Why New-Hire Creative Bigwigs Barely Make It Through the Appetizers

An Insider's Take on That Curiously Revolving Door

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High-level creatives leaving agencies is becoming as commonplace as the shifting of agency clients. One after another, heavy hitters have left big shops, sometimes to start shops, sometimes for no shops at all. Call it "The Summer of Amicable Departures."

Having been at my share of places where the big guy recently left, I've had the distinct pleasure of watching some of the drama unfold -- from the honeymoon phase to the stormy waters to the departure press release followed by the wise and immediate exodus of "good" creatives he brought in.

As a cog in the machine, I can only speculate as to the reason why so many bigwigs have departed in such a short span, and in truth there are many reasons why. But for those of you who have watched the proceedings from the sidelines, scratching your heads or combing the trade-pub comments to learn what really happened, here's one insider's observations.

The process typically goes something like this:
1. A nice speech is made, welcome notes go out to staff. Existing creatives discover the new guy a) likes having his butt kissed b) is indifferent to the butt kissing or c) is annoyed or indifferent to the kissing, and he'd like to see exactly what it is you've been working on lately. (This can be the fun part.)

2. New chief stares down the realities of the existing clients and staff. He ekes out a few notable executions, but clients and account people are beginning to grumble.

3. The realities of the agency's true mission stare down the creative chief. The creative chief blinks.

4. A new, more carefully worded staff note goes out, usually after the news has already been reported somewhere. The old guard breathes a sigh of relief, able to go back to what they were doing before. The young creatives who were there before are left stranded and disillusioned, watching as their would-be rescue ship floats back out to sea.

When my creative brethren and I are in job interviews, we often hear this cliché: The agency is "turning things around." It's our industry's version of "the check is in the mail." The hiring of a new creative director is regularly used as proof. But the fact is, the big guys are often as easily fooled as the rest of us. Sure they've earned their accolades at one of the top shops. Not to mention made management, thus proving both right- and left-brained abilities. So what could go wrong?

I've witnessed plenty of issues crop up for a new creative leader. For one thing, if he doesn't have or can't bring in good account support, he will likely not succeed. More often than not, the problem stems from the ultimate account person: the president of the agency. And of course, the clients themselves will be difficult to change. So the shop's new-business team had better be stellar.

And so, few will succeed. Nine times out of 10 they'll eke out a few things and then move on to a new town like a well-paid David Banner at the end of a Hulky rampage.

So why did the agency hire them in the first place? There's a convoluted old saying: "Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue." When you're done figuring that one out, I'm going to add my own twist: Maybe hiring a big fancy CCO is the homage that big, bottom-line driven agencies pay to good creative. They like the prestige. They're just not willing to pay the price it comes with.

But what do I know? As a small fish, a management outsider who happened to have season tickets to the shakeup circus, my advice is unfortunately no more insightful than to tell all those Big Kahunas in search of the next big agency challenge that it's still rough out there right now. Do your homework carefully, and watch where you step.

And to all those big agencies trying to "turn things around" in hopes of big press releases and juicy articles written about you in the pages of publications like this one, well, be careful what you wish for.

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