The Slow, Unfortunate Death of Creative Directors*

In 2002, I became an employee of a small, high-profile and dysfunctional agency in Chicago. The two business partners communicated poorly with each other and I ended up working on high-end advertising campaigns that included broadcast spots for clients Anheuser-Busch, Expedia and NewLine Cinema to name a few, because one partner wanted to work with me instead of confronting the other. I was thrown into the deep end and I swam happily and successfully. During my time there, I was given the Creative Director title† and I felt at the time that I had finally attained the status I worked so hard for. But a funny thing happened during my tenure at that agency – Creative Directors died. Metaphorically, of course, all across the industry.

The '00s were a time of massive flux for anyone working then. Although I had survived the dotcom bubble of digital work in the '90s, the '00s were a time when the online experience we know today was truly born. New companies & new thinking barraged the marketplace like Youtube, Wikipedia and Facebook; and the growing giants—Google, Amazon, Apple—hit their stride. All over-hyped by Wired, FastCompany and Interview. Not only were there new channels of communication being rapidly created, the very makeup of how agencies were organized to create said communications changed. And many closed their doors. This caused a profound shakeup in the creative industry, which is still sorting itself out today. Advertising and marketing, which had become a drunk & bloated version of itself, finally was staring at its own mortality in the cold light of day. Power shifted and the light was cast on the beautiful nerds. It was wonderful and heady times. And still is.

For me, it was as if I had climbed Everest to subsequently find out that another new mountain had suddenly sprung up and been given world's tallest status. Entrepreneurs, developers, systems designers, even system's engineers were being celebrated more then the CD. Suddenly the highest title I could be given as creative and still create (not including the hollow corporate managerial versions of Group Global ECD of the Americas) meant absolutely nothing. And the worst part of it was, I (we) had no one else to blame but ourselves. You can correlate shrinking ad budgets with shrinking CD roles, however I believe these 3 simple, yet hugely profound changes to our industry killed the Creative Director. And they're all based in technological change:

1. Top tech companies view advertising, marketing & branding as expense(ive) & have successfully found other ways to deliver on their business goals without agencies of record. It's their game now.

2. The proliferation of digital tools and automation—sharing, views, likes and quantity are valued over quality. In many people's eyes, machine learning is very close to replacing the traditional creative process.

3. Ubiquitous creative, done by anyone & everyone, has caused big brands to spend their money on the facilitation of user-generated content over campaigns. Creative shops undercut each other on price and the decision-makers have a very difficult time understanding the value if good creative.

And if you needed more proof, ask someone outside the creative industry to name a Creative Director. They will no doubt struggle. Perhaps they'll name Don Draper of Madmen, which is all the proof you need. Are there brilliant Creative Directors out there still? Of course, but the brave few are fighting over scraps of work and many are closer to retirement, then young guns in the industry. Creativity has not died, it has flourished. CD's just aren't at the controlling center of it all. They are suffering a long, painful and deluded industry extinction. Perhaps they can be reborn, but in a different form yet to come into the light.

Ultimately, perhaps oddly, this is all very liberating for me, because I know that while I was being given progressively better and meaningless titles in my career, my passion & experience in solving problems via design never changed. I look forward to the next twenty years of my career doing the things that I've always enjoyed most about the creative industry—making stuff, storytelling, mentoring creatives, and being a passionate champion of the creative process. And technology has only enhanced all of those things for me. 

*Much love to all my Creative Director comrades.
† RIP, Matt Brennock, who gave me my CD title. You were brilliant, but extremely flawed.

Nope.

Working on a long term project for a client that includes designing and producing a simple app. For the past several weeks I've been chasing down developers and app shops to find the right fit. The app concept is straight-forward, with aspirations for future functionality & content. I'm running at a tight deadline and there's a small budget, but like all projects of this type, it's doable and exciting. But not apparently for an app shop in Chicago. "Nope." That's the response I got. Nope. What? I get that the budget's small, my client is relatively unknown, the deadline tight. I get that this app shop is most likely swimming in business and that my little project is not very appealing. But "Nope"? Not "We'll take a pass. Thanks for contacting us." or "You realize how ridiculous your timing is, right?" or "Go get another 20k and we'll talk." Nope. That's it. Ridiculous and a bit unsettling. Is this how we do business in our industry now?  For all the little app shops that think they're hot and killing it, understand this – this is how you fast track to closing your doors. Nope. Twenty years in the industry has taught me many things. Some of which are – the industry is small. Times change. You never really know what project will turn into gold. Assholes are exposed. And your next project can come from anywhere. Luckily for my client there are other app shops willing to talk and bid on the project. And communicate like intelligent human beings. As for the hot app shop, I look forward to the day when I'm in a meeting with a Fortune 500 or VC group and your name comes up. You already know what my response will be.

Why 9?

In 2013 I opened a design & innovation company that was focused on change. Why was it called 9INE? Because it’s the mathematical number of change and ‘number nines’ in world football are game changers. There are nine muses in greek mythos, it’s the number of buddhist monks that oversee sacred rituals and there are nine forms of chinese dragons. At 9INE, we saw eras in nine years. Sometimes we dressed to the nines and we certainly knew what a stitch in time saved us. Although there are nine rings of dante’s hell and nine tolkien wringwraiths, there are also nine choirs of christian angels and nine in the fellowship, so really it could either way. Tangentially, we felt a bit bad for the ninth planet having been downsized and all, but on the scale of clouds, number nine is cumulonimbus, the highest a cloud can go. Ultimately, 9INE represented the reframing we did everyday. It was the mcguffin in our narrative. The soy milk in our coffee. The big in our data. 

 

 

Word

I googled myself yesterday. I'd love to say this is a random occurrence. It's not. And I came across Under Consideration's WordIt book. If you don't remember, this was a creative SpeakUp community that asked for visual interpretation of a word on a monthly basis–which were then shared and commented on. And it had a fairly long run, 2002-2010. Seems impossibly quaint. At the end of its run, the editors compiled their faves into a book, and I was one among dozens that were selected. The word was "expectations". Looking at my pic spurs memories of that era. Of train riding, list making, career climbing. I remember the period of time. I don't remember that day, or the selfie, or the list: commute, drink coffee, still in my seat, design animation, snot thickens, navigate delillo, plan route, talk at love, frozen lunch thaws, skim e-mails, online news, salary bump, or get sacked, converse in my head, website production, dead battery, income tax refund, more coffee, lists I'll never read, throwaway meetings, trash design rags, kern in my head, agonize over playlist, dead battery, coffee dregs, work day cusp. Except for a few exceptions, that could be a list from today. The book can be purchased here

American Dreaming

Last week I realized that its been a year since my life changed so dramatically. A year ago this time I was managing a creative department for a company that I believed was destined for greatness. A year ago Kari and I owned a home in a wooded area of an affluent suburb. A year ago my worst financial concerns involved whether I had enough spare cash for a bacon breakfast sandwich or a sausage muffin from Starbucks as I commuted to work. Then it all changed and I couldn't be happier that it did. It's not worth rehashing the details of what happened. I'll never fully understand the decision. I'm sure there were many discussions leading up to it. For me it was sudden and asinine. It's also not worth talking about the next handful of months. They were a bit of a blur and a scramble. I can, however, comfortably pick up my story as I started to reconnect with the design industry in Chicago and those who love me. I had great discussions with people whom I hadn't talked to for years and every discussion cracked open my skull just a bit. I stopped relentlessly driving forward on career auto-pilot. I spent time with my daughters. I slept in. At some point I reconnected with my designer self and started 9INE. And at some point in the past year I came to realize that many of my past decisions were based on inertia. Based on an ideal that I truly didn't agree with. Based on others' equation of success. Thank you to my love @karimamasaywhat who was a loving rock throughout the past year. Thank you to my family who never questioned where I was headed. Thank you to everyone in the creative industry who gave me words of support. And thank you to my friends who said hell ya! Your support & words & love were rocket fuel. And to the people that let me go, fuck you, but also thank you. Your idiotic actions propelled me away from your mediocrity and upwards into bolder and more authentic heights.