Growing Pains - "A New Breed of Creative Leadership" with Joao Flores

April 19, 2022
Joao Flores, Regional Executive Creative Director at Media.Monks shares with us what it takes to develop creative leaders at scale

In this session of Growing Pains, we had alot of fun learning more about what it takes to build truly great creative teams. Joao Flores (Regional Executive Creative Director at Media.Monks) shares fascinating insights with Momo Estrella (NewCampus Dean's Council) about his personal journey, the creative industry’s evolution over the past two decades and how to build, motivate and scale creative excellence on a regional level.

What we covered in this conversation:

  1. From professional football player to being an advertising creative
  2. Evolving as a global creative leader
  3. Creative industry shifts from media-oriented to experience-oriented mindset
  4. Structuring teams that give people space to be themselves
  5. Team design as a source of competitive advantage
  6. Listening for potential to identify reward systems that work
  7. Ego as a powerful force for good
  8. Bringing creativity back to the boardroom


Momo: Hello and good morning! My name is Momo and I'm an adviser at NewCampus, a new business school in South Asia that is trying to make modern leadership more accessible to everybody. 

Today with me, I have a good friend of mine, Joao Flores. He's the Regional Executive Creative Director at Media.Monks. As you may know, Media.Monks is a global creative production company that partners with clients and industries to produce great work. It's originally a Dutch company from 2011, and now it's managed by Sir Martin Sorrell through S4. It's in over 30 countries, and now it's a compendium of nearly a dozen companies.  

Today, I'm super excited to welcome you Joao. I would love to give you a couple of minutes to just tell us a brief story of who you are and why it is so exciting for you to be where you are right now.   

Joao: Thank you so much. I'm really excited to be here. It's early in the morning, but it's very exciting. So thank you so much and thank you for the nice introduction about Media.Monks. I'll tell you a little bit more later. 

1. From professional football player to being an advertising creative

Joao: Let's start from the beginning. Something interesting about me, which is unique, I would say, is that I was a football player. I was a professional football player. Not many people know that, but it's part of my story and I'm Portuguese. So being Portuguese, football is part of our culture, and I grew up as a professional football player. I played in Benfica, the national team, all of that. I never had quite a realisation or an ambition to do anything else but there was always something quite frustrated inside of me. While you grow up as a teenager, you don't understand what that is.

Connecting the dots with Media.Monks, I gave a last chance to my career when I was like 22 or 23 years old and I went to Holland to play football, so I speak a little bit of that too. I went to Holland, played football and I had an epiphany there. Until you actually have it, you don't know what it is. Everything stopped and in that moment, I decided - I'm going to stop doing this. Creativity, imagination, it's just always been my drive. Philosophy, photography, cinema. I was 23 years old. I decided I would stop doing this. I'm going to be a creative in advertising.  

Today, I can still say I'm 42, I have a 20 year old daughter, but the happiest day of my life is still today, the first day that I entered (inaudible) in Portugal. It was arriving at a place that completely makes sense to me. That's really where it starts, my journey. A lot of my experience, not only as a leader but as a creative, comes definitely from my journey. 

2. Evolving as a global creative leader

Joao: I went into a couple of Portuguese agencies from Ogilvy, BBDO, and then I started becoming a leader in 2 hot shops in Portugal, Bar and Niu, but when everything really start to open up for me or the thoughts really started to connect was around 2010, when I went to Cheil, a (inaudible) agency.  

I have a joke that works really well in Korea, which is, I say with all my heart that I'm the only creative in the world that loved working at Cheil. I absolutely loved it. Joe is a massive impact on my life. The reason for that is because you go from being very boxed that I always felt in my profession as a creative to a complete realm of possibilities, with Cheil. In 2010, a photo in your hand - everything starts here. It's all about the screens and all those things. 

What's next? All of the propositions that Samsung was kind of pushing forward was absolutely incredible, and I was Creative Director of Portugal and Spain, so I was always travelling around. To this conversation as well, I saw the growth of Cheil in Europe, and I was part of that process. It was absolutely incredible being part of that regional ecosystem. So this has been really an interesting journey. 

And then from Cheil, the world just opened up to me, not only the world of creativity and the realm of things I can do as a creative, but also what leadership means, what is actually a global culture, how can you be part of that global culture. It's really interesting. From there, I went to Dubai. A couple of years went by. 

FCB 2015, when FCB started, Susan Credle became the Global CCO and all. It had me first thinking it was absolutely incredible again. I've joked a lot saying when I was in Cheil, Cheil rebranded. We went to FCB, FCB rebranded. I came to Dentsu, then it rebranded. I came to Media.Months and six months ago we rebranded. So that is something happening here . 

Momo: It's following you. I see the pattern.

Joao: I don't believe in luck, but I believe that I am privileged. I am very grateful for that journey.

3. Creative industry shifts from media-oriented to experience-oriented mindset

Momo: That's great. Thank you for sharing that. I think to me, rebranding is almost a version of reinvention, right? It's like companies can reinvent themselves, people can reinvent themselves. 

I have a question. At NewCampus we often try to focus on skill sets that help people to navigate, to impact, to understand, to influence modern organisations. We've seen a lot of shifts, a lot of changes happening in different (inaudible). 

In your case, what are some of the biggest changes that you've seen in your industry - in the creative landscape? What are some of those things that you think are very different today from what they were?  

Joao: It's this thread. I explain it in a very simple way. We used to think and we used to have a very media-driven approach. Right now it's a very experience-driven approach. It was incredibly executional. It was driven by a format, doesn't matter what that format was - a website, a TVC, a post, radio or an event. It was very driven by the format itself.  

Everything we do right now is about experience, that experience that just opens up possibilities to the journeys of people and to connect with people. I feel that is the biggest change that I've seen. I do feel when we think about what clients actually want, it does feel like that. Of course, they all go after the hot shots. Things I remember when dotcom became a thing, when Facebook became a thing, when the fans became a thing. Now everyone is about NFTs and metaverse. Like, for God's sake, people come on. 

I feel they have 2 clear opposites in what triggers them and what really motivates brands and clients. Actually, I feel creatives as well should be triggered by those 2 because they are directly connected. One of them is business as usual done really well. Be better, be smarter, be more efficient, be more creative. It doesn't matter if it is an EDM or if it is a content film or if it is a website or an app or just something to connect it like a chatbot, it doesn't matter what it is. It needs to be done really, really well. This ensures the trust, and that's very much Media.Monks,  actually. One of our star propositions is we do this better than anyone.  

And then the other opposite is completely different, which is imagine different. They live in these two extremes. Opposite of do this really well, build the trust, you build a foundation. We always have this expression with the foundation. And now imagine different. It's a very privileged place to be, I would say, to just have the trust of the client to then do everything we wish we could do every day.  

Momo: Yeah, that's fantastic. Super interesting. It's relatable to some extent. Many other industries look at it even in a similar way, trying to achieve a balance between discovery and delivery. Similar, as you said, like business as usual executed really, really well. And then imagine something radically new and different. So very interesting. I love the shift that you mentioned going from media-based to more experiential-based. 

4. Structuring teams that give people space to be themselves

Momo: What are maybe the skill sets that are necessary to then structure creative teams on this shift? How does that change how you hire? How does that change how you think? What's the role of talent here and how has that shift affected you? 

Joao: Thank you for that. Specifically for us, but I feel I even can share a little with my personal experience. My personal experience has been all about the culture and understanding the new zeigeist, the new culture or where you are and understanding the culture. But there is definitely an energy play right now. We work at scale. It's full on collaborative. I use the expression flying the plane and building the plane at the same time. If you don't have that energy to collaborate,  the richness of diversity that we have today in the world of globalisation - we are everywhere - you really need to be interested in collaborating with others.  

For me, it's definitely the culture, to answer you very strictly, to give space to people to be themselves. Specifically, when you talk about markets in Asia, you need to give space to create their own subcultures. That's actually the rebrand of Media.Monks. It was to create this aggregation of all the companies mentioned and others that's going to join. But then everything becomes Social Monks, Data Monks, Korea Monks, Malaysian Monks, Australian Monks and create what we call the subcultures. If you think about it from a society point of view, it's exactly what it is. 

You give them the voice and we play on the strengths, and I cannot relate more with this. I'm a Portuguese, globalist by nature. These are traits of the Portuguese. You go to a place. You adapt, you understand them, then you add value. This is the answer for all Portuguese anywhere in the world, the capability to adapt and add value. I feel that's exactly what you need to do when you are scaling teams, specifically in markets in Asia. 

Momo: Yeah, that makes sense. A follow up question to that. I love how you portray this. Of course, I mean, I know quite a bit about Media.Monks so I know how you guys are set. I love the idea of having these multiple almost like tribes, different groups. That creates a very interesting sense of togetherness, yet allowing everybody to have almost their own identity within the organisation. It's like jazz - together, but on our own sort of thing. 

Joao: I'm going to quote you on that. 

5. Team design as a source of competitive advantage

Momo: Sure! I heard it somewhere, I'm sure. I don't know where. But I imagine one of the challenges may also be creating these new types of integrated thinkers. So how do you balance having your own space, your own domain or your own function, versus being integrated. What do you think is necessary for people to get to this kind of integrative thinking? And what is the advantage it gives you?

Joao: Well, talent is everywhere. It's really playing on strengths and finding where their talent is. That's key specifically for us in Asia. There's this interest of understanding, for instance, if you think about China or Singapore, they're more tech savvy. If you think about Vietnam, it's more technology-driven. If you think about Malaysia or Korea and Japan, they're more design and craft. India or Thailand, more film driven. So you understand the strengths. That's incredibly important, to understand the strengths you have, then you bring them together. For us, the way to bring them together - I don't know if you know the concept of the imagineers of Disney, basically bringing imagination and engineering together. I would say that's basically Media.Monks, but we call it the human craft. You just bring the human side of leadership. What you're thinking, conceptualisation, experience-driven and then you bring the craft. You bring the engineers, you bring the technical aspect and we call it the expert matters to deliver what he needs to be delivered. 

There are always these three pillars of local leadership, regional support, global expertise - this trio of experts in what they do and how you bring them together. I normally say, for me, the most fascinating thing is watching people in different worlds, in different cultures come together. And specifically for us it is really understanding that, and it's one of the selling propositions, we don't put anything on a deck that we do not know how to do. Feasibility test, from the prototyping to the innovation, to then bringing it actually to life is where we bring these two worlds of human - the old human first thinking - and then the craft, and the maker and the attitude to deliver, in culture. It's extremely important to do that. Find talent. Play the strengths. Bring it together to a human journey. 

Momo: Yeah, super interesting. I think it eventually becomes a competitive advantage - how you work, how you communicate, how you get things done. When you have your own flavour, your own take on how maybe you structure teams or facilitate working processes, the skillset that people build in this environment, although they are transferable to other places, these skill sets  play at their best within this company. 

It's actually a great retention strategy as well. Having a very clear way of working together helps people to stay there. This is probably particularly more important in the creative industry, of course. I was also in the creative industry so I know the challenges of attracting and retaining talent as well. 

6. Listening for potential to identify reward systems that work

Momo: My next question was a little bit on to that. You yourself, through your career, but also Media.Monks, you have a unique approach to nurturing creative talent from within, especially within Media.Monks. So in light of these new cultural shifts that we're seeing because of COVID - the great resignation, or the rise of anti-work on Reddit, what's your take on that? What do you think organisations can do to navigate this complexity? It's a delicate, complex topic, but I'm curious, what's your take on that?  

Joao: Thank you for that question. I'm going to answer in a very simple way: Listen. Add on a layer, which is an active tool that all our creative leaders are applying. We actually have leadership and coaching sessions for our senior leaders to do what we call "listening for potential". What that means is really give the voice to our teams. I can give you an example of what we are currently doing. We are doing under 30 grassroots sessions where basically we are trying to listen: what it means to you working in creativity, what it means to you, an office space, what it means to you and the work you do, what it means to you, a salary, what it means to be a promotion. It's interesting that the rewarding system that was a rewarding system of 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it's definitely not the rewarding system of younger generations. This whole exercise and active tool of listening for potential basically allow us to to give voice, empower our younger talent and we expose them. We put them in front of clients. They are enablers of the process and the culture within the company.  

But I would say, after you listen, we really need to take action into the things we are listening from and definitely find the rewards system that applies to them. To be honest, to creatives, even more sometimes is individual. We are, as we speak, doing kind of an evaluation of people as well, and it's almost like individual reward systems. There are three or four common threads from travel, collaboration, be exposed to different teams, be able to go from a UX team to an animation team. So it's really interesting. But listen, listen for potential. Then apply the right reward system to get people excited and owning the things they are doing. 

7. Ego as a powerful force for good

Momo: Interesting. Thank you for sharing, I agree with you. That's a very interesting approach and I love how you started with the simplicity of being able to listen, and I think that's very important. There's a lot of noise right now, with a lot of obviously complicated matters happening in the world. But I think our ability to distinguish it from (inaudible) and an ability to listen better to each other. I think that's the beginning of a lot of good things. Thank you for that. 

I have one question with two questions, I don't know how to describe it. I want to hear your take on blindspots. What do you think are the blind spots, things that maybe people were not ready for when they just became a manager in the creative industry? Within the vein of blind spots as well, I would love to hear what you think are blind spots that creative leaders have right now in the current industry.

Joao: I say quite often to creative leaders that when people die, they have one place to go. When a creative dies, we have two - it's us and our ego. That's the biggest blindspot for a creative leader. My simple take is: It's not about you. It's never about you. It's about them, your teams. When a leader comes to me and says, "Ah, we shouldn't do this project because...", it's not about you, it's about your team. When a creative leader is complaining about some type of client or some project, it's not about you, it's about your team. I feel for creatives, the biggest blind spot we have - it's ego. What we need to do as leaders is really, because there is power in ego - there is confidence and trust--  

Momo: You can use it. You can articulate the use of it, I feel, in ways that make sense sometimes. But it can also be, as you said, damaging.  

Joao: Exactly. So when we use them for others, it's powerful. I feel specifically when you are scaling, as we are, and you are going from a team of nine to a team of twenty five in three months, or you go from a team of one to a team of six, or two team - the scale is so much. If you are not paying attention to others and to your teams, it will not work. I think that's a lens that we pivot and we create systems by design to make the leaders pay attention to their teams often, weekly conversations, tools, frameworks, the way they manage the process, the way they empower them, by design. That's for me, the key takeaway.  

8. Bringing creativity back to the boardroom

Momo: That's amazing. Thank you so much Joao. I would love to close just by giving you a chance to tell us what you are excited about for yourself this year. What's something that is keeping you up at night in excitement and something that are you looking forward to?  

Joao: That's a good one. Look, I have a mission in life, honestly. Actually, it connects to the first or the second question you asked about the changes I've seen. I went through 2008 as a creative. 2008 with the economic crisis. At that point, creativity lost its plot. We started being little (inaudible) and we became purely executional as creatives. It was very frustrating to me. So for a while now, my biggest mission in life is to bring creativity back to the boardroom. What keeps me awake at night is really being in the decision making, giving voice to creativity and making sure our teams understand creativity means, have our leaders prepared to be on in a business meeting, have a proper business impact - what means bring creativity to the world. Something that did not change, is the value of creativity. That's the currency that makes the difference. So definitely it's being on those moments, being part of the decisions, being able to add value. Like I said it's Portuguese, adapting and adding value is always a key. For me, that's my mission in life, literally. That's what we bring to every team. 

Momo: It's awesome. Thank you so much for sharing. Joao, I really appreciate your time. I hope you have a lovely Friday. Enjoy! 

Thank you everybody for joining us. This was Joao Flores from Media.Monks. My name is Momo from NewCampus. Thanks again and I'll be seeing you around.  

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