After all, aren't the ingredients of the creative department itself being sifted, remixed? It's very now for agencies to aspire to a breadth of creative talent that goes well beyond the art-school graduate. Why not record producers, movie directors, set designers, theatrical artistic directors? But doesn't that make strong, single-minded creative leadership even more important, as filter, as referee, as a figurehead from which this potentially messy creative culture can hang?
The best shops are the ones where creative leader and business leader sit shoulder to shoulder, immersed in each other's roles yet champion of their separate disciplines at the highest level and together shaping the agency's culture and beliefs. Without enjoying that sort of supreme co-command, creativity and creatives risk being undervalued even more within the business of advertising.
So agencies may still need ECDs, but do ECDs still want agencies?
The latest issue of Advertising Age explores the recent tide of top-name creative departures from the big US agencies. Ty Montague has quit JWT North America; Saatchi New York's Gerry Graf has gone; Alex Bogusky has left MDC Partners; Eric Silver has quit DDB New York; and Eric Hirschberg has exited Deutsch LA. According to Ad Age, this exodus is testament to the fact that "it's just not fun any more". With the big pay packet of the ECD comes the responsibility and, often, the removal from the actual pleasure of creating that can make the top creative job stifling for the most creative minds. The complexities of digital communications, the speed of turnaround now required, the rigours imposed by holding company systems and the diminished status all make the job less attractive, yet these are the factors that make strong, clear creative leadership more vital than ever.
And the irony is that this is exactly what clients want too: strong creative leadership from their agencies. According to a recent IBM survey of more than 1,400 blue-chip CEOs, "organisational creativity" was cited as one of the three key issues for their companies.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, agencies (generally speaking) have failed to sell their creative offering properly, have failed to ensure their clients get value and therefore pay appropriately for creativity and are, perhaps, now in danger of failing to create the right structures to retain their top creative talent. Perhaps the question should not be whether agencies need ECDs, but how that role can be redefined to bring out the best creative talent and persuade clients that the best creative people are something special worth paying for.