Viewpoint: The Trouble With Titles

Why the Ridiculousness Has Gotten Out of Hand -- and How It Could Be Hurting Productivity

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I was having lunch with a friend the other week, when he told me that a mutual acquaintance had just gotten a new agency job. She was now a "fanthropologist."

After I stopped laughing at the ludicrous title, which was basically a fancy way of saying "planner," I realized that it wasn't an isolated incident. Title ridiculousness has gotten out of hand.

America seems to be obsessed with titles. Perhaps the advertising industry in particular. A former co-worker once told me he had taken to introducing himself as an executive-VP, just so people would take his call. In contrast, in my native Denmark, agencies have one creative director, who is responsible for overseeing the work of the agency. Everyone else is a writer, art director or designer.

This is the case in most European countries, where title inflation hasn't happened in the same way it has here. To make things worse, as the recession set in over the last few years, promotions were often given instead of raises, which has led to some agencies having more generals than soldiers. At least according to their business cards.

After hearing about the "fanthropologist", I polled Twitter and Facebook for the most ridiculous titles people had ever come into contact with and some stunning ones came back. There was: "Director of First Impressions," "Global Head of Attraction," "Creative Undertaker," "Conceptual Jackhammer," and my personal favorite, "Global Head of Hair" (at a large CPG company).

To be fair, some of the new-fangled titles, in the ad world at least, have come into existence because the nature of the work agencies are doing today has evolved. With that comes genuinely new roles. The prime example is the "creative technologist." While everyone can surmise what it's supposed to mean, I've heard any number of different definitions of what skill-set is required to hold down that position (in my opinion, the best definition remains the one written by Mark Avnet, former professor at VCU Brand Center. You can read that here.

The industry's evolution toward putting increasingly more importance on digital marketing prowess has sparked a whole new set of titles, that in some cases are making it a real challenge for clients to figure out whom to turn to. Should they consult the chief creative officer at their digital agency or the chief creative technologist at their traditional agency to execute a new digital campaign?

I myself had the long-winded title of "chief digital creative officer," while I was at Ogilvy, and it's common now to see the "chief innovation officer" title popping up at agencies. Chief Innovation Officer is an easy title to ridicule. Shouldn't innovation be in the lifeblood of every single person working at an agency? Aren't we all supposed to bring our passion for changing the way we work and the nature of the work we do for our clients to the table? Sure, but anyone who has ever worked at an agency knows that the pace can be grueling, and keeping tabs on what's going on can be immensely time consuming.

Back in April, Ben Malbon, who is the director of strategy at Google Creative Labs, started a great discussion with a blog post asking if chief innovation officers were needed at all. The initial post, which was a simple question, led to an avalanche of smart people chiming in. Read it all and make up your own mind as to whether your agency's CIO is doing a good job, and if you don't have one whether you need get one.

In the end, it seems that some innovation on the title front is justified. The rest we can probably attribute to either playful attempts at subverting the marketing industry or attempts to inject a little fun into the workday by folks who honestly couldn't care less what anybody else thinks. Maybe it's fun to be a "fanthropologist", dammit!

Lars Bastholm is the former chief digital creative officer at Ogilvy NY and is currently exploring options for his next long-winded title. You can follow him on Twitter at @bastholm.
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