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Guardian of creativity or rarefied leader? Is an executive creative director still essential to agency DNA?

What lies ahead for the ECD?

Often viewed as the guardian of creativity or the creative counterbalance to an agency’s heavyweight business thinkers, the role of executive creative director has changed of late. With M&C Saatchi recently axing the position, are we witnessing a change in creative leadership? Is there still a need for a high-level, agency-wide presence overseeing creative output?

Instead of an executive creative director, M&C Saatchi has plumped for a four-man creative committee as, according to newly appointed chief executive Tom Bazeley, having one person “working at a very high level” isn’t the best way to achieve “newsworthy” ideas for clients.

Whether or not an agency needs an executive creative director is dependent on its size, brand and personality, but according to former Leo Burnett creative director John Jessup, at its core is guardianship of creativity: “The very simple raison d'être of any executive creative director is to protect the creatives and their creative product.”

However, the role has changed “significantly” in the last five to 10 years with the increase of digital and social media. Jessup likens the role, and the pressures that come with it, to that of a football manager: “It’s much harder now than ever before to be an executive creative director. You have to do this maintenance role but also put your stamp on things, up the creative excellence and win awards but with all the same players – or in this case, creatives.

“I don’t think it’s possible for any executive creative director in a large agency to see every piece of work that goes out. There’s a case for not having an executive creative director in some agencies because the creative process has become so unwieldy that one person cannot oversee so many facets.”

Ben Tollett, executive creative director at Adam&EveDDB, points out that the belief that an executive creative director is merely “the creative at the top of the agency” isn’t quite what the job is about these days as titles such as chief creative officer and creative chairman have muddied the waters, leaving outsiders a “bit confused by the role”.

He says: “Broadly speaking, the title means you’re leading the creative output, shaping the agency culture, taking responsibility for hiring and bringing on teams, heading up pitches, sharing all the tricks and tips you’ve gathered over the years and helping people make the best work they can."

The creative leadership at WCRS is shared by joint executive creative directors Billy Faithfull, Ross Neil and Leon Jaume. Faithfull echoes Jessup’s sentiments and says the “lay of the adland these days” means it’s not possible for one person to vet every piece of work leaving the agency.

“When the enemy is too great for just one of us, we interlock to create the all-powerful ‘3CD’... back in the pure above-the-line days, sure, you could sit in your corner office and see every TV script the department writes but most projects we do are too channel neutral and broad to be covered by just one brain.

“We split the agency in three and help each other out when necessary,” he says.

Taking on the challenge of executive creative director takes a certain kind of creative mind, according to Jessup, as “very rarely will an executive creative director have the time or wherewithal to sit there and do any creative work”– a stark contrast from coming up with award-winning ideas yourself.

“It’s a role creatives take on because they reach a point where they haven’t got an option, when there’s no going back to just being a creative. If you want to move on and make the big bucks and make a name for yourself you have to,” he adds.

“That’s not to say there aren’t rewards as if the agency does well it’s because of the techniques and systems the executive creative director has produced and therefore they get the plaudits.”

Bil Bungay, one of the founders of BMB, agrees with Jessup's earlier 'football manager' adding: “If an agency slips, it isn’t unusual for the finger to be pointed at the most visible bit of an agency, its creative output - so like a declining football team, it’s the executive creative director that gets taken out and shot by the management first.

“On top of that, the executive creative director is really quite a long way from the thing he or she loves the most – creating stuff; it’s a bit liking breaking a virtuoso violinist’s fingers – it’s gonna eke away at the soul.”

Recalling his jump from creative director to executive creative director, Faithfull says the biggest difference he noticed was “administration” – becoming “not just responsible for the work, but for the people who make the work”. To begin with he was “drowning in the paperwork and process”.

Rapp executive creative director, Jason Andrews, adds that each individual has their own approach: “Some keep their distance from the day-to-day and operate at that rarefied executive level. Others roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. Personally, I prefer the latter approach. It means creativity gets a voice in lots of different areas of the business.”

Of M&C Saatchi's decision to press ahead without the role, Bazeley tells The Drum it's about making “smart, brilliant work”.

“The goal is straightforward, but delivering it is less so,” he admits. “Our chances of doing so are higher with creative directors that have the time and head space to work at a deeper level on a brand whilst retaining a sense of ownership over their work.”

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