Apologies to James Hilton for stealing an amusing (half) truth from his brilliant essay on creativity, but "it’s hard enough in our industry to find time to have a shit". Which is, sort of, one of the arguments put forward for why the role of an all-powerful creative titan might no longer be tenable in a big, busy agency.
There’s definitely a case here. Always-on, rapid-turnaround, lower-budget creative work can’t all be funnelled through a single point of quality control sat at the executive creative director’s desk.
The new M&C Saatchi model sees creative leadership democratised across a tight group of senior creative leaders, each fully responsible for the clients they work on. Getting creatives closer to clients’ business is absolutely the right ambition, though I haven’t met many brilliant, brilliant creative people who are comfortable with, or good at, bedding down with marketers. The very best creatives are wonderfully odd, they look at the world through a different lens to the rest of us; and the very reason they’re so good at coming up with distinct, provocative ideas is exactly why they’re not the best people to reassure results-hungry clients that their business is in safe and sensible hands.
I haven't met many brilliant creative people who are comfortable with, or good at, bedding down with marketers
In fact, if you follow Hilton’s argument, creative talent should be allowed – encouraged – to roam broadly across a range of creative activities, even if some of those activities don’t obviously contribute immediately to an agency’s income stream or a client’s sales plan. Of course, all creativity that an agency produces for its clients should answer a commercial issue and fulfil a marketing task; but those agencies that can afford to find room for a bit of unfettered creativity to flourish elsewhere within their creative department are perhaps best-placed to attract and retain the talent that will go on to generate those sparks of brilliance for brands.
Back to ECDs, then. At their best, they’re a client-friendly creative figurehead who’s able to ensure the delivery of highly effective creativity while managing and inspiring a bunch of brilliantly odd and wonderfully expansive creative minds. That’s not to say that four people, as at M&C, can’t provide that leadership as well as one person can, though it seems like a bit of a compromise. Just don’t expect your most brilliant creative talents to be able to juggle management politics, lead big teams, really get under the skin of clients and deliver the sort of spine-tingling creativity that made them famous in the first place. That’s surely a route to creative compromise. And if the role of the ECD is under threat, perhaps it’s because there simply aren’t enough people around who are good enough to do it really well.