Nick Bell, the executive creative director of JWT, was ousted last week, causing much debate about JWT's performance under his watch. JWT seemed to be saying that it was time for a new type of creative leadership.
Managing the creative department is just the start. Preserving the glory of the agency's showcase accounts; winning awards; pitching for new clients while servicing and retaining existing ones are standard elements of the modern creative director's remit. Meanwhile, as digital now stands shoulder to shoulder with print and television, many will be tested on how they can adapt and embrace new media.
Bell is said to have joined JWT with the brief to raise its creative profile and win awards. To a tangible extent, he achieved this. So how much of the agency's troubles can he be held accountable for?
Andrew Cracknell, former Bates London executive creative director and a seasoned industry observer, believes the modern demands of the creative director role can distract from the key responsibilities: guarding the integrity of the work and breaking new creative ground. "Today's creative directors are held responsible for the agency's entire portfolio of work, some of which they'll have never seen," he says. "They have to impinge on planners if they want the brief to be right; win awards; balance budgets; keep abreast of new business; satisfy the network and handle the media. How can you be responsible for all that as well as improve the standard of creative work?"
It is a question all the more relevant in a global network such as JWT, where a large proportion of accounts are heritage brands rooted in the global network; brands such as Unilever, Kraft and Rolex. They offer limited scope for creative flexibility, despite being key income generators.
For this reason, Robert Campbell, the managing partner and creative director of United London, believes the remit might have been wrong for Bell from the off. "Clients at JWT want classic, solid advertising, not work that competes creatively against the likes of Mother and Fallon," he reflects.
A former creative director believes the answer lies in separating responsibilities. "The chairman of an agency should be independent of creative responsibility and vice versa. If not, you will always be held to ransom by the threat of losing the business," he says.
But is this just harping back to the old days of creative purity? William Eccleshare, the chief executive of BBDO EMEA, believes so: "You can't make a distinction between the level of creative quality and a client's business needs."
Meanwhile, the quest for awards poses some difficult issues. Especially when accounts with the widest creative profile may not be the highest revenue earners for the agency. While Bell may have succeeded in leveraging JWT's creative profile and improving its showing in the 2006 Gunn Report, the benefits are not likely to be conspicuous on WPP's balance sheet. It's another factor that Campbell thinks was responsible for clouding Bell's remit. "Creative directors tend to have objectives that are impossible to pull off simultaneously - win new business and to win awards," he says.
As the margins become tighter and digital continues to pose questions, the pressure on creative directors won't get any easier, and their legacy will be judged on more than just creative output.
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CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Graham Fink, executive creative director, M&C Saatchi
"The question assumes an old and new style of creative directorship. In fact, there are no fixed models. The job is to direct creativity. My style is moment-to-moment. The creative idea is always evolving. Sometimes I'll fight ferociously for my ideas; other times you've got to know when to step back.
"I'm happy to meet clients, particularly in the early stages. Similarly, having had my own business in the past has equipped me with the skills to be involved in the agency's financial decisions.
"I'm a believer in collaborating with different departments for the sake of good work. But once that's over, there should still be time to go into your office, shut the door and be a temperamental genius."
CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Ed Morris, executive creative director, Lowe
"Being pulled into a global network like JWT with a creative remit, invariably you're going to clash with the rigidity of some of its globally aligned accounts. That's where creative directors need to be either a diplomat or a politician.
"Half my time is spent working on our global network accounts; being able to move fluidly between roles is a necessity. But when an agency starts haemorrhaging money and accounts, things can get nasty, and creative can often become the scapegoat.
"One alternative is to structure an agency like a law firm, where six or seven creative people service the business directly. Though this can only be managed through inspired leadership at the top."
EX-CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Paul Silburn, freelance creative
"The role doesn't need to change, and hopefully never will. A creative director is there to protect, nurture and evolve good ideas, and there are people out there who are more than capable of adapting to the way the business is changing.
"Look at the US, where agencies tend to be much more integrated, and creatives are used to ideas that can be executed universally across channels. Likewise, there are several new London start-ups that have digital expertise embedded within the agency's structure. The role of the creative director is still a necessary one, though. You need someone with the vision to spot that idea and to make sure it finds its way into the right channels and is executed brilliantly."
CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Robert Campbell, managing partner and creative director, United London
"Creative directors need to be given more power and responsibility. Not just for winning awards, but for success across all parameters.
"I'd be interested to see the return of the creative director and chairman role in agencies. David Abbott and Robin Wight are successful examples of this. Both had creative responsibility and business and structural acumen.
"I don't think there's any great mystery about digital either. Once upon a time, there was just press advertising and people had to take on the challenge of TV and radio ads. We should approach digital in the same way. If you create a strong idea for a brand, you should be able to hang it off any medium."