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How I Learnt It’s All About the Why

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Creative director at VMLY&R COMMERCE UK Richard Hartle on how bringing ‘why’ into conversations - from projects to careers - has helped him lead better

How I Learnt It’s All About the Why

Originally from a product design background, Richard Hartle worked with industry luminaries like Tom Dixon, Wolfson Design, and Arcadia Group, alongside founding his own furniture and retail design studio before the move into advertising.

As creative director at VMLY&R COMMERCE, he brings human behaviour, brand strategy, belief in ideas and expertise in design to create transformative ideas and experiences for brands at the point of commerce conversion. From household names like Boots, Carlsberg and Viagra, to newcomers MOWI and Carverter, his analytical eye for ideas, balanced with intrinsic craftmanship and practical delivery, has been essential to both business building and award-winning work.


There are two things I consistently say to students, across a variety of design related courses from product design and fashion marketing to creative advertising, and on the odd occasion to high-school students.

1. “I don’t care about the grades you got…”

2. “Stop saying ‘I did…’

The first one is obvious, I think. Your work matters more than final grades. Show me what you can do, not what marks someone else gave it.

The second is related. Tell me how you got there. And for God’s-sake don’t say (or write) “I did x, then I did y, then because of y, I did z”.

Drives me up the wall.

And it did the same to my lecturers at design school. 

Those early design tutorials had a huge effect on both my approach to presenting ideas, and the approach I now use trying to help others. I recall Ross Stevens in particular stressing the importance of the ‘why’. I don’t recall the specific words, but the essence is that when you say ‘I did x, then y…’ you’re only explaining what you did, not why. It’s functional, not emotional. It’s robotic, not hypnotic.

‘Why’ enables you to articulate the problem and your solution. Helps you build narrative, provide context, emotion and function. So, that’s the one piece of advice – explain the ‘why’.

Now, what I’ve come to realise over time is that it’s a much bigger piece of advice. It’s a fundamental aspect of how to be a better leader. It might seem really obvious, but it certainly wasn’t when I started out – that the ‘why’ would be so important to my career.

‘Why’ does the client have this opinion…?

‘Why’ does renumeration work that way…?

‘Why’ should you put effort into that menial task…?

Being good at bringing ‘why’ into conversations, from projects to careers has helped me lead better. 

I’ve got a clear responsibility to take care of my team, create an environment where they can do great work, feel good about their work, their role – and that space is best when they understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. The context of ‘why’ creates focus, lowers frustrations, enables success.

These leadership elements learnt via osmosis from my own former leaders – both the good and the bad; those who do the ‘why’ and those who don’t. Leaders who have had the most positive impact on my approach – lecturers at Victoria University of Wellington, Jacquie Gray at Arcadia Group, Philip Michael Wolfson at Wolfson Design – they’re all ‘why’ leaders. Never JFDI leaders.

Leaders willing to build conversations around the ‘why’ make people, teams, businesses happier and better places to work. I find I naturally gravitate to businesses and colleagues who lead with ‘why’. It’s helped me really value the influence of my own leadership and the cultural role it plays in pushing talent into new territory.  Especially in creative industries as we elevate Commerce as a place for imagination and insight.

So, please don’t tell me what you did. Tell me why…

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VMLY&R COMMERCE UK, Thu, 02 Jun 2022 10:20:03 GMT