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.