Michael Lee of Madam: are these the ten greatest creative directors ever?

Firstly, let’s start with a question; what’s the criteria for being a member of this rarified club?

Here’s my stab at it:

The Creative Director was the very heart and soul of the agency.

They were the one that every prospective client wanted to meet and every departing client tried to avoid.

The one who hired and nurtured great talent, harrassed good ideas into great ideas and built teams to continue to do great work after them.

The one who could truly influence a client. Who not only had a client’s ear, but their trust and their heart.

The one who built a jaw-dropping body of work and an enviable agency reputation over a number of years.

The one who started or dominated an agency, indeed it may have not existed without them.

Secondly, let’s address the (very pale) elephant in the room.

This group covers the pre-Mad Men era through to this early part of the 21st century, therefore while this is a very talented 10, it is a rather white bread one.

Advertising has so far been a bit of a boy’s club, but events like The 3% Conference, and the many conversations being held on the topic of diversity in our industry are thankfully reversing that momentum.

So this list could soon be welcoming the likes of the hugely talented Susan Hoffman, Colleen DeCourcy, PJ Pereira, Margaret Johnson, Jose Molla and Kate Stanners among others. Let’s hope so.

One last thought: This wasn’t an easy 10 to curate. A lot of fantastic creative leaders are not here and more than a few heartthrobs are missing. I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of “you idiot… how could you have this list without including …”

However, here goes… and in no particular order.

John Webster

Some creative directors are great inspirers, team builders, enthusiasts of bravery and brilliance from both client and agency, while some just quietly produce great work themselves.

Work that inspires everyone else to want to do work as great (or try to).

John Webster of Boase Massimi Pollitt in London is the perfect example of the latter and was described on his death in 2006 as “the best TV commercials creator in Britain when Britain was the best in the world” by London’s Independent newspaper and by The Guardian as “The greatest TV advertising author of the late 20th Century.”

John created some of the most famous campaigns of that period Cadbury’s Smash Martians, The Gertcha campaign for Courage Beer and work for The Guardian Newspaper.

There’s a lovely documentary featuring John, many of the campaigns he produced, how he worked, and many of the people who worked with him over the years.

Watch and learn.

Lee Clow

I doubt there’s disagreement here.

One of the greats of American Advertising.

A phone call from Lee would be all most sane people in the industry would need to drop pencils and get the first flight to LA.

An astonishing record of great work, hiring and encouraging great people and of building a great reputation for an agency.

One of the few people who could stand alongside another giant of the industry, Jay Chiat, and not be in his shadow.

Lee joined Chiat/Day in 1972 and was co-creator of the 1984 Apple spot, considered the masterpiece of advertising.

He built a strong working relationship with Steve Jobs when he returned to Apple, that produced many great campiagns:

Think different, The Crazy Ones, I’m a Mac/ I’m a PC

Around the same time, he developed the Energizer Bunny, the Taco Bell chihuahua and introduced the world to Nissan’s Mr K and California Coolers.

In shorts and flip-flops, surfboard in hand, Lee Clow became the “guru” of the west coast school of laid-back advertising.

Apple. With Steve Jobs V/O

David Ogilvy

I think a great creative director can often set the style and way of working for an agency. And if it’s good, those ways should last for years.

No Creative Director did that better that David Ogilvy.

David set the style and the way for decades ahead with his own style.

As a copywriter, he was very influenced by his time at George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute emphasizing the need meticulous research methods and adherence to reality.

He became the most famous copywriter in the world with some of the most memorable campaigns of the day. He penned:

“Only Dove is one-quarter moisturizing cream.”

“The man in the Hathaway Shirt.”

“At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls Royce comes from the electric clock.”

What has impressed me is that with all the new skills and disciplines that agencies have needed to adopt and adapt to, the David Ogilvy way has navigated Ogilvy, the agency, through them.

It’s still there in the IBM work and Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”

It feels like David Ogilvy is still writing scripts somewhere, keeping everyone on track.

His sense of what makes great adversing still lingers in Ogilvy.

I think David would still recognize the place.

Colin Millward

Ahh… the legendary but oft forgotten Colin Millward.

My friend Stephen Foster of the excellent daily U.K. advertising online publication More About Advertising offers his thoughts on Colin:

Colin Millward was the man most responsible for the revolution that transformed British advertising in the 1960s.

As creative director of Collett Dickenson Pearce he oversaw ground-breaking campaigns for the likes of Cinzano, Benson & Hedges and Harvey’s Bristol Cream and inspired talents including Alan Parker, David Puttnam, Charles Saatchi and Paul Weiland.

CDP’s work was inspired by the example of Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York but given a particularly British twist.

Among the tributes paid to him was this from one-time CDP managing director Frank Lowe: “People whose reputation is built on the brilliant campaigns they did at CDP tend to forget that some of what they did was rubbish. Colin’s achievement was in putting all their rubbish where it belonged — in the bin.”

Charles Saatchi, who worked at CDP as a copywriter before founding consultancy Cramer Saatchi and then Saatchi & Saatchi, said: “Without Colin Millward I would still be delivering groceries in Willesden.”

Not sure I entirely believe this. But it’s true that Millward’s approval was more sought after than any award, even for some of the biggest names in U.K. advertising.


David Droga

OK, here’s a complete contradiction to my comments on David Ogilvy and that a great creative director sets the tone and style of an agency’s work.

Up comes David Droga and Droga5 with no particular style or look that I can see. Just great work. From the Under Armour work, to Prudential Insurance, to a Jay-Z album to Newcastle Brown Ale, to Quilted Northern Toilet Tissue.

Maybe it’s because David was a creative director at the age of 22 in Sydney, then went to be one in Singapore, then London and now in New York.

That’s a lot of airmiles and influences.

David Droga has built the model of the modern agency.

Droga5’s partnership with William Morris Endeavor in LA is one that pricked up a few ears in the ad industry, while finding the ear of many a client.

Since its opening Droga5 has been named Agency of the Year nine times, was one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, Ad Age’s agency A-List for six years in a row, 2015 Effie’s Most Effective Independent Marketing Agency.

Under Armour became 2014 Marketer of the Year for Ad Age and Newcastle’s “If We Made It” to being named one of Inc Magazine’s Top 10 Campaigns of the Decade in 2015.

Not a bad haul in such a short time. Its going to be interesting to see what’s next.

Bill Bernbach

The Godfather of creative advertising.

Bill and DDB were a driving force behind the advertising creative revolution of the 60’s and 70’s, contrasting them clearly with the more rote and traditional approach of the time, depicted by Don Draper’s agency in the Mad Men TV series.

He pretty much created modern advertising.

He changed how a creative department works by putting the copywriter and the art director in the same room (I don’t think it was to save on real estate).

He amassed a phenomenal array of talent, and beyond stimulating U.S. advertising, has often been quoted as a major influence on British advertising in the ’70s and ’80s.

Bill taught us how great advertising needs to be simple.

Even with 500 words of copy the print looked simple.

With 30 seconds of TV, he encouraged a simple idea, which led to simple, believable TV.

Nothing looked like it was a struggle.

That effortless style of great advertising.

He was well recognised for his talents and efforts, being named to the Advertising Hall of Fame, being voted Man of the Year of Advertising, and the American Federation Hall of Fame.

Remi Babinet

I first met Remi Babinet in the mid-’90s when Babinet Erra Tong Cuong was one of a number of fledgling agencies housed within the EURO RSCG offices in Paris.

Basically it was an agency incubator, a smart idea led by Jacques Seguela that allowed the potential future leadership of EURO RSCG (now Havas) to develop organically and naturally.

Wow, what a ridiculously smart idea in an industry of absurd ones.

BETC blossomed, building a strong creative reputation.

In July 2005, Babinet was made Chief Creative Officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide and has since gone on to produce effortlessy beautiful work for Air France, Evian, Lacoste and Canal Plus.

Remi, now the chief global creative officer of Havas, has made BETC/Havas the creative powerhouse in France, while building an agency with a fierce reputation for producing beautiful, inspiring work around the world.

What I like is how they thumb their noses (elegantly of course, they’re French) at the conveniently held theory of globalization: “we do not believe in the culture of globalization, a mould that fits all. We believe that a strong brand globally needs to have powerful roots.”

Nice to see an agency holding onto, and celebrating its own roots for a change.

Sir John Hegarty

Sir John Hegarty, was a founding partner Saatchi & Saatchi. In 1973 he co-founded TBWA in London, and then in 1982 started Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Sir John, an Art Director at heart, created an agency with a reputation for some of the most sylish work in the world for Levi’s, Audi, Boddingtons, Lynx, British Airways and Johnnie Walker.

The work, I felt, is always ridiculously smart, very thought provoking and then flawlessly produced.

There was never any particular BBH style that I saw apart from everything they produced felt right. It felt very finely balanced.

That someone with impeccable taste was behind everything.

I always felt that was Sir John Hegarty and the integrity he brought to the work of the agency.

An integrity that created very simple, powerful and elegant work that would as they say “zig while others zag.”

Sir John was awarded a Knighthood by the Queen in 2007, a well deserved achievement for a marvelous career, but interestingly, Sir John was of the few advertising people who appeared on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.

Dan Wieden

Another obvious one. Wieden+Kennedy was founded on the simple rule of ignoring all the rules of advertising.

Their founding client introduced himself with “Hi, my name is Phil Knight and I hate advertising,” but wanted to also do unusual and unexpected things.

Dan penned the “Just Do It” line, some brilliant advertising followed, more followed that and the world of advertising was changed.

Today, 119,000 plastic pushpins in Wieden’s Portland headquarters encourage everyone to “Fail Harder.”

Wiedenisms have become a model for creative bravery and dealing with clients: “We will bend over backward, we will not bend over forward.”

Dan’s agency has attracted some of the most famous (and historically difficult) brands in the world, and got them to do great advertising: P&G, KFC,, ESPN, Spotify, Bud Light, Delta Airlines. W+K became the mecca for great creative people around the world to gather and produce great work.

And most importantly, Dan unlike many many agency owners, has resisted the siren calls of the holding companies and remained fiercely independent.

David Lubars

Everyone else on my list appears to have built their reputation at one agency.

Just to show how good he is, David Lubars built an incredible reputation and body of work in two.

As President and ECD at Fallon in Minneapolis he continued to push the creative reputation the founders had built, headlined by the much admired and ground breaking BMW films campaign. The campaign rightly won the first ever Titanium Award at Cannes, and changed what we thought advertising was forever.

But not one to turn down a challenge he accepted one of the biggest ones, to take the reins of BBDO in NY from Phil Dusenbury and Ted Sann (no easy task).

Obviously he’s done an admirable job, BBDO being voted agency of the year on numerous occasions, winning awards by the truck load, attracting next generation talent and new business by the bushel.

But what stands out to me is that he has balanced doing the type of work that BBDO has been famous for, as in the Snickers and Mountain Dew campaign (how can anyone forget the absurdity of that puppy/monkety/baby?), but adding a real sense of smart and different set of sensitivities with the imaginative and innovative GE and AT&T work.

This article first appeared in Forbes.

One Comment

  1. Agree with all your choices but could you not find room for three others Alex Bogusky who also revolutionized advertising, the late Mike Hughes who took Geico, UPS etc to the masses and Steve Hayden who took IBM and Apple among others to new heights at BBDO and Ogilvy. Sharon

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