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We caught up with global brand and business leader, Melina Polly, to explore the inevitability of good taste, how culture shapes creativity, and letting your inner child play.

Melina, you’re a global brand and business leader, having worked with TBWA, 180 Amsterdam, and then on the client side with Apple, Airbnb, Henry Rose and Headspace. Where did it all begin?

I grew up in East Berlin. It was very unlikely that I’d have a career in advertising, or live abroad. But thankfully, that all changed when the wall came down.

My father, a physicist and left-brain thinker, had foreseen a rational, academic path for me. However I always had a passion for all things right-brain: visual art, photography, design, architecture, and music. I love books, poetry, writing, design and storytelling. 

Early on, I came across the space of marketing, storytelling and brand building – a perfect intersection between left brain and right brain thinking; a meeting of the two worlds.  I realized that world could offer a way to make a living that aligns with how my brain works and what I love; the intersection of creativity and business.

"It was an incredible melting pot of different backgrounds and accents... it was very, very intense but I loved every second."

Tell us a little about how you got started in the industry?

I found an incredible little design agency that took me on right out of high school and threw me into the deep end.  I got to work with some really great designers very early on.  And, because it was such a small company – only 25 people, I got a chance to do everything.

After I graduated, I got a job at TBWA, which back then was a super creative up-and-coming agency. I got to work on some cool brands like Absolut Vodka, which was one of the super iconic advertisers at that time. I also started working on international accounts, which I really loved.

After that I moved to Amsterdam and joined 180 in their early days when they had just won the Adidas business.  It was an incredible melting pot of different backgrounds and accents. There was such an incredible culture and the work was amazing. It was very, very intense but I loved every second. It was really such a special chapter of my career.

"Just because you know what somebody ate for lunch and what they clicked on last, doesn't necessarily make it any easier to come up with ideas that can connect on an emotional level."

We all have a part of our life that we think of as our golden age. But sometimes we don’t realize it was the golden age until afterwards….

Things always look better when you look back because you forget all the pain and frustration; I think that’s just part of life. Things always look much rosier with hindsight, but it was really special. It really was the golden age of the independent agency. And it seems like maybe some of this is coming back now. 

It gives me hope that maybe we’re past the long, dark tunnel of performance marketing, consolidation of budgets, and forgetting the magic and power of creative storytelling. The pendulum has swung so far towards the measuring of everything and being so data led that you forget that, just because you know what somebody ate for lunch and what they clicked on last, doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to come up with ideas that can connect on an emotional level, build a brand for the long-term, or shape culture.

That’s the magic of great work; it really has the power to not only sell products but to influence and shape culture. I don’t think there’s a performance marketing asset that has done that – those drive short term sales but they don’t build long term iconic brands.

What work are you most proud of?

I worked at a Media Arts Lab for ten years, on all things Apple. During that time, we launched the iPhone and the App Store, which changed everything. They really did change everything.

We built an incredible global network of agencies, really one of the first bespoke agency models of its kind, entirely built around one client. We were super connected, almost operating like an in-house agency. That, for me, was definitely one of the most influential (and longest) chapters in my career. I learned so much about building a great brand; a culture and team where everyone ‘gets it’, what it takes to do this level of work, iterating until something is perfect.

"Creativity is really about letting your inner child play.”

What does creativity mean to you?

Creativity means being able to step out of yourself, and look at a problem with a lens that ignores the conventions and patterns that typically determine our responses to problem solving. Where we often get stuck is when we try to solve a new problem with tools that we’ve used in the past. And as we get older and more set in our ways, we tend to limit our options of how we approach things and what we see as possibilities. In the Buddhist teachings, there’s an idea of looking at things through the eyes of a child because children see infinite possibilities.  So, creativity is really about letting your inner child play.

How would you define good taste?

To me, good taste is something that feels human, simple, and inevitable. It feels like it just wants to be this way. And when you look at it, you feel that there’s no other way it could be. And of course, there are always many other ways, but it just feels inevitable. It feels so clear and natural and like it wants to exist.

To get to ‘great’ and ‘inevitable’ there needs to be a process of reduction; a process of saying no, removing the unnecessary, focusing on the essence and integrity of a single minded idea. It takes a lot of discipline to reduce an idea to something simple, intuitive and inevitable. And I think this is the hard part. Making conscious decisions and really thinking about: what is your priority, what is your focus, what are your values? What do you really care about, what do you think really matters? I think there’s a laziness to just trying to do everything. It’s a lack of discipline and leads to mediocrity.

How would you define good creative leadership?

For me, it’s the ability to listen to everyone and to create a culture where everybody feels like they’re being heard and seen. At the same time it’s also about being the one to make the ultimate decision about what’s important, what matters, what we prioritize, and what we say no to.

A culture without fear, where people feel empowered to speak up, to challenge themselves, and feel safe doing so. And also a culture where decisions are made in a considered but clear manner that enables action and forward momentum while encouraging participation, risk taking and ongoing learning.

"Great ideas require great care during execution, and that means producers who care about and protect the idea just as much as the person who came up with it."

What do you think is important in the execution of an idea?

Most important is protecting the integrity of that idea through the process of execution. Because what often happens is that an agency sells an idea to a client and then, as they get into execution, all the different teams and all the different people try to leave their imprint on the execution of that idea. It gets watered down because this person needs to add this point and there’s maybe a logo and can we make the font bigger and can we do this and this and this? By the end of it, it may not look how it was intended and it may not be as simple and therefore as clear and potentially iconic.

So I think great ideas require great care during execution, and that means, obviously, producers who care about and protect the idea just as much as the person who came up with it. It’s really a team of people who hold up that idea and its integrity and make it beautiful.

What are your thoughts on AI?

I’ve been reading and learning a lot about AI, especially thoughts around ethical AI. Obviously this technology is unstoppable, but like all of us, I’m curious – what does it really mean for humanity, for creativity, for productivity?

There’s this very short-term practical set of uses. It can do a whole lot of stuff that is actually really useful – analyzing large amounts of data and helping us read trends, as well as getting rid of some busy work. Then there is the infinite; where’s it going to go and how do we use it in ways that are meaningful and also clearly defined from an ethical perspective.

I’m equal parts really excited about it and also somewhat intimidated because I just feel that way when I don’t know enough. And I guess the truth is that nobody does, yet, and the pace at which things are evolving is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.