The evolution of the chief creative officer

Leadership at the intersection of ideas and commerce—that’s today’s chief creative officer. Household names including General Mills are adding the CCO office to their brand marketing team.

Brands need to react quickly to stay relevant and on-message in such a fast-moving media market. The CCO is tasked with a very tricky juggling act. For all their demand-generation mandates, creative teams are still notoriously sensitive about being driven by rules and dollars. “When art and commerce meet, generally there’s chaos, noise, and weirdness,” says Adam Wilson, CCO at Enlighten of Ann Arbor, MI. “A CCO knows how to blend art and commerce with as little collateral damage as possible.”

Defining the role

Historically, CCOs at large, complex organizations have had to instill a sense of inner calm before they can focus on effectively synchronizing and broadcasting a brand message. This CCO-as-peacekeeper strategy helped anchor agencies and prevent internal ambition from overwhelming shared goals. “In some cultures, creative directors are competing with other creative directors, and fighting for every piece of work,” says Roger Camp, partner and CCO of Camp + King. “That erodes client confidence in you, because you’re belligerent about everything.”

Two years ago, Tris3ct promoted Chris Cancilla from executive creative director to CCO. The transition has been subtle but significant, and reflects the broader managerial duties of the position. Most of his time today is spent with the heads of planning and account services, not creative directors. “The role I play every day is trying to create a space where the best work happens and to building the entire creative organization, and that supersedes any one client project or relationship,” he says. “That’s not to say I won’t go deep on a pitch or assignment for a marquee client, but there was a real mind shift from caring about the intricate details of an assignment to trying to build a department.”

Identifying CCO material

Organizations have to be wary of the Peter Principle when establishing a CCO—promoting someone to the level of their incompetence. “There have been epic failures when some people who were good at advertising started to manage it,” Camp says.

Someone with a broad background can make an ideal chief creative officer. “CCOs need to be what I think of as the ‘new generalist’–someone who knows enough about print, TV, digital, UX, and SEO,” Wilson says. “They need to understand how content in context matters. There are too many specialists at the top of the house, when what is needed are generalists who know how to orchestrate the specialists.”

Wilson recently became the first CCO in Enlighten’s 31-year history, because the agency was ready for creative leadership that was equally invested in the balance sheet. “The last creative leader here was an executive creative director, and he was very good at what he did, but I have an entrepreneurial itch to scratch,” he says. “It puts me in partnership with our CEO, working with him to grow the business.”

CCO, CMO, or brand spokesperson?

It can be difficult to establish a truly equal relationship between the CCO and chief marketing officer. Leaving budgets and logistics to the CMO and tasking the CCO to coordinate tone, vision, and voice is an effective strategy that respects the separate, yet aligned, goals of both leaders.

The CCO can also take responsibility for keeping the creative department focused and motivated, regardless of fluctuations in project load, budget, or seasonal variations. “Good CCOs recognize that creative people are like locomotives: they take a while to get going, but once they get going, you try not to stop them because it will take a while to get going again,” Wilson says. “A brand CCO allows that locomotive to keep going, to parlay that momentum to create content and strategically distribute it.”

Other brands have chosen to sidestep the evolution of the CCO as full-time stakeholder by signing part-time celebrity CCOs, a trend that some consider cynical PR. Not everyone is convinced it’s a bad move, either for the brand or for the emerging dignity of the office. “Are you just trying to imbue your brand with some of the celebrity’s halo? Maybe, but it’s genius marketing,” Camp says.

For traditional, full-time CCOs, the ability to facilitate collaboration across departments and agencies is vital. The CCO is the ideal negotiator and collaborator for the complex web of relationships that tell a modern brand story. “Multi-agency collaboration is a big issue today, and agencies can be fearful of other agencies touching their ideas,” Cancilla says. “A CCO needs to cut through the complexity so they can put things out in the world that no one has seen before.”

Whether the CCO comes from a strong creative background, a pop culture hit list, or an unconventional managerial discipline, the role is only as meaningful as the brand’s commitment to aligning around a creative vision. “Some brands [install] a CCO to signify a change in the organization, but it may be smoke and mirrors unless you give them the freedom to go and do their jobs,” Camp says.

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.