Why creative directors can be hopeless at hiring


In this guest post Paul Fishlock explains why promoting those who seem to be best at their jobs to management can be damaging for diversity.

“Mum, I’ve been made creative director” is a great moment in any creative’s life.

Particularly copywriters, who may have spent years trying to explain to their mothers why their art director is a director and they’re not.

“I’m so proud you’ve finally caught up”, she replies, “when did you learn to be a creative director?” Good question. The honest answer to which is “I didn’t”. Creative director is a role few agency creatives are ever ready for and fewer, if any, have ever been trained for.

One day you’re living the dream, creating great campaigns. The next you get a tap on the shoulder and offered the big chair. How can you refuse? Not just for the leap in salary and status but because it’s the only career progression open to you. And so it is that someone who’s passion and talent is having ideas suddenly becomes manager of the department that can make or break your agency. It’s a million miles from your old job.

Chances are you never studied commerce, business or management so the Excel spreadsheets about resource utilisation and department budget forecasts are sure to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s also unlikely you’ve had any training in HR.

But as a new CD some high profile hiring and firing may well be top of your to-do list.

What happens next is no excuse for the much-discussed lack of gender, race and other diversity in creative departments but it may help explain it.

As new CD, you need to make your mark by hiring a hot new creative team. There are three places to start your search:

  • Mates – people you know and people they know;
  • Headhunters – whose easiest earn is to dish up who they think you’ll buy; and
  • Awards – last refuge of the insecure CD – people other people think are OK.

Given the cost and importance of senior creative hires, none of these is what you’d call rigorous. But portfolios are put forward nonetheless. Bill and Ben have their names on an international award-winner. What’s not made clear is that five other creatives, three CDs and two ECDs are also on the credits. So which part of this wordless work of genius did Bill and Ben do? And was it Bill or was it Ben?

Maybe an interview will shed some light. Being far too cool for a structured interview in an office, you have lunch in an expensive restaurant. Everyone gets on famously. You like the same music, movies, ads, you have friends in common and the same sense of humour. What fun it will be to have Bill and Ben in the creative department. And what a press release: ‘New CD lures multi-award-winning team’.

Nobody stops to consider that the last thing an agency needs is a creative department of creatives who all think the same. It makes for a friendly, comfortable, fun time, but lack of diversity at the workstations is a recipe for lack of diversity in the work. The alternative – managing diverse creative people with diverse views on everything makes the CD’s job a whole lot harder. But isn’t that why they get the big bucks?

Maybe reference-checking Bill and Ben will save the day? But if the CD is only seeking confirmation, the referees Bill and Ben put up won’t disappoint.

As you will have noticed two senior hires are virtually signed and sealed without mention of filthy lucre. Everyone’s so loved-up, negotiation would be vulgar. In one famous story, a CD asked a team what they were currently getting and immediately offered them both 50 per cent more. What he didn’t realise was that the team had just told him their combined salary.

Exaggerated to make the point, I admit, but essentially this is how a lot of creatives get hired. If it later emerges that Bill and Ben aren’t the promised messiahs, un-hiring them is not just costly and disruptive it’s painful for everyone – including Bill and Ben.

I have a dream. You’re an agency CEO who’s just offered a senior creative the CD job.

He or she will only accept it on one condition: you get a business coach to train them to run a department, hire, fire and negotiate. Then you’d know you’d got the right person.

  • Paul Fishlock is principal of Behaviour Change Partners

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