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The Drum

The rise and frustrations of media’s creative directors

Clear Channel finds itself contributing to briefs higher up the funnel

They’re commercially minded, determined and probably didn’t study the Watford Course. The creative directors of the media industry want to change the game – without stealing your job.

Ann Wixley used to be a professional ballet dancer. Louise Stubbings once sold classified ads at the Telegraph. Antonia Bonello spent days carting breeze blocks around as a runner. Now they’re all creative directors in a space where “creative” once never entered the lexicon – media.

Recent years have seen media companies – be they publishers, owners or brokers – hire leaders to infuse creativity into their organisations. The trend can be directly traced back to the moment cracks appeared in the sector following the rumble of digital: publishers and outdoor lost revenue to banner ads, while agencies floundered as clients realised they could buy and plan themselves.

Following a mass regrouping, the industry’s many players have now learned to distinguish themselves from competition with expert, creative talent – although this talent has, largely, has not come from traditional creative departments.

Wixley was appointed as the first executive creative director of Wavemaker when MEC and Maxus merged; before this she was the first to take on the creative director job at OMD. Stubbings rose through the out-of-home ranks in sales positions to become Clear Channel’s first creative director in 2016.

Bonello’s job as Buzzfeed’s associate creative director is perhaps the closest to a traditional CD role. After a series of career dead ends she attracted the publisher’s attention with a trailer for Rush Hour, an 8-bit animated game she was developing. A series of freelance shifts led to a permanent job as a designer. Now, she oversees holistic creative projects – usually for Buzzfeed’s commercial clients – as associate creative director.

Unlike many of advertising’s creative directors, Bonello is creating work on the daily. She also receives audience feedback as quickly as a client’s response thanks to below the line comment section, something she believes to be a gift.

“Part of our job is to read comments and find out what people like, and part of our job is to use those learnings and bring them back into our work that we do for brands,” she says. “We make 600 pieces of content a day, which produces so many different learnings. We don't have to rely on research studies. Because we're on the internet we get instant feedback. I'm kind of addicted to that now.”

Bonello believes the majority of staff at Buzzfeed understand the purpose of her role; the only issues she’s experienced have come from being “typecast” as a designer. But it hasn’t been the same experience for Stubbings and Wixley, who took on brand new creative roles at heritage companies.

A confusing breed

“From a media owner perspective there's always a danger that creativity is the add on at the end of a deck,” says Clear Channel's Stubbings. “What we've made a big effort to do is say it has to sit in the middle, because that will change the way people think about it internally and how we're perceived externally.

"The point at which we bring revenue into the business that we wouldn't have seen had [the creative] team not been in existence is where we win.”

She believes the creation of her role gives Clear Channel more gravitas (“we’re not just taking the money and running as a media owner”), however getting traditional creative agencies to listen to her creative opinion has, unsurprisingly, been a struggle. It’s no wonder: with budgets being squeezed and work being taken in-house, ad agencies are doing all they can to prove their expertise in execution as well as in conception.

But, Stubbings contends, “agencies can't know every single change every media owner is making all the time". She believes greater collaboration higher up the creative funnel is to every player's benefit in the long run.

Old questions, old answers

Wixley faces the same challenges at Wavemaker, one of the biggest media agencies on the planet. Only recently has it been actively pushing to have its creative opinion heard by clients and ad agencies, both of whom has historically expected a basic executional service.

“We still get asked very old questions which means I'm expected to answer with old answers,” she laments. What’s an old question? One that involves old media, “sticking within the lines”. Now, with the advent of voice and other interactive medias, Wixley believes her team’s ideas – “the kinds of ideas that live in the world” – are more salient than ever.

“It's a childish thing, but we call ad agencies ‘ad agencies’ not creative agencies because that implies that nobody else is creative, and that's a pity,” she says. “Yes, ad agencies live or die by ideas. Their business thrives or folds. Ours doesn't. However, that is changing, and that is part of the pivot of Wavemaker. We're trying to spot new opportunities before a brief lands.”

Wixley’s strategy for augmenting the voice of media creatives is to produce impressive work, one brief at a time. Yet Stubbings, with one foot and a healthy mindset still in the commercial side of the business, is taking a more proactive role. She visits agencies, demonstrates new innovation and has even set up the Out of Home Creative Council to raise the profile of creativity in outdoor as a sector – not just her company.

Marking territories

This approach has meant that Clear Channel is now receiving briefs that ask for more than “traditional outdoor” and is, crucially, winning creative awards. But Stubbings is aware that stepping on creative toes in the trophy department is no doubt bad for business.

“It is challenging because we're being asked to contribute much earlier on in the creative process and also bring those ideas to life,” she explains. “We have to be aware in the part we play in that process. There'll be times where it’s still essentially all down to the creative agency, and times [when it’s not]. It's just about being a grown-up, really. I want to break away from the idea of ‘well, we should have been on that award’ to ‘well, of course we're on that award, because without us that wouldn't have happened’.”

Stepping into creative agencies’ territory is something that Wixley is also aware of. But for her, it’s a non-issue. Put simply, she believes there’s no such thing as too many creative voices when they are all informed.

“I don't believe in being greedy, and there's plenty of work for all of us,” she asserts. “For us to be scrapping at each other while Rome burns ... that is fucking stupid. The world needs more creatives, more creative-minded people thinking around corners. [Ad agencies] are moving towards us and we're moving towards them. and the more the merrier. We shouldn't be fighting each other, we should be trying to create better and better work.”

And Wixley’s gradually expanding team is testament to an inarguable bonus of the creative media department: more jobs. “There are more spaces for people to come and play, earn their bloody rent and be successful,” she says. “That can't be a bad thing."