Why layered creative departments are a barrier to great work

Everyone knows that layers in any approval process are bad. Just look at what happens when there are too many layers on the client side. And yet we’ve essentially done the same thing within the agency creative department. We’ve made it extremely difficult for exceptional ideas to make it through unscathed. The ones that do make it through are usually safe and full of compromises.

There was a time not too long ago when the average creative department was flat. There was only one creative director (or sometimes a team of two) and then creatives under him or her. The only delineation between creatives was “junior,” “mid-level” and “senior.” But all of them reported directly to the creative director. 

This worked perfectly because everyone had access to the final decision maker. They could engage in conversation, discussing problems and solutions surrounding the work, and save a lot of time. And there were fewer egos and personal agendas involved.

Now, creative departments are bloated with a lot of layers. Creative work starts at the bottom and must run the gauntlet through ACD’s, CD’s, GCD’s before finally reaching the ECD’s. And sometimes it must be approved by the CCO. It’s reminiscent of a scene out of Indiana Jones, where he had to run through a tunnel filled with flying darts, swinging blades, rolling boulders and trapdoors with wooden spikes. This is how great ideas get ruined.

What’s so wrong with layers? Here are a few things.

1. Human ego compels every person in each layer to add his or her own input to an idea running the gauntlet, often resulting in a Frankenstein. Sometimes ideas are improved along the way but more often they are not. 

2. Without direct access to the decision maker at the top, those on the bottom must try to interpret the feedback from the layer above them, which is often cryptic and contradictory. It’s the classic game of telephone.

3. It puts too many internal reviews in the process. If you are briefed on Monday and the ECD’s want to see ideas on Friday, that means the GCD’s must see it Thursday and the CD’s on Wednesday. And if there are ACD’s, they see it on Tuesday. And who knows when the account people or planners get a peek. Probably at the last minute. All of this reduces actual creative development time down to nothing.

4. It filters out great ideas too soon. Middle management CD’s like to curate. Which basically means to kill. The problem is, nobody’s tastes are identical. The tastes and biases of the ECD’s are guaranteed to be different than the intermediate CD’s. So why filter out work that the ECD might see potential in? 

5. It eliminates discussion and debate. Sometimes an idea needs to be talked out with the ECD’s. They might be on the fence with an idea and a few alterations suggested by the creative team can make the all difference. But that’s virtually impossible when they’re not in the room together.

I know some will disagree with me, but in my experience, layered creative departments are totally counterproductive. It’s no different than having a lot of layers on the client side. And every (every) creative murmurs and complains about that.

So where did these layers come from? How did this trend start? Personally, I began to see it about 10-15 years ago. I believe they started appearing and multiplying when agency chiefs discovered that promoting people with titles was an effective substitute for pay raises, and it helped keep creatives from getting lured away by other shops. 

Unfortunately, we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. Every agency has embraced this system and it’s become standard. So these layers are here to stay. The question is, where can we go from here?

Here’s one solution that I believe would make all the difference in the world: Collective CD reviews.

It would work like this... schedule one creative review with every CD-level person in attendance. CD’s, GCD’s and ECD’s. One by one, each creative team comes into the room and presents their work (or collectively with all teams together). Then everyone can make comments and have their say. And the creative team can defend their work and suggest solutions to problems, right on the spot. This way, everyone will truly share ownership and huge amounts of time will be saved.

It’s true, nobody likes big meetings with lots of people. Especially executive creatives. Probably because it’s far easier to kill work when the creatives are not in the room. However, creatives are actually more satisfied and less bitter when the ECD explains why their idea isn’t working. And they develop a much greater respect for the ECD because they say it to their face, with honesty and directness. Plus the creatives get some closure.

This method would lead to (A) better communication, (B) greater understanding, (C) less bitterness, and (D) better work. Streamlining the process can only have a positive impact.

A few years back, when I worked at Media Arts Lab, every creative presented directly to Lee Clow. Even the creative interns. The other executive creatives were standing there as well. It was a group of people roving around a room full of work. And it worked brilliantly. If Lee didn’t like an idea, you heard directly from him. And you could defend your work. Rarely did it change his mind, but at least you were allowed to speak up and hear his feedback in person.

One last thing. In the layered system, there’s a false assumption that a CD must always make a comment or request a change, even if the idea is just fine as is. And that’s totally understandable. It’s natural to desire to make your stamp. And to feel like you’re actually contributing something. But, just know, it’s okay to like something just as it is. You share ownership if you simply champion it. I believe it shows real maturity and confidence when you resist the urge to meddle unnecessarily.



I’ve received some great feedback since posting this blog entry yesterday. One comment from my friend, Annie, provided some more insight. She said: 

“I think one of the issues for these layers is salary requirements. Big agencies can't justify (anymore) the $200k+ salaries to a Senior Writer. The bean counters have to say, ‘oh, this person is important and valued, so they get a title that allows for the inflated salary.’ Titles over the decades have become very important to creatives, too. 'Look what I accomplished Mom by going to that art school!'"

Thanks, Annie, for sharing your perspective. It makes sense. In some cases, the bean counters have had a part to play in multiplying these titles and layers. Which is really a shame, since it has affected the process and the work. 

Of course there are some people out there who will say, “I got promoted with a title but never saw a salary increase!” To which I say, squeak louder and more often.