That Creative Director Problem

So the recent news is that Alicia Keys’ term as Blackberry’s creative director will end in two weeks. A combination of desperate me-too-ism on the part of a company shockingly out-of-touch with various realities (the market, their client base, the needs of enterprise, the overconfidence of their history, etc.) and the tone-deaf management of a musician struggling with relevance. The relationship was perhaps doomed from the outset.

Over time there has been some slippage between the idea of what used to be a creative director and what passes for one now. Partially because of Don Draper, partially because of corporate America, and partially because of the insecure narcissism of designers.

Art direction used to be a skill. It combined the hand/eye abilities of people trained in the elements of design (typography, layout, photography, illustration, printing, color, etc.) with design’s social context (working with photographers and illustrators, what to do on a press check, how to take a meeting, covering one’s ass, navigating the sexual landscape of office Christmas parties, etc.). At best, art direction was taught in the oral tradition. You showed up, paid attention, and stole every trick and contact you could.

Then, and only then, could a young art director go off and find their voice. As pianist Keith Jarrett mentioned while receiving his National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award, “You can be educated about all aspects of music making, but you are still zero until you let go of what holds you back.” In other words, you’re not much more than a functionary unless you “work on yourself” and see the world in ways beyond executional details.

The role of art director is a social one. The title helps frame expectations on the art director’s contribution, and it helps in establishing a framework for compensation. And as they go about their work, they are also in the next step of the oral tradition: becoming a creative director.

Creative directors used to work in the Don Draper mode. The creating, not the drinking and sleeping around. (Generally.) Their previous experience may have been as an art director, but it very well could have been as a writer, photographer or film maker. This was because the position demanded a more interdisciplinary engagement than art director. They guided the creative work: overseeing graphics, copy, environments, three-dimensional design, or films. And they helped contextualize that work for their clients and non-creative colleagues.

Now, all that has changed. It’s longer uncommon to see a 25-year old creative director and the title no longer carries the responsibility it used to. Art directors used to maintain a file of illustrator and photographer contacts. But over time, that control went to art buyers. And creative directors no longer control the conversation with clients and colleagues. Enter, the strategist.

One can’t fully accuse creative types with professional laziness as their roles and responsibilities have been cut up and distributed. There’s a business and social logic to controlling the wooly vagaries of creative people. No matter how hard people try to demystify it, the creative process is scary and at times unreliable to the business process. It doesn’t arrive on schedule. So as Henry Ford rebuilt the production process into a series of controllable steps, today’s global advertising and branding corporations are rebuilding the creative process. It’s the responsible thing to do.

For shareholders.

But nature abhors a vacuum. And corporations like a risk-managed chain of responsibility. So rather than using money, companies flatter with titles. The company keeps their most expensive line item, human resources, in check. And the young creative director gets to attend a meeting where the schedules of department “resources” are divided into units of five percent, or two-hour increments.

On top of this restructuring, is the thinning out of creative ranks in agencies and studios. Once common in smaller boutique studios, larger firms are more and more becoming heavy at the extremes — junior designers and interns at one end, upper management and partners at the other. And anyone with a bit of experience finds themselves either transitioning into another career (please choose between filmmaking, a startup, grad school, or Etsy) or opening up their own boutique branding studio.

Thus, the more interesting branding projects are now being done by smaller, independent firms.

Still, the need for design and innovation remains. Kind of… We think we want something new, but way too often we really want something familiar. At least that’s the only way I can explain to myself all the iterations of NCIS or CSI that seem to be doing so well.

Business sees a company like Apple, sees how the share price has been driven by creativity, and begins to look for a way to do the same. But the Apple way is expensive and demanding. It’s what is needed to come up with the iPhone, but maybe not when you’re looking to sell more beer. What you need is a campaign.

Campaigns are ephemeral and topical. They are part of the social conversation, and since the conversation over the past few years has included Don Draper, the audience kind of understood what it meant to name a celebrity as your new creative director. For example: Lenny Kravitz was a guest creative director for TOMS, Alicia Keys for Blackberry, Lady Gaga for Polaroid, Marc Jacobs for Diet Coke — But only in Europe. You don’t screw around with your largest market. — and Justin Timberlake is currently creative director for both Callaway golf equipment and Bud Light Platinum.

It seems like a perfectly fine match. Said celebrity generally has something to sell — a movie, an album, a tour — and the company needs to appear creative and relevant. You do the odd press event and then let the celebrity loose to dabble some surface effects on your product. If you get an uptick in business, great! If not, well… at least you have a “limited edition” in your product line. The risk is manageable as long as the celebrity in question stays away from reputation-destroying scandal.

But all of this discussion about titles has little to do with actual creative practice. It describes the culture of the creative marketplace, but not the act itself.

In his exquisite “Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo,” Jean-Luc Godard makes the statement “Culture is the rule, and art is the exception. Everybody speaks the rule; cigarette, computer, t-shirt, television, tourism, war. Nobody speaks the exception. It isn’t spoken, it is written; Flaubert, Dostoyevsky. It is composed; Gershwin, Mozart. It is painted; Cézanne, Vermeer. It is filmed; Antonioni, Vigo. Or it is lived. Then it is the art of living; Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo. The rule is to want the death of the exception.”

I’m of the mind that a certain death of the rule might be in order. The first rule to die needs to be the inherent value put on titles like senior designer, art director, creative director, director of strategy, executive director, global executive creative director, slendiferous executive creative director, and so on. They work for corporate structures, but not for that blessed moment where one connects with the divine and has the Idea.

Titles, in all aspects of their incarnation, resonate with that great phrase from E. M. Forster, “a world in which telegrams and anger count.” He immediately describes the value of that world: its reality, its grit, and how it breeds character. Yes, the world has so devalued the creative process that we may not recognize it. Fordism and Taylorism have broken it down into a digestible form. And everything in the marketplace pretty much looks and feels the same. It’s all pablum for the pablum eaters.

Still there is Godard’s exception. That blessed hairy, weird, exhilarating exception that makes all the telegrams and anger worthwhile.

As Alicia Keys’ term as Blackberry’s creative director comes to a close, I find myself with a strange acceptance. It’s easy to be cynical and point out that she often used an iPhone. But I ultimately see it as a confirmation of the value of creativity and the need for future negotiation between creatives and their masters. Everything else is commentary, delivered in telegrams and anger.