How the global chief creative officer position is changing
Debbi Vandeven chuckles, recalling her initial skepticism when VMLY&R Poland suggested buying a porn magazine, Twój Weekend, for client Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza— with sponsors including, among others, Mastercard—just to shut the publication down. It’s just one of the many efforts she weighs in on as global chief creative officer of VMLY&R, overseeing 190 offices around the world.
The Twój Weekend campaign is among the initiatives that VMLY&R is entering at Cannes this year, alongside Wendy’s social stunt “Roast Day,” in which the fast-food chain literally roasted anyone who asked for it on Jan. 4 (among the victims: Planters’ own Mr. Peanut) and a Fortnite integration that saw Wendy’s animated red-haired brand mascot destroy all the freezers at in-game burger joints. It’s also entering VMLY&R Dubai’s “Iftar of Lights,” which aimed to bring Muslim families together for the meal that breaks their Ramadan fast.
But while Vandeven clearly hopes to collect some hardware on the French Riviera, her role isn’t simply about that. In fact, global chief creative officers—who have in the past been criticized as trophy-thirsty—are taking on a new and more critical role in this age of megamergers and holding company-wide creative solutions for clients. Increasingly, they are charged with creating an identity and a signature for the total network as a means to attract new clients and talent. Agencies need to burnish their own brands. Physician, heal thyself.
“Holding companies need to have a coherent vision and part of that coherent vision, maybe even the central part, is the [creative] product,” says Nick Law, chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe and president of Publicis Communications.
Susan Credle, global chief creative officer of Interpublic Group of Cos.’ FCB, notes that she is critical of the role she holds as it has been modeled in the past. “One of the big asks maybe a decade ago was to deliver a certain amount of awards for the global network,” says Credle, who has been in her post since 2015 and earlier served as Leo Burnett USA’s chief creative officer. But “I don’t have any remit like that. I did not sign up to hit numbers of awards at different shows.”
Instead, she says chief creatives should focus on doing their best work for the sake of their clients’ businesses and the recognition will follow.
“What I thought was missing in our industry is a love of what we do and a belief in our agencies,” Credle says. “What a global chief creative officer should be doing today is making sure as a company you’re not just a logo on the door. That’s a slightly different remit than winning a lot of awards.”
When she was poached for the role from Leo Burnett, Credle says FCB Global CEO Carter Murray told her, “‘Come help me look at this company and figure out what we’re going to say about it.’”
From there, she built the FCB brand from the inside out—and not just when it comes to creativity. Credle has, for example, made the agency more environmentally aware. That included enacting certain eco-friendly policies within the shop.
“It makes people proud to be in this company,” she says. “It’s a retention tool, and I think it also attracts talent. It’s not ‘values’ like, ‘Oh, we’re nice.’”
Credle likens her role to that of a gardener.
“The garden always looks the same, but no one ever sees the weeds you’re pulling out,” she says. “That’s my job. Making sure the weeds don’t pop up; the insects don’t come and destroy it as you rotate the crops.”
Credle isn’t downplaying the significance of awards to the ad industry. She’s just wary of their seductive power. “They’re a master class for what we as an industry hold in high esteem,” she says. “We all can learn from looking at the best of the best work for the year. Better creative work is better for the client, better for our industry and better for the people out there running into our work.”
That said, Credle adds, “there will always be networks out there where the No. 1 job for the global chief creative officer is to collect a certain amount of awards at shows.
“What I’ve seen is sometimes that leads to some drastic behavior where people start bending the rules a little bit,” she adds. “It’s a dangerous game.”
Even as the global chief creative officer role shifts from its focus on awards, some are still critical of the top-down approach it carries that can (arguably) stifle creativity. This is why MDC’s Forsman & Bodenfors has eliminated the position.
Guy Hayward, who was chief executive of KBS and has since become CEO of F&B following the 2018 merger of KBS with the Swedish shop, says he does not believe in a structure where creative is being delegated.
“In a hierarchal structure, a lot of creatives spend most of their time getting approval from the people above them and the people at the top spend their time giving approval,” he says. Hayward adds that F&B’s clients are interested in hearing from everyone, including junior creatives, who are working on their accounts.
KBS parted ways with its first global chief creative officer, Patrick Scissons, who is now chief executive of the Ostrich Algorithm, a design and product development studio he founded. His departure came in January 2018, before KBS was folded under F&B in September of that year. Hayward’s thinking was that the global chief creative officer role “was so far away from the work” that it was difficult to see its impact on clients.
F&B Global Executive Chairman Anna Qvennerstedt, who was chairman of the original F&B, says her shop never had a global chief creative officer, so it was an easy decision to keep it out of the equation when the two agencies merged.
“Coming from the original Swedish F&B, we just found that if you give the team the full autonomy to work, it creates motivation,” Qvennerstedt says.
Artists among soldiers
Law says he’s “astonished” that anyone even questions the role. “If you look at creative agencies, their product is creativity,” Law says. “That’s what they sell. In any other industry, the idea that the product people shouldn’t have a place at the table is absurd. At a time when our industry has a bunch of challenges, it’s a time for the product people to really step forward.”
His thinking coincides with Publicis Groupe’s larger “Power of One” model that aims to provide consistency across its various agency brands.
While Law is a staunch supporter of the chief creative officer role (to be sure, he’d lose his job if Publicis decided to nix it), he says he doesn’t think everyone holding the title does it right.
Law says he doesn’t agree that a global chief creative officer’s “only role is to lead creatives in some parallel universe unconnected to the business,” or to focus solely on overseeing the creative output for clients and not on creative solutions for the agency itself.
Instead, he says the global chief creative officer should be the “artist” among “soldiers.” In other words, the chief creative officer should be the creative complement to the business acumen of the chief executive, chief financial and chief operating officers, working closely with them.
“Of course, we need the sort of operational discipline to understand how to run a business, otherwise no one gets paid,” Law says. “The artists, who I’ve been calling product people, their job is to imagine a new future. The important thing is that these two sides work together. When that’s not working, you end up getting the business people making decisions that destroy the product and the product people making decisions that destroy the business. If they’re not working together, then you create these parallel worlds.”
Law notes that “business people” can very well make decisions that look good on a spreadsheet but “are ruinous for the product.” Global chief creatives must ensure that doesn’t happen at their agencies.
Still, if you ask Howard and Qvennerstedt, an agency network does not need to rely on one person to uphold the entire organization’s creative vision.
“We trust the creative and client teams with the responsibility,” Qvennerstedt says.
Credle agrees with Law that the global chief creative officer is a central asset to the workings of the entire company.
“To me, the global CCO is looking at the global network and talking about what our values are, what we stand for, what we believe about advertising and marketing, what we are committed to, so when a client is looking for an agency, they know why they should pick us or why we probably aren’t right for them,” Credle says. “And I also think the global chief creative officer is really about bringing the global assets together.
It’s looking at the chemistry of each agency and seeing where they are falling short and where they are stronger. If you want to be a creative company, it’s the alchemy of the entire company.”
Chief creatives: a brief history
R3 Co-Founder and Principal Greg Paull dates the global chief creative officer role to 2003, when WPP Group named Neil French global creative director. French was forced to resign two years later after he made a sexist remark about women not deserving to “make it to the top” because their natural role is that of a caregiver.
That same year, David Droga moved to New York to take on the role of worldwide chief creative officer for the Publicis network after serving as executive creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi London. If the role was ever about collecting awards, Droga was the perfect person for the job. By 2011, he was the most-awarded creative at Cannes, and in 2013 he became the youngest person inducted into the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, among other recognitions.
His own agency, Droga5, founded in 2006 and recently acquired by consulting behemoth Accenture, was named Ad Age Innovator of the Year for 2018 and also won awards including the Cannes Lions Independent Agency of the Year in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
Still, even Droga lambastes the global chief creative officer title.
“Global CCO was a ridiculous title and something my 34-year-old ego couldn’t resist, or that I dared to properly interrogate, before assuming the role,” Droga says. “It wasn’t long before I realized that, no matter your intentions or your talents, you can’t influence the creative output of any company unless you have serious control and powers that reach far beyond the creative departments.”
Once he realized he was “an ambassador,” Droga says he quit to start his namesake agency.
“From day one, I decided I wasn’t going to just focus on the creative side of the business, but rather I needed to wade into the real business of creativity,” he says. “I also made up the title creative chairman because everything else seemed boring.”
New creative players
As the traditional global chief creative officer role morphs at agencies, other businesses including consultancies and public relations firms are introducing it to try to strengthen their creative offerings.
PR powerhouse Edelman hired away Judy John from Publicis-owned Leo Burnett, where she was chief creative officer for North America and CEO for the agency in Canada, as its first global chief creative officer. John, the driving force behind Always’ iconic #LikeAGirl campaign, was a big score for Edelman.
Accenture Interactive has also been reportedly searching for a global chief creative officer, although the firm declined to comment for this story.
Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says she can see why the big holding companies, which strive for consistency in their work and operate on a hierarchal structure, would want to keep the chief creative officer role.
But she says there has been a shift, reflective of the new guard of creative thinkers who, like F&B, work in closer collaboration with each other, relying less on one person to delegate duties down.
Marketers “are really trying to identify with the community and then create products and services around what the community wants,” Kahn says. “[They are] moving from what’s called product-
focused to customer-focused. The idea of coming down with top-down creative, which is the old way and is much more product-focused, and generating big awards, is not necessarily what the community wants from their brand.”
Grey Chief Creative Officer John Patroulis says he was not initially interested in taking on a global position. “It didn’t sound like something I’d like or frankly be any good at,” he says.
Nevertheless Patroulis did just that in 2017, filling the worldwide chief creative officer post that had been vacant since the 2015 departure of Tor Myhren, who left Grey to become VP of marketing communications at Apple.
“I had shied away from [global roles] because some of them felt like figurehead-y gigs,” Patroulis says. “But the more [Grey Group Worldwide CEO Michael Houston] and I talked about what the agency needed to get where it wanted to go, the more we began to shape it, the more excited I got.”
The role they landed on for him is one “where I have one foot creatively leading” the New York headquarters and “the other partnering with
Michael in leading a vision for the global agency and how to implement it,” Patroulis says.
Like Law and Credle, Patroulis says his job isn’t centered around winning Lions and Pencils, but around a “creative and business partnership.”
He says some of the “best creative leaders in the industry” with whom he has worked—including TBWA Worldwide Creative Chairman John Hunt, Barton F. Graf Founder Gerry Graf, Cutwater Founder and Executive Creative Director Chuck McBride, and BBH Founder John Hegarty—also “run agencies.”
“No matter how creative or creatively empathetic a leader, if they haven’t spent their career facing a blank page every day, they aren’t going to be able to truthfully answer ‘Will this decision make the work better?’” Patroulis says. “Because they’ve never had to face it.”