Close-Up: Live Issue - Is it time for a new breed of creative?

Does Grey's choice of Jon Williams suggest the rise of a new creative hybrid, Noel Bussey asks.

Ah, Grey. A safe network with a safe London agency that safely looks after the Procter & Gamble account.

Then, last year, David Patton, a client who had never worked in an agency before, took over as its chief executive, and suddenly change seemed in the offing at the WPP shop. And last week, Grey's brave new world took shape with the appointment of Jon Williams as the agency's new creative chief.

Currently the head of digital creative at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, Williams is a multi-experienced creative, whose background spans above and below the line, at agencies such as WCRS and Harrison Troughton Wunderman, online and offline.

Williams isn't the sort of high- profile name that the old Grey might have aspired to. He has not done the usual ten years running a big creative department and is not seen as a traditional creative director. But in his new role, none of this is crucial.

As Grey's chief creative officer, the plan is for him to "revolutionise" the way the agency's creative department works. Instead of running the department day-to-day, he will effectively marshal the different skillsets available in the agency and try to ensure that every client and every brief is looked at through as many channels as possible.

Williams says: "Struggling for a shit analogy, I'll be like a conductor." But then ruminating on the fact that everyone will be watching intently to see whether the idea fails or not, he adds: "A conductor crossed with a lab rat, I suppose. There is no Haynes Manual for building a department to meet the needs of what we have coming. It's part science and part art."

Patton points to agencies such as Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Goodby Silverstein & Partners in the US as similar examples of creating work through any channel and not just looking for the big idea that translates into TV.

He says: "We'll be breaking down the walls of how a creative department is set up by reinventing the outdated creative processes that are impeding creativity.

"It doesn't worry me that Jon hasn't strictly run a creative department in the traditional sense, because that frees him of preconceptions and allows him to look at ideas through all channels. That is why he is the perfect choice for the role. Chief creatives need all of these skills now."

Often, when these types of pieces are written, the subjects try too hard to emphasise just how similar their thinking is and end up coming across as unnatural and forced.

However, Patton and Williams talk so animatedly about this concept that they actually sound as if they are reading from a script.

The main driving force behind the change is to give the clients what they want. "I believe in the ideology and I know the clients want it as well. Everything we're trying to do is wrapped around the client's needs," Williams says.

Shaun McIlrath, the creative director at Hurrell and Dawson, says: "Grey has been very pigeonholed in terms of its output, but Williams is very much the kind of well-rounded creative director clients want to see."

Both Patton and Williams agree that the move is a bold one. But they also think that it will become the blueprint for how agencies work in the future. So is the industry ready for a new type of creative director?

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AGENCY HEAD - David Patton, chief executive, Grey London

"Today's ideal chief creative officer is a superhuman jigsaw - part-media planner, part-digital radical, part-client business partner, part-creative genius (of course). But a really big part of the role is to be an agent of change.

"Fundamentally, they must understand and respect all the channels we work within and have a truly democratic view of all these channels.

"This is the non-negotiable quality. If your chief creative officer has this, they will not accommodate silo-ed or selfish ideas, will knock down the walls between channels (literally), demand innovation and open up your agency from the inside out."

CREATIVE - Shaun McIlrath, creative director, Hurrell and Dawson

"The most interesting thing about Jon Williams' appointment at Grey is that David Patton, an ex-client, has made it.

"This trend is already well advanced in the US. It's happening more slowly in the UK, but there's no doubt we're going to see more people with digital backgrounds rising through the ranks to become creative directors.

"It's inevitable because clients are looking at creative solutions in a much broader way and want people who can talk to them with authority about the different communications channels. Unless creative directors can view all the disciplines equally, they can never offer impartial solutions."

HEADHUNTER - Liz Harold, founder, LIZH

"If executive creative directors at traditional agencies don't have the necessary broad range of skills themselves, they must, at the very least, be prepared to embrace them and to hire people with the right experience.

"No above-the-line agency today can afford to turn away a would-be client because it can't offer the expertise. That's because there will always be somebody else who can provide it. I'm asked all the time by above-the-line shops for people who have these extra skills.

"We're moving towards a situation where every agency will offer everything a client needs. Executive creative directors will become younger because it's mostly among the young that these new skills are to be found."

CREATIVE - Steve Aldridge, creative partner and chairman, Partners Andrews Aldridge

"Increasingly, it's about developing ideas that can work in any number of different media. TV is just one of those, although it's becoming increasingly niche. Yet that's historically where agency creative directors have had to prove their worth.

"I think Grey has sent a strong signal to clients and agency-folk alike that they recognise the nature of ideas and communication are changing and, as a result, the type of creative director that can exploit it must change, too.

"Creative directors with multidiscipline experience, digital, direct, brand, experiential and design have an advantage now and in the future. Bring it on."