Thought Leadership

‘Always ask the ‘stupid’ question’

Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London is here to solve your workplace problems as BITE’s new agony aunt.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“I wish I had known that I should never pretend to know things but that it is always ok to ask the ‘stupid’ questions, especially at the beginning of my career.”

Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London is sharing why she is launching an advice column on the cusp of this once in a generation opportunity to reshape the workplace for the better. “It gives people the opportunity to ask things that they might otherwise not feel comfortable doing with their bosses. If we could all be more open to asking and answering questions then I think it would make us better practitioners, more adaptable, more open to challenge and to be better leaders,” she explains.

Better leaders are crucial if the industry is to build back better in the wake of the pandemic; a shift which could arguably be more effective if as an industry we asked ourselves better questions. “Some of the reasons that we as an industry haven’t changed is likely down to the fact that we haven’t opened ourselves up to these questions and challenges and asked them of ourselves,” says Dilger.

This is a particularly pressing issue in the wake of ‘the great resignation’ in a people-focused industry ensuring those people are happy and engaged is vital. Arguably as we navigate the fresh demands of a hybrid working world it is all too easy for little problems to fester and flourish into seemingly insurmountable challenges. Or for creative people to sleepwalk into a creative crisis of confidence by not opening up on challenges which may in fact be almost universal. 

If we could all be more open to asking and answering questions then I think it would make us better practitioners, more adaptable, more open to challenge and to be better leaders.

Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London

Tackling the creative crisis of confidence

The thoughtful and articulate Dilger is acutely aware of these challenges and recognises that hybrid working can sometimes mean important questions remain unsaid and therefore unanswered. “Questioning is a core skill in planning and strategy and we should promote it more. It helps us better define problems and to challenge conventions,” she explains.

This is the ethos which sits at the heart of Dilger's desire to carve out the time to help industry professionals with their problems. “My hope with this column is that it gives people the opportunity to ask things that they might not feel comfortable raising with their boss or their peers.”

It is an open-hearted and open-minded ethos which she hopes will contribute to a more transparent industry ecosystem. An environment which regardless of level will help to make people better practitioners, more adaptable and more open to challenge. A compelling reminder that the best leaders prioritise listening. 

Dilger is uniquely placed to bring a nuanced approach to any challenge, having worked both brand side and agency side. She has worked at brands such as Cadbury and agencies including Ogilvy, VCCP and TBWA\London and so has a nuanced approach to the challenges of building a compelling creative career.

Levelling up young talent

Notably, as we emerge from the pandemic there is a specific challenge in ensuring that young talent feels connected to the industry. As Dilger notes this is something the industry could invest more time and energy in. 

“It feels like the advertising and creative industries have a bit of an image problem which we aren’t really addressing,” says Dilger. The irony of an industry which is built on building brand reputation not doing enough to invest and communicate its own brilliance is not lost on her. 

She is equally nuanced on ensuring that young people don’t feel like they have to be ‘100% billable from the second they arrive in the industry’. Indeed, learning and development is crucial to retaining young talent and helping people reach their true potential. 

“We need to have a commitment as agencies to train and develop people,” says Dilger. She points to research from Commercial Break, an organisation focused on increasing working class representation in the creative and marketing industries, which underlines the challenges of entering and progressing within such an informality of the advertising industry. “In advertising, you are very lucky if you get feedback or an appraisal once a year,” explains Dilger. 

The power of clarity

She believes that clarity is crucial; whether that is about progression, progress or language. “In advertising, it is often expected that people will automatically know what a tissue session is. People are supposed to fit in and just automatically understand,” says Dilger.  

This is a particular challenge in a hybrid working world, where young talent can’t simply learn from listening. Although arguably, in an era in which an unscheduled phone call is akin to turning up unannounced at your co-worker’s house, this is increasingly problematic as a substitute for a rigorous learning and development programme regardless. 

Yet Dilger remains a massive proponent of picking up the phone rather than defaulting to email or instant messaging. “It’s so important in client facing roles, I find it is genuinely harder to be so critical over the phone rather than a fired off email where it becomes more transactional.”  

Honesty drives growth 

Dilger believes that communication and absolute honesty are crucial to building good client and agency relationships. “There are times when you feel as a client that you aren’t being told the whole truth. Yet agency side there are times when you feel clients are hiding around someone else’s feedback.”

The answer to this problem is clear to Dilger: embracing the power of honesty. “Honesty breeds trust; it is a relationship which needs to be invested in. It's important that you care about the personal lives of your clients, investing in understanding the person behind the client or colleague is important.” 

This innate curiosity and understanding of people underpins much of Dilger’s work. “The reality is we have a really finite amount of time; but we think about work in the shower, on the nursery pick up, that’s where the ideas come from.” 

She shares that the best ideas she has ever had have been on the ‘edge’ of a creative process. Those conversations sparked when someone sees work on the wall. “You need to create room in the creative process for serendipity and invest time around the scheduled meeting to open up.”

The power of opening up

It is this commitment to opening up which sits at the heart of Dilger’s commitment to this new column. 

“Sometimes there are easy changes to make that can have a disproportionate impact on people's satisfaction at work. When you aren’t open and you don’t raise the issues they can become points of personal frustration for an individual which will make that person feel frustrated,” explains Dilger. 

“Employment relationships are two way things - we very often talk about the benefits for our employees - but employees should be able to bring the best of themselves to work every day - if there is something that gets in the way of that we need to change that,”

Awards processes makes it feel like a frictionless process, when creativity happens in a really messy way.

Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA\London

Creativity is a team sport

Dilger has a clear passion for the industry; rooted in her belief that creativity is a team pursuit. Yet she believes now is the time to look beyond the veneer of awards and actively empower the next generation of talent. 

“We have been very guilty as an industry for showing this polished view of a baton pass; a seamless view of how a creative idea is created and cultivated then presented. The reality is it's much more messy, that it's a team sport," says Dilger.

She continues: “Awards processes makes it feel like a frictionless process, when creativity happens in a really messy way. I think we would be much better off lifting the lid on that reality to our clients. Because they would have a better understanding of what’s going on in an agency on a day-to-day basis.”

Lifting the lid on that ‘messy middle’ is key to relieving the pressure on young talent according to Dilger. “Friction and challenge are a key part of the process. You need some grit in the oyster to get to something good - we propagate the idea that it's always a smooth process.”

She shares that when she began her career in planning she had a view of what it should be like. “It was quite discombobulating, this feeling that it feels a bit chaotic and crazy and not what I expected. So I would urge talent to have faith in the process that it will come good and it doesn’t have to be exactly as you read it is an IPA paper,” she explains. 

She continues: “You can have a little bit of conflict and friction and get on with it because we all care a lot about what we do. The people and the work we create is our product.”

Yet she is equally clear that it is easy to lose focus of this simple truth. She explains: “Sometimes we get caught in making something more complex. If people are our biggest asset and creativity is our output it should be simple. There have been times in my career where it has felt way more complicated than that.”

While the pursuit of brilliant work should be a simple process, it is important to recognise that building a meaningful career in the creative industries can be a complex, messy and opaque process. One in which questions can remain unsaid and therefore unanswered and where a creative crisis of confidence can bubble up fast. Dilger’s open mind and open inbox is a compelling example of the power of embracing ‘building back better’ as more than just a platitude.  

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