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I will admit it. I have. And I’ve fallen for it more than once.

When I was still a copywriter, I fell for it twice.

It’s a good lie. It’s one that most creatives will fall for.

Because it’s the one that creatives want to believe and be a part of.

If they didn’t believe it, the interview would be over. No wait. The interview wouldn’t even have started.

When I began recruiting, I fell for it again. Repeatedly. In fact for the first five years I recruited, I fell for it at the beginning of every assignment. Because I heard it at the beginning of every assignment.

After five years of recruiting, and 17 years working in the advertising business, I FINALLY stopped falling for the lie. (This entire article is written to prevent you from falling for it once, or if I’m too late, to prevent you from falling for it again.) At that same time, I also became a better recruiter and I started doing better hires.

(I must add something off topic here, but it bears repeating. I am no longer recruiting. )

What is the lie? The one I fell for repeatedly? The one that is still being told daily? The one that I know creatives are still falling for because now I consult them to overcome the consequences of falling for the lie.


Yes, that one.

Who hasn’t been told that on almost every interview they’ve been on? Who hasn’t had a recruiter tell them that to get them to go on the interview? Who hasn’t believed it themselves and made a career move based on it, BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO BELIEVE IT?!!

I told you that things began to change for me as a recruiter. They did.

I realized that most of the Executive Creative Directors I had hired had not been successful in turning the agency into a “CREATIVE HOT SHOP”. Why was that? Did the agency really not want to change? Did the agency really not want to become a CREATIVE HOT SHOP?

Sadly, I think what the agency too often wanted, was to parade their new Executive Creative Director in front of their clients and say with a flourish of their hand, “Ooooh, look at what we got you…….” and that was the end of it.

That’s when I changed the way I did Executive Creative Director hires. Because I realized that what had been missing in the hiring process was a goal. A quantifiable one with a time line.

In other words, a REAL one.

Not the sort of fluff talk that “WE ARE GOING TO TURN THIS PLACE INTO A CREATIVE HOT SHOP” is.

(Don’t listen to me about goals. Listen to Harvard University. Harvard University did a survey that determined that people (and companies) that have quantifiable goals WITH A TIMELINE are TEN TIMES more likely to achieve them, regardless of age, sex, gender, location, status – in short, any variable you can put on it.)

My new way of doing Executive Creative Director hires meant that now – at the beginning of a brief – I asked the President or the CEO, “What is the goal of the agency?”

Guess what the answer always was? You got it.

The change was, that answer was no longer good enough for me. I didn’t want to do hires where nothing changed any more. Now I was hoping for a real goal.

One that could be measured. One that held everyone accountable. One that had a timeline.

I wasn’t always popular In fact, most of the time I wasn’t.

Once I had a goal, I told the President that I was going to ask the finalist Executive Creative Director candidates to write the plan to achieve the goal we had agreed to.

That wasn’t always popular either.

When the final three Executive Creative Director candidates were chosen and informed that they needed to write the plan to achieve the goal, I got a ton of pushback.

The most common response from the ECD candidates was, “Oh I need to get into the place first and see what it’s like.” My reply, “No you don’t. Either you know how and you can write the plan to turn an agency into (restate) GOAL, or you can’t. The purpose of writing the plan is find out if they will let you do it. You’re not looking for all ‘yes’ answers, but you want to know where the ‘no’ answers are. Change is a very personal word. It has financial implications, it has momentum, it has dimension, it has fear, it has uncertainty. You want to find out if your Partner’s (the President’s) definition of ‘Change’ is the same as yours. If it is, you will be successful. If it isn’t, you will be frustrated. Better to find out now, before you take the job.”

As an aside, this career blunder doesn’t just happen to those of us (me included as a Senior Writer at the time) who don’t know what they’re doing, so don’t beat yourself up. True story: A very successful and internationally awarded and recognized and well-compensated ECD, quit his swish job, to join a lesser known agency with a sketchy (I’m being polite) creative reputation. It lasted about four months. When I met with said ECD afterwards to ask him what happened, he told me that the President wouldn’t let him do anything.

Me: Like what? Him: They wouldn’t let me fire anyone. Me: How come? Him: No money for severance. Me: Did you ask before you took the job? Him: No I just figured. Me: What else? Him: They wouldn’t let me hire anyone. Me: What was the salary budget for the department? Him: Don’t know. Me: Did you not ask? Him: Not really, and I couldn’t enter award shows. Me: Well was the agency wanting to win awards? Him: Ya, they said they want to be a creative hot shop. Me: Oh that. How much did they spend on award shows last year? Him: I don’t know.

See where I’m going with this?

Those awful questions need to be asked.

There is no point in avoiding them in the interviews because they’re going to come very soon after you’ve taken the new job to TURN THIS PLACE INTO A CREATIVE HOT SHOP because it will probably be one of the first things you will ask.


Write a plan for what you will do for the creative department and agency you are being asked to transform. Include the money you will spend.

Change doesn’t happen without investment. Prepare the President and the CFO for it. Believe me it’s way better than asking permission every time you want to. Get approval, and then do what you said you would do.

Write the steps and in what order and by when you will execute them.

Amazing how infrequently the ‘writing of the plan to achieve the goal’ happens. Amazing how I still hear stories of big name creatives being hired at big name agencies with gigantic mandates and BILLIONS of dollars at stake, and the hiring process doesn’t include ‘the writing of the plan to achieve the goal’ by the candidates. Lots of dinners and positive words, and enthusiasm and ‘funny I was about to say the exact same thing’ and vague promises that can’t be measured, followed by THE OFFER and a big announcement in the industry trade publications, then NOTHING. Well nothing for about 18 – 24 months, then an announcement of how the friendly vague Executive Creative Director has ‘left to pursue other opportunities’.

So what can you do as a creative looking for a job, or as an Executive Creative Director who is being asked to TURN THIS PLACE INTO A CREATIVE HOTSHOP?

Ask what the goal of the agency is. Don’t fall for the CREATIVE HOTSHOP LINE. Don’t be one of its many victims. Wait for a goal that is measurable with a timeline. If it’s debatable, it’s not a goal.

Here are some previous goals I have heard of that (not coincidentally) have been achieved:

Tony Granger – Cannes Agency of the Year within two years. Done.

David Droga – Cannes Agency of the Year within two years. Done. Also, said to Maurice Levy when interviewing for the position as Worldwide CCO of Publicis, ‘I will win more awards in Cannes next year than the Publicis network has won in the past ten years combined.” Done.

Andrew Roberston/David Lubars – Top of the Gunn Report. Last four years in a row. Winningest network in Cannes. Done. Repeatedly.

Once you hear the goal, ask for the plan to achieve the goal.

You will probably hear something like, “We need to hire more people like you to get us there.”

Now there was a time in my life when I fell for that line. It was very complimentary, inflated my ego, made me feel great. It got me right where I lived as a creative person. We’re going to turn this place around and we’re ALL going to be famous.

Woohoo! I want to be a famous copywriter!

Today what I would say if someone said that to me, is very different. Today I would say, “Hmmm, that’s nice, thank you. However, what I need at this stage in my career is an Executive Creative Director who is a leader who can create a goal, and write the plan to get the department he leads (hopefully the one I work in) to achieve the goal. Then execute it.

Takes balls to say, I know it.

Also takes balls to believe in magic and join an agency without a goal, or the plan to achieve it.

Way more balls, and way bigger ones in fact.

~ heidi

P.S. The first Creatives Directors who created a quantifiable goal, then wrote the plan achieved their quantifiable goal within the 18 months they set out to achieve it in.

P.P.S. The plan is an important step, but it’s not the only step. The President and the ECD MUST sit down once a month to make sure the plan is being followed and if the agency and department is on track. You can’t just write the plan and then forget it.

P.P.P.S. Check out Tony Granger’s page on Diary of a Creative Director, and see what he said about Goals when I asked him about whether he has goals.