Global Creative Chief: A Title Built on Politics and Ceremony

Viewpoint: Only a Few Do It Well

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Mark Wnek
Mark Wnek

People are always asking me for my opinion on the role of global chief creative officer. Here's my thinking. Take any major office in a global advertising network. That office will have serious clients doing serious business. Those clients will be with that office because they trust and believe in the people there. Among the people they trust and believe in will be the chief creative.

The problem with the existence of a global chief creative officer is that it suggests the local chief creative requires supervision. No big-time client wants to have creative work masterminded by somebody needing supervision. And no major client in, say, China is crazy about a global creative chief based in, say, the U.S. hiring his or her local creative.

That suggests that global creative directors are largely either ceremonial or political appointments. A big problem with the former is the state of the economy: Who can justify the overhead of a ceremonial global creative head right now, if ever?

The problem with a political appointment (which, by the way, I don't believe any organization can afford at any time) is the problem with all political appointments: They suck. And nowhere more so than in the creative arena, where good, old-fashioned enemies of politics such as idealism and passion for excellence show a troublesome reluctance to go away.

The two main political reasons for a global creative chief appointment are that he or she controls or is valuable on a huge piece of global business; or that he or she has politicked themselves into the "global management team." Neither of these scenarios is quite so bad if the creative chief in question has also achieved his or her status via genuine creative chops -- such as a major award like a Cannes Grand Prix, Cannes being a relatively respectable global awards system. I would also suggest the award needs to be for a major brand: Anyone can do resonant "scam" work; only big creative players can win Grand Prix on big and/or global deodorant or car or beer or toilet-cleaner brands. Relationship skills alone do not qualify a person for any kind of creative leadership. They simply don't elicit the respect from creative people necessary to lead.

Creative skills alone don't cut it either. I would be suspicious of people with long lists of awards. It takes an incredible and abiding personally oriented determination (I'm bending over backward not to say selfishness) to keep winning advertising awards; true creative directors begin to care more about others' work quite early on in their careers. Creative awards are more about taking credit than the great creative chief's forte: giving and sharing credit.

Some global groups -- agency networks or holding companies -- use global creative chiefs the way Warner Bros. used Woody Allen, as a symbol of creativity with little commercial remit or impact. It's an amusing act of prestidigitation that seeks to draw the eye to one hand and away from everything else: Look, Woody won an Oscar -- but please ignore "Anaconda 7." Look, our office in Madrid won a Grand Prix for a glue exclusive to three stores in Andalusia -- and please ignore our terrible Pepsi work around the world.

This kind of practice is more likely to be prevalent in groups where the creative work is broadly anodyne but where the CEO has discovered the one creative matter that she or he can wholeheartedly relate to: creative ranking lists. Businesspeople like and understand lists, and if they run an ad agency, they want that agency to be on lists.

The beauty of a list is that it doesn't differentiate between a gold for a half-page press ad advertising a hairdressing salon in the Poughkeepsie Observer and a gold for a global multimedia campaign for Unilever. The former is a teeny craft exercise that costs very little and that people have been mastering since their first year at design college; the latter is a massive undertaking akin to getting a Hollywood blockbuster movie made. It requires the input of all stakeholders to be taken in to account while still maintaining the creative single-mindedness, excellence and integrity of the project. Like I say, lists don't differentiate between the two. And nor, oftentimes, do head honchos looking for global creative directors to get their agencies on those lists.

Awards are a very cheap way to try to buy creative culture. I say "try" because I wonder how many clients really fall for it. (Admittedly my network, Lowe, has traditionally featured high on such lists; we are a "flatter" organization with a creative leadership council and a deeply ingrained creative culture that doesn't require a creative chief to enforce it.)

As ever, I've meandered on a bit of a tangent, but here's the point: True global creative heads who have the creative chops and influencer skills to truly affect a network's culture, add value for clients and have the business acumen to also have a hand in commercial decisions are a rarity. I think Lee Clow might be one. And maybe the big man, Mark Tutssel, from Leo Burnett, is another.

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Mark Wnek is chairman-chief creative officer of Lowe, New York.

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