Do ad agencies need to have an ECD?

Are the days of the all-powerful executive creative director now numbered?

Richard Flintham: Fallon has no immediate plans to replace its departing ECD
Richard Flintham: Fallon has no immediate plans to replace its departing ECD

Who needs executive creative directors? The question would be regarded as a no-brainer for most of the UK's top-ranking agencies, which tend to agree that they do.

But Fallon is now mulling over the need for the role.

Gail Gallie, who has been hired to steady the Fallon ship rocked by the departures of its founding partners, Richard Flintham and Laurence Green, to launch a start-up, has indicated that she won't necessarily fill the top creative job vacated by Flintham.

Instead, she plans to rely on what she calls a "strong six-pack stomach" of creative group heads with the newly appointed partner, Augusto Sola, overseeing briefs.

The cynical explanation for this is that Gallie's action is more expedient than dogmatic. Flintham, one of adland's most highly regarded creative leaders, will be hard to replace. Maybe that's why she might not even try.

However, the creative chief at a rival agency wonders if the arrangement is just to allow one or two of Fallon's current crop of senior creatives to be "road tested" for the top job.

"An agency with Fallon's creative reputation needs an ECD if it is to continue being a magnet for both talent and new business," the rival explains.

Gerry Moira, Euro RSCG London's chairman and director of creativity, claims that the role of the ECD has changed out of all recognition from what it was even five years ago.

"Not only must you have all the right management, recruitment and motivational skills, but you must also be a pretty hot creative yourself," he says.

"You also need a good grasp of strategy and know how to make sense of digital, as well as being your agency's ambassador. You might even be called on to talk at the IPA. There are few creatives who can do all these things."

Small wonder, then, that those who have this rare combination of talents are so cherished and that few think Gallie will be setting a trend. Indeed, Ogilvy & Mather is the only other top ten agency that has not got an ECD overseeing its entire output.

This, though, has more to do with the agency's "hub" status on three massive accounts - Ford, Unilever and American Express - which have their own dedicated creative chiefs, while Alasdair Graham and Will Awdry have creative command of the rest of the business.

Hugh Baillie, the Ogilvy chief executive, says: "I'm sceptical that you can operate without having an ECD. Having a clear creative point of view at the top of the agency is very, very important."

Agencies advocating the importance of the ECD cite several reasons why the role is so vital. Paul Brazier, who holds the title at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, suggests that an important aspect of the job is being a keeper of secrets - such as who earns what within the creative department - or the guardian of confidential information that a client has entrusted to the agency.

Above all, though, the ECD is seen as the one who gives the agency its creative focus and direction, as well as being the final arbiter when it comes to the work.

"Almost every agency needs this kind of leadership," Moira argues. "You need somebody to be a bastard. We can't go all collegiate. We are not a happy-clappy business and some of our very best work comes through conflict - not by holding hands across the conference table."

AGENCY HEAD - Hugh Baillie, chief executive, Ogilvy & Mather

"The role of ECDs has changed significantly. They are now much more client-facing and so much is being demanded of them from clients. However, it's very hard for ECDs in large agencies to be involved in every account because of the sheer volume of business. Their challenge is to have enough influence over the work without constantly being stuck in client meetings.

"The good ECDs are to be treasured. Not only does the wide range of skills that they need make them hard to find, but they also need to have the right chemistry for the agency's leadership team."

CREATIVE HEAD - Paul Brazier, executive creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"Does AMV need me? That's not for me to say. What I do know is that too much is often made of the ECD title. What every agency needs are natural leaders who influence the direction of that agency. And those leaders may not necessarily be the ECDs.

"But you can't function properly if you have half-a-dozen leaders rather than one. That just leads to rule by committee. I'm all for empowering people, but there are some matters that can't be resolved by calling everybody together to discuss them.

"In the end, somebody has to do the hiring and firing."

CLIENT - Jon Goldstone, marketing director, Hovis

"If my agency, MCBD, decided not to have an ECD, I would be very unhappy. I've always worked very closely with Danny Brooke-Taylor, who not only has a good relationship with our team but understands what we're trying to do strategically with our brand.

"What's more, he knows which of his creatives are best suited to work on our business. Without that, there would certainly be a bit of a bunfight about which team does what.

"Of course, it's important we get to know the creatives working for us, but it's the ECD that's our key point of contact."

AGENCY HEAD - Robert Senior, chief executive, Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon Group

"As far as Fallon is concerned, we would never say never when it comes to appointing an ECD. It's simply that we've been blessed with a situation that gives us the opportunity to look at doing things differently.

"Whether we actually need to have an ECD is questionable. The reality is that creativity is expressing itself in many different ways and forms, which has led us to wonder if a confederation of great creative minds might be the way forward. Not least because clients are looking for speed as well as quality of execution."