Big ideas

What is the role of the creative director? How do you reward your long-serving star creatives? Not everyone wants to be a manager, says David Bernstein

It’s the simple questions that catch you out. At a board meeting, the financial director asked each of us to define our roles. I was chairman. It took me hours to come up with a definition I was happy with – ‘I carry the flag and I carry the can’.

I find it interesting to see how creative directors interpret their role. Some believe in leading by example. One I know makes it a rule never to take a pen to a piece of work without asking permission.

Another one I worked with thought the title enabled him to carry on creating ideas, but to direct others to execute them – transform his roughs, add body copy, supervise production. Watching him demotivate creatives taught me a lesson. I vowed if ever I got the job, I would never compete.

Then I did get the job and people asked me, ‘Do you still create?’. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘indirectly.’ My real task was to create the environment of the department. J Mays, chief designer of the Ford group for the past eight years, has a slightly different take. ‘It’s as much about designing the design team as it is about designing the cars,’ he explained recently to the Financial Times.

Ideas, I learned, were the result of thoughts coming into collision. The department’s structure had to facilitate that collision, and that meant open plan, not just physically, but mentally – a spirit of receptivity and open-mindedness. People were encouraged to contribute beyond the boundaries of their specific projects, to come up with opinions and suggestions.

Similarly, I discouraged the establishment of formal hierarchies. I became an adherent of the principle that an idea doesn’t care who has it. I ensured the young and the mature worked together, as it was to their mutual advantage. I still believe that a successful creative department is a disciplined anarchy. Running that – now that’s creative.

Of course, it’s never easy to refrain from suggesting an idea. Often one is hiding in the undergrowth and you have to delicately point the way. What you have to stifle are your preconceptions. An idea isn’t wrong merely because you weren’t expecting it. The reverse is true – ideas surprise. But, if you have spent your career having ideas, are you being fair to yourself and the consultancy by holding back?

There are occasions when your creative contribution is necessary, for example at the 11th hour or, rarely, when you need to prove to members of the department that you do actually possess some craft skills. But, if creating is no longer your job and you feel it still is, then neither is that of creative director.

Many excellent creatives are promoted out of a role they do well, into one they do badly. It is the Peter Principle in action. Laurence Peter decreed, ‘In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence’.

So how do you reward the star creatives, especially if they have given years of service? Surely not by making them unwilling and maladroit managers? As Bill Gates says, ‘The art of management is to promote people without making them managers’.

Which means what? This is a perpetual problem for top management in UK creative industries. If the high fliers are denied promotion, how then to convey recognition? We could always borrow an idea from the Americans and make them vice-presidents. It’s a bit like the honours list – recognition without responsibility or change of job.

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