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Why There Are Too Many Chiefs And Not Enough Innovation

Why naming chief innovation officers is more of a symptom than a solution.

Why There Are Too Many Chiefs And Not Enough Innovation
[Photo: Flickr user Heather Katsoulis]

Over the years this country has seen a steep rise in job title inflation. It seems there is a “chief” of everything you can possibly think of. From Chief Creative Officers to Chief Strategy Officers to Chief Finance Officers to Chief Marketing Officers to Chief Innovation Officers. But what do all these chiefs do?

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The truth of the matter is that they don’t do much more than what their previous lesser job title did. In the creative department, the Chief Creative Officer has replaced the Executive Creative Director who in turn has replaced the Creative Director. There used to be a time when the Creative Director was the most sought after title. Now I’m unsure as to how much creative directing an actual creative director does.

In fact, the hierarchy of titles has gotten so out of control that on any one job there can be a Chief Creative Officer, an Executive Creative Director, a Creative Director, and an Associate Creative Director, leaving some poor 25-year-old placement team doing all the work.

We could just shrug our shoulders and say it doesn’t really matter. But in some deeper psychological way it does matter, for two reasons. One, hierarchies are a completely outmoded way of working, and two, self-important titles speak of a self-regarding industry. Both of which are not healthy reflections of how our industry should operate.

The Business Is Flat

In today’s world agencies need to operate in a much more agile way: Clients demand more services faster, but of the same quality. Rather than find ways to resolve this it seems agencies are hell-bent on sustaining hierarchies designed to work against it. Tech companies don’t have this problem; they create flat structures with teams of highly qualified discipline specialists working together.

To do this you only need one chief, the CEO. Everyone else needs to be either at partner/director level or a doer. This negates the need for layers of management. By organizing as such you can enable rapid creative development, which in turn eradicates the need for sign-off and the creation of bottlenecks of workflow.

If the client wants to be part of the project team they can be, and with no hierarchy their issues can then be quickly served. Being part of the journey with shared ownership more often leads to better, not worse creative work.

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This is because flat structures, project teams, and fluid workflow not only speed up creative development, but they also, more importantly, prevent innovation from being stifled.

New ideas need to be built and tested as you go. This sort of iterative working practice not only interrogates viability, it also increases buy-ability. Once a client can see how something works it is much easier to get to the question of ‘How much…?’

Forget The Titles, Just Innovate Already

The other reason this hierarchy is unhealthy for our industry is because it makes us look pompous. It seems the more our role in the marketing community comes under threat the more important we want to make everyone sound. I’m sure job retention plays a large part. But, if your agency has to keep inflating your title to keep you then you do have to call into question your level of job satisfaction.

Title inflation has created some truly hideous job titles, the worst being Chief Innovation Officer. As Tim Cook recently remarked, “as soon as a company has a Chief Innovation Officer you know that company has a problem.”

For agencies today, innovation should be the day job. Creating a fancy job title for someone to wave an innovation flag is merely an attempt to mask an agency’s lack of real innovation. It’s a sure sign of an agency struggling to prove its relevance.

In short, the industry could do with a lot fewer chiefs and great deal more innovation to make itself truly valuable to clients. To lead our clients into the future, we have to work every day in a way that encourages innovation. To do that, we have to behave as innovators do: collaboratively, iteratively, and rapidly. This is what will make us important again in a way job titles never can.

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Brian Cooper is a Creative Partner at Dare. Brian’s career as a hybrid creative is steeped in above the line and digital expertise from both within, and outside of the agency world. With a career spanning BBH, McCann-Erickson, Mother, and most recently a stint as ECD at Ogilvy, he’s also had a spell as Apple’s Creative Director and spent a few highly successful years at Dare.

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