Celebrity creative directors are back.
Last month, fashion brand Pretty Little Thing (PLT) appointed Love Island contestant and Instagram influencer Molly-Mae Hague as creative director.
It forced a collective sharp intake of breath across the industry.
“I can’t help but feel annoyed for creative directors who have worked so hard and fought for the same title over years but for a salary less than 1/10th of what Molly is being paid at the ripe age of 22,” said one LinkedIn user. “To me this seems like one heck of an influencer contract and PR stunt, rather than a genuine appointment”.
“If PLT has given Molly-Mae a glorified title then fair, why not celebrate her creativity (I really like her), BUT don't give her a title that means more than just knowing what people want to buy and that others work very hard for over 10 years to achieve,” said another.
And as the industry debated the merits of this hire, another celebrity was readying to step into a CD gig. Model, influencer and reality TV star Kendall Jenner was given the top job at FWRD, an onlinelast week.
It raised many eyebrows, not least because the only formal business experience Jenner has to date is her work with 818 Tequila, the drinks brand she founded in May 2021. And it has so far faced heavy criticism of cultural appropriation, not least for an ad campaign she led which saw her ride a horse through a farm wearing pigtails and a straw hat.
This isn’t the first time adland has baulked at celebrities taking the top creative job. In 2015, ID magazine ran a feature titled ‘The rise of the celebrity creative director’, delving into the qualifications held by the likes of Chloe Sevigny and Solange Knowles after they joined Opening Ceremony and Puma. And before that there was outcry over Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Lady Gaga taking on the creative director roles for Blackberry, Puma and Polaroid respectively.
“When you’re hired as a CD for an internal role, one of your main responsibilities is to promote the brand in the most effective way possible – this is just another way of achieving that,“ says Sam Richardson, creative director of 20ten.
“Fashion has always been dominated by major personalities and big names – I see this as the convergence of auteur designers (like Virgil Abloh) and celebrity faces of brands (Kardashians and CK).“
Arguably, though, the CD hires of past fell firmly into the realm of PR stunt. Lady Gaga had the title, but there was no real expectation she’d be running the Polaroid brand.
By contrast, press releases lauding Hague and Jenner’s new jobs have expressly stressed the very real work they’ll be doing. The former will take charge for overseeing PLT’s ad campaigns and managing its partnerships, as well as working directly with founder Umar Karmani on the brand’s strategy across the UK and Europe. Meanwhile, the latter has been charged with managing the FWRD’s website design, its brand edits, as well as having a say on marketing, partnerships and PR activations.
”Basically I have creative input/lead within multiple areas of the brand, eg marketing, buying, influencers,” Hague later added. “It’s a 24/7 role… sharing ideas, coming up with incredible new concepts, having input on shoots, events, you name it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Nick Stickland – founder and executive creative director of Odd London, an ad agency specializing in fashion with clients raging from Adidas and New Look to M&S – was not dismissive of Hague and Jenner’s new roles. However, he said their long-term success relies heavily on the clarity of job description as a new order CD.
“Heavy weight media players like Molly or Kendall in this role offer fast track understanding into drivers of desire and, in the case of Molly, from overnight consumer to creative leader in a way that allows PLT to successfully expand its audience through relatable appeal,“ he explained.
“Perhaps they shouldn’t be expected to navigate the distractions of brand politics and the expectations of commercial constraint, more so the luxury and focus as insight and creative injection to ensure the vitality of the brand.“
The point being that while they don’t have the on-paper qualifications you might expect for someone in the position, what they do have is an unrivalled ability to build a following. Jenner has over 186 million followers and a single Instagram post could make or break the career of any new designer FWRD carries. Hague, meanwhile, has amassed a fan base of over 6 million on Instagram. And that means they need to be taken seriously.
“Does [the CD role] traditionally need to be something that includes managerial status or should it a be a soft room for expounding a vision? The past few years have accelerated the way we work and what we expect from the conventions of business practice, in some ways things have moved too fast and we need to catch up as life begins to normalize,“ Stickland continues. “The introduction of celebrity creative directors need not be a threat to those in the existing role but encouraged to work alongside new codes of casting – old school experience x overnight fame – a powerful structure that should be explored.”
20ten’s Richardson agrees that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that the CD role is changing constantly.
”I think the only risk is a change in perception of what a creative director does in the day-to-day as opposed to the glamorous perception portrayed by these high-profile hires. ‘Creative director’ is a grandiose title that implies a deep and meaningful connection with the company the celebrity is advertising,” he adds.
”Social has changed how the world sees brands. Consumers wish to believe in your brand’s platform and mission – so a famous brand evangelist takes you a step beyond merely pairing up a face with a logo. As for whether it will continue, the simple answer is whether it makes the company money. If it works and sales increase, then we’ll 100% be seeing more and more in the future.”