Executive creative directors: creatives or suits?

In this guest post Mike Preston talks about why the decision to take on an executive level role is a complex one for many creatives because the higher you climb the less creative you become.

For nearly two years I have been creative director at Headjam. Recently I was asked to move up to the role of executive creative director. I love being creative director, so before saying ‘yes’, I decided to see what the new role would entail in the current climate.

My experience of executive creative directors over the years is that they are the first on the plane to overseas conferences and major advertising awards like Cannes Lions.

Headjam Partnership Team: Sarah Cook, Luke Kellet, Mike Preston

Headjam Partnership Team: Sarah Cook, Luke Kellet, Mike Preston

I’m not averse to getting on a plane and have done my fair share of overseas travel for shoots and the occasional award show but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning.

The love of the job energises me. Wrestling with a client’s brief, collaborating with a team and producing a cracking idea that works in the marketplace.

I’m not alone. It’s what drives the vast majority of creative people and is also the main reason why a lot of creative people resist taking on a management role such as Executive Creative Director and the salary that goes with it.

A recent recruitment advertisement for a big US agency said it wanted:

“An executive creative director who is: a visionary, a futurist, a leader, able to transform great ideas into leading-edge, engaging creative that captures imaginations. Collaborate with creative, strategy, technology, client services, and UX teams, ensuring projects are running smoothly and the creative vision is realised.”

All good, but the remainder of the ad went on to describe a management and process role that felt more like a position for a “suit” account service person.

While it’s great to see creative people taking up senior management roles and advocating great creative work within the agency and with clients, it’s inevitable that in big agencies the higher up the ladder a creative person goes the further away from the true creative process they are.

Today, many multinational agencies form a hierarchy of creative management by moving their top creative people even further away from the creative process.

This trend was highlighted in a recent PR article for a broadcast advertisement. Included in the list of credits were a chief creative officer, a regional creative director, an executive creative director, a creative director as well as a copywriter and art director … probably the team who came up with the concept.

At Headjam, we have no ambitions to be multinational creative agency. We understand our talented people need space to grow and develop their careers. That’s why I’m delighted to move up to the role of executive creative director.

Even though I now have a fancy job title, I will keep myself grounded by remembering the words of Wieden+Kennedy Portland’s executive creative director, Mark Fitzloff, in a Fast Company article.

Mark Fitzloff

Mark Fitzloff, Wieden+Kennedy

“In advertising there’s a lot of flattery and hyperbole about fancy job titles, but it’s important to have a healthy dose of insecurity or inferiority to have the ability to withstand a lot of those temptations, because a lot of them are bullshit.” – Mark Fitzloff

“Over time you start to realise your job is more about what you’re actually doing every day than it is about the title you happen to have.”

Mike Preston is a principle and the executive creative director at Headjam.



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