Double Standards: To have or not to have... What’s in a designation?

Leo Burnett’s K V Sridhar and Havas Worldwide’s Satbir Singh tell Pooja Ahuja Nagpal what they think about designations that exist (or don’t) for creatives, what they mean, and more. For starters, we asked them if a creative team without layers defined by designations ensures a more open work culture, ensuring better access to the creative leadership. Their views, as one would expect, are very different. Read on for more.

Aug 09, 2013 06:36:00 PM | Article | Pooja Ahuja Nagpal

Satbir Singh, managing partner and chief creative officer, Havas Worldwide (L) and  K V Sridhar (Pops), chief creative officer, Leo Burnett (R)

Does an agency team without designations for creatives help create a ‘flatter’, more open structure?

KVS: An agency without designations will definitely create a flatter structure. That’s what we have done. We have just three designations – copywriter, creative director and executive creative director.
A designation should correspond with the function that you do. Experience has absolutely nothing to do with it.  Either you are born with great talent or you are not. Talent will not get better with years of experience. Experience should not be the parameter for people to grow or function or to do what they want to do. This structure of so many designations is only to hold back people. The job does not change, nothing really changes and no one is progressing. Progress does not mean a designation change. It comes only when you put out more work and move ahead in life. It is stupidity to have so many designations. It is nothing but an inconvenience.

SS: Designations are there for a reason. It is not just about talent, but about experience. So designations usually come with talent plus experience. What designations do is tell you where you can go in an agency to get different kinds of work done. For instance, who do you need to go to for getting your work chiselled and crafted? When you need creative direction? As creative directors, the designation comes to you because you can help craft according to a brand’s personality and so on. Designation tells who does what job and why it is like that. If a person is in charge of a group, he is the group director and that’s why he is called that.

What purpose do designations serve in a creative department?

KVS: There are only two (levels of) jobs in an agency for a creative and they are - a copywriter (or art person) or a creative leader. At the creative leader level, one can be a creative director or an executive creative director. If you are a creative director, then you will have a team of people and you will lead the team and the brand and you partner with the client. The role of an executive creative director is more about leadership as you will handle not just one brand but more brands and there is thought leadership. It’s not just about solving the problem at that point of time; you have to form a brand vision. Depending on how big the agency is, there could be one or multiple executive creative directors.

SS: Designations usually are job descriptors. So a copywriter is a copywriter, while a senior copywriter is a copywriter with some experience. A creative director’s job is completely different from a copy writer or art director’s job as he has to provide direction to the team. We should not overdo them but they (designations) are necessary as they are job descriptions.

Does lack of designation enable better collaboration? Does it help the younger lot reach out to seniors more easily?

KVS: It is much easier to work without designations and we have been doing that since the last 13 years. In such a system, it is easier to have access to seniors as there is no complex reporting system. In other agencies, there is a competitive hierarchy system, so a copywriter reports to a copy supervisor, who then reports to a group head, who will report to a creative director. He then reports to a group creative director, who will be answerable to an executive creative director. So when they want to see an idea, all six will have to come to your room. But in a structure without designations, around two people - a creative director and copy writer - will come and show the work. And you will have more time and access to tell them what is right and what is wrong. Mentoring is much easier in such a structure.

SS: This is a people business and it’s different strokes for different folks. Some people react differently to different situations. There are some who are extremely senior who have their own cabins, but never shut the door to their rooms and so one can walk in and out whenever you want to. But there are some people who are not very senior and want to stay out of reach as they feel that it is the best way for them to function. So, a designation is neither the catalyst nor impediment. You could get great work out of people with designations the same way you can get great work out of people without designations.

What else – besides dropping designations – can be done to give a ‘flatter’ feel to the creative team?

KVS: Across the world, it is believed that the more open the structure, the better is the creative’s function. If you see, work places have also changed over time. The seating arrangements used to be more clerical earlier. But now it has changed. In our office, there are no doors in the set up. It is open - people can come and approach more easily as they do not even have to knock on a door. It makes everything much more approachable. The environment has much to do with the kind of vision that the agency has. And the best way to run an advertising agency is to run it like a workshop. Generally, in a workshop, people are more creative than in a work situation. This is because there is an informal atmosphere where people don’t mind asking silly questions, cracking jokes and exploring ideas without pressure. So you tend to be much more fertile in terms of ideas. If you can replicate the same thing in an office, you will get much better ideas and you can play around and improvise them. This atmosphere is possible only when there is lesser hierarchy and a more collaborative and approachable management.

SS: Even in organisations with designations, people do collaborate and sit in and work together. They brainstorm for ideas.  More importantly, why do you need a ‘flat structure’? Designations come with experience. If you put in five years, you become a senior and if you put in 10 years, then they give you a designation of ‘group creative head’ and so on. Designations also help in assuring the person on the other side - the client - that a senior enough person has come to meet him/her and s/he will understand the business.  It’s not that junior people do not understand the business. Senior people do because they have more experience and have worked on many brands and so it is easier to get a point across to them. 

Do designations help with recruiting talent? In other words, does a lack of designation serve as disincentive for creatives?

KVS: There are positive people who are talented, confident and clear of what they want. They will walk into the agency and are willing to join irrespective of designations because you give them an opportunity to grow and do what they want to do. They don’t come for designations. It is only insecure and mediocre people who get obsessed with the designation. Really great creative people want to see their commercials happen and see the fruit of their hard work - market shares improving and people applauding. These are the real rewards - nobody knows how much pay you take, which car you drive, and what designation you have. At the end of the day, people will ask which commercials you have worked on and what brands you have affected. The creatives who understand this will be the ones who last.

SS: A lack of designation will be a disincentive for talent. Generally, in eight years one becomes a creative director and so if you do not become one in eight years, then a lot of people start judging you and your credibility. Hence, your own self worth goes for a toss. You do not operate individually, you operate in an industry where you know people and have friends who could have started out with you and they have reached a certain level which you have not. At times, high designations are given out quickly at an agency because it wants to retain people and keep them happy. This creates pressure on other people because their peer group have reached a certain position and that becomes the industry standard. So a lack of designation will definitely act as a disincentive.

Is there an issue with lack of standardisation of designations across agencies?

KVS: There is an issue with a lack of standardisation of designations across agencies. But, how can you dictate this to an agency? Each agency has its philosophy, system, own evaluations and method of reaching to glory. So each agency has its own strategy. How can you make it standardised for everyone?

SS: I believe there is a level field across the industry. A designation will be given based on the work that a person has done and the number of years they have put in. A designation also depends upon what the person’s last position was while moving from one place to the other. There is more or less a standardisation in the industry.