The AWARD Creative Leadership course has earnt an enviable reputation for preparing creatives and writers for leadership roles. So, when we heard about the latest promotion at Cummins&Partners we were not surprised. Here’s our interview with newly promoted creative director and course alumni, Mandie van der Merwe.

TCC: How long have you been in the industry and in your current role?

Mandie: I’ve worked in the industry for 15 years. For the last two (or so) years I’ve led creative teams and projects at Cummins&Partners Sydney. Just under a year ago I was officially given the title of creative director at the agency.

TCC: What is the best thing about your job and being in the industry?

Mandie: I went to a school of the arts where, for half the day, we would sculpt, draw or paint. In essence half of my life was dedicated to the pursuit of creativity. Today I am privileged enough to be creative all the time. And I get paid for it!

The thing I never quite considered when I started out was what a powerful economic tool creativity could be; we get to solve problems for clients on a daily basis purely with ingenuity and creativity. And if we do it well, we can transform businesses. I really get a kick out of the
fact that something as intangible as a creative thought can end up as something as real as a
business result.

TCC: What made you want to get into the industry?

Mandie: I wanted to study fine arts. My parents wanted me to study something that paid a salary or, at the very least, marry someone rich. We compromised. I’m unmarried and make ads now.

TCC: Who do you look up to in the industry?

Mandie: I’ve been very lucky to work with some great people in my career. But I would say the person I look up to most is Avish Gordhan. We’ve been in a relationship for almost 16 years now – 13 of those as creative partners. There’s a lot of talk about female empowerment in this industry. But Avish has put that talk into action for years and years. It’s inspirational to work with a person who doesn’t need to follow an example – he sets it.

TCC: What made you want to do the AWARD Creative Leadership course?

Mandie: I’ve always found it strange that people assume great creatives will make great creative leaders. Some of the best creatives I’ve worked with were terrible creative directors. The job fundamentally changes when you become a CD and you need to realise quickly that the role evolves from just coming up with ideas. The AWARD Creative Leadership course is the only one of its kind that acknowledges that shift and gets down to all aspects of leadership in a creative environment.

TCC: How would you describe it in a nutshell?

Mandie: This was easily the most useful bit of training I’ve had in many years. You will learn things you didn’t know you had to learn. You will leave feeling more confident and totally amped about what you do. In fact, you will end up, like me, shamelessly marketing the course to people next year.

TCC: What have been your career highlights since then?

Mandie: I was involved in a campaign called ‘Stop the Horror’ with Go Gentle Australia. The campaign helped pass a Voluntary Assisted Dying law in Victoria. It’s the type of work that leaves you profoundly affected (dare I say, slightly scarred from the highly emotional content of the subject). I became deeply vested in the cause and the result. When the law passed, it was a moment of absolute relief. It’s such an honour to have worked on a job that has helped change State law and given a compassionate solution to people in unbearable pain.

TCC: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?

Mandie: When I started working in advertising I was really timid; I hardly said a word. I would be afraid to ask questions and I got other people to present my ideas. Anyone who knows me now will burst out laughing when they hear that.

My biggest learning has been speaking up. I like to think that my job is to have an opinion that I believe in and to convince others to believe in it too. That doesn’t mean being pushy or arrogant. In fact it’s the exact opposite.

Become the uncoolest person in the agency and start asking questions that may make you look and feel like an idiot. Because without clarity and understanding you cannot convince a person to buy what you’re selling. And (no offence intended) briefs don’t have all the understanding you need. It’s impossible that the brevity required in a good brief will give you the understanding and depth to fix a problem. But if you can extract the right understanding and use all of that to beat the problem over and over again with creative solutions, eventually it will break. Violent. But true. Ask questions. Speak up. Be resilient.

TCC: What sort of creative do you think you’ve evolved into?

Mandie: The annoyingly positive kind. I’ve always believed in the power of ideas. But now we have so many more ways of shaping these ideas into life. We are free from the shackles of traditional advertising but we understand all the emotional levers to get people to respond. That, in combination with what’s happening in the tech world and with the wealth of data at our fingertips, means my mind is literally blown. It’s never been a better time to make the best work of your life.

TCC: What’s your passion outside of work?

Mandie: I get teased that I have too many extramural activities. I’m a curious being. So I end up doing loads of stuff like plunging myself 30m into the ocean (even though I’m claustrophobic), doing pottery and taking golfing lessons. Currently, my days end by planning a workshop that aims to get more people from different cultural backgrounds into the industry in an attempt to make our agencies reflect the population of Australia better. Oh, I also crochet. So if you need a doily…

AWARD Creative Leadership Course

Sydney, 27-29 May 2018

Exclusive only to The Communications Council corporate members, the AWARD Creative Leadership course is back in 2018 by popular demand. This three-day residential is Australia’s only custom-designed course for aspiring creative leaders and features guest talks by industry trailblazers.

In 2016 and 2017, nearly 50 per cent of past delegates were promoted to leadership roles within a year of completion.