SUCCESSION TO SUCCESS: SEBASTIAN TURNER PUTS CREATIVITY FIRST
Sebastian Turner is Publisher and Shareholder at Tagesspiegel, one of the initiators behind the Berlin School – and an alumnus of the very first Executive MBA class. Throughout the story of his career, from high school publications to widely read broadsheets, he has witnessed first-hand the value of creativity as a driver of business success and the importance of investing in a sustainable leadership future, both in the creative industries and further afield.
“I am a self-made entrepreneur. When I was a teenager, I began running a high school newspaper which grew to serve the city of Stuttgart with a circulation of 20,000. When I graduated, I handed over this publication, and started a new publication aimed at those who make the newspapers – people like myself. This was called Medium. Today it is the largest journalism trade journal in Germany.
By the time I had served in the army and finished University in the U.S., the wall had come down, and I moved East. Without any experience but two friends, I launched my first agency in Dresden – which later became Scholz & Friends. This eventually became the biggest independent agency in Europe. A decade later, I became Speaker of the Board of the Art Director’s Club.”
During my two terms as Speaker of the Board at ADC, I presented two main ideas. The first was my belief that increasingly, creativity had become a driving force for business, and that we had to become better at communicating this. During this time, I first met Michael Conrad, already a hero in the creative industries. He was turning the US advertising industry on its head in the most German way possible with his understanding that “you treasure what you measure”. From this saying came his approach to make creativity “measurable”. If we make It measurable, we can make it sustainable, recognise its impact on business success, and make it an important consideration during key moments such as succession.
A Creative School is Born
The second big idea which I presented to the members at ADC was that we should start a management training program, an Executive MBA, for Creative Leaders. This was to be aimed at outstanding creatives. The idea was not to tell them how to improve their creative work, but to give them the structure and skills to lead a business; to lead creative excellence at scale. The idea went down well at ADC and I soon reached out to Michael Conrad to join in developing the project. He didn’t only develop it, but reshaped it into a global project. My initial proposal was to work with universities to encourage them to introduce new creative leadership programs. But Michael suggested we needed to build it on a global scale. And from here the idea of a flexible, global Executive MBA program was born.
How to Secure a Creative Future
By this time, Scholz & Friends had started to grow significantly, with offices popping up all over Europe. As a creative director, I had never worked in several kitchens across a continent at once – I can’t! so I began to study and apply Michael Conrad’s system of measuring creativity in my own organization to empower the right kind of leadership to keep all cooks in all kitchens operating.
My own background was in leading one office, everything and everybody within walking distance. Without a strategy to lead at scale, then a company is really restricted to the time and supervision capacity of its leader. Using Michael Conrad’s technique of measuring creativity, I was able to expand to a staff of around 1,000. But even this was limited. Scholz & Friends was a company of outstanding creative talents, but not to the same scale of entrepreneurs. There is a big difference between leading an idea and leading people, and many creative companies are ruined by leaders who are good at leading a product but not at leading companies themselves. We needed leadership that could do both.
The question was, how could I make sure that succession was sustainable while ensuring the level of creative excellence? Most creative professionals can create – they can nurture creative ideas. But many lack the structure to step up into a succession role. This is where education is important – to provide them with the skills to run a business as well as keep creative vision alive.
Schooling the Successors
When the Berlin School eventually opened its doors, I joined the first class, and I soon recognised the value of investing in this level of executive education, not just for myself but for the future leaders of my company. Soon after, I sponsored two employees, Matthias Schmidt and Matthias Spaetgens, to join consecutive classes. In 2008, when I eventually moved from the executive board to the supervisory board, I had a very capable succession team, ready to lead the company and bring it to a new level, not only with a high level of creative excellence but with a deep understanding of business complexity. And I could safely sell my shares.
Anyone buying a creative company knows the term ‘walking asset’ – it describes the key people of the company and makes it difficult or even impossible to sell a business. At Scholz & Friends, as in any other creative business, it was key to make evident, that there is a strong leadership team that is capable to successfully run the business, even when the CEO is walking away after the sale. The Berlin School-trained successors of mine promised to perform like this. Today, ten years later, it is evident. Scholz & Friends is still flourishing and among the most successful agencies in Germany.
The Creative Ranks
Running a creative business you have to balance the urgent and the important. These things will always exist. Developing future leaders may not be urgent, but it’s certainly important, and looking at the trajectory of Scholz & Friends, measuring creativity has been vital to this. It leads me to ask, how can I convince people that creativity is vital to driving business? How do I get people to look at measuring creativity, the way that they look at the stock market?
Even before I joined the board at ADC, ranking creativity was already a familiar concept because of the Gunn Report. Even though traditional advertising with a more clinical, A-Z approach do still exist, we can clearly see that creative advertising is more effective. So, how do we make succession sustainable for creative businesses? In my opinion, as a leader, if you don’t invest in creative excellence, you’re betraying your investors and your shareholders. Educational investment should be part of any expansion or succession plan. And you have to combine it with a clear core vision and simple principals that are easy to communicate and easy to pass on.
Celebrate Creative Thinking in Every Field
I’m now in charge of Tagesspiegel, applying the same mentality in a very challenging market, and it’s working. While the print world is under a huge amount of strain, we are a creative company with a growing circulation. Our creativity is measurable through new products and innovative thinking. The principle of running a creative company comes down to leadership.
And we’re also applying this principle elsewhere. Public service professionals make up a large portion of Tagesspiegel readership. As is to be expected in such a public-facing industry, their own pursuits and failings – investments, closures, forecasts – appear in the news daily, and are open to constant scrutiny. One day, I thought, “this cannot be healthy for the industry.” And so, this year, we launched the first Creative Bureaucracy Festival celebrating creative thinking in public services. Our mission to change the mentality in the field, by measuring and rewarding creative excellence in an industry where you might not expect to find it.
Looking at the evolution of Scholz & Friends and Tagesspiegel, as well as the organizations we engage with, I’ve seen that measuring, rewarding, and empowering creativity is crucial. Succession is the single most important challenge of evolving in an organization. But it’s not just a matter of finding someone with great business leadership skills. They must embrace the company’s craft, vision, culture, and creative pedigree. When business leaders wonder whether they should invest in creative leadership education, what they are really asking is, ‘how can I secure the future of my company?’