After a stint in advertising, Lord David Puttnam had a 30-year career producing films such as The Killing Fields, Local Hero, Chariots of Fire and Midnight Express. Since retiring from the film industry he has been active in public policy relating to the environment, education, creativity and communications. He is currently chair of Atticus Education, an online education company in Ireland that delivers interactive seminars on film and other subjects to educational institutions worldwide.
David Mayo, CEO of Bates CHI&Partners, talked with Puttnam about education, Puttnam's time as an ad man, the nature of creativity, the agency business and collaboration in creative endeavours.
Mayo: You are a huge champion of education. You gave up film to spread the word. Why?
Puttnam: I left school with only a handful of what were then called ‘O’ (or ordinary) levels—in my case they were very ordinary! Yet probably as much by luck as by judgment, I’ve managed to carve out a decent career for myself, and even more importantly in a job, or more accurately a number of jobs, that I’ve really loved. My own schooling was not an enormous success. I was undoubtedly what today would be regarded as an 'academic failure'.
It was only having left school that I discovered a real love of learning, at what in those days we used to call ‘night school’. I have to say that turned out to be a very stupid thing to have done; because if you think school can be difficult, just try applying for a 'boy wanted' job in a newspaper that involved working all day and then going to school! I can honestly say that I spent the four years, from 17 to 21, in a permanent state of exhaustion. I was never able to go out and enjoy myself because I was too busy trying to ‘catch-up’ on what I’d missed out on at school! That’s probably why, ever since, I've been a kind of learning ‘freak’; having found it all but impossible to stop reading and acquiring every scrap of knowledge and experience I possibly could.
And that’s almost certainly the reason I’ve spent the past 20 years of my life increasingly involved in helping to promote respect, and a greater level of interest, in the standards of education throughout the world.
Mayo: Can you teach creativity or are you born with it?
Puttnam: I am not sure you can teach it, but you can nurture it through leadership. Let me offer you an example. In any creative or innovative enterprise you cannot simply measure yourself against traditional concepts of ‘accountability’. Everything moves too quickly, there are just too many crucial decisions to make in too short a period of time.
So any serious leader or ‘entrepreneur’ will quickly find themselves working principally on the basis of trust—not accountability. It’s certainly my experience that an obsession with accountability strangles the will to live, let alone the will to adapt and change! It also invariably strangles imagination and, with it, genuine creativity—which for me is typified by originality and flair. So you need to innately trust creative people, and that will help them to deliver their best results.
Mayo: Describe the types of people you feel are best suited to work in the future of our new connected world.
Puttnam: I would make a broader point in relation to this. Again it’s a point about the role of employers. Something strangely ‘counter-intuitive’ has been happening over the past few years, because even the most successful employers I talk to appear oddly reluctant to go out of their way to develop the talents and confidence of the next generation, most particularly through responsible programmes of delegation.
And yet everything I’ve learned in my career tells me that commitment, delegation and trust lie at the heart of any successful enterprise—creative or otherwise.
I’ve always believed that absorbing responsibility should, in turn, carry with it an obligation to share one's learning, through teaching or simply networking, so that people starting out, in the middle or even at the end of their careers, have the opportunity to make the very most of their own talents.
It's about letting them find out what they are capable of, in an environment, rather like the one I enjoyed at CDP [ad agency Collet Dickinson Pearce], within which you are actively encouraged to be fearless. And that’s increasingly true in environments in which 'change' can easily outstrip the ambitions of those who are foolish enough to believe they constantly have their finger on the pulse.
Mayo: You were an ad man right at the beginning. You lived the golden age of Collet Dickinson Pearce. What and who made that agency special? Why?
Puttnam: CDP served me brilliantly because I found myself working with a number of quite extraordinary people, most of them in the creative department. The most significant of these was the creative director, a rather tyrannical taskmaster named Colin Millward. But it was he who taught me more than anyone I ever met, and he did it in a most unusual way. I’d take a piece of work into his office for approval and he’d sit and nibble at his nails for a bit and then, in his thick Yorkshire accent say, ‘It’s not very good, is it?’ and I’d say ‘Isn’t it?’ and he’d say ‘No, it’s not very good at all.’ And I’d ask ‘What don’t you like about it?’ ‘You work it out son. Take it away and do it again. Bring it back tomorrow.’
I’d leave his office and go back and just stare at the bloody ad. Then I’d calm down a bit and talk it over with a copywriter, or one of the art directors, and we’d sit around feeling sorry for ourselves, roundly cursing the source of our pain at the other end of the corridor. Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 Colin Millward was right; and we would end up producing something significantly better the following day.
A few years later I said to him, ‘You know, you were a real bastard to work for. I don’t remember you ever giving us much in the way of direction, let alone encouragement.’ ‘No’, he said, ‘I did something a bloody sight more valuable; I taught you to become self-critical, and to work things out for yourself’. And it was true, he had. And in doing so he’d taught all of us an early and very important lesson: "That which is merely competent, or even good, is only a point of departure; it is seldom, if ever, a point of arrival”.
Mayo: What do you think agencies and the people who work inside them today could learn from CDP, and how does digital technology and social enablement enhance or inhibit that?
Puttnam: In my last couple of years at CDP, as a so-called 'group head', I was lucky to be assigned a new copywriter, in the shape of a 22-year-old named Charles Saatchi, and a few months later the even younger Alan Parker, together with Ridley Scott put in their appearance—and I found myself trying to manage the hottest, youngest and far and away the most fractious team in town.
A great deal has been written about it, and it’s largely true, the mid-1960s was an amazing period, typified by the fact that everything and anything seemed possible. There was never a sense that any problem could be allowed to defeat us. That’s a lot less true today. In fact, if these past 16 years in politics has taught me any one thing, it's that the stultifying grip of the 'status quo' is ever present, being primarily driven by fear, and that you have to punch very hard to achieve the type of traction you need to effect real and lasting change.
That is true even in a digital environment, where all too often incumbents represent a significant barrier to change—even when change clearly will deliver huge benefits. Or to borrow a quote I heard used in the context of education “creating change is a little like attempting to move a graveyard—you shouldn't expect any help from the incumbents!"
Mayo: The way films are made relies on a collaboration of skills bought together by a producer. Wouldn't it be easier if all the skills existed inside one company that made films all the time? What does collaboration bring to the table?
Puttnam: This is essentially the model of the Hollywood studios where production and distribution are integrated but the studios are 'distribution-led', in the sense that they are focused, right the way through, on the most effective way to ensure the film reaches its intended audience.
The independent production model is much more challenging because you have to pre-finance the film, usually by licensing rights, territory by territory, to different distributors, each of whom may market the film in a somewhat different way.
This is one of the reasons that the studio model has proved so resilient over many decades, although of course independent production companies have produced many films that have delighted audiences.