With only a handful of established names to choose from in the UK, direct marketing agencies seeking an executive creative director are having trouble finding one. Most of the established players have their name above the door of their own agency, or are tied into equity deals in networks or agency groups. The number of pretenders to their thrones is diminishing.
One solution is to promote from within. EHS Brann took this route last week, when it promoted Patrick Baglee, one of four creative directors at the agency, to its top creative post.
But internal promotion can be a big risk for both parties. Terry Hunt, the chairman of EHS Brann, explains: "The right candidate needs technical skills across all the different media, as well as an understanding of clients' expectations and the ability to speak confidently about what the work is going to achieve in business terms. It's an unusual individual who has all these skills. Some people find the job difficult."
The growing allure of the fast-moving online world is another factor. "We're in a period of rapid change," David Harris, a creative partner at Lida, says. "Direct mail as we know it today will not exist in a few years. Students want to get jobs in digital rather than advertising or DM, because they recognise those will soon become obsolete."
Nick Moore, the former executive creative director of Tequila\London and the chief creative officer designate of Wunderman New York, suggests history also plays a role. "During the recession of the late 80s and early 90s, no-one hired any creatives," he says. "They would be the ones coming through now. The other problem is that agencies don't train senior creative people. The jump from group head to creative director is a huge one."
This is true across the industry. But what is it about DM that makes the problem worse?
One theory is that creatives also have to grasp the less glamorous but increasingly important data side of the business. This issue can prove a barrier in the search for suitable candidates on the agency side too. "Big DM agencies with complicated offerings may fear that the appointment of an executive creative director may take the spotlight off the data element," Moore says.
Chris Thomas, the chief executive of BBDO Asia and the former chief executive of Proximity London, thinks direct agencies have become distracted. "They have become more focused on how to generate a response rather than how to get the best out of the creative team," he says.
The fact remains that there are few heavy-hitting direct creative directors to fill the gaps left by the departures of those such as Moore, who has left for the US, or those who have opted for the more exciting life of a start-up.
As agencies are forced to extend their offerings in an increasingly integrated world, the demands on their lead creatives expand. Remits that once comprised direct mail and responsive press ads now cover digital and sophisticated attitudinal data. Add to that the responsibility for convincing clients to buy work, as well as being responsible for the agency's visual image, and it's an impressive juggling act. Perhaps it is no wonder there are few willing or able to step up to the job.
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CREATIVE - Steve Stretton, creative partner, Archibald Ingall Stretton
"There weren't a lot of start-ups for a while and these tend to breed new creative directors because they're more willing to give people a chance. At the awards, you used to be able to spot a hot new team and potential creative directors.
"Agencies looking for executive creative directors often have impossible briefs to match. They need to manage people, to have won awards, be a name in the industry and be strong in digital. There are not many of these people around. These days, you need a wider range of experience. To find a creative director with integrated knowledge that includes a big bit of digital is difficult - there aren't that many around."
HEADHUNTER - Louise Wall, head of integrated, Kendall Tarrant
"If you're going to look at an ambassador, you need someone who is more mature and has experience and expertise.They have to get the whole picture and have to be media-neutral.
"An ambassador is different from someone who rolls their sleeves up. But often agencies want both. I'm not sure that any discipline can afford one person just for an ambassadorial role and there are fewer people able to do that role.
"They need to cover digital, response advertising as well as traditional DM. I'm optimistic, but we have to redefine the role and we will have to pull in from other disciplines."
AGENCY HEAD - Tim Bonnet, chief executive, Tequila\London
"Traditional DM agencies will struggle. It's about big ideas and what channel they're executed in. The danger is you could get a very good DM practitioner who can't be media-neutral.
"An agency with strong digital and integrated ability will find it easier to attract the talent.
"Then you need practitioners underneath that - in retail, promotions and DM - who elicit responses in different channels.
"A creative department needs a combination of both - ideas that can travel through different channels and people who are skilled in the different disciplines."
CREATIVE - Nick Moore, chief creative officer designate, Wunderman New York
"The majority of people in DM creative departments are in their twenties and thirties. But you need to balance youth and experience and it's the experienced people who go on to be executive creative directors.
"There is also an element of having to be careful what you wish for. An executive creative director has a dramatic impact on an agency and agencies aren't always prepared for that.
"In the US, where DM is more mature, they've all got big name executive creative directors. Their creative departments are more structured and hierarchical - there's a more structured career path, more like an account handling career."