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Why the creative exodus?

"Chief Creative Kevin Roddy Leaves BBH" -- Just the latest ad agency chief creative departure in a long list over last few months. The list is pretty long. Gerry Graf, Ty Montague, Rosemarie Ryan, Alex Bogusky, Eric Hirshburg, and Eric Silver. Several articles have been written pontificating on the reason for this exodus. Ad Age has been pretty vocal. One of their articles  offered ideas ranging from the economy to business-as-usual, to high maintenance creatives. All have some plausibility.

Another article was a bit more interesting.  This one was written by a creative who had been witness to more than one such agency resurrection via the hiring of a chief creative officer. His insights were a bit more telling, and to a former client and current consultant like me, much closer to the likely reason. This writer suggests that the problems reside with the leadership of the agency, the culture of the agency, and/or the clients of the agency, some of which a new creative chief can help solve, but certainly not on their own.

To be fair, most of the creatives who were mentioned above had long tenures with the agencies they chose to leave. Still, the crux of the problem is likely the same. When agencies, or companies of any sort for that matter, want to change, grow, or evolve, they look to the innovators of the company or someone new altogether. If you have been that innovator, then it is probably very likely that this is not the first time the powers that be have come to your well looking for a miracle. That well can get dry pretty quickly, particularly if the circumstances of the company or agency haven't changed.

I have a bias that favors those creatives who have left out of frustration, boredom, or just plain disgust. I know, I know, chief creative officers are prima donnas who don't understand business and just want to be treated like royalty and go to the South of France each year. But take away all the stereotypes that we have heard about this particular position and you can insert nearly any other transformational, progressive, eager, risk-taking leader in there and the same theory applies, which leads me to one simple conclusion: Change of any sort is hard, and it is impossible to achieve without four basic items.

1. Belief and Commitment from Leadership: Having just the CEO or president have these transformational ideas is not enough. It has to be pervasive amongst the leadership team. If it is the pet project of just one person, run.

2. You are NOT Spock: Remember the Star Trek movie where Spock is dying in the nuclear chamber while speaking to Captain Kirk through a glass wall? The one where he says that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one"? Well that is all fine and well unless YOU are the one. Remember Spock dies. In this case Hillary Clinton's book "It Takes a Village" was closer to the mark.

3. Strategy and Plan: The commitment from the agency or company comes to light when you see their plan for the changes. Knowing that there was thought put into the change or innovation is important because it can highlight up front how serious the team is and what they are willing to do. If the "plan" is just to be better without changing some of the other major elements that have prevented the innovation or improvements all along, then it will be nearly impossible to make a difference. We all know the definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

4. Gotta Have it or Else: It also helps if the company has some level of motivation or desperation in doing "it" differently. If it's just some idea du jour to keep up with another agency or company trend, it is bound to fail. Because at the end of the day, if innovating, changing, growing, whatever you want to call it, is just a "nice to have" and not a "must have," then when things get tough (and believe me they will) it will be more than easy to abandon this great notion, and you along with it.

Julie Roehm is SVP Marketing, "Chief Storyteller" at SAP. Formerly, as a Marketing Strategy Consultant she served companies in all industries, of all sizes. Her client list includes, Credit Suisse, Time Inc., BIAP, Acxiom, ad agencies, and...

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