Where Have All the Creatives Gone?

More Chief Creatives Are Looking From Their Corner Cubicles Toward Silicon Valley

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(From l.) Adam Tomkins and Justin Gignac are seeing more companies build creativity into their DNA.
(From l.) Adam Tomkins and Justin Gignac are seeing more companies build creativity into their DNA. Credit: Rob Kalmbach/courtesy Working Not Working

If Don Draper were working in today's ad business, there's a good chance his business card wouldn't read Sterling Cooper but instead Google, Apple or Facebook. Mr. Draper may have found enlightenment on a mountaintop, but today's hot creatives are increasingly finding their Zen in the tech world. Seeking a respite from the realities of today's agency life such as fighting procurement, dealing with difficult clients and continually proving your worth with creative jump balls, more chief creatives are looking from their corner cubicles toward Silicon Valley.

For many who do make the leap, the appeal lies in the opportunity to do work that requires a different level of thinking or that can even change the world. The migration of young talent to tech companies has been going on for years, but the loss of established bold-name creative leaders to the Apples and the Googles is a newer and troubling trend for agencies.

While there are no hard-and-fast numbers of how many top-level creatives are leaving agencies, the anecdotal evidence is there. "Every single day, we speak to chief creative officers who want to do something different," said Jay Haines, founder of Grace Blue, an executive search firm that specializes in communications, advertising and media.

Nick Law
Nick Law

In March 2015, Google snapped up Lars Bastholm, previously global chief creative officer at Rosetta, as global chief creative officer of its in-house agency team, the Zoo. In January, Facebook hired former CP&B CEO and Exec Creative Director Andrew Keller as global creative director of the social network's in-house agency, Creative Shop. The month before that, Tor Myhren, former Grey Worldwide chief creative officer and New York president, left the agency to join Apple as its VP-marketing communications.

Representatives for Messrs. Keller and Myhren did not respond to requests for comment. Mr. Haines attributes some of the transitions to the "dramatic new era of creativity driven by the rise of disruption and shared-economy brands that have gone about innovation at speed and massive scale." By contrast, he said, agencies historically have "operated in a linear way" that does not allow for deep-set innovation. Another motivator, according to Mr. Haines: an increased desire to make a difference in the broadest way possible.

Mr. Bastholm said one of the reasons he decided to join Google after 20 years in advertising is because he wanted a new set of challenges. "I enjoy being a cog in a machine that is truly trying to change the world. I may not have the importance or the big office that I had when I was a chief creative officer in the agency world, but I feel like my work is contributing to something I wholeheartedly believe in," he said.

He described the Zoo as "Google's creative think tank for brands and agencies. We help our clients think strategically about how to use digital in all its forms to achieve their marketing objectives with a bias toward, but not limited to, Google's platforms, services and technologies. We mostly think about how to use technology in creative ways to solve high-level briefs or achieve strategic objectives," he said. "We consider ourselves sparring partners in the process of making great work come to life."

Lars Bastholm
Lars Bastholm

Justin Gignac and Adam Tompkins, founders of Working Not Working -- a networking platform that helps creative talent find freelance and permanent gigs across a range of industries, from advertising to tech -- said they've seen more companies, such as Airbnb, Google, Apple and Warby Parker, building creativity into their DNA, which makes them more competitive with agencies.

"They're realizing the huge impact that strong creative can have on the bottom line, and that those decisions should be made closer to the source," said Mr. Gignac. He and Mr. Tompkins both come from the agency side, having worked as creatives at firms such as Fallon, Ogilvy & Mather and DraftFCB.

Mr. Tompkins said agencies are in more trouble than they were the "first time this happened" during the dot-com boom. "A lot of agency people left for startups promising cool offices, creative freedom and stock options that could actually make them rich. Then the bubble burst and most of them came back. The difference now is that 15 years later, in a post-iPod society, storytelling, branding and design are much more valued by startups and established brands alike," he said.

Mr. Tompkins said shops can help retain creatives if they behave more like a tech company by "expanding in-house capabilities [that] can compete with [brands and startups]." Agencies that create in-house incubators or work with existing startups have a better shot at retaining talent than others.

R/GA launched its accelerator program in 2015, which houses startups for three months and offers mentorship, creative services and networking opportunities, along with an investment, in exchange for a small equity stake. Working with Owlet, one of the companies in which the agency had invested as part of its accelerator program, R/GA developed a sock that transmits an infant's vital signs to a parent's smartphone app. Owlet has already saved the lives of three babies, according to Tech Crunch, and was named best startup on Engadget's list of "Best of CES 2016."

Nick Law, R/GA's global chief creative officer, said R/GA has always "straddled Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley," which has helped satisfy the urge for creatives who may have jumped to tech companies or startups. While many of Mr. Law's peers have shifted to the client side, he said one of the reasons he's stayed in the agency business is because "you belong to a company where you can become boss."

Tor Myhren
Tor Myhren

He added that creatives need to realize that the grass-is-greener theory is a fallacy because "every company has a client, whether a consumer or another business, and we're all at the whim of the market."

"At Google, advertising creatives are not the norm, and we are seen as fascinating, but slightly odd creatures," said Mr. Bastholm. "There's a lot of explaining to do, and you can't take the shorthand you have in adland for granted. The flip side of that is that our different point of view is really appreciated."

While Mr. Bastholm said he can't speak for any other creatives who have jumped to clients, he personally felt like he was spending more time trying to sell his work than making it.

"Then [the work] dies a slow death by a thousand cuts before it launches. And don't get me started on procurement," he said. "Add to that the discrepancy between client requests (something groundbreaking) and what they actually mostly want (same as last year) and the difficulty in figuring out an operating model in a post-AOR world, and it's no surprise to me that many get exasperated with the process."

But there is good news: Mr. Haines thinks the trend of creative chiefs leaving for tech giants will be short-lived. "In three years, we will see a lot of these people return because the industry will be better," said Mr. Haines. His theory is that there will be a "boomerang effect" of creatives returning to agencies after realizing that they had to narrow their skill set for the brand side, as well as adland finally catching up on the innovation front.

And challenge itself it must, especially in terms of what the agency world is currently delivering to clients, according to Mr. Law. "Personally, I still enjoy the challenge of being on the agency side," he said, "but I'm also looking across the environment and I'm a little bit disappointed at the level of new thinking at agencies right now."

Mr. Tompkins isn't so sure departing creatives will return to advertising. "There are just too many other places to go. The good news is that younger leaders will rise to replace them," he added. "Agencies are still the best boot camp."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Lars Bastholm joined Google in March 2016. Mr. Bastholm has been at Google since March 2015. Ad Age regrets the error.