The Death of the Global Chief Creative Officer

Agency leaders reevaluate a critical role

Famous chief creatives Bill Bernabch, David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett DDB, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

In March, JWT CEO Tamara Ingram wrote an all-staff memo to announce that she and other leaders were “reimagining the future” of the world’s oldest ad agency. Its key take-away: This future would not include global chief creative officer Matt Eastwood or anyone else holding that title.

Every day brings new reports of brands building in-house shops, creative account wins shrinking and top talent following Apple’s Tor Myhren to the client side. But there may be no greater symbol of the intense pressures now facing such “traditional” agencies than a debate over the relevance of the one job most unique to the ad industry.

In short, agencies—especially those owned by publicly traded holding groups—are struggling to justify the salaries of their most visible talent.

One agency exec who spoke to Adweek on condition of anonymity said, “You’re going to see pressure points, whether it’s the global CCO, head of analytics or managing director: senior roles that represent a lot of money and are largely nonbillable will get called into question more and more.”

Ingram’s memo told staff that creativity is still at the core of the business, but eliminating the position allows JWT to be “more agile” as creativity is now a “more collaborative process.”

Yet some heard a death knell for the sort of agency leader who, in the words of Joan co-founder and CCO Jaime Robinson, “floats around, shakes hands, kisses babies and judges awards ceremonies.”

"I predict the external CCO will become a relic of the past."
Jonathan Mildenhall, former Airbnb CMO and TBWA executive

“The truth is that the most creatively dynamic and interesting brands in the world right now have strong in-house creative teams,” said former Airbnb CMO and TBWA executive Jonathan Mildenhall, who now serves as CEO of consultancy TwentyFirstCenturyBrand. He cited Adidas, Spotify, Chobani and others, adding, “I predict the external CCO will become a relic of the past.”

According to former PepsiCo and Ogilvy executive Brad Jakeman, this shift represents a new wave of CMOs who don’t fit the “MBA marketer” stereotype. “They have their own Rolodexes of producers, writers, directors and art directors,” he said, arguing that this knowledge renders agencies—and their CCOs—less relevant.

Recruiters have also witnessed this change as rising stars who might one day be agency leads now prefer in-house roles at companies like Square, Casper, Blue Apron or even Facebook, said Tim Young of executive consultancy SYPartners.

Many leaders unsurprisingly disagree with these dire predictions, but the role has clearly changed.

“Thirty years ago, [global CCO] was a way to give people a job but also give the next generation of creative leaders some autonomy,” said Susan Credle, who now holds the title at FCB. “Then it shifted: It was all about amassing awards.”

In other words, many creatives grow further removed from the act of creating as they climb the industry ladder. Some are better known as “thought leaders.”

Ogilvy & Mather worldwide CCO Tham Khai Meng argued that the job must be redefined if that remains the case. “It is about the work. Nothing else matters,” he said, stating that CCOs who bring attention to that work help attract talent and win new business, ultimately benefiting a network’s bottom line.

Most shops, however, are led by executives with backgrounds in finance. And ex-WPP chief Martin Sorrell’s lasting legacy may be splitting creative and media, thereby “marginalizing creative agencies” even as he encouraged them to apply for more awards.

“You want to have leaders who are product people, and in our business the product is creative,” said newly installed Publicis Groupe global CCO Nick Law, who questioned whether a Sorrell-style CEO can be “better at looking at the whole picture” than someone like Dan Wieden or David Droga.

This lack of “product people,” Law said, means many CCOs now spend their time “polishing craft that could be from any agency” rather than developing and promoting a vision fit to distinguish their own companies.

“A true global CCO should be the cultural heroine for the agency worldwide,” said Nils Leonard, founder of Uncommon London. The former chief creative at Grey Europe added this individual would ideally serve as “the best and most inspirational example of what that agency is about, what they believe in and how they work.”

Robinson specifically cited the role of McCann Worldgroup global creative chairman Rob Reilly in re-establishing that network’s reputation. “Nobody can deny the effect that Rob has had on McCann,” she said.

Leonard argued that any decline in the prominence of CCOs is a side effect of “bloated and often broken networks.” But every agency leader who participated in this story agreed on one point: The industry at large faces a shortage of individuals fit to both showcase and defend creativity as a business.

“Creative people will go where creative people are. That’s why you still need the global CCO,” Tham said. “In fact, we need them now more than ever.”

This story first appeared in the May 21, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.