Do agencies need to employ an ECD?

Are executive creative directors becoming an endangered species? Noel Bussey investigates

Malcolm Poynton...role as ECD no longer exists at Ogilvy Advertising
Malcolm Poynton...role as ECD no longer exists at Ogilvy Advertising
Last week looked to be a nervy time indeed if your job title contained the words "executive", "creative" and "director".

In the space of a couple of days, Ogilvy Advertising and Rapier scrapped their executive creative director roles. As a result, Malcolm Poynton is in legal discussions with Ogilvy regarding his future, while Andrew Fraser has left Rapier. Both agencies have cited restructuring and client needs in modern agencies as the main reasons behind the changes.

The pervading thought on the subject seems to be that whether an ECD is needed or not varies between every agency, and is dependent on the size of the business, the personality of the person and the ambition of the agency.

Ogilvy has elected to have four lead creatives who will work across the agency. Guy Lambert, Ogilvy's managing director, says: "We are devolving full responsibility and accountability to our four creative partners. With some very large clients, it is difficult for one person to sit across everything at a time when clients want access to the senior person producing their work."

Instead of an ECD, Rapier has elected to structure its agency around three hubs, each with a creative, planner and account head.

John Townshend, the creative partner at the agency, justifies his decision by saying: "If somebody has too much power, it affects the feel of the agency and the type of people that want to come and work for you. I want our agency to have the hub set-up because I want to give other people some of the power while being able to keep an independent feel to the business but still be involved myself."

Rapier's model also highlights another issue - the presence of a creative above the ECD, such as a creative chairman or creative partner (like Townshend), who may not run the department but is still the top creative presence (and often an agency founder).

Mark Roalfe, the chairman at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, believes a bigger agency not only needs an ECD, but also someone above them to share the load: "It can only work if there is mutual respect and it is clear who does what. Ultimately, you can only have one leader and that has to be the ECD. He/she sets the tone of the department, hires, fires, rewards, manages resource allocation and, importantly, sets the standard."

Changing role

What emerges loud and clear is that the ECD post has changed immensely in the modern agency. Classically, they were the people who covered a couple of key clients, managed the occasional pitch and chipped in with work.

However, their responsibilities are now stretching to include clients wanting to review ideas in a "360-degree context". And gone are the days when chief creatives were protected from meeting clients; these days the ECD is expected to know as much about a client's business as the account director, and see them almost as often.

On top of this, the squeeze on margins and the need for digitally literate creative people means agency creative departments are often staffed with young talent requiring more guidance.

So it's clear why most agencies still prefer to have an ECD. Roalfe says: "It's a huge generalistion to say agencies don't need them. It's only two agencies that are trying something new."

Mark Cadman, chief executive, Euro RSCG London

"The answer has to be a resounding ‘yes' if you want to build a strong local agency. The ECD is a vital role. While everyone in management should be engaged in making the work the best it can be, the ECD is the person who touches and moulds the product more than anyone else. As a consequence, the ECD has a profound impact on the culture of an agency and the way it operates.
"At the heart of every good agency is a balanced team that represents the core disciplines of account management, creative and planning. It would be much harder striking that balance with essentially four creative directors on the team."

Mark Roalfe, chairman, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"It's not about the title, it's about the individual. It's about choosing the right person for your agency, someone who fits in with the culture, the people and the belief system.
"However, he still needs the time to get to the right meetings, see the right clients and view the right work. With a business this size, you need more than one person, so I can take up some of these duties, but Damon [Collins] is most definitely our ECD - he's also the creative lightning conductor."

John Townshend,creative partner, Rapier

"What does ECD actually mean? It's very titular. I think it all depends on the size of the agency. A smaller business probably doesn't need someone in that kind of role, but when you grow to a certain size, you always need a top creative who can handle the client relationships, creative department and PR - but it doesn't need to be an ECD per se.
"When a business grows quickly, the top people start to become spread very thinly, but the heart and soul of the agency needs to still be involved."

Guy Lambert, managing director, Ogilvy Advertising

"We can't speak for all agencies. We can only speak for Ogilvy Advertising right now. Perhaps some do and some don't. Perhaps it's a function of size and/or type of work they produce.
"We have some very large pieces of business that are creatively run by very senior talent. These guys are big names in their own right. Why do they need an ECD? We happen to have four, not one. They are terrific talent and they can cover much more ground than one person."