Why You Don’t Need a Creative Director

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Earlier this year, an ad agency in Japan hired a robot to work as its new creative director. Why not? Virtually every other biped seems to call themselves one. We’ve recently tried to recruit a new one and found the variation between their capabilities and skill-sets to be wider than the black rims of their glasses. With a plumber you know what you’re getting, and it boils down to whether they’re good or shit. But with a Creative Director, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

Breaking the title into its constituent parts helps provide a starting point. ‘Creative’ Creative Directors are the ones who can come up with great ideas that will blow a client’s mind. But they can be a bit ‘special’ when it comes to dealing with the rest of humanity, being much less effective team leaders, i.e. directors. The other sort of CD, the ‘Director’ type, may not have brilliant ideas, but make up for it by inspiring the team, being good judge of their work and helping to improve it.

Beneath those two broad categories there are a range of practitioners, from the highly-trained, technically-proficient, pro that has worked their way up the ladder in an agency, to the bearded have-a-go-hipster with white flakes in their Rip van Winkle beard (we met one like this recently, who we christened Coke-Head Bin Laden).

Campaign magazine is full of stories about “such and such agency has just poached balding white guy in polo necked jumper to lead creative for this agency” stories. This is a bit like Man United thinking that buying Paul Pogba – a transfer fee that broke a world record – was going to make them good again. In the last four months, he has scored just three goals, and the team are still in the nether regions of the Premier League.

What is actually required to be strong creatively is a system and a culture. We are inspired by multi award winning agency, Forsman and Bodenfors, who don’t have a Creative Director. Agencies cannot be reliant on a key hire, and must be able to offer consistently high standards even if their star player is hung over.

The system and culture doesn’t need to be stringent. It actually pays not to be. You need to make sure your people feel like they can present ideas to colleagues without their knees knocking, and even make the occasional mistake or misjudgement and still be able to show their faces at Friday drinks. They need to feel like they can dispute your consensus, and question your approach to come up with creative solutions.

What makes a good ad anyway? Is it one person’s whimsical taste? No. It’s a creative collaboration and process, not an ego trip. At Don’t Panic that means rigorously assessing each idea against a “reasons-to-share” checklist, which asks if people will react to it, whether we would share it or if it fits the zeitgeist. Then, we pass it through a room of people with skillsets and roles that are normally kept separate and applied at different stages of development: like media planners, PR, social. Along with a host of other development stages that look at what is trending and how that can be tuned into the themes of the video. Without a process, or more than one voice, that ad is just going to appeal to that creative director in his polo necked jumper, and his adland cronies.

In short, the premise of a ‘creative director’ – human or otherwise – is outdated, and bad for business. The idea that leading creativity should be one person’s sole responsibility – and belong to no one else, could lead to disasters of an irrelevantly emotional Waitrose Christmas ad scale.

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