How digital is changing the role of the global chief creative officer

by Shareen Pathak 

One casualty of the continued pressure on agencies may be the global chief creative officer.

Last week, J. Walter Thompson announced it would eliminate the role of global chief creative officer, and Matt Eastwood, who had held that position since July 2014, left the company. In an internal memo, CEO Tamara Ingram called it a “structural decision” that will let the agency move faster.

“Creativity remains at the very core of our business, but today it is an even more collaborative process. It is borderless. It is broadly focused. We are increasingly relying on the people who are closest to making and creating the work,” Ingram wrote.

Agencies are under increased scrutiny these days, both on the media and creative side. Clients, who are facing their own consolidations and cutbacks, want to make sure they’re getting what they pay for, and also that they’re not paying for something they don’t want. On top of that, the very nature of the creative agency business has undergone a shift. Agencies are making a lot more stuff, and are under pressure to make sure it’s nuanced, targeted and is delivered quickly. There’s an increased focus on measurable results. Put all of that together, and it’s important for clients to know what they’re paying for — and a worldwide figure who is mostly on airplanes going from office to office to awards shows to the conference circuit doesn’t quite make the cut, at least these days.

Ad holding companies are in consolidation mode: WPP had its worst year for revenue growth last year since 2009. And all of the agencies are worried about ballooning costs and clients that are taking back control.

Global chief creatives usually sit across accounts. Unlike other global roles like new business leads, it’s clear they’re not directly being paid for by clients. So the large salaries these roles command often look like easy costs to cut from the bottom line.

Over time, the role of a global chief creative has also turned into a marketing function. The global CCO is the one who judges awards shows, speaks on the awards circuit and acts in a way as marketing for the agency itself. Eastwood himself was on the Entertainment Lions jury at Cannes, the One Show jury for film and jury president at the London International Advertising Awards last year. And on the Cannes jury this year are multiple global CCOs, including VML’s Debbi Vandeven and FCB’s Susan Credle.

“That is irrelevant to my clients,” said Ann Billock, partner at search consultancy Ark Advisors. “What they care about more than anything now is who is doing the work for them. You bring in a U.S. or North American or global CCO, and the first question the clients ask is: ‘That’s well and good — who’s doing my work?’”

A survey released this week by InSource, a trade association for in-house creatives, found that clients are increasingly dependent on smaller creative teams rather than big ones. That means clients are looking for hands-on people who are executing quickly and directly. And 55 percent of clients surveyed measured the value of creative by business impact: Just 22 percent cited winning awards as a measure of creative success.

It’s similar to what recruiter Jay Haines at Grace Blue has seen. “Clients want creative people around them. They want hands-on contemporary creatives who are in their lives and on their business every day,” he said. “That’s led to a reinvestment of money away from creative role. To set a North Star for creative excellence is valued, but the practical realities of what a client is looking for rarely align.”

About a decade ago, a founding creative director or CCO’s role was to make sure everything an agency produced was easily identifiable: It had an identity. One example, according to Faris Yakob, founding partner at Genius Steals, was Alex Bogusky at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. For years, Bogusky was where the buck stopped when it came to ideas from CP+B. Now, most global CCOs are focused on awards, traveling from office to office to find work to polish to enter Cannes, or brought in as a signal of change when an agency undergoes a rebrand.

Across marketing organizations, there is also a move toward global decentralization, at least from a work perspective, to create more culturally nuanced campaigns. “Globally repurposing creative seems very efficient, but not especially effective in many markets,” said Yakob.

“[Global CCO] was a standard-setting role,” said Billock. It was a way for agencies across large global networks to keep — at least theoretically — one “voice” or standard across work.

Digital has, of course, changed a lot. Agencies are now creating hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of creative a month. The rise of social media and platforms in general has meant that creativity is more targeted than ever — and there’s a lot of it. One person simply cannot be the standard-bearer — there is too much to check.

Dany Lennon, founder of the Creative Register and a recruiter who has placed many a CCO in her decades in the industry, said the role used to be a “wonderful and valued one” — when done right. A good worldwide CCO figure was important to set standards, unify the agency and hinge operations in a big agency together. “We don’t need that anymore,” said Lennon. As creative agency work stretches across disciplines and mediums, what agencies and their clients want are experts in those disciplines, not some overarching figure theoretically unifying them.

Still, Billock said it’s largely about the person. There are places that have recently added global chief creatives, such as Publicis, which tapped longtime R/GA veteran Nick Law for that role earlier this year.

Lennon agrees. “It’s mostly about the person,” she said. “Too many times we see people who don’t act hands-on, and then there are some global creatives who actually do work.”

One longtime agency executive who asked not to be named said the global chief creative usually ends up being someone whom the company needs to promote — but who isn’t necessarily able to, or doesn’t even want to, set up shop on their own. It’s the people stuck in the middle that often find themselves in that role and then end up in an “ivory tower,” far away from clients. “Unless the person in the position is personally picking teams and managing them, there’s little to do,” said this person. “I’d like to know what they do all day. It isn’t much.”