The strategic should be a given

So, I'm interviewing a young copywriter. His book hints at an agile mind, a lively imagination. There's promise here. Then he asks IT, the question: 'Are you one of those creative directors who's into long-term strategic brand building?' I nod on...

So, I’m interviewing a young copywriter. His book hints at an agile mind, a lively imagination. There’s promise here. Then he asks IT, the question: ‘Are you one of those creative directors who’s into long-term strategic brand building?’ I nod on the vertical axis.

As he absorbs my reply, the expression on his face betrays the thought his mouth can’t quite summon the courage to say: ‘Bummer.’ He then defends his divergent career ambition with the refrain, ‘Well, I just want to do cool ads.’ So unsurprised was I to hear him chant this barren mantra that only good manners prevented me from actually lip-synching the words along with him. His eyes, award-logged from poring over the only books he’ll ever read, tell me this kid’s speaking the truth. I could just weep.

Our industry now feels compelled to draw a distinction between a strategic creative director and a creative director. Bummer. How does this make us look to clients? (Client: a professional who wakes up in the middle of the night with clammy hands worrying about his brand’s market share instead of fretting over the fit of his Prada suit which, by the way, will look just slammin’ at the next awards show.) I’ll tell you, it makes us look like clowns.

When the editor of this report asked for my choices for top strategic creative directors, I was wincingly aware that the word ‘strategic’ was being used in its adjectival form; as a kind of condescending, hyphenated-bonus title. Notwithstanding my objections to this form of nomenclature apartheid, I chose CDs who consistently demonstrate the ability to reason ownable strategic brand positionings, and then have the courage and ingenuity to keep presenting them in a meaningful way – over time. It was a very short list. And not a perfect one.

The CDs I identified are responsible for long-term strategic brand building on some of their accounts, but none have adhered to this principle with every one of their clients. Why? Because it’s heavy lifting, and because its a bitch to find creatives (young or old) with the stamina and integrity to commit themselves to such a mission. I know.

Brands aren’t built in a day, they take time. Unfortunately our industry eschews the Gregorian calendar in favour of something known as the award-show calendar. In this rogue calendar, time is out of step with the real world. But heck, that’s not an insurmountable problem for creatives who, wrapped in a robe of dollars and dogma, manage to keep the realities of real brand building from their sensitive skins (it’s all about the ads, man!) In brand years, success takes commitment and discipline (OH NO! says the creative, that’ll stifle my imagination. Get me Richard Foster!)

When consumers manifestly have the power to avoid us at the flick of a button, or just by looking away, it’s important, nay vital, that we present a consistent brand personality at every turn, or we risk appearing insincere, or worse, not being recognized. About 99% of all creatives find this doctrine too rigid and confining. The other 1% work for me.

I’m not advocating a Maoist conformity, I’m pleading for consistency in voice and brand character. Consistency isn’t a straightjacket (as the simple-minded believe); it’s a show of strength, a deterrent to competition. Why not make it easy for consumers to instantly recognize the brands they support, and then maybe learn something new about them?

As long as our industry continues to indulge its obsession with award shows, we will have to live with the problem of a creative work force that gauges its worth solely in the counterfeit currency of shiny statues. We taught creatives this value system. We can unteach it. If we don’t do this, and do it soon, the task of stewarding brands will pass from agencies to other suppliers. If agencies want to be life-support systems for brands, they’re going to have to do more than mumble placebo rhetoric during new biz pitches.

This means giving creatives financial and soul-sustaining encouragement for being smart, not just shocking. We have to teach them that advertising conceived exclusively in a fit of irony rarely meets the daily nutritional needs of a brand. We have to champion advertising that dares to be strategic, breakthrough and sustainable.

If we can pull this off, then we have a decent shot at reshaping a sunset industry into one that actually merits the dollars it both charges and uses. Clients might see ad budgets more as working dollars – a valid and vital way of building business – instead of a hemorrhage of precious resources.

Oh, and one last thing: Congrats to the CDs profiled in this issue. You give us all a good name.

Philippe Garneau is executive creative director of Toronto-based Garneau Würstlin Philp, Brand Engineering, where clients such as ING DIRECT,, Buckley’s and Delta Hotels just assumed that the title creative director meant strategic creative director.