FX has won PromaxBDA’s North America Marketing Team of the Year for six years running, which would seem to imply there’s something going in within that organization that works.

“Culture is critical,” said Stephanie Gibbons, president of marketing, digital media marketing, and on-air promotions for FX Networks. “Whether you wake up each morning with dread and fear in your heart makes a difference to what sort of work you can put out.”

But what sort of culture eradicates dread and uplifts morale company-wide? Speaking at PromaxBDA: The Conference on Wednesday, Gibbons described an environment where creatives not only feel safe to take risks and experience failure, but where they can experience the trials and tribulations of simply being alive on the planet Earth without fear of retribution.

“I don’t want [employees] to feel like they can’t have personal ups and downs,” she said. “Knowing you have a place where it’s okay to be human” frees your mind up to devote yourself to “worrying about the work.”

In a work environment of mutual trust, “you will take risks,” Gibbons continued. “You will risk vulnerability, idiocy, to put it out there.” And of course most creatives know that in a void of risk, only the safest, blandest work survives. Gibbons called such endeavors “Frankenstein situations” in which fearful leadership has decided that “we’re going to remove anything from it that’s not safe” until all that is left is a creature dead on its feet.

The quest to avoid such situations begins at the top. At FX, the influence of network CEO John Landgraf permeates.

“He is my idol,” Gibbons said. “He’s part Yoda, a consummate businessman who was an anthropology major. He believes telling stories is important to humanity. He is supportive of artists and that is where it starts and where it ends.”

Andy Baker, SVP, global creative director for National Geographic Channels, concurred. Sharing the stage with Gibbons at a Conference session called “The Secret Sauce,” he waxed on the importance of working for National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courtney Monroe. Formerly CMO of National Geographic Channels, Monroe “instituted much more creative culture and innovation” upon taking over, which spread company-wide, Baker said. “We try to have fun and it’s a safe space and that comes from the top.”

On a team that isn’t fearful, things can of course go wrong, but the failures become opportunities for growth. Citing the marketing for last year’s MARS miniseries, Baker told the tale of an interactive poster that was to broadcast to onlookers up-to-the-minute data from the red planet, including temperature, barometric pressure and wind speed.

“It was this really, really cool thing that totally didn’t work,” he said, “and we just had to pull the plug after working around the clock.”

In response to the setback, Baker elected to work with the agency behind the poster again, because a culture that is encouraging and safe should also extend to vendors. Treating these partners well “is the right thing to do,” Baker said, “but it also generates the best work.”

The next time around, the agency initiated an even more ambitious project for National Geographic’s Einstein, designing a chalkboard contraption that could turn viewer selfies into portrait sketches in the great physicist’s handwriting. This time, everything worked beautifully and “I guarantee they worked 10 times harder,” Baker said, because his team had trusted them and refused to abandon them when one “big swing” happened to miss.

So how can you as an individual, whether a leader or no, contribute to the protected yet liberated collective consciousness that makes an in-house team great? Reflecting on a fight he once had with his brother as a young boy, Baker shared the wise words his mother said to him on that fateful day: “Don’t be an asshole.”


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