Why Does ‘Creative Director’ Describe Two Very Different Jobs?

Coming Up With Overarching Ideas Requires a Separate Skill Set From Executing Them

Is it just me, or is the title “creative director” an impossible catch-all? Doesn’t it simply encompass too much real estate for any one person to preside over?

At one extreme, there’s the skill set required to create an overarching idea covering every possible aspect of a marketing or business problem through all channels and media etc. At the other, the skill set required to execute brilliantly.

Brilliant execution is largely what wins creative awards; the depth, breadth and scale of the idea are secondary at most. Great ideas not so brilliantly executed win nothing, while brilliant one-off executions with no connection to any kind of business results can and do win Grand Prix.

Execution is, for want of better terms, a craft or shop-floor discipline, a field job not a desk job. It bears little relation in terms of expertise, experience, career orientation, passion or otherwise to overarching idea creation. I’m by no means saying one is better or more worthy than the other. They’re just entirely different.

Common sense seems to suggest that great executional abilities, along with skill in maximizing those abilities in others, should culminate in the title chief execution officer. Instead, the award-winning execution person wishing to get on the management floor has only chief creative officer to aim for.

In a big agency, that job may be about just about everything but execution. It will certainly mean sitting in a lot of meetings and being sensible, articulate, compelling and emotionally intelligent. It will invariably require taking an active interest in a client’s entire business. It will also mean being called upon to come up with overarching ideas (sometimes in the space of a dinner).

Most of the above may be, at best, peripheral to the execution person’s expertise or passion.

Yet — and here’s the truly weird bit that you might think would deeply disturb clients — executional awards are far, far and away the major criteria used by an agency CEO seeking a creative director. It’s like seeking a head of military intelligence from among people highly decorated in hand-to-hand combat. (Again, this is not to suggest that either field is superior to the other, just vastly different.)

Clearly what qualifies you to be a brilliant chief execution officer may not in any way qualify you to be chief (overarching) ideas officer.

Expecting any one person to combine both jobs not only may be unfair, it’s probably psychically harmful to that person to expect him or her even to try to command such a vast landscape. Sadly, most agencies are set up in a way that results mainly in two creative types: one executionally talented and one personable; one good at making stuff, the other good at talking about it.

Neither should be confused with the ability to have overarching, game-changing, business-transforming ideas. Currently this latter area falls under the remit of the business side of most agencies rather than the creative side. While this is bizarre when you really think about it, it’s no real surprise that those traditionally running agencies should want to keep it that way: The person perceived to be the custodian of the business-transforming idea is king.

Creative people seem happy to let this state of affairs continue by dedicating their careers to executional awards, like jesters at the king’s feet chasing after scraps.

This article originally appeared here in Advertising Age, August 6, 2009.

What a Polish Marxist Can Teach Us About Advertising

Viewpoint: A Reminder to Look at the Human Side in a Digital Age

I read with sadness and fascination last week in The New York Times the obituary of a fellow Pole, Leszek Kolakowski.

Mr. Kolakowski was a philosopher who rejected Marxism and helped found the Solidarity movement in Poland. In 2003, Mr. Kolakowski, who was 81 when he died, became the first person to receive the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities.

This was an award from the U.S. Library of Congress given in a field where there are no Nobel Prizes. A great man, a vast intellect, but not exactly Ad Age fodder, you might think.

And largely you’d be right.

But it was the almost-forgotten field of “the humanities” that made me think about our business — in particular, how excitement about the human side of things has become, dare I say, old school.

The more means to my end the better. The medium is the message? I’m afraid not.

Is the Cannes Grand Prix-winning Philips’ “Carousel” exciting because it’s interactive? It’s exciting because it’s a beautiful and perfectly crafted piece of advertising. Must everything be scientifically measurable? Yes, if rendering it measurable doesn’t render it mediocre.

According to his Times obituary, Leszek Kolakowski gave a lecture in Australia in 1982 in which he said one role of philosophy was “never to let the inquisitive energy of the mind go to sleep, never to stop questioning what appears to be obvious and definitive, always to defy the seemingly intact resources of common sense … never to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it.”

You would have made a great creative director, Mr. K.

This article originally appeared here in Advertising Age, July 29, 2009.

Creative Directors Don’t Have to Be Performers

Passion for Work, Not Ability to Present, Should Be Agency Chief’s Prominent Quality

"He/she is a really great presenter."

It’s something I hear more and more often these days. Seemingly the primary quality sought in an agency creative chief is the flair with which he or she delivers a new-business pitch.

Really? I have a confession to make: I’m a rotten presenter. When I think about the creative directors whom I most admire, they are all average presenters at best. Where their talents lie is in producing brilliant, effective work for their clients.

Most (me included) are no oil paintings. Many drink too much and throw tantrums. Mostly, they shouldn’t be allowed out unaccompanied by an adult. Which reminds me of Baudelaire’s definition of genius: the ability to recapture childhood at will.

The most important quality that all good creative directors share is a passion for great work. And passion isn’t always pretty. Often it is messy, inconvenient, and un-house-trained. It doesn’t always fit in an expensive suit or smart sports coat. It doesn’t furnish its possessor with client-friendly savoir-faire.

When I present work I’m passionate about, I fall to pieces. I stammer and sweat and shake. I drop scripts. I spill coffee.

It’s terribly embarrassing. But at least it’s authentic. After all, creatives are not politicians. Nor are they actors. New business pitches are not meant to be vaudeville. Great work should be the only eloquence necessary. Everything else is flim-flam.

This article originally appeared here in Advertising Age, July 1, 2009.