Walt Disney began his career as an animator, and the Disney empire was built on his vision. In luxury fashion, often the designer is the brand (think Donna Karan, Calvin Klein or Alexander McQueen). Creative leadership is common in the tech world, too. Mark Zuckerberg started as a programmer, and Bill Gates founded Microsoft on the strength of his coding skills, not his business acumen (or his personality).
But at most advertising agencies, the creative team takes its direction, ultimately, from a chief executive with a background in business or finance or client services – someone whose pencil favors sales figures and org charts to taglines.
Whether this is the optimal setup for a creative agency is a matter of debate among industry leaders. Opinions are varied and difficult to predict, as creatives don’t unequivocally advocate creative leadership; neither do business folks dismiss its merits.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t feel strongly about it.
"You would never, with a design background, be put in charge of a financial services company, so why is the inverse thought to be smart?" said Nick Law, vice chairman and global CCO at R/GA. He argues that because the product that ad agencies offer is creative work, the best people to lead those companies are the ones who produce it. "I think that no matter what industry you're in, the leader or leaders should be product people."
The issue of creative leadership was thrust into the spotlight this summer when Burberry reassigned CEO Christopher Bailey after two years of dismal stock prices. Bailey also serves as chief creative officer, but his operational responsibilities are being taken over by a more traditional business-focused executive, leading some to wonder whether creatives can successfully execute both roles.
Mark Figliulo, CEO and CCO of New York agency Figliulo & Partners, took the opportunity to push back against the doubt and advocate for creative leadership in agencies. "From Dior to Saint Laurent to Marc Jacobs, and still Christopher Bailey, it’s the creative directors who are the visionary leaders of their companies. The same thing has to happen for agencies," he wrote in a column for Campaign US. "The agenda and the vision, as well as the business approach has to be set by the creative leaders, and right now, that’s the exception rather than the rule."
Last week, Anomaly CEO Carl Johnson lampooned Figliulo’s argument "that the creative department are the only people with ideas" as "desperately old-fashioned" in a column of his own. "Radiohead's (non)-pricing strategy for launching ‘In Rainbows’ couldn't have come from a strategist? A smart suit? Their manager?" he wrote. "Amazon’s ‘People who bought this, also bought this’ isn't creative thinking to the highest order? Isn't 'an idea’? Felix Baumgartner leaping in space for Red Bull couldn’t have come from a PR person? Or a media partnership?"
Interviews with a wide swath of agency heads revealed a spectrum of perspectives on the issue. No one claimed a creative can’t lead an agency – there are too many effective exceptions to prove that rule – and no one said they are the only logical choice. Instead, there are those who believe creatives with the right skills are capable of leading, and those who believe that creatives must have at least an equal voice in determining the future of individual agencies and the industry at large.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest supporters of creative leadership are usually found at shops started by creatives. Like Law at R/GA (founded by Bob Greenberg, who made his name as a producer), David Angelo, founder and chairman of David & Goliath, said he believes time in the creative trenches is an essential tool for an agency leader. "To be a great judge of creative work, you have to have the experience of producing great creative work," he said.
The work, the work, the work
Of course, "it’s all about the work" has become a mantra for agency boosters, used to defend everything from long hours to lack of diversity. But David Droga, whose eponymous shop’s tagline begins "Creatively Led," argues that having a leader with creative chops is about more than producing great content – it’s changing the face and the priorities of the industry. "Some of the most talked-about and successful agencies in the last couple of decades have been agencies run by creative people," he said. "They’re the people who are making decisions about inspiration, not about justification. They’re people who are making decisions about the effectiveness of an idea, not the efficiency of an idea. It’s not based on just quarterly results."
Outfits founded by creatives aren’t the only ones espousing nontraditional leadership, nor are they the only ones tapping creative assets to fill business roles. Y&R New Zealand, whose McWhopper campaign crushed the awards show circuit this year, is headed by CEO/CCO Joshua Moore. Leo Burnett Toronto elevated CCO Judy John to CEO/CCO in 2011. "There should definitely be more creatives leading agencies and helming agencies," she said. "I think there are a lot of really qualified and capable people out there."
Dan LaCivita, CEO of digital agency Firstborn, is one of those creatives who made the transition to management. He got his start as a Flash developer and then a producer more than a decade ago before making the switch in 2010. "Having been on the side of actually making the things that consumers interact with, I think it not only gives me a different kind of appreciation for the craft, but more of an understanding of what goes into the work that we are doing," he said.
But there is a danger in placing too much responsibility on a single person, he added. A CEO needs to keep their eye on the entire company, not just the creative output, so energies directed toward one pursuit necessarily detract from the other. As CEO, LaCivita currently has no creative duties. "If you're not delegating some of the other main business responsibilities to someone you trust," he said, "something will suffer at some point."
John admits her dual role is more work than she had to deal with before becoming CEO, and she works longer hours now. But rather than dividing her attention between two necessary roles, John said her dual position has actually made her better at both. "I think I’ve learned a lot on both sides that makes me better as a CEO, or makes me better as chief creative. It makes you better at the other job."
Making the switch
For many agencies, the question is largely a theoretical one. Either their CEOs have creative backgrounds or they don’t, and nobody is looking to flip an MBA to bring in someone who’s spent more time writing ad copy. But at least one major agency network may be actively making a move toward putting more creatives in leadership roles.
Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, said his network has seen real results, both in terms of wins and revenues, from putting more creatives into management. Earlier this year, TBWA\Asia appointed its Greater China President Nils Andersson as regional creative president. "I think you're going to start to see it more and more throughout TBWA," said Schwartz, citing a revenue bump of more than 60% and 14 successful pitches over the last 18 months. "There's a part of me that says, ‘This is the model.’ It worked for Jay Chiat, it worked for [DDB founder] Bill Bernbach, and I think it's going to work for us." Some TBWA offices will be headed by a creative, while some others will be headed by a former creative who understands the process but isn’t involved in actually creating the work.
Schwartz is one of the latter. He spent 20 years as a creative director and CCO before his migration to the executive suite (he currently has Johnson's old job, albeit 13 years after Johnson left it). "Having a creative background, it's just invaluable in this job," Schwartz said. But he’s clear that it isn’t always necessary. CEOs with business backgrounds can also be effective agency leaders, he said, especially when people in different disciplines realize that they’re working toward a common goal – producing good work – rather than setting the business against the creative or vice versa.
Adam Tucker, President of Ogilvy & Mather New York, agreed. He cited successful creative-led agencies like BBH, Wieden+Kennedy and 72andSunny for a structure that "puts the creative at the heart of the agency agenda." But he noted that many other agencies, Ogilvy among them, have achieved great success with CEOs who have business backgrounds. "I don’t think there’s one way to do it," he said. "I think it’s about who’s the best person and the strongest talent to run the agency. They can come from many different places and be successful."
Indeed, lines between disciplinary backgrounds are blurring, Schwartz added. People have their own specializations, but every single person working in the advertising industry should value the work that comes out of the creative team. "Everyone needs to know their discipline, plus have a little bit of feel for the creative," he said. "Even our finance people, they love great ideas, too."
We sell or else
Agencies need to make money, a fact even the most vocal proponents of a creative-forward philosophy admit. "We are a business after all – I’m not running an art gallery," Droga said. "We need to have rigor and structure here as well." And that requires skills that don’t always come naturally to a creative-minded person, and certainly aren’t taught in art school.
But David & Goliath’s Angelo believes creatives can learn business skills better than their more down-to-earth counterparts can learn to come up with great ideas. "It's easier to teach a creative mind how to thing logically and analytically than to teach an analytical mind to think creatively," he said.
However, successful agencies require people with both skillsets, he added. "Running an agency is much bigger than just doing great, creative work just for the sake of it." He rattled off a list of non-creative responsibilities that creative leaders need to contend with before they can get down to actually making good work -- payroll, invoices, client accounts. "It feels like a fun party, where you eventually run out of beer and no one has any money to get more," Angelo said. "If you have a great balance of the two, your parties are still great, you just don't run out of beer."
Johnson's column included a more forceful reality check. "You have got to be kidding that you want your ‘creative leader’ working on the clauses in client contracts, negotiating fees, discussing real estate lease terms, forecasting CAPEX requirements, trying to digest the long-term implications of data, optimizing resources, amending processes for a changed world...and on and on."
His solution? A team, "united behind a shared vision, values and ambition." And that’s where these disparate viewpoints begin to align.
Every creative, every businessperson interviewed for this article stressed the importance of assembling a multidisciplinary group that can cover all the skills required to run a creative business. "No one leads a company without having people around them that can do stuff that they can't do," said Law.
Droga pointed to his "much more operational and business-minded" partners who make his creative leadership possible, including CEO Sarah Thompson. (Droga is creative chairman, a title he made up "because chairman sounds more boring," he admitted.) "She runs the day-to-day company, and I think I lead the company."
Tucker noted that the best agencies are run by "high-performing teams" and called the ability to build a balanced team a necessary attribute for a CEO.
It was the process of team-building that first piqued Figliulo’s interest in the issue. In 2013, after leaving TBWA\Chiat\Day New York but before founding his own shop, he interviewed for creative positions at other agencies, "just to see what was out there."
"All my interviews were with CEOs, global CEOs, New York CEOs," he said. "With the exception of start-ups, most agency management teams are chosen by someone who is not a creative. It's worth asking ‘Who picks the team?’" he said. Clients should have a choice he added, noting that the majority of holding company agencies aren’t led by creatives. "Why not add a little variety? We are a creative industry after all."
The creative leadership at Figliulo & Partners is a draw for at least one of its clients. "It inspires my team to be more creative themselves," said Jenna Lloyd, head of marketing at Virgin Atlantic, which has been an F&P client for 18 months. "The ad diagnostics are telling us it's the most persuasive campaign we've run," she said of F&P’s latest work for Virgin, success she attributes to the agency’s "creative instinct to challenge the status quo."
While the traditional route to creative leadership is founding an agency, creatives who want a louder voice may just need to speak up, Law said. They need to prove they can handle business responsibilities by branching out into other disciplines. It’s difficult to win a promotion to a management position without any management skills, after all. "More smart, creative people should be thinking about leading agencies as opposed to just being the creative guy that turns up late in a T-shirt," he said.
And to those who still say creatives should focus on ideas and leave the business to the suits? "They’re not mutually exclusive," said Droga. "To say that a creative person can’t get their head around business is a bit naïve. One hundred percent, the more strong, creative leaders that are at the forefront of this industry, the better our industry is."