Tag Archives: Creative careers

‘Where did the creatives go?’ (Part 3)

In this article, I continue to find answers to the question, ‘Where do all the art directors and copywriters go when they get older?’

For earlier posts, see Part 1: Matt Cumming and Part 2: Adam Hunt

Part 3: Billy Plummer
Friday, 1 August 2014

I met with Billy at an outdoor café. I hadn’t seen him for quite a while. Before we got too far into conversation, we were interrupted by a waitress pointing to a nearby sign and reminding Billy that this was a no smoking area.

So we moved outside the ‘no smoking perimeter’ so he could finish his cigarette. After fielding a call from his photography agent, sipping his cappuccino, and pestering me for some more agency contacts, Billy and I returned to the table to hear his story.
In an accent that wouldn’t be out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, he told me about his advertising career of more than 30 years:

Advertising creatives

Billy Plummer

Well, I actually wanted to be a fine artist – a painter. I was always good at drawing so after high school I went to St Martins, an art school in London. Advertising was never the goal.

St Martins had this exhibition, where all the students showed their final work and people from all different industries would come and take a look.

I’d been fucking around and left my work to the last minute, as the deadline loomed. One day, I’m walking down a street in Soho and I see these modern Japanese dolls in a shop window. So that’s what I did as my work. I completed a series of old school charcoal drawings of the super modern dolls.

After college, I travelled to India with a mate. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but then I got a phone call from my mum. It turns out someone from Abbott Mead Vickers had attended the exhibition of final work and wanted to hire me. So I jumped on a plane and headed back to London to work there.

My job was as a scamper and storyboard artist for the creative department. I had no real ambitions of becoming an Art Director. I was just happy to be getting paid shitloads. The pay was a hell of a lot more than my mates, who were doing jobs like panel beating at auto workshops. I was getting about 50 quid a frame for my drawings, which was a lot of money back then.

One day, David Abbott came around and he was asking people what they wanted to do with their careers. All the other illustrators were saying they wanted to be an Art Director, so that’s what I said too. I didn’t really know – I just thought it was the right answer to give.

I regret not staying longer at AMV. David Abbott was a really nice man. But someone at a direct marketing agency offered me a job as a Junior Art Director on great money so I took it.

I became a Creative Director quite young, at an agency called Payne Stracey. They later became Tequila.

Then I went to a place called BHWG as Head of Art, and they became Proximity. Next was Evans Hunt Scott. That agency was an early adopter of the internet. They put Tesco online.

After that, I freelanced at places like Bates and TBWA, and also worked directly with clients. It was a good time. On Friday afternoons, there was this pub in Soho that would be full of creatives. A lot of freelance work was arranged and done there. By that stage, I’d forged a solid reputation as being quite good at DM. I’d won at Cannes and Caples, and some English award shows.

Then my copywriter, Guy Bolton, went on holiday to Australia. While there he got a job as CD at an agency called Lavender. He wanted me to join him. I was at Lowe at the time, but followed Guy. I don’t really know why I went. I just thought it would be a bit of an adventure.

So I ended up in Sydney as Head of Art at Lavender. Then I went to The Moult Agency. After a few years there, I headed to The Marketing Store as Creative Director.

I helped build The Marketing Store from an agency of 30 people to more than 80. There, I became joint Global Creative Director but got to a stage where I was just a bit bored. I probably just needed a new challenge.

So I left that job and focused on my photography for a year. I’d been working on my photography for years – even back in London.

Anyway, my time at The Marketing Store had opened up a few contacts and opportunities throughout Asia. So I ended up taking a job at Saatchi & Saatchi in China’s third largest city, Guangzhou. I was Creative Director for Proctor & Gamble. I had only planned to do it for a year but stayed for 2. I had a pretty good deal there, and with the low living costs it meant I came back to Australia with a fair amount of money saved.

At the moment, I have a flexible work week, where I do 3 or 4 days at Iris. I’m sort of a Head of Art/sage guy. The rest of my time is spent on photography projects, both commercial and personal.

I still love advertising – I’ve done it for so long, it’s part of my life. I still feel I’m an artist, and I currently have several art projects on the side.

I feel advertising keeps me young, on my toes, inspired, mentally-fit, competitive and bright-eyed. I think everything I do is as close as possible to something I’d do even if I wasn’t being paid for it.

If you look at all the interesting work these days, it’s not usually an advertising solution. Instead, it’s a business solution. Now I’m just trying to put some of that into practice for myself. Rather than concentrate solely on making money for advertising clients, I’m working on little projects of my own.

The world tends to be much broader than what you get used to seeing in advertising. Sometimes, you need to step outside of that bubble.

Are Creative Directors actually creative?

Recently I was reading Simon Veksner’s blog. It was a story about Matt Eastwood and discussed the idea of how one’s appearance might affect their career progression. Amongst the comments was this:

Anonymous said…

I’ve been a ‘creative’ for a very long time and your article solved what has been a continuing mystery for me.

Many people have said over the years ‘why don’t you become a creative director?’
And I’ve always replied ‘why would you?’. The thrill of being in creative is thinking of an idea. Sure the money drugs and babes are cool too, but creating ideas is what defines ‘creatives’.

The moment you become a ‘creative director’ is the moment you stop being creative.
You become an inspirer. A seller. A buffer.
In other words you become a suit. And this was obviously Matt’s goal.

I don’t mean that as a pejorative. Great suits are as valuable as great creatives, often more so.
If work doesn’t get sold it may as well not have been conceived.

But it always bugs me when those who have chosen to don the literal or metaphorical suit continue to pretend they are still part of the creative department, or creative brotherhood.
They are not.
When you stop doing ideas yourself, you stop being a creator.

Worldwide CDs like Matt are the epitome of this. He doesn’t create anything himself. He doesn’t even see any work before it goes to clients let alone influence it.

He travels the world raising the profile of the network by chairing awards, then he chairs meetings of selected ECDs where everyone agrees to be much better, then he sacks some ECDs who didn’t get much better even though their clients won’t allow it.

This is not being creative. It’s being a suit.

If the role of worldwide creative director actually involved being the most creative person in the network, wouldn’t you expect such a demi-god to actually think of stuff when there’s a world-wide pitch?

Why hire someone who used to think of things, to not think of things?
It’s silly.
I hope Matt reads this. Because I now know how he became a CD, I just don’t know why.

This got me thinking. It reminded me of a book that came out a few years ago called Creative Director: Year Zero. It’s a collection of thoughts from CDs about their role.

I think there were two main things to come out of that book.
The first was that the term ‘Creative Director’ has taken on a whole new meaning. With the advent of so many new titles, a Creative Director these days is what a ‘Creative Group Head’ used to be (i.e. they’re like a deputy, and they’re usually responsible for a particular client). They still have to answer to a CD (who is now called an ‘Executive Creative Director’, or ECD). In some instances, there’s even a ‘Chief Creative Officer’, but that usually only happens when there’s a real pissing competition going on.

What it all comes down to is this: if you’re not the one making the final creative calls on work before it leaves the agency or if you have to show someone else, you’re not really the Creative Director (actually, these days, many of the people making creative calls aren’t actually from the Creative Dept, but that’s a blog for another time).

The other point is that a Creative Director’s job is not an extension of being a Copywriter or Art Director. It’s not like the ‘Suit side of things’ where you have Account Executive, Account Manager, Account Director, Group Account Director and Managing Director, with each role being an extension of the one prior.

By moving from Copywriter or Art Director to Creative Director, you go from making or creating ideas to suddenly reviewing or presenting them.
Or in other words, you go from playing to coaching.

In a way, this is a very weird situation. Imagine pulling one of your best players from the field so he or she can yell advice from the sideline.
It gives rise to the question, ‘do you have to have been a good player to be a good coach?’

Logic says you don’t. There are plenty of great coaches who weren’t great players.
However, a General leading his troops into battle will almost always have greater respect from his soldiers if they know that he’s spent time in the trenches too.

For example, Vince Lombardi played gridiron on a college scholarship. Sir Alex Ferguson was top goal-scorer in the Scottish league for 1965-6. And Sir Graham Henry played for the highly respected New Zealand provincial side, Canterbury, before coaching the All-Blacks and being named IRB International Coach of the year 5 times.