, it is the way we feel. Maybe that's the reason we have these jobs. But I think just really intentionally caring about people and the culture, the place is the whole thing. So you have to take, that is a burden. Everything's serious. Just because I have four and two year olds and the problems they bring, that they have, you could look at as being small. When Mace takes Dash's toy, I could look at it and go, “That's a small problem, get over it.”

Or I could recognize that that's important to him. And there are a lot of those problems. There's a lot of broken trucks. And so I think we just have to always have the time, patience and sort of fortitude to really focus on those things when they happen. That's why I think the days are so challenging but new every day, because you're never just talking about how do you get to a print out or how do you get to a banner out. You're talking about what seems wrong over there. Like something feels off amongst that team. And is it because of that interpersonal dynamic, is it because maybe somebody said something that another didn't appreciate? You're constantly excavating for what's really going on, you know? Versus what the output is.

Charles:

What about you Karl, what have you learned about how you lead?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I think it's the same thing Neal's saying. I just live in my phone, I constantly look at my calendar. Right before I'm go to bed I'm always looking at my calendar, I'd be like, “What's on tomorrow, what might that person want to meet about, what might that person want to talk about?” And constantly in my notes writing down things I'm thinking of or things I need to worry about. It's a strange job because it's definitely like 24 hours a day. You kind of jolt upright in the morning and then back in the email. Any day that starts off without a bad email is like, “All right, it's going to be a good one.”

Neal Arthur:

Casting. I mean you spent a lot of time on casting. Understanding what partner dynamics being and they're-

Charles:

Casting projects you're talking about?

Neal Arthur:

Teams, yeah.

Charles:

Yeah, putting the right people on the right opportunity.

Neal Arthur:

And pairings.

Charles:

Yeah.

Neal Arthur:

You know.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, because we're fortunate that most people that get in the door are really talented. After that point it's just trying to figure out how to put people in the best spots to succeed. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about that. Who would be an interesting voice on a brand? Who might they pair well with? Who could be cool to have them work for or have them work under. So definitely spent a lot of time just imagining how the day, week or month is going to go, and then hoping to pursue the one that seems like it's going to go best.

Neal Arthur:

It's one of, I think, the coolest things about this place is because it is built on personal truths. The casting dynamic of who goes on what and who works with who, is so fluid because you don't have a fixed voice. Like Karl was a particular type of, well you were an art director, and then writer, and then he had kids, and that voice changed. So all of a sudden he went to fitting in different places. And it works that way for everyone. And so it's one of the most interesting things that we do I think, is looking at how people's interpersonal dynamics and life stages impact their voice. Because now somebody's got something new to say, so the dynamism that you experience in the world really comes to fruition here.

But it makes the job of casting much more fluid, because you're talking about something personal.

Charles:

And three dimensional as well to your point.

You're looking for attributes, you're looking for characteristics, you're looking for mindsets.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah, totally.

Charles:

Really interesting. What are you afraid of?

Karl Lieberman:

Are you afraid of nothing? Is that why you're being quiet?

Neal Arthur:

I'm so fearless. No, wait, we are on the theme. No, I mean, we're afraid of a lot of things, aren't we?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah.

Neal Arthur:

I don’t know why I'm asking you. But I guess so.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah, I mean we just sit around and worry all the time. That's kind of our job.

Neal Arthur:

We do.

Karl Lieberman:

Chief worriers.

Neal Arthur:

True. Yeah, we worry about a lot of things, but if we were to bubble it up it would be like probably complacency. It feels like that's the most, I know that, I'm sure that’s what most people would say … but the minute you feel like, “Okay, we got this,” you know you're in trouble. I think both about the industry, about the agency, about people. It's so easy to take stuff for granted. It's easier to be like, I think this is one of the things that we're about, we have such amazing talented people here. And we take pride in how much autonomy we give but at the same time, do they feel taken for granted? Did they feel like autonomy is what they want? Is that the thing that they're asking for at this point in time?

I don’t know. So I think we're just constantly kind of thinking about whether people feel the support and care that we try to give. I guess that's the [inaudible] we care a shit ton. But that doesn't mean people feel that way and it doesn't mean it doesn't get miscommunicated. It doesn't mean that we don't make mistakes. Or communicate in some way, shape or form something different than what we feel. If that makes any sense?

Charles:

Makes a lot of sense. What about you?

Karl Lieberman:

You know it's always going to regress to the mean, right so you spend every success means, “We've screwed something up.” So because of funny place, because you don't really celebrate the successes. You use them as a cue that something is going wrong, somewhere else. I remember we won an accolade earlier in the year and got the email with the article in it and I was like, "Oh god, okay. Let me read this article and hopefully I don't sound like a complete idiot." Read the article and I was like, "Hey, all right we actually sound, we didn't sound too dumb. That's cool. Okay I'm going to go to my next email." And it was like client's procurement person firing us. And you're just like, "Right, okay, that makes sense!" And that just [inaudible] realize is the ebb and flow of the place, is just constantly knowing that with it you kind of take a good thing and you're like, "Okay great, now what am I missing? What's next?"

So maybe that's a holistic fear.

Charles:

That life in fact is a zero sum game.

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah. Totally.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah. Totally.

Charles:

So every time we don't get killed crossing the street, something bad is really going to happen to us?

Neal Arthur:

Yeah. I think the only thing I would say is I think that anxiety, you often hear that anxiety is healthy, I think that anxiety is healthy. I think that our constant worry about whether we're in the best environment we can, is probably pretty useful. We didn't wake up with that. The alternative is we don't worry at all and you just kind of take the … Dan would call it the Mister Magoo approach, I don't think that would work for us.

I think that anxiety is pretty integral for us.

Charles:

I wrap every episode with three themes that I've heard. That in this case I think make your partnership successful, so I'll throw these out at you and then you can laugh at me.

The first actually, I'm not sure anybody has ever said this to me before, but the first one that strikes me is the fact that both of you are so committed to finding the truth. You talked about it through multiple dimensions but the truth sort of sits at the epicenter of both how your partnership works and at the success of this company, this office.

Second I think is that you are honest, both in terms of looking for the truth, but I also think in just in terms of how you show up. There is a straight-forwardness and an openness to both of you, that I think people are drawn to. And it gives people confidence that, maybe I don't like the answer all the time but I'm getting a straight answer.

And then I think third, and I increasingly, as I continue my own journey through my own work and through this podcast, this theme shows up more and more to me among the most successful leaders. You clearly care about other people, you care about their success. You are genuinely invested and interested and determined to help them achieve success. Because in doing so, not only you're fulfilling their potential but you're unlocking the potential of the company, as well.

Do those resonate with you?

Karl Lieberman:

Yeah.

Neal Arthur:

Yeah, definitely.

Karl Lieberman:

I think probably the toughest, worst part of this podcast is when you were asking us about our partnership. It felt a little weird. So I appreciate that you can sum up what we can't articulate.

Neal Arthur:

And if you're to say, if that's what we were known for that was on our shared tombstone, Karl, I think we'd take that all day. Yeah.

Charles:

Thank you both for being here. I really appreciate it.

Neal Arthur:

Thank you.

Karl Lieberman:

Thank you.

Neal Arthur:

That's awesome.