The Real Role of the Creative Director

About 10 times a year, we have our little seminar called “Wunderkind U.” This is where we invite a speaker, do a related reading, and bring in examples of fine —or crappy work —from the marketplace that brings our discussion to life.

Last week, we had the pleasure of having one of North America’s great creative directors and copy writers, Ian Mirlin, come speak to us. Being gathered in a room around Ian is like what I imagine it must have been for the young men who gathered around Socrates during his famous dialogues.

Ian is prone to saying profound things as often as Martha Stewart says, “It’s a good thing.” Such as:

“Advertising should be a practice in the arts and humanities.”


“According to Arthur Koestler, ‘Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality.'”

Entire dissertations could be written about each of those statements. He is the voice that launched a thousand minds.

Really, who talks like that anymore? It was as though the actual Leo Burnett, or Bill Bernbach, were sitting in the room with us.

His talk centered around a topic that truly needs to be discussed in our industry: defining the proper role of the creative director. Ian contends that too many creative directors today are obsessed with looking cool and contemporary. They get involved in creating tactics like the next cool app, which are essentially distribution of the message — and not the message itself. In Ian’s view, the creative director’s job is chief storyteller of the village, the one who identifies and crafts the powerful story the village needs to hear as it gathers around the fire.

“We have become obsessed with pipeline, and forgotten the oil,” says Ian.

Most CD’s are of an age and era where it’s highly unlikely they’re the best at creating digital tactics. There are far more talented people who are younger and therefore better suited to these kinds of distribution methods. And distribution, especially digital, is changing by the minute. It is not the CD’s job to be the chief expert on the distribution. It is his or her job to develop the story that is worth distributing in the first place.

Now put that in your pipeline and smoke it!

– W.