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.

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. 



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.