The Search for Creative Leadership

Finding a new chief creative officer has never been easy, but agency leaders agree that a combination of factors, among them growing client demand for digital skills, have made such searches trickier than even just a few years ago.

And with at least three agency networks now seeking creative chiefs, add fierce competition to the list of complicating factors.

WPP Group’s JWT is looking to fill the North American CCO role that Ty Montague is vacating; WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather is seeking a New York creative chief, a year after Chris Wall shed his vice chairman of creative duties; and Havas’ Euro RSCG needs a New York CCO, as Con Williamson exits for the same role at Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. Additionally, two other global networks and a nationally known domestic shop are searching for top creative talent, according to sources.

Naturally, the job of CCO requires exemplary creative work, the ability to attract talent, and a combination of traditional and digital skills. But today agencies also need execs who are as credible around clients as fellow staffers. That level of client connection — necessitated by increasingly flatter structures at agencies — requires a certain business savvy not typically associated with award winners at Cannes.

“This is much more an account management job than a creative job. What we have to do is help clients get where they want to go,” said Mike Hughes, president and co-CCO of Interpublic Group’s The Martin Agency, which in December hired Wieden + Kennedy’s John Norman as co-CCO.

“We’re often the buffer between the clients and the creative team that wants to get where they want to go faster,” added Hughes. “We can’t take sides. Clients aren’t going to trust us if they think you’re just one of those creatives who [just wants to win awards.] Creative people won’t trust us if they think we’re just taking orders from the clients. What we have to do is be transparent. That’s not a natural trait for the best creative people.”

The current searches come as agencies rethink their business models amid the digital revolution. As such, the online marketing skills of tomorrow’s CCOs will be critical to their success. That said, clients still buy significant amount of traditional advertising. “All [clients] want more than traditional advertising. Nevertheless, they are still buying 70 to 80 percent traditional,” said Matt Ryan, president of global brands at Euro RSCG.

As Ogilvy N.A. chairman John Seifert sees it, the issue for agencies is not merely their digital offerings, but also the larger agency transformation taking place. Agencies, he said, are struggling to answer, “Where is [our] emphasis?”

Seifert added: “Who do you put in these leadership positions who [can] maintain the legitimacy of the past and look forward? That’s a strategic challenge we’re all facing.”

Given that relatively few creative directors are as strong digitally as traditionally, some agencies are considering multiple hires. Ogilvy, for example, may end up with a team of creative leaders at various levels, each with a different disciplinary strength. Seifert declined to discuss specifics of the search, which began last year and could conclude this month.

Notwithstanding the new demands, CCOs’ ability to lead and nurture talent as well as get along with others will continue to be essential. Of course, assessing chemistry can mean extending the interview process. But, as JWT Worldwide CEO Bob Jeffrey said, “It’s worth it not to compromise and spend the time needed to do it right.” –with Eleftheria Parpis