by Jerry Mpufane (@JerryMpufane) They say that creativity can come from anywhere. We all agree.

If the advertising agency business is all about the work, then where does the attitude, influence, inspiration, and the vision behind the work come from? Many of us accept that a myriad of skill sets in the creative campaign value chain can influence the work. But, who holds the cards?

Many a gifted suit and strategist have, over time, shown that they can influence and direct the agency’s creative product. However, even the best ones accept that there is that special seat in the room, that special place, that hallowed hot seat reserved for the creative director. We also accept that the creative director’s seat is reserved for the inspirational types.

But where do the creative directors come from?

Creative Circle South Africa Hall of Fame screengrabIndustry greats

The Creative Circle, our very own association of creative excellence, proudly lauds the industry greats who over the years have made a significant contribution to our industry. It has a special space for what it calls the Hall of Fame.

In my search for whence the great creative directors came, I read up on the histories of a few of the Hall of Famers (recently, one of them insisted they be named Hall of Famer — and not Lifetime Achiever, because in his fifties he is very much still in the game!).

It is true that, just as with great ideas, creative directors can come from anywhere.

Little in common

The Creative Circle Hall of Fame is home to a very short list of personalities who have influenced the South African creative landscape. In my view, these people have very little in common. They are confirmation that creative directors can come from anywhere.

In the Hall of Fame you find the failed rock musician, the guy who gave up the law suits but kept the bespoke suits, the film director who started his working life deep inside a mine shaft, and the one who left the ad industry to become a taxi driver, then came back…

There’s also the one who grew up in a boy’s home and dreamt of becoming an architect, and the army rifleman who became a copywriter.

Hot seat

A disclaimer that is usually captured in fine print will be published, this time around, as a part of the main body of the article: this column is written with no apology whatsoever to that commercially astute suit, nor to the visionary strategist. I personally hold the view that, being in the creative services industry, ad agencies must reserve the hot seat for the creative director.

Creative directors always have a fresh perspective. They are fearless and open to being lucky. They are good listeners, open to critique and are always ready to share. They are proud of their ideas, and most of all, they are a point of inspiration.

Advertising being an industry that carries that sexy descriptor of being “creative”, I do also have a fascination for other creative industries, whether it’s the chef’s kitchen, the cocktail bar, interior design, horticulture, haberdashery, or even the kiddies’ party planner.

Fighting for second place

Second only to the rock star, the creative fighting for the second spot, alongside the agency creative director, must be the head of the design team in a fashion house. (Rock stars remain exactly just that, the pinnacle of stardom!).

Their moment of truth is showing at Fashion Week.

They have a vision for the Fashion Week brief, and they assemble the best skills set for the task at hand. They are focused on the fashion label’s growth and sustainability. They introduce a personal signature to the work, while paying homage to the history and heritage of the fashion house. They move their signature forward to appeal to new audiences while retaining a commercial sensibility.

The fashion-house creative director understands the balance required towards paying homage to an established heritage vs moving the fashion label forward — they know that focusing too much on the one aspect can be dangerous.

Under pressure

They work better under tough constraints, whether they be financial or time pressures, work with different skills at different times, and often retain a core team of trusted and reliable talent who have adopted their particular creative signature.

In the world of fashion, it is well understood that the appointment of a new creative director can make or break the house. They can alienate existing clients and introduce new ones.

The creative director’s personality is intrinsically woven into the brand. Those creatives are well-suited (pun intended) to the philosophy of the house, have an appreciation for the operations structures and ultimately support the long-term character of the brand house. They understand that their creative prowess impacts the long-term commercial viability of the house.

Want to work with them

The good creative directors add a lot of credibility to the house. The production directors want to work with them. The strategists and suits want to work with them. The really good ones, the bold, the rulebook-shredding ones, have over time introduced industry paradigm shifts.

What makes them so good?

Fashion house creative directors start their careers as artisans in small workshops. They start by handcrafting stuff. They specialise; they master the one thing. They don’t do it for the money, knowing fully well that money follows when they perfect their craft. They understand that their workmanship and quality must excite the connoisseur, this being representative of the innate marketing of the brand.

Never finished

In their minds, the best creative studio is never completely built, never finished.

Those types of creative directors exist in our industry.

Let’s give them free rein.

Because they are good at selling their vision for the brief. They bring the rest of the agency and the client along on the journey.

They also understand that failure happens when their ego and their poor ethos fail to connect with the agency brand’s history, essence and soul — ultimately failing to connect with the customer.


Jerry Mpufane, July 2014Jerry Mpufane has executive experience in both ad agency and client organisations. He’s only got one goal in life, which is to be an inspiring leader. Jerry is currently group MD, Gauteng of M&C Saatchi Abel. His monthly column on MarkLives, “The Business of Business”, focuses on what it takes to run a great AND sustainable ad agency.

— MarkLives’ round-up of top ad and media industry news and opinion in your mailbox every Monday and Thursday. Sign up here!

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist