Six years ago, I double-shifted a career change — from agency to consulting, and from creative direction to strategic advisor. While the move “upstream” (as I’ve heard it called) into consulting wasn’t as jarring, as say, starting a business or becoming a farmer, the day-to-day job is quite different from my days as a copywriter or creative director. I’ve gone from being a leader of large teams building web sites, ads and social campaigns to a digital strategist advising on path-to-purchase, content strategy and internal governance.
Lurking on Linkedin during a recent flight, I was curious how many of my peer set have also left creative. What do creative directors do later in their careers? Have they stuck with it or, with things so fluid, reinvented themselves as something else?
The research was personal
I started with a list of 70 senior creative people I know — folks from my early days as a copywriter at FCB/Leber Katz Partners in the 90s, as well as a peer set of folks who grew up with me in the industry to become Creative Directors, Executive Creative Directors, and for many of us, Chief Creative Officers. Most have at least 25 years in the business like me, and I didn’t include anyone without at least 15 years experience.
Absent an algorithm, I took a manual approach. In a spreadsheet, I noted each’s first job in the industry, latest roles, if s/he were still in a creative role at an agency, a media/platform company, an independent/freelance, started a company, are now in a non-creative role, shifted like me into something like consulting — or left the industry completely. I wanted to find patterns.
The findings surprised me
I had expected to find more people who shifted like me into brand consulting, who went client side, or who evolved as creatives into the next Martha Stewart or Malcolm Gladwell. Notes: My list is skewed towards New York and includes a generation pre-Internet as well as current, but here’s what I have found:
- 67% still have Creative Director (or commensurate) in their current title
- 39% are still full-time creative directors at advertising, direct or digital marketing agencies
- 31% have Executive Creative Director or Chief Creative Officer in their current title
- 21% are freelance, still active in the industry creating campaigns or marketing assets
- 17% started and/or run their own company (mostly agencies, a few with photography or production house)
- 11% are now creatives inside a media or technology platform such as Facebook, Google, CNN or NBC
- 7% are at a consulting firm such as Prophet (me), IBM, Deloitte, PWC or Accenture
- 6% are client-side, 3 of whom became heads of marketing
- 4% left the marketing and media industries completely (thought this would be higher!)
Frankly, I’m disappointed. I had fantasies of more CMOs, CEOs or even artists, authors and publishers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, Helen Gurley Brown. There are bookshelves of people with career memoirs (Yep, working on mine) but that’s not the same as a blowout novel. Only one I’ve seen become an author, one a TV producer, one an attorney — and one has fallen off the Earth (i.e., no profile on Linkedin!).
I spoke to a few who shifted their roles
Curious for texture, I spoke to several folks who have made one of the five shifts I was analyzing: from agency to platform; from agency to media company; from agency to client-side; staring your own firm; or, like me, from creative to strategy.
Carla Echevarria is a design lead at Google who worked with me at R/GA. She leads product design, as well as the articulation of the product story. While I always thought of Carla as ambidextrous between marketing and product worlds, she clearly sees one as her jam. “Even when I was in the agency world, I wanted to do product development,” Carla told me. She got lucky at R/GA since the agency was ahead of its time doing product development. And then at Facebook, she helped invent Facebook Safety Check which I didn’t realize. If I had done something like that, I’d be permanently hooked on product development too.
David McMillan worked with me at Ogilvy and became Executive Creative Director for NBC News and MSNBC. With a career including Y&R, BBDO and Merkley, David’s a writer’s writer so I was surprised and impressed at the move into the heart of media. For David, it wasn’t as intentional as it was fortuitous. He had left Ogilvy and had a writing consulting business going with help from former clients. Freelancing at NBC as a promo writer was just another interesting gig and a reprieve from the “carousel of advertising”. The discipline he learned in all those years of advertising copywriting was a huge help to do the promo-style writing he was asked to do at NBC. When the guy he was working for left, he recommended David for the job. David frankly wasn’t sure whether to cash in his chips from his stable consulting business for such a drastic change but he was honest with himself: he wasn’t getting younger and ya know, it was a unique opportunity — and with the  election coming, he’d be smack dab in the middle of that. And of course, it was NBC News, with #1 rated shows. “Opportunity was knocking from a side door,” he said. “I couldn’t write a better script to reinvent my career.” A year in, David constantly fields calls from creatives who want to get out of agencies and do substantial things in the world. There are tradeoffs, he admits, but he also encourages creatives from advertising: “Take solace. You’re sitting on a craft. I couldn’t do what I do know without having done that.”
I also spoke to Marc Garbarini. With a creative leadership history at firms like Digitas and Organic, Marc and I have fairly parallel digital marketing experiences, but now he’s an Editor in Chief of Content at IBM. Marc spoke to me about being client side. “At the client, there isn’t the same process, the same flow,” he explained. “It’s a different cast of characters.” Instead of copy and design, for example, clients are far more focused on products, channels, and industries. “I’m becoming a better salesperson and better team member,” he added. While agencies are great at being focused on what has to be done, you have to be there [in-house] to really master the product content. “There are whirlpools of depth, and you can’t avoid it and you can’t fake it”. On the other hand, the broadness of thinking isn’t present the way an agency can provide. Plus, there something intangible about the agency workplace about which he was wistful -”the foxhole mentality” — bonding over the hours, working late, late meals.
For a take on starting your own business, I called Steve Landsberg, Founding Partner and Co-Chief Creative Officer of Grok. After years at Ogilvy, DDB, McCann as well as Saatchi, Steve found himself freelancing and pursuing three possible career tracks: one, join another agency; two, take a job client side; and three, continue freelance. Opening his own business wasn’t the immediate intent. “I was open to all sorts of scenarios,” he shared with me. What happened was he got a large freelance project at an agency, found himself back in managing teams, but found it smoke-and-mirrors. Instead, he and a creative and strategy partner, successfully won a small client engagement and started doing business as Grok. As they got more work, they let their individual assignments go. So it was a gradual, organic move towards one’s own company. The advice he got from accountants and lawyers: Don’t rent space you don’t need and don’t carry overhead you can’t afford.” Steve’s advice to those wondering about starting their own business is optimistic but pragmatic. “If you’re young but a client trusts you, go for it.” But don’t be naive. It depends on client backing, reputation and expertise. The idea of hanging up a shingle and waiting for business is a myth.
Changing your role from creative to strategy? I wanted to speak to Dan Chichester who I met long ago at OgilvyInteractive since he’s been a creative director and is now Chief Digital Officer at TBWA/WorldHealth. For him, the shift (and he’s done it to CDO twice) has been more natural and intuitive than a deliberate transition from creative ideas to strategic thinking like I have experienced. In fact, he never really thought of his work back at Ogilvy as advertising but that he’s always been in digital and always doing storytelling. He went to film school, fell into comic books, was mentored at Ogilvy, and partnered with other disciplines throughout. The way he works is creative and strategic. He’s picked up via osmosis a lot of the language and problem-solving. “I always steer the conversation to the why (strategy and storytelling), and not the what and how.”
The takeaway (so far) lacks drama
Overall, more creative directors than I expected have stayed closer to creative, and more evolutions feel intuitive than deliberate, dramatic, intentional shifts. Stay tuned. I might scale this study beyond my network to see if it holds up. Please comment or drop me a line if you have any rich thoughts about it.