LENZ views leadership broadly and encourages leadership development among everyone on our team. In this series of interviews, several of our leaders reflect on their principles and practices, and on the lessons in leadership they’ve learned along the way.
Ben Barnes is the Creative Director at LENZ, where he manages the creative department and a network of freelancers and production vendors. He has been in the design industry for over 10 years and has developed successful campaigns for Coca-Cola, Allstate, P&G, and many others. Prior to joining LENZ in 2013, Ben worked in several roles in the agency environment. His personal work has been displayed in museums and published worldwide. Ben earned his BFA in graphic design from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2004.
Excluding colleagues at LENZ, who taught you the most important lesson that guides your leadership at LENZ today? What did you learn from them?
The first job I had out of school was at Momentum, where I worked for Ryan Mulqueen, their creative director at the time. He was a “get your hands dirty” kind of guy. He didn’t lead from afar; he was right down there with us.
Ryan put a high value on good ideas and good thinking. And he stressed the importance of pushing the client: selling them on the good ideas and the good thinking instead of giving them what they expected.
He was always passionate about the work. You could tell. And it helped everybody else bring their own passion to the job. He inspired us to give each project our all and do our very best.
His example did a lot to shape my ideas about leadership. I get down there in the trenches with the people I work with, and I try to inspire them with my own passion for the work.
What is an important lesson about leadership that you learned from a client?
I’ve learned from clients the value of relationships. Going back to that idea of pushing the client and selling them on your ideas: If you have a good relationship with the client, if they trust you, if they believe in you, then they’re going to allow you to do what you think is best because they know you have their best interest at heart.
Building that relationship takes time, but then the conversations become easier. It becomes less about selling the client on your work and more about them believing in your abilities and your expertise.
My own role at LENZ is not as client-facing. Here, clients know me more by my work than my face. The people in account services take my work and sell it on my behalf, and they’re very good at building those relationships.
That’s why I make sure to explain my thinking to the people who will explain it to the client: all the ideas that went into it, the best practices we used, why we put a button where we did. It’s a team effort. It’s the beauty again of relationships.
What is a belief or opinion you have in your field that most people in your field don’t share?
Design isn’t going to change the world.
You come out of college with this head full of ideas about how you’re going to design this poster and change the world. It doesn’t work like that.
The ideas behind design do have the potential to change the world. The design itself is just the medium to spread that message.
Early in my career, I designed a poster that was picked up for the Green Patriot Posters series, a climate change initiative of The Canary Project. The project was inspired by World War II posters, and I created a modern take on the victory gardens idea.
The posters went on a tour of all these design museums, far and wide. They were put into a calendar produced in Germany. They were collected in a book that was written up in Wired.com, which included my poster in the article.
But at the end of the day, what impact did it really have? Did the posters influence someone to ride their bike rather than drive their car? I don’t know.
It was aspirational. I like to think, yes, it did make a difference. It was relevant and important. But as a designer, I struggle with that question.
Design is problem-solving: finding ways to communicate a message. Ultimately, it’s the message that really matters.
Fast forward as many years as necessary. You’re leaving your present role, whether for a promotion or a job change or retirement. What advice would you give to the next person who fills your position?
Don’t take yourself or the position too seriously.
At LENZ we do mostly healthcare marketing. It’s a very serious industry, and sometimes people’s lives are at stake.
But at the end of the day, what you’re really trying to promote is the relationship between the doctor and the patient. You’re expressing this very human connection that people have with their doctors. It’s a very special and unique relationship of trust.
And it’s about people getting back to their lives, back to the best quality of life they can have. Back to playing with their kids, or taking their dogs to the park, or riding their bikes. It’s about these everyday moments of life.
If you could send a message back to yourself during your first year working at LENZ, what advice would you give?
I was recently digging through some things in my in-laws’ attic. And I found this booklet , “A Message to Garcia.” Someone had given it to my father-in-law. It’s an essay written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard.
Hubbard tells an [apocryphal] story from just before the Spanish-American War. President McKinley wanted to get a message to General Garcia, the head of the Cuban liberation movement. He wanted to tell Garcia that we were going to send in American troops and help him. But Garcia was in the middle of a war, deep in the jungle, with no satellites to locate him.
So McKinley gave a letter to an American soldier, Lieutenant Rowan, and told him to get it to Garcia. Rowan didn’t ask him where Garcia was or how he was supposed to find him. He took the letter and got behind enemy lines. He asked around, found Garcia, and delivered the letter.
The story was relevant 100 years ago and still is today.
If somebody asks you to do something, even if you don’t know how, take it upon yourself to figure it out. Take on the responsibility of getting it done.
In my younger days, I questioned everything. That’s not a bad approach to life, but I think I would have found success much more quickly if I had had Rowan’s mindset. I would have learned a lot about what I was working on, but also a lot about myself, about what I’m capable of. Can you figure it out? There’s confidence that comes with learning that you can.