Close-Up: Live Issue - Do we need regional creative heads?

By Noel Bussey,, Friday, 24 June 2005 12:54PM

What do regional creative directors actually do, apart from accrue air miles?

It's a common preconception in agencies that the only purpose of regional creative directors is the acquisition of air miles.

And it's easy to see how this view arose. Historically, the role has frequently been handed to a senior agency creative director as a final resting place in a long and often distinguished career - a way to put someone out to pasture.

Adrian Holmes, the former chairman and worldwide creative director of Lowe, has just taken the mantle of Young & Rubicam's executive creative director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Holmes is Massimo Costa's first major appointment since Costa was made the chairman of Y&R's European network.

But, with agency margins tight, you might think that employing a person in a highly paid sinecure is not good commercial sense. So why has Y&R created such a role after years without a regional head?

Costa explains the reason for Holmes' appointment: "It's a crucial role but very difficult to fill, which is, I guess, the reason some agencies don't have one, and why Y&R hasn't had one for some years. Having the wrong person in the role is worse than having no person at all."

Regional creative heads summarise their work as travelling around the world dealing with major client accounts, reaffirming creative output and working on regional or global briefs. It also includes working on pitches, talking with clients, providing a sounding board for local creative directors, making speeches, bringing on young talent and generally reaffirming the paramount truth about the business.

Holmes says that the role has changed dramatically in recent years: "Certainly, the days are long gone when the regional creative head simply swanned into town, stuck the global reel into the U-Matic and then caught the next plane out. It used to be true that senior creatives were 'put out to grass' in this role but, frankly, no agency can afford that kind of pasture any more."

John Pallant, Saatchi & Saatchi's European creative director, ag-rees. He says: "Working with major clients gives me a chance to get involved in the creative work as well. It gives me the chance to apply creativity to huge bits of European business where traditionally there hasn't been any."

The dubious nature of some pan-regional advertising - simplistic ads with poor dubbing and tenuous cultural references - has been a major problem for many inside the industry, and the continued employment of regional creative directors could be seen as a way to rectify such problems.

"I'm convinced you need a good regional creative director to prevent 'pan-European' advertising from becoming what I once heard described as 'lavatory-pan-European' advertising," Holmes says. "Without anyone in charge or goading things on, the work can so easily default to the bland lowest-common-denominator stuff that gives the sector such a bad name. That's the price you pay for 'diffusion of responsibility'."

As for the amount of time spent accruing air miles, he defends the requirement of regional creative directors to spend much of their time abroad: "Attempting to be a regional creative director without actually getting on a plane is a bit like trying to eat Chinese food with billiard cues."

EUROPEAN CHAIRMAN - Massimo Costa, chairman, Young & Rubicam Europe

"At its simplest and broadest, a regional creative head looks to be the leader in setting and maintaining the highest possible standards of creativity across the region, helping to drive clients' business performance.

"They need to be able to work with regional and global clients, ensuring top quality both regionally and locally, as well as working on regional and local pitches.

"They also need to help develop and maintain a consistently high quality of output across the region while attracting the best talent and being a mentor to other creatives and a top-table player speaking out for creativity in the management team.

"An absolutely fundamental requirement is that he or she must have both the total respect of local creative directors and a top-class proven track record."

GLOBAL CREATIVE - Neil French, regional creative director, WPP

"The role varies from agency to agency. In some organisations, he's just the super-creative director in charge of regional business for large clients.

In others, he's the creative director of creative directors and helps each office do better work.

"One thing is certain: a regional creative director means the region works more efficiently, saves the time of the regional chairman, and allows the creative function to work within itself, rather than being at the beck and call of a bevy of panicking suits.

"If they're used properly, they are neither superfluous nor an extravagance as some people may think. But if they are superannuated old bozos, then of course they're pointless."

EUROPEAN CREATIVE - John Pallant, European creative director, Saatchi and Saatchi

"Everybody in the network will benefit from a regional creative director. Things are different in the UK from many other offices, so somebody who works closely with all the offices can share ideas they pick up.

"There are a lot of pan-European accounts now and the clients expect us to produce campaigns that translate to a lot of different countries and cultures. It's my job to make sure none of this work is diluted, as nobody wants to go for lowest-common-denominator ads. There are also so many more layers of sign-off with pan-European accounts, which takes a lot more planning."

GLOBAL PRESIDENT - Michael Maedel, president of JWT Worldwide

"It is a hugely important role and any agency needs a strong partnership between its management and a good regional creative head.

"They take on a very complex role and it is not an easy position to fill as an employer. They don't just travel around having lunch; they are visionaries who are actively involved with client issues and problems on a national and international scale.

"They have to be leaders who are competent enough to form relationships in different countries and cultures. This isn't a job for a creative in the last leg of his career before riding into the sunset any more, it is now a role for an individual with determination and passion for the role."

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