The creative directors proving their worth outside of ad agencies

As the creative director role expands beyond the world of advertising, creative bosses from Buzzfeed, PwC, Slack, Edelman and We Are Social reveal what the job entails outside of agency land.

Once relegated to the confines of the advertising agency, the creative director can now be spotted throughout adland and beyond; from PR to publishing, social media agencies to consultancies.

Moving away from the advertising landscape, a ‘creative director’, ‘executive creative director’ or ‘chief creative officer’ can mean something very different depending on the industry.

But what is the essential thread that defines this new breed of creative director?

The pace of change

Buzzfeed creative director Simon Veksner spent the majority of his career firmly within the confines of adland. The biggest difference between the two roles, he says, is the increase in pace. “My heart always used to sink when I would get a brief that would say ‘2020 brand campaign’, because anything that you might think of could easily be out of date by then.”

Compared to agencies, who often have several layers of bureaucracy between them and the campaign, Buzzfeed provides a chance to use data in a faster and more meaningful way. “The use of data is a bit more advanced on the publisher side,” Veksner says.

Veksner says a change in pace enables Buzfeed to “change things on the fly”

“Weirdly, where you typically see data in an ad agency is when the campaign’s finished. So you might get a report on how the campaign performed, but it’s too late then.”

In contrast, Buzzfeed’s pace allows Veksner to “change things on the fly during a campaign”.

“We change the headline of an article as a matter of policy, and always try different headlines to see what performs best. We re-edit videos during the flight of a video campaign, so that’s different. It’s more organic and alive.”

In another change of pace for the creative, Veksner says not having a huge ad spend behind a campaign also enables the publisher to be “less precious” about the campaign and production.

“At BuzzFeed the content that we are making we put together much more quickly, so we’re left with less precious about it.”

Moving across to the publishing creative role, Veksner has also had to remember how quickly the public’s taste and trends change, which inevitably means the lifespan of content is shortening, something he says the internet has played a huge role in.

“The lifecycle of a piece of content is getting shorter and shorter and what people want to see can evolve within a few months or a year.

“It doesn’t feel to me like TV commercials have evolved that much. Other aspects have evolved – out-of-home is evolving quite quickly with its digital technology coming in.”

The shift up a gear was an experience shared by Jamil Bhatti, Edelman’s creative director, when he made the move from creative to PR. Previously a freelance art director across the Sydney ad scene, Bhatti’s past roles included stints at Leo Burnett and Cummins & Partners.

As with publishing, the world of public relations is similarly beholden to the ever-spinning news cycle.

The major difference between creative and PR, Bhatti explains, “is time. Responses to briefs have always been more rapid in PR due to the nature of working with news cycles.

Bhatti says time and responses to brief are two of the key difference between the creative and PR worlds

“Brands today have to be more cognizant of what the climate is and act accordingly.”

But if PR and publishing seem fast, social media takes things to the next level – something Phil Shearer, We Are Social’s executive creative director knows all too well.

Shearer has worn the creative director hat in roles throughout Sydney’s ad scene, including The One Centre, M&C Saatchi and R/GA.

Compared to an advertising agency, Shearer says a social agency’s rapid pace means the entire operation has “a little less structure”.

“The sheer volume of stuff we produce means you have to sit back and let things go a little more. There is no way one could be across every piece of work that goes out.”

Swimming between the lanes

The creative director is no longer siloed into the ‘creative’ box. Instead, the ability to work with an increasing number of departments is a key trait required of any modern CD.

Anna Pickard, Slack’s creative director, stresses the importance of working with “not only people who are in marketing, but also product writers or designers from different parts of the company who can also come in and allow themselves to stretch their brains in a different way and give people a different perspective.”

Pickard is no longer siloed into a ‘creative’ box

For Pickard, the client-side creative director must act as the glue that brings a range of different talent together: “They are the individual strands that run down, and I’m one of those people that weaves in and out making sure that all of our parts are connected.”

The ability to weave between roles is trait shared by public relations agencies too, as the gap between creative and PR grows thinner.

Edelman’s Bhatti believes creative directors must be as flexible as their agencies in their ability to criss-cross the once rigid above-the-line and below-the-line ‘swim lanes’.

“Above-the-line agencies historically have been given broader scope in their ability to respond to a brief, but those clients that have been open to working with us in new ways are coming back for more, seeing the value our earned approach brings.

“In the not too distant future I think there will be little or no difference between the the two ‘types’ of CDs.”

For PWC’s chief creative officer, Russel Howcroft, swimming between the lanes means having two roles, one which involves “enhancing the shiny-ness of the PwC brand” and another one which consists of working “everyday on how PwC expresses itself”.

On top of this, Howcroft is part of the management consultancy’s CMO Advisory team, which requires the chief creative officer to ensure “marketing is seen as the transformation agent for the clients”.

For Howcroft, who was the CEO of Y&R Australia and New Zealand, says his role differs to that of an CCO at a creative director because he is not involved in for day-to-day creative output for clients.

“At CMO Advisory we are not involved in the day to day output for clients, our clients are using their advertising agencies so the chief creative officer at the advertising officer is responsible for the output. Within the world of PwC I am one of the individuals that is responsible for how we express ourselves,” Hocroft explains.

The publishing industry is echoing adland with a similar removal of barriers, as publishers start to wake up to the benefits of removing the traditional church and state separation between editorial and branded content teams.

At Buzfeed, collaboration with other brands and departments is a regular occurrence, says Veksner.

“We’ve done a big program for Tourism Australia that was a collaboration between the branded content team and the editorial team.”

Veksner also argues that as a creative at Buzzfeed, you’re working more “on the ground” with people to develop the concept and creative.

“An ad agency is dropping the campaign onto the public from an aeroplane. We’re more on the ground working to develop it with people, and people comment on a Buzzfeed article or post which they do in that hundreds and thousands.”

Letting go of the reins

For any creative director, one of the most important skills to learn is letting go. But it’s not always easy – as Slack’s Pickard has found.

“I still get to do some writing which makes me very happy, although I’m trying to give up, or try to be better about giving it up because it’s important to do so.

“I still write some of the release notes, so I’ll pop onto Twitter and shove a higher touch conversation with someone.”

For We Are Social’s Shearer, the letting go of the reins actually works in his favour, since “small reactive posts can become huge.”

“Some of the most celebrated work in the agency may take place without too much oversight.”

The social media world has meant Shearer is given “less structure” which means “you have to sit back and let things go a little more”.

Shearer says there is less structure in the social world, which means he has to let things go more

Being across every single piece of work which is completed is just impossible due to the sheer amount of work produced, he adds.

On the other hand, Buzfeed’s Veksner says being involved “closely” at the briefing stage is still imperative no matter what company you are working in.

“That determines everything whatever company you’re in, whether it’s an ad agency, media agency, publisher – getting the brief right is everything. So I get heavily involved the briefing.”

Another step in the process where Veksner still remains heavily involved is the idea phase of Buzzfeed’s branded content.

“Just like a creative agency, we have creatives who will produce the work which is obviously branded content in our case and they’ll show me their ideas.

“This is the other point where I get most heavily involved, which is helping the creatives to make their ideas as good as they can be. There’s a little bit of maybe saying: this one doesn’t quite work, or this one could work if we change it in this way, or have you thought about that?”

Despite learning to manoeuvre a creative title outside of adland, Veksner is keen to stress he hasn’t completely fallen out of love with his old stomping ground: “I don’t mean to be bashing creative agencies, because that’s what I’ve worked for 20 years. I love creativity and creative people and creative agencies and always have done and always will.”

For others, including Howcroft, championing the advertising industry is something he will continue to do every day by putting marketing at the forefront of businesses and as a cornerstone to problem solving business problems.

And for PR creative Bhatti, there soon will be a time when a creative is a creative no matter what lane they swim in.



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