Are You Able to Enjoy the Pain?

by Heidi Ehlers

June 1, 2016

 

Excerpts from my conversation with DDB Worldwide’s CCO for my upcoming book Diary of a Creative Director: An exploration of the road to greatness.

 

I first knew that I wanted to interview Amir Kassaei, the chief creative officer of DDB Worldwide, in the summer of 2015. He had just issued a Wake-Up Call in Cannes; he was threatening that we should Do This or Die; he told us we were confusing technology with innovation, and, finally—in case anyone had failed to pay attention—punctuated these statements by telling us that we are Selling Shit to Ourselves.

 

How do you like him so far? Me too. After a June like that, can you imagine the conversation? Lots of in-your-face statements, plenty of unfiltered fearless thoughts, and the rarest of commodities in our industry—an opinion shared without any apparent consideration given to the potential consequences. In other words, courage.

 

When we sat down to conduct the Diary of a Creative Director interview in January of this year at FFWD: Advertising and Marketing Week in Toronto, Kassaei did not disappoint. In addition to what I expected, I met a man with an extraordinary amount of heart, conviction, passion for this business and an irrepressible need to speak his truth.


There was no stuttering or stammering or hesitation. Kassaei knows who he is, who he isn’t, and what he can and cannot do. He’s not making it up as he goes. You either buy in, or you don’t. He’ll keep going.

 

We spoke about the loneliness of leadership and in particular, a global role. “I think what a lot of people are underestimating is if you’re doing a global job like I’m doing, you’re alone. Eighty per cent of your business life, you’re alone. At the end of the day, you have to make decisions by yourself,” he told me. “Even if you’re consulting with a lot of people, you have to make a call—and these calls can be right or wrong, but you have to stand behind them.”


In Kassaei’s first creative job, he went from copywriter to executive creative director in record time. I wondered if he was aware of what had caused that sort of accelerated success. What traits did his employers see, and what did they like? “A crazy guy who doesn’t take a no for an answer and is fighting for the good ideas . . . and is crazy enough to do stuff that nobody else would do.”

 

Wasn’t he afraid to get fired? “No,” he said, “But that is my attitude even now. I can get fired every day, but that’s the great thing. I don’t.”


“Why not?” I asked.

 

“What does it mean to be a creative?” Kassaei started. “If you are a creative, you are a rebel, you are a rule breaker. You have to be rock and roll; otherwise you should not call yourself a creative. If you do not do crazy stuff that nobody else will do, you are not a creative.”

 

How many creatives do I know today that behave as if they believe that? Does this industry still have rule breakers? People prepared to get fired for what they believe in?

 

How many creative leaders are willing to get naked for the creative product? When Kassaei joined DDB Germany, it was hardly the kind of job anyone slapped you on the back for. First order of business was improving the culture. Everyone says that, but what specifically did Kassaei do? He put his nuts on the line. Literally. “I was betting my
account people that we can actually sell crazy ideas to the client. And they said, ‘Never ever, it will never happen.’” I said, ‘I’m going to try to sell the idea to the client. If I’m successful, you will be naked for a whole day at the office. And if I’m losing, I will be naked for the whole day in the office.’ I never lost a bet. But there were a lot of naked account people around.”


Towards the end of our conversation, I pressed him. I wanted him to give me some small, completely original nugget that I had never heard before. I could feel that he had it in him.

 

“So many people think they’re working so hard and they’re so passionate and they’re so talented, but they’re not sitting in that chair being interviewed by me,” I said to Kassaei. “What is that missing thing? What is the Big Bang that isn’t happening for them? Nobody in this industry thinks they’re coasting along. We are all working our asses off.”


He replied, “The question is, are you able to enjoy the pain? I don’t know a lot of people who enjoy the pain. You have to be able to come to a position where your body and your mind says, ‘It’s over. I cannot do it anymore.’ There are people who will stop then. But if you’re really trying to make a mark, you have to stick with it. You have to enjoy the pain. You have to push past it. You have to be there, you have to fight for it and then you will make it.”

 

Enjoying the pain.


I’d never heard it put that way before. It really is the dividing line between great leaders who call themselves Chief Shithead Officer (as Kassaei has done many times publicly), who will run head first (but never naked) into battle for their team and the creative product, and those “leaders” with very fancy titles, fancy cars and fancy golf club memberships, who will hide behind any and every excuse not to make the decisions everyone is waiting for them to make that will allow both their company and careers to flourish.

 

Amir Kassaei is not afraid to work. He’s not afraid to be unpopular. He’s not afraid to call shit shit. He’s not trying to be your best friend. He makes the right calls, not the popular calls. He’ll go counter current. He’s not afraid to get fired.

 

He’s got what I call Mental Toughness—one very important trait that anyone who wants to be successful needs to develop. And one our industry desperately needs more of.

 

Heidi Ehlers is the founder of HEIDI CONSULTS, a career consultancy for creative professionals and companies. Her book, Diary of a Creative Director, publishes this year (diaryofacreativedirector.com / heidiconsults.com).

 

"Are You Able to Enjoy the Pain?" appears in the May/June 2016 issue of Applied Arts, available on newsstands now. You can also subscribe with a print/digital combination, or purchase single digital copies on our virtual newsstand

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