Melanie Welsh
Jan 3, 2020

The rise and fall of the rock star creative

Having a leader (male or female) with a god complex is not only bad for business, it's also bad for creativity.

Rod Stewart (Getty Images)
Rod Stewart (Getty Images)

"Sorry, your honour, I was under the impression that I was a rock star" would not excuse bad behaviour in the real world. But, amazingly, in some parts of adland, the delusion that you are Rod Stewart (pictured, above) and not someone who makes ads for a living is still considered a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

Former Droga5 New York chief creative officer Ted Royer, who was fired following sexual misconduct allegations against him, saw fit to use this line of defence, saying: "I was flippant, I made jokes, I was flirty, I encouraged drinking and drug use. And I believed the old creative douchebag rock star notion that you have to party really hard and do great work to be someone of notice in this industry. I certainly behaved selfishly and immaturely."

This "creative douchebag rock star notion" has been around for a long time. Venerated senior creatives of a certain ilk have been traditionally paid a tonne of money and given power, adulation and freedom to indulge their egos. But why would anyone in their right mind use this as an excuse or defence against misconduct allegations, as Royer did?

The rock star delusion has existed in part because senior creatives, who have tended to be white and male, have been one of the most adulated and cosseted groups in the history of this industry. When in front of clients, the senior creative would be expected to act like some kind of imperious mystic whose creative genius could not only solve any brief but also quite possibly bring about world peace.

This act might have worked with clients in the past, but it’s not so inspiring when it plays out with team members in the workplace. While senior suits were traditionally expected to be more business-oriented and client-facing, the senior creative could more often remove himself from the grubbier, more commercial end of things. They were the virtuosos, the mavericks. If they wanted to behave like a cross between Keith Moon and Little Lord Fauntleroy, who would dare stop them?

Of course, there are many esteemed senior male creatives who did not buy into the hype. The best of them resisted or were lucky enough to be equipped with humility or, at the very least, a modicum of self-awareness. Some had the good sense to spend quality time with people outside the ad world who could remind them that they make advertising, not art, or take the piss if ever they were tempted to wear a beanie indoors (oh, yes, been there) or refer to themselves in the third person. 

Nonetheless, the rock star persona was pervasive. Senior creatives have had such cult status in part because of the way the industry is structured. Like almost every other industry, advertising has operated as an extremely hierarchical, patriarchal system. When a select group is given this much unchecked power, chances are someone will take advantage and create an unsafe work environment.

The irony is that having a leader (male or female) with a god complex is not only bad for business, it’s also bad for creativity. Numerous studies have shown that leaders who are humble inspire teamwork and focus people on goals better than leaders who lack humility. 

Thankfully, things are starting to change for the better and even the most deluded among us can’t get away so easily with the arrogance and petulance that have hitherto passed for "creative temperament". Agencies have been forced to evolve, empower their employees more and quit pinning all their fortunes on a few inflated egos. The hierarchy is still there, but there’s an awareness that we should be more inclusive, diversive and egalitarian, and that bullying, harassment and other toxic workplace behaviour is unacceptable.

The rockstar persona may not be dead yet, but it has lost much of its fanbase.

Melanie Welsh is founding partner of Strat House.

Campaign UK

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