Agencies Agency Culture Career

Why do so few creatives become CEO?

By Jon Wiliams, CEO and Founder

May 26, 2023 | 7 min read

Why don't the creatives lead creative agencies? Jon Williams, founder and chief exec of Liberty Guild, argues that copywriters, art directors and creatives of all stripes should aim for the crown.

The royal crown of Bavaria on a cushion

Why do so few advertising leaders have a creative background? / Unsplash

Why are the CEOs of creative agencies pretty much all from account management? Can creatives not be trusted with the numbers – or with actually talking to the clients? For an industry that lives and dies on its creative reputation, why do we always leave it up to the suits? Why are we happy to sit in the corner and play with our crayons instead of getting creative with the P&L or growth strategy?

I was, and still am, a creative. 25 years, man and boy. But I had to start my own agency to get the CEO gig. I remember, a lot earlier in my career, asking for a sabbatical to do an MBA. I got laughed at by the account exec who’d risen to be CEO. Why would I want to do that? It was inconceivable to him that the ladder I wanted to climb led to his job and not the chief creative’s chair.

There are two clear paths in this business. The slow lane of copywriter/art director/whatever, CD, ECD, CCO and maybe at some point the cul-de-sac of creative chairman. And the well-worn fast track of account exec, manager, director, head of, MD, country CEO, regional CEO and on to world domination if you play your cards right and keep your nose clean. Literally.

But we don’t have to stay in our lane.

So what, if none of us ever gets any actual training in any sort of actual management; people, financial, workflow, whatever. ‘Pu’ is the “uncarved block’. It’s a huge principle in Taoist philosophy. Things in their original state have their own natural power. The uncarved block carries unlimited possibilities. It’s not held back by convention. You can only approach the gig with a totally fresh mind if you have not been trained for it from the cradle.

Lack of training doesn’t matter. How you’re supposed to do it is not important. Not knowing leads to innovation and reinvention. Tom Kelley talks about it in The Art of Innovation: “Be more open to asking the childlike ‘why’ and ‘why not’ that lead to innovation,” he writes.

Ask that childlike “why” to a lot, and I mean a lot, of people. Find out where the problems are in our world and then apply your experience and creativity to that.

Maybe you’re an introvert that shuns the limelight. Remember you don’t need to be the time-served, silver-tongued suit. In fact, their training often leads those people’s first reaction to anything being ‘yes’. We all know that doesn’t really help. After looking at and critiquing work for 20 years, who knows this better than a creative?

It’s easy to spend all your time fastidiously focused on the work. And I know when you’re the guardian of its immortal soul, the agency machine rather fades from significance. Nothing else matters, right? Wrong. You need to look up from time to time – see what’s happening around you. You can obsess about the work and run an agency. We can all multitask.

If you take a soul-sapping flick through any book on leadership, it will be riddled with statements like ‘The role of a creative leader is not to have the ideas but to create the culture’, or ‘You don’t need to be creative, you just need to understand creatives’. Really? Aren’t those all just excuses to help the industry-standard CEO sleep at night?

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Because, having a creative as the leader of an agency – and I don't mean some charismatic talisman – can really make a massive difference. I think you need to be a creative to run a creative business. You see, you can’t learn creativity. You either are or you aren’t. You can, however, learn how to run a P&L, understand VAT, get a grip on employment law and find your way around the shareholding structure. It’s not rocket science. Trust me.

Who better to shape the business than someone who knows exactly what happens on the factory floor? A creative CEO running the P&L means both sides of the business are genuinely, finally, meshed together as one. This is a call out to all creatives. Don’t leave it to the suits. You really can do it better. And wear jeans. We need so much more of it. And that’s the way to signal to clients in 72pt extra bold that your business is serious about the business of creativity.

Jon Williams is founder and CEO of Liberty Guild.

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