Time to put a stop to creative confusion

Marksteen Adamson argues that design consultancies should return to using job titles that reflect what creative teams actually do

There comes a point when a title ends up meaning nothing, or, worse, it becomes a means to position yourself politically among your peers in a big organisation. I’m referring in particular to the title ’creative director’, now used so frequently and ’creatively’ that it has lost some of its original role and relevance.

Historically, in advertising you had an art director and a copywriter who worked together and were joined at the hip. They, together, would create great ads. In design consultancy, a senior designer or design director would lead the creative work, and we had account directors who would check terrible dyslexic spelling and write the copy that designers never read. Together they would produce great creative work.

Bigger consultancies would have lots of teams like this and overseeing all of them was a creative director – often a weathered bloke or woman in a glass office next to the managing director and chief executive. The creative director would be at the top of the consultancy, often on the board or steering committee, dealing with mass volumes of creative concepts that stretch the breadth of a big group. He or she would often also be responsible for multiple offices around the world.

The mad rush for creative directorship was sparked by the expansion of the term ’branding’. In the 1970s and 1980s we had design studios and advertising agencies, each with their own specialisms. Life was a little bit clearer. Then in the 1990s we started to use the word ’branding’ for everything we did, from corporate identity to advertising. Branding became everything and the overlap between advertising and design became bigger and grey.

Design groups wanted a bigger piece of the brand action and started to stray into advertising territory by trying to sell the branding they had created. Advertising agencies, meanwhile, wanted more control over the creation of a brand, or, at least, the making of its essence.
And then the scramble for the ’creative title’ began. Everyone was more than a design director or art director. We were all much, muchmore ’creative’.

Art directors saw themselves as doing more than just selling a brand, and design directors felt they were above the rudimentary exercise of just doing corporate identity and packaging design. Hell, we could now produce videos with fade-in stock images and title slides with corporate values, played out to tear-jerking melodies, thinking we were creating potential TV ads.

So, the problem with the title ’art director’ or ’design director’ became the missing word ’creative’. It seemed if you didn’t have ’creative’ in your title, then you must surely be stupid, or at the very least uncreative. Also, every client that walked through the door of a branding group now wanted their own creative director working exclusively on their account.

Then we greeted the new millennium and the floodgates opened. When I left my last consultancy nearly every senior designer self-ordained themselves as creative director.

To this day, some consultancies have five to ten creative directors with a few higher executive creative directors too, just to add to the confusion. Some of this was driven by desperate last measures to retain the best designers on the verge of handing in their notice.
And now we are even seeing smaller design studios with two creative directors doing the same job. It’s as meaningless as Marks & Spencer having two chief executives or a Michelin-star restaurant with two head chefs working in the same kitchen at the same time on the same food, shouting the same orders at each other.

My last days in a big global consultancy ended with one of the longest titles in the industry – ever. I think it went something like ’global executive creative and strategic director’. The irony is that often art directors and design directors produce more creative work and ideas than creative directors. It’s a natural evolution. Creative directors eventually get more and more bogged down with management and HR issues, and have less freedom to produce creativity – they are reduced to ’creative critics’.

It would do us no harm in our industry to go back to a more real and clear way of describing what people actually do in a creative team, in particular designers. Most self-ordained creative directors in branding groups are, in fact, very good design directors. It’s what they are. It’s what they do best.

So here’s to all the last standing art directors and design directors. Keep the flame alight.

And for those who ask/ yes, I’m still a creative director. It’s what I do best.

Marksteen Adamson is creative director of Arthur Steen Horne Adamson. He was previously ’global executive creative and strategy director’ of Interbrand

The scramble to be a creative

  • The rush for creative directorship was sparked by the expansion of the term ’branding’ in the 1990s
  • Most self-ordained creative directors in branding groups are, in fact, very good design directors
  • Often art directors and design directors produce more creative work and ideas than creative directors
  • Creative directors eventually get more and more bogged down with management and HR issues, and have less freedom to produce creativity
  • The problem with the title ’art director’ or ’design director’is the missing word ’creative’. Without it they are perceived as being less important

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