IS THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR DEAD?

March 20, 2018

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Many years ago I worked for a Creative Director — let’s call him 'Steve' for the sake of this article.

This Creative Director liked to rule exclusively and ensure that this rule was exercised at every turn on our journey together. His name was on the front door of the business and everything about the business was not about the business itself, but rather about The CD and his ego. 

He was both the Creative Director and business owner — as well as the Design Director, Director of Strategy and everything else that involved 'Serious Decisions That Made One Feel Important'.

As young Designers we looked to him for mentorship and approval. Our success was measured only by being seen to do a good job in his eyes and little else.

His array of award annuals added an extra dimension to our anxiety of being good at what we did for a living and his awards were neatly organised in chronological order around the office — starting the foyer. 

Naturally.

The creative world we lived in as a design team was commandeered and curated by The Dictator.

He ruled with an iron fist.

We were brainwashed.

He was Pharaoh and we were to build his pyramid.

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I am well aware that this is both an extreme and almost comical example and I know I haven't helped with elaborating with a little creative license.

I have worked for, and with, some great Creative Directors in my career, this was one experience of many and as experience tells us, it influences our opinions and our trajectories.

I must admit I’ve only really had one CD of whom I’d call a mentor I’ve admired. I’ll interview him in the coming weeks. 

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I think a lot about the future of our industry. The industry of design. I do this because of a few reasons, some self-serving, others simply because I care. One day, my children might work in this industry (or they may not) and it’s up to me, right now, to make sure it’s the best it can be. 

Tomorrow, a younger version of me — of you — will enter this industry and they will be shaped and moulded into its future leaders. Right now, today, I feel responsible to make it the best it can be, so when they do become tomorrow's leaders, they are the leaders we need.

I feel, it's up to me to do what little I can, in the space that I occupy to ensure that this industry is the best it can be.

I also spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to work, the most efficient and productive way to structure teams to get the best out of these teams for both the business and the client.

Over the years I’ve experimented with different structures within the businesses I’ve worked in. From the traditional to the not-so. What I have found is that the linear, pyramid structure of having a single Creative Director wasn’t conducive to the things I was pushing for:

  • creating leaders
  • attracting leaders
  • an autonomous team
  • an accountable team
  • cross functional teams
  • customer-centricity
  • diversity and inclusivity

I’ve felt for a long time, that the pyramid structure of the single Creative Director ‘managing and mentoring a team’ of Design Directors, Art Directors, Graphic Designers and the rest of the linear parade, an antiquated and stifling model.

I’ve felt that it perpetuates a myth of career progression along a single path, it creates enormous pressure for young creative people to perform (and never, ever fail) and it creates seats of power that are have no basis in reality.

Today, anyone can call themselves a Creative Director. irrespective of their years of experience, age, skill set or qualifications. And they freely do. 

I’ve met graduates who hand me a business card with ‘Creative Director’ underneath their name.  

We, my dear colleague are our own worst enemy and we’ve diluted our profession by not upholding its standards for so long that the Creative Director has become close to extinct or at the very most, irrelevant. 

The world has changed around us and it continues changing. This requires new models and structures from us to maintain our professionalism, our nurturing of young talent and our own future as creative leaders. 

I have experimented with the best mix of skills to embed at each stage of the design process. I’ve explored linear teams, vertical teams, client-based teams and cross functional teams. I’ve explored a tiered structure and a more traditional layered structure with clear hierarchies.

I write this article as I sit on a plane, travelling to a meeting with a client where I am to plan and design a 12 month content strategy program.

I’m sitting next my colleague Marita Davies. Marita is an author, speaker and authority on content leadership. She’s in charge today and I’m following her lead. She will teach me so many things today and I know I may impart some knowledge towards her as well. That’s the nature of a good, professional and accountable team. It’s a two-way gig.

I think a lot about how our industry has matured, the competitive factors within it, the strengths and weaknesses that exist in certain types of businesses and the opportunities that exist for us as creative leaders.

And to this end, I’ve come to realise that the role of the Creative Director is becoming more and more in need of validation and in my experience, for what I do, it's dead all together.

“Sleeping with the fishes” to coin a phrase.

See, in our office, we work with large corporates — management services, consulting, finance, membership organisations, federal government, health and medicine. Industries that are all in an emergent stage of their trajectories. 

Banks have become tech companies.

Management consultants have become creative and some, flex a stronger creative muscle than most ‘creative’ agencies.

Health and member-based organisations, traditionally non-profits are acting more and more like commercial enterprises.

Federal government is embracing innovation.

Along with the wave of change that technology has enabled within these organisations, and the rise of the gig economy, our clients are now building creative teams within their businesses that live, breath and learn better than most creative/design/digital agencies. Most mature players have second if not third or fourth generation teams in their businesses.

This evolution gives rise to a new role for us. A new reason to be relevant and I believe, if we are to use old models to solve new problems, we'll just get the same old solution.

So in 2010, I removed the Executive Creative Director in my business and replaced him overnight with a different structure all together. 

(Note: I was that Executive Creative Director)

I realised that if we were to be relevant, if we were to provide innovation in brand strategy, help our clients build an internal leadership narrative that was going bind their teams together and help them design customer experiences that were meaningful; we needed to change the way we looked at ourselves first.

I tried numerous approaches to teams until years later we landed on a model that now works well for us. A model that sees us as a smaller, flatter, more nimble organisation surrounded by expert leaders. 

Leaders who have skin in the game.

See, that's the difference. Once you have a group of people who have skin in the game. Money on the table. A side hustle that is theirs. The dynamic changes dramatically.

We moved to a more autonomous and accountable structure. One that sees us working closer together not farther apart.

The Creative Director offers guidance and mentorship. A keen eye to craft and steer 'the creative'. We didn't forego this and ensure that everyone has both mentorship and guidance in spades.

When I removed myself from this role, I saw my role move from simply being a leader to being responsible to create leaders. I couldn't do that when I was the last port of call to 'sign off' concepts and ideas. I couldn't create leaders who felt ownership of their delivery if they knew that I had the final say, and in turn wore the accountability.

I saw apathy instead.... 'Jim will explain it to the client...' — 'If the client doesn't like it, Jim will take the feedback...'

Now, with autonomy and accountability — we have skin in the game. We have vested interest and we all play on the same team. 

A team with a range of expertise that is broad as well as deep. True cross functionality, giving us perspectives from a range of places, backgrounds and ideals and our work is richer, more dynamic because of it. The problems we're solving more complex, intricate and sometimes scary in their nature. 

We couldn't do this if we were structured like a pyramid.

And yes, our teams have captains. Someone owns the product, someone owns the strategy and someone owns all the other facets of the project as well. Be it research, visual design or other. 

This is accountability. Ownership.

We've seen a new need for cross-functional teams, full-stack designers and entrepreneurial endeavour like never before. A dynamic that responds to the problems that come to our door not presuming that they're going to be solved by the same old team structure but rather a team is created in response to the problem that now knocks on our door.
  
A team of experts. A team with ownership.

What does this mean for the small design studio with a Creative Director sitting on top the pyramid?

I'm still curious about this.

What do you think?

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RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE

(Each week, I receive responses via email to each article sent to the private email list. Here are a few responses I received to this article)

Hey Jim,

Hope you're well? I thought I'd actually reply to this piece because it has incredible relevance and I hope, perhaps, in some small way, I can add to the conversation. I'm a Creative Director in a smaller agency - and a profoundly believe the title is dead. I say title, instead of role, for many of the same reasons you do. And much of what I could add would really be repeating everything you've said, because I wholeheartedly agree. 

I'm a much greener CD, and was very fortunate to be moved into this role. I've had the fortune of working under tremendous people and an incredible CD back in South Africa who I use as my divining rod, as it were. 

I've also worked with the very traditional old guard ECD types who believe the role is created as the next step along a straight road and that you need to tick off each box from Junior Graphic Designer, Mid-weight, Senior, the AD, Snr AD, Group Head, Associate CD, CD and the ECD. And also preferred the sermon-on-the-mount version of creative exploration. He and I worked incredibly close together and I learnt a great deal - however, chose to only take away that which aligned with my view of the world and industry. When I became CD, I faced obstacles within my ow agency because I had lept over seniors who'd joined the team before me and had expected to work their way into the role, and I was thrust into a role of leading a team of graphic designers with no graphic design background. I recognised very quickly that the model is wrong. This become most obvious when my Snr AD made a comment about the lack of senior design talent and that she needs "someone to learn from". To which my response was, why should learning be by a trickle down effect. It's the least effective method because you're left sitting around waiting for the Ad Gods to rain their wisdom upon the lessers. Learning is a living, breathing organism; it's growth, it's a broadening of the mind, and it can come from anywhere, at anytime if you're open to it. But this is one of the biggest challenges of our industry. Egos holding on to their position on pride rock, master of all they survey, desperately clinging on to their position for fear of being usurped. I would never want to conduct myself in that way. It seems counter productive. I had to earn the trust of the team, a team I had not hired, and encourage my own vision and ideology, which ran counter to what they were  used to. And I'm glad I did, and persevered, not expecting a line up of unquestioning troops, but encouraging a team of thinkers, ready to question. I often talk about the improv technique of "yes, and" which I use for pitching as a team, but also in that, as a basic principle, always add to something. This helps move away from dead stops like "that'll never work" , or "I don't like it" - but encourages "I'm not sure that'll work, but what if we changed it to this" or "you know what we could do to really drive that message home?". 

A good leader is someone who hires talented people, and getting the hell out of their way. 

An idea that makes an idea better, makes an idea better - so why not go with it, even if it's not yours? You still end up with a better idea. 

These are things I say regularly, and believe it should form the basis of the new "Creative Leadership" role. Being accountable to your team's success, giving them the space to grow their careers, and build the best work through trust. 

It's funny, the conversation about awards will  often come up and the value of driving ideas to win an award - which is fine. And for a small business, it's a step in PR and developing the personal brand, and not to mention it's great for the team and their own portfolio. But as a CD, you often find this tremendous ownership (to a hoarding degree) over the "award winning idea". To which I've said in the past (and at a recent TDK event), "my name is on the credits by default, so who cares who came up with the idea, let the creatives do their thing". 

The higher "up" you get in the chain, the lest creative work you do and the more your role becomes about nurturing and guiding the team along the vision and strategy of the company, as well as that of the client and their own objectives - and that's a good thing. Dipping in and working on awesome creative is a bonus. 

None of this self aggrandising blabber is of any real value - you've already said it far more eloquently and succinctly than I.  But I guess, over and above all of that, I really appreciate the thoughts you share, the openness of your pieces and it's affirming how your values within the industry, as well as that of Tank's make me feel like I'm on the right track in my own career development, as well as that of my team's and my leadership style. I don't know what I'm doing half the time, and look up to other thinkers and doers to learn and grow and keep evolving. I'm vehemently passionate about the growth of our industry, and working with young designers, creatives and thinkers to help in whatever way I can to step away from the same old tired "pathway" systems. 

Thanks again for your insights, it's always a pleasure reading things I so instantly agree with. 

Cheers,

Jason

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Yes - it is dead.

Great article - I’ve just finished a book called ‘Turn the ship around’ which champions a leader-leader model to teamwork rather than leader-follower. Leader-leader is distributing control away from the leader by creating competency and clarity within the team. All this from a US Nuclear Submarine Captain. Highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. Also ‘Maverick!’ by Ricardo Semler really opened my eyes about this topic. 

The problem with the traditional Creative Director is if they make all the decisions and tell followers what to do - it encourages people following the leader not to think…or lead...apathy as you said. If the creative director is not available they are sorely missed and the team does not function. Surely this is a sign of bad leadership. 

Thanks for the great topic.

Luke

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