Why Does 'Creative Director' Describe Two Very Different Jobs?

Coming Up With Overarching Ideas Requires a Separate Skill Set From Executing Them

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Mark Wnek
Mark Wnek
Is it just me, or is the title "creative director" an impossible catch-all? Doesn't it simply encompass too much real estate for any one person to preside over?

At one extreme, there's the skill set required to create an overarching idea covering every possible aspect of a marketing or business problem through all channels and media etc. At the other, the skill set required to execute brilliantly.

Brilliant execution is largely what wins creative awards; the depth, breadth and scale of the idea are secondary at most. Great ideas not so brilliantly executed win nothing, while brilliant one-off executions with no connection to any kind of business results can and do win Grand Prix.

Execution is, for want of better terms, a craft or shop-floor discipline, a field job not a desk job. It bears little relation in terms of expertise, experience, career orientation, passion or otherwise to overarching idea creation. I'm by no means saying one is better or more worthy than the other. They're just entirely different.

Common sense seems to suggest that great executional abilities, along with skill in maximizing those abilities in others, should culminate in the title chief execution officer. Instead, the award-winning execution person wishing to get on the management floor has only chief creative officer to aim for.

In a big agency, that job may be about just about everything but execution. It will certainly mean sitting in a lot of meetings and being sensible, articulate, compelling and emotionally intelligent. It will invariably require taking an active interest in a client's entire business. It will also mean being called upon to come up with overarching ideas (sometimes in the space of a dinner).

Most of the above may be, at best, peripheral to the execution person's expertise or passion.

Yet -- and here's the truly weird bit that you might think would deeply disturb clients -- executional awards are far, far and away the major criteria used by an agency CEO seeking a creative director. It's like seeking a head of military intelligence from among people highly decorated in hand-to-hand combat. (Again, this is not to suggest that either field is superior to the other, just vastly different.)

Clearly what qualifies you to be a brilliant chief execution officer may not in any way qualify you to be chief (overarching) ideas officer.

Expecting any one person to combine both jobs not only may be unfair, it's probably psychically harmful to that person to expect him or her even to try to command such a vast landscape. Sadly, most agencies are set up in a way that results mainly in two creative types: one executionally talented and one personable; one good at making stuff, the other good at talking about it.

Neither should be confused with the ability to have overarching, game-changing, business-transforming ideas. Currently this latter area falls under the remit of the business side of most agencies rather than the creative side. While this is bizarre when you really think about it, it's no real surprise that those traditionally running agencies should want to keep it that way: The person perceived to be the custodian of the business-transforming idea is king.

Most current agency CEOs would probably feel that a chief ideas officer sounds too much like a king. Meanwhile, creative people seem happy to let this state of affairs continue by dedicating their careers to executional awards, like jesters at the king's feet chasing after scraps.

Mark Wnek is chairman-chief creative officer of Lowe, New York. He tweets at Twitter.com/markwnek.
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