The Creative Director: dead or reborn?

is the creative director dead?

Technology is changing the world fast, putting pressure on companies to transform their working practices and become more creative. February’s Agile for Agencies meetup, which took place at Beyond, looked at the question of how to make the creative processes more inclusive, more collaborative and more productive, and what this all means for the agency Creative Director.

RIP the Creative Director

The night’s first speaker was Charlie Lyons, General Manager of Beyond, a global experience design agency. The title of Charlie’s presentation was the same as that of his recent Guardian article, The creative director is dead – long live creativity.

the creative director is dead

Charlie is from a traditional advertising agency background, where creative teams toiled away in a silo, cut-off from their colleagues like some strange, exotic breed of delicate genius.

Charlie’s thesis is that this mode of working is stifling and, with the world looking very different today than it did ten years ago, completely unfit for keeping up with a rapidly changing technological landscape.

We need, says Charlie, to move away from the cult of the creative director, which gives one individual or department a monopoly over creativity.

It’s time to rethink this way of working. To keep up with the pace of change, today’s businesses need employees who can collaborate across disciplines.

Developers, data-heads and designers all have a part to play in producing the best work – and this team of disruptive thinkers should all be actively involved in a creative culture, each bringing their expertise and insights to bear.

In short, today’s market calls for an approach that’s more inclusive, more collaborative and ultimately, more productive; an approach that can attract and retain the best talent.

Charlie told us of how he’s pioneered an Applied Creativity methodology at Beyond, which distributes creative ownership across the team, taking in everyone from analysts to developers and designers.

Not dead, but reborn

Next up was Mark Ellis, the very much alive and kicking Creative Director at Manifesto, with a talk titled ‘The Creative Director Reborn’.

So, Mark hasn’t abandoned the creative director role but his central thesis is actually remarkably resonant with Charlie’s: that agencies need to break down the (metaphorical) walls between the ‘creatives’ and everyone else. We need to share creativity with the wider agency, and help everyone realise their potential to take creativity to new and exciting heights.

Whereas the creative director of old was an ivory-tower-dwelling despot, the gatekeeper of creativity who ruled their siloed team with an iron fist and a fully stocked drinks cabinet, the reborn creative director is something of a rebel. They see themselves not as the head of a creative department but as the person responsible for facilitating all creativity at the agency, helping multi-skilled and highly collaborative teams bring ideas to life by using agile ways of working.

The key elements of this approach are: setting clear expectations, giving teams autonomy, encouraging innovation, and being a defender of ideas.

But Mark also shared some concrete tips on how to make this happen…

How to bring creative ideas to life

  1. Condense a brief down to a short challenge
  2. Share the challenge with everyone, e.g. by using an agency-wide Slack channel
  3. Bring together everyone’s ideas on an ideas wall
  4. Use multi-disciplined teams to brainstorm (e.g. Design, UX, Tech) ideas from that idea wall
  5. Work down to five ideas and sense check them against the brief (bring in a key person who understands the client’s challenges e.g. the Strategy Director)
  6. Develop those ideas with a further multi-disciplined teams
  7. Deliver the pitch
  8. Workshop with the client to develop the idea


My first Agile for Agencies meetup was a great look at creative culture through an Agile lens. As the lines between creativity and technology become ever more blurred, the Creative Director role is set to become ever more varied. The key takeaway for me was to be prepared to learn and collaborate across the agency. As Mark said at the end of his talk, don’t be surprised when the next big idea comes from your intern (at which point, you should probably offer them a job).

There’ll be another Agile for Agencies meetup in the spring. Join the meetup group.

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