Aug 6, 2008

It's Tough to Be a Good CD These Days

With many advertising agencies continually shuffling and reshuffling their organizational decks, one badly drawn line seems to survive every upheaval. I refer to the responsibilities assigned to many (or most) creative directors versus the duties that sit with the account executives.As the industry has moved toward convergence in many other aspects, it has also merged -- or at least jammed together -- these two critical roles. But it has done so in a lopsided fashion, and for the wrong reasons. That's bad.Consider for a moment all the things most creative directors are expected to do well:-- Generate advertising ideas-- Possess the ability to execute (or encourage the execution) of these ideas in many media, including print, TV, radio and digital channels-- Critique both writing and art direction (or, more accurately these days, design)-- Manage not just people, but creative people, effectively-- Inspire and lead the team or department-- Manage accounts in a fiscally responsible fashion, with all the number-crunching aptitude and business acumen that entails -- Teach creatives their craft-- Think strategically-- Schmooze-- Bond with clients -- Present dynamically-- Be a good secretary (oh, sorry, administrative assistant) to oneself-- Think in a "big picture" way-- Contend with a perpetual tsunami of minutiaeI'm sure this list isn't complete. But while it may vary slightly, depending on whether you're the lone creative director at a small shop or a grouper at a large agency, it's close enough.Anyone versed in the workplace psychology will tell you that expecting any one person to do all of the above well is just silly. People who are wired to excel at some of these challenges are almost certain to stink at a few others. Any enlightened HR person knows this full well. And anyone who has worked for an agency cd knows it even better. So why do shops continue to carve out responsibilities in such a nonsensical way? Is HR asleep, or simply impotent? It is a textbook setup for failure.I submit that the underlying causes are a combination of corporate laziness and the account service department's collective abrogation of several of its obvious responsibilities. Sadly, the situation is exacerbated by some creative directors' quests for more organizational control.I would hypothesize that the vicious cycle that spawned this sad state of affairs has gone something like this: Account management people, on average, have become weaker and less capable over the past three decades or more.One possible cause: The training and mentoring just isn't there like it once was, leading to a self-perpetuating downward spiral. Also, the brighter business minds are less attracted to agencies today, because the industry suffers from a perpetual identity crisis, becoming more impotent and less respected and trusted by clients.Creative people can still derive satisfaction from solving advertising problems in creative ways. But, for account people, there's precious little fulfillment when their thinking is given little weight and their value is questioned by clients who see them as redundant and superfluous -- or worse, the enemy.And even when a client views an account person as a partner, it is of little value because either the client or the AE will be changing jobs soon, so the relationship has no chance to mature, and the bonding process must forever start over with someone new.I'm sure there's more to it, but whatever the reasons, account guys, generally, ain't what they used to be. That's not just my conclusion based on firsthand experience at a couple dozen agencies over the past few years, it's also the conclusion of many account staffers themselves.This decline has led to a corresponding dip in trust and respect from the creative folks, who are less able to count on the account guys to schmooze, bond and persuade the client, or to think incisively about strategic issues. So the creatives, in their quest to sell the work, have taken a far larger part in these activities, because, well, someone has to do it. Whereas the account guys' agenda has shifted from incisive strategic thinking and helping sell good work to selling work, good or not, and keeping the client smiling at all cost.Ultimately, this is upper management's fault for failing to recognize this erosion and perversion of the process, and for failing to make strong, smart account management a priority.Lest you think this rant is just a big whine-fest on the part of some disgruntled cd, let me assure you, the source of my concern is not so directly self-serving.While I have been a creative director at times in my career, I am currently a freelance writer and couldn't be happier in this role.But, as I see my creative director clients at agency after agency being stretched and twisted into unnatural positions, it makes me want to slap the fat cats at the top.For Chrissakes, bigwigs, let 'em create, let 'em lead, let 'em teach and nurture -- but please stop forcing creative directors into suits and making them book their own flights.Jim Morris is a copywriter and creative director. 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