Digital Dissonance

Digital strategies are at the heart of nearly every campaign these days. But when it comes to the salaries of chief creative directors, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

The highest paid creative chiefs, some of whose salaries exceed a million dollars, still come from traditional backgrounds and have built their reputations on award-winning TV and print campaigns. But the changing demands of the business raise the question of whether chief creative officers in traditional agencies are worth the premium.

A compensation survey conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies earlier this year shows that, on average, a CCO at a general advertising agency was paid up to 40-50 percent more than his or her colleagues at a digital shop last year. A CCO at a general agency of 100 to 500 employees was paid an average of $370,000, while an equivalent position at an interactive shop of the same size reaps an average salary of $220,000. At shops larger than 500 employees, the average salaries jumped to $450,000 for general market and $350,000 for interactive.

One reason there’s not a more competitive salary structure, say many industry insiders, is that traditional barometers are still used for success.

Lars Bastholm, Ogilvy North America’s chief digital creative officer who joined the WPP agency last March from digital agency AKQA — where he was co-creative chief — says the salary discrepancies are based on the fact that agencies and clients have historically held broadcast at a premium, with below-the-line services, from direct to digital, considered secondary.

“You had kickbacks from the media buys,” for example, he says. “That never happened in interactive.”

“There’s still a premium paid for somebody who wins a Lion at Cannes as opposed to someone who wins a Webby,” adds Paul Gumbinner, president of management recruitment firm the Gumbinner Company. “The agency business is still skewed toward offline advertising. Agencies have yet to catch on to the fact that other talent is out there that does something equally valid. And as long as that 40 percent [salary] discrepancy exists, the problem with agencies being media neutral will continue to exist.”

But despite the salary discrepancy, another survey from the 4A’s, done with recruitment firm Gilbert & Co. last winter, probed the digital wants and needs of four dozen CMOs and found that while clients still seek the big idea from traditional agencies, they’re often dissatisfied with their digital capabilities.

Clients “continue to look to traditional agencies for their most holistic views,” says June Blocklin, a partner at Gilbert & Co. “From the creative director they continue to want … the brand big idea. But they also said that traditional shops are not digitally literate and are increasingly losing relevance.”

Of course, despite the advances in the interactive world, the digital talent pool is relatively young. Creative hybrids with the management skills required of a creative chief are still part of a rare breed. Experts say to expect the disconnect in salaries to eventually disappear as the digital talent pool grows and strengthens.

“People who have strong digital and traditional thinking are really hard to find,” says Ann Brown, a Chicago-based recruiter who has also worked as a creative manager at agencies such as JWT, FCB and Euro RSCG. “There are traditional people who have really seen what’s coming and are getting involved as much as they can, and a whole bunch of them who haven’t,” she says. “[Those who haven’t] are now either hanging on to a job or looking for one.”

Also, with general agencies recruiting digital experts to cultivate interactive capabilities and digital agencies hiring generalists to add branding resources to their shops, salaries are already beginning to shift and realign.
“Top interactive directors are approaching the same salaries [as traditional CDs],” says Bastholm. “It’s also going the other way; you aren’t paying generalists as much as you used to. It’ll even out.”