Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Do Cities Need a Creative Director?

Cities that suffer from various brand stigmas or problems often want to give themselves an image makeover. Even cities that are doing well can fret about how their brand is faring versus the global competition. This had led some cities to ask whether or not they need to appoint a creative director, as in the private sector. For example, see this article about Birmingham, UK. Tyler Brûlé, whom I mentioned yesterday, listed appointing a creative director as one of the five things he would do as mayor of a city. As he put it, “All strong brands have a creative director with a strong vision. Cities need them too. And no, they’re not called mayors.”

I think this notion has appeal because a) most cities have no concept of brand or vision, and b) strong creative directors have pulled off miracles in the private sector by reviving fallen brands. Tom Ford at Gucci comes to mind.

Yet while strong branding consciousness is clearly an imperative for cities – and I mean branding in the true sense, not just creating logos or marketing – I wonder if a creative director is the type of person could pull it off.

In the the private sector, a creative director is actually in charge. In the public sector, a wide variety of agencies and private institutions are doing their own thing. What would the creative director for a city actually control? Logos? Signage? Street design? Planning reviews? It strikes me that in almost any case, the creative director would be a classic “czar” – that is, someone with nominal responsibility for something, but no real portfolio. The job of a czar is virtually impossible, as anyone who has held one can attest. If you don’t own bodies or budgets, you are basically reduced to begging people to do what you want. This requires deft salesmanship and relationship skills, but are those what creative director types are known for?

Consider Adolfo Carrión, who recently moved over to HUD from the White House Office of Urban Affairs. He took a lot of flack from certain quarters for not making more of an impact. But consider this poor guy’s position. Unlike Sec. LaHood, he doesn’t own a bureaucracy or a budget. He had a tiny staff. And he was trying to create a cross-functional federal urban policy for the first time ever. The degree of difficulty is overwhelming. It’s hard enough changing a battleship organization even when people actually report to you.

A czar only has influence to the extent that the CEO provides support. In this light, the mayor – or another major power broker such as a local billionaire or business leader – absolutely does need vision and to “get it” on matters of brand. As I wrote previously, CEO responsibilities like strategy and brand very much are the responsibility of the mayor. Maybe he doesn’t need to know every detail, but he has to at least get it at a high level. As Machiavelli put it:

This is an axiom which never fails: that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice….Good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.

The input of the best creative director in the world would be wasted if the leadership doesn’t get it. Before seeking the best creative input, what is first needed is to cultivate an understanding of the importance of brand, strategy, and vision in municipal leaders. The new 21st century competitive landscape demands more from leaders than ever before, and they have to grow beyond operational excellence and prudent financial management to having the skills such as brand vision that have traditionally been the hallmarks of the private sector. Only with that prerequisite in place does hiring a creative director or other expert make sense.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Civic Branding, Strategic Planning

34 Responses to “Do Cities Need a Creative Director?”

  1. David Ben says:

    Cincinnati has a strong economic base of advertising/marketing/branding firms, propelled at least in part by the nine Fortune 500s that call the region home (P&G, Kroger, Macy’s, etc.). It seems to me that the City ought to do a better job at marketing itself using the proven brand management techniques the private sector uses.

    Last year, Macy’s paid local design firm LPK to create a new logo for the City of Cincinnati (see The discussion on the aesthetic quality of the brand itself notwithstanding, this is the type of public-private partnership that I hope will continue. But instead of spending $75k for a logo, I would hope that a comprehensive marketing scheme to highlight our attributes will happen in the future.

  2. Wil Marquez says:



  3. All joking aside–what kind of cities might benefit from this. Does it work, in the urban marketing context, to put proverbial lipstick on a pig? Is there any thought that better marketing would be beneficial to a Detroit or a Buffalo at this point in their life-cycles?

    Or is this, I suspect, mainly an issue for structurally-sound (but not booming) cities to try and advance in the proverbial big leagues?

  4. David Ben says:

    @EngineerScotty – I’m not sure that the cities like Buffalo and Detriot, or even cities like Indy and Cincinnati need to try to “advance in the proverbial big leagues.” Cincinnati and Indy are not NY. They are not Chicago, and they are not LA. Nor should they try to be.

    Instead, I think the power of this kind of investment is to highlight the attributes already there, and to thereby figure out how to better apply that lipstick. Its not about becoming a big league city – it is about living up to the potential as a solid, stable, mid-sized city. Smarter branding has the potential to do help make that more of a possibility, I think. Golden bullet? Nope. But it damn sure better be in the toolkit of any city that wants to be taken seriously.

  5. Chad says:

    I think cities that are not in the top 5 or 10 in population or solely focused around one or two industries like Detroit, Pittsburgh or Buffalo were in the past would be best served by a creative director of sorts. Places like New York or Dallas already have their own identity and only need guidance every so often.

    My own personal bias and experiences would lead me to lean towards a city like Louisville, since it is where I am currently living and what I know the most about. I know as a city they are constantly seeking an identity and have hired consultants to try to give them one ( they have not succeeded so far.) In this case hiring someone not from the city does no good. The only things an outsider (per se) knows about the city is Derby, Bourbon and Baseball bats. Again my own personal biases here – but I think the best candidate for a position like that is:

    A) a local
    B) an architect / urban planner
    C) actually in touch with what is going on
    D) has enough vision and sense to realize that the city is multi faceted and is more than one event, logo or location
    E) (as mentioned in the article) has leadership in place that can accept and act on changes to better position the city.

  6. cdc guy says:

    Indy, a structurally-sound but not booming city, over the past 20-30 years advanced to the proverbial big leagues without a brand director but with general civic-leadership agreement on promoting a strong sports brand. (Reggie Miller, Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy and the NCAA helped a lot, too.)

    A “brand director” might be an organization; many cities have public-private downtown civic groups or convention-visitors bureaus that do or could effectively perform the function. It just depends on how empowered (and funded) the group is by the city administration.

  7. Carl Wohlt says:

    A brand manager would probably be a more effective position because of their ability to shape and modify the “product,” as opposed to a creative director responsible only for the quality of its packaging and marketing.

    In most cities large and small, the planners and economic development folks act as default brand managers because they are the ones most actively involved in shaping the civic “product” on a daily basis. They are also quite often the default creative directors, too, responsible for branding and marketing to prospective investors.

    I am completely biased about this, but I think an effective civic brand manager could easily underwrite his or her position by the increased economic activity that a sophisticated branding endeavor would generate.

  8. Chicago Dan says:

    While I think smaller cities would benefit from a Creative Director helping to shape their image, I think international cities like Chicago would do well to have someone in this position as well. Complacency breeds disaster. Being an Art Director myself, I constantly see the lack of a well thought out approach to how cities appear not only to the world at large, but also to their own citizens. Sure, it’s important to manage a city’s image to draw in tourist and entice companies to relocate, but to neglect how your native population views where it lives is perilous. A good Creative Director understands that the design of a bus stop is just as important as the advertising approach to the Olympic games.

  9. Carl Wohlt says:

    Chicago Dan is right. Internal audiences are probably even more important than external ones. If the locals ain’t buyin’ the plan/message/promise, outside audiences probably are not either.

  10. Well Paid Scientist says:

    I know Aaron is from the business world, so brand is probably how he thinks of things, but could “narrative” better serve the same purpose?

    When I think of brand I think of a jingle, or a logo. St. Louis for example, has an arch- big deal. When I think of a narrative I think of history and the people and where the place wants to go. I feel that stuff in my bones.

  11. aim says:

    Conceptually, this sounds appealing. But I have a hard time envisioning many cities outside of the smallest where such an approach would be successful, at least if it depends on it being run out of city hall. I do agree that the people at the top, both elected and appointed, have to share a strong vision of what a city can be and focus their efforts and resources into making that a reality. But cities are complex organisms and it takes more than just a push from city hall to create an identity that sticks. As was noted above, the most successful efforts are those that are coordinated regionally and with the support from many different sectors, public and private.

    One good example is how Grand Rapids, Michigan has become a leader in green building and development. Although the mayor of Grand Rapids has been a strong proponent of making the city greener, the efforts of the city are just a part of a larger regional effort to recreate the Grand Rapids area as a more environmentally sustainable area. Business and institutional leaders across the region have adopted this vision and have led by example, each new building seeking to top the last in energy efficiency and innovative design. No one project by itself could transform the city’s image. But because of the collective efforts of the public and private sectors, the city is changing its image for the better.

  12. Guy Hermann says:

    Fascinating idea. It has played out in New London, CT where the director of the New London Main Street program has become the defacto creative director. She is not a city employee, but she manages to lead from the side and is helping the city to create a clear identity.

  13. Jeffrey C says:

    Narrative resonates with me as well: the stories civic leaders tell about the community, the stories residents tell to each other and to visitors, and the stories visitors tell about their experience.

    And that’s why despite his strengths in some areas, Mayor Ballard is failing Indianapolis. We’ve lost our aspirational narrative reflecting historic civic pride because the only story he tells is about operational and financial maintenance, necessary but insufficient to advance a city’s story internally or externally.

  14. Jim Meredith says:

    I think I might second Carl’s nuance of “brand manager” and the concept of “narrative.” Following the sense of Simon Sikek’s mantra that “people want what you believe, not what you are,” it seems like a good strategy for a city to articulate a “why we are here” message and then, with that message persistently and consistently expressed, enjoy the shaping of the city that will emerge from people choosing to be there and actively participating in that purpose – perhaps like aim’s example of Grand Rapids.

  15. cdc guy says:

    I’d caution that not everyone in a city is “big-picture aspirational” and that a “creative director” message would escape them if it didn’t address their concerns.

    Some people just worry about their jobs and schools and neighborhoods. Such folks are really the backbone of any big city, as Carl Wohlt and Chicago Dan have implied.

    And I’d second the notion of a “brand manager”; that’s the real reason behind P&G’s creative and marketing successes. But the marketing brand manager is always supported by a technical and operational team as well.

  16. I’m new to this blog (which I find quite interesting) and I’m still getting my bearings within its message. Another caveat: I don’t come from the ranks of urban and regional planners, so some of my comments might come out of left field. What strikes me about such a proposal, however, is the way it seems to parallel discussions about coordinated planners from the 1960s. What also strikes me about the suggestion and the comments, is that there is no acknowledgment that such centralized bureaucratic planning strategies (similar to what James Scott calls “High Modernism”) have often been disastrous. I see the Urbanophile at times arguing for a larger number of stakeholders (, but this idea seems to contradict that sentiment.

    Additionally, when places do brand themselves, we often end up with commodified visions that serve external demands rather than the residents themselves. In what historian Hal Rothman has called a devil’s bargain (Rothman was speaking about tourism in Western cities such as Las Vegas), branding a city can lead to a certain fossilization of place. The city is emptied of what is living and organic and is replaced by a _vision_ of the place that is then reproduced, ad infinitum. The city becomes just another fetishized commodity to be sold rather than inhabited.

    This could simply be my general uneasiness with both branding and high modernism, but I wonder what such a position would look like in practice.

  17. To address both cdc and Jeffrey C (and, I suppose, Ryan)–those who are primarily concerned about operational issues such as “jobs and schools and neighborhoods” frequently consider high-minded concerns about brand and identity (and indeed, about many urbanist reforms; both today and the “reforms” of generations past which are now derided as disastrous) to be a waste of time and money–and prima facie evidence of incompetence, aggrandization, empire-building, and even corruption in elected officials.

    This all gets back to the age-old question, which faces managers in both the public and private sectors, when operating in a competitive environment: Is it better to attract new customers, or focus on making existing ones happy? It depends on the industry, of course–in the restaurant business, the customer is always right because it is easier for a customer to defect (by simply not returning) than to return–hence a focus on not angering or disappointing current patrons. (In a sense, all customers are new customers). In other areas, such as urban planning general or transit in particular; it’s a lot more tempting to neglect your existing customers (residents, riders) because they may incur a high cost to switch to a different service (moving, driving to work instead of transit). We see this with transit agencies which build new lines while cutting existing services; and we see this with cities that market themselves extensively (often waving money around) while basic services get neglected.

    Of course, if a city finds itself caught in a death spiral–the cost of providing services starts to exceed its tax base, and people (especially those whose net contribution to city finance is positive) start leaving as a result–its leaders may well feel that trying to attract new talent and new money into town is the only chance they got.

  18. Carl Wohlt says:

    The metaphor I often use for the value of place branding — for better and for worse — is the cereal isle at a large grocery store.

    It’s been my experience that prospective investors often look at cities (and city neighborhoods and districts in larger cities) with the same bewilderment that I look at one those one-half block long walls of cereal packages at a grocery store. Even with great packaging, the brands can fog your brain pretty quickly. I think the same is true with cities looking to attract the interest of investors, visitors, etc. So, it’s very useful to try and differentiate yourself in the marketplace, especially one that is increasingly global.

    Cities are not merely products in a marketplace — they are far more complex entities than that. But I think it can be extremely beneficial for cities to analyze and understand how prospects view them as products as products in a market. Probably the most humbling experience that I had as a planner was learning that despite all the brilliant ideas I thought I had about placemaking, the marketplace really didn’t care what I thought. The market has its own logic and its own needs and wants, and it’s always changing.

    Just to clarify, I adhere to the basic idea that a brand is just a promise. Branding, therefore, is the act of managing the promise. Based on the RFPs I’ve seen from municipalities, there seems to be a lot of confusion about branding in the planning and economic development worlds. A brand is not a logo, a catchy slogan, a tagline or a gateway sign. What a lot people refer to as branding is really more akin to packaging.

    My take is that there’s a lot planning and urban design work happening without regard to how the product they are creating is perceived in the marketplace. That’s why when you look at the cities and towns on a map, it feels like you’re staring down the cereal isle at Jewel. City branding is no panacea, but I think it a hugely untapped resource (full disclosure — I have a placebranding consulting practice, so, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I am completely biased about this).

    FYI, if anyone wants to understand more about branding in a crisp read, Marty Neumeier’s “The Brand Gap” is an excellent resource.

  19. Jim Russell says:

    Cool. A “James Scott” reference. Those of you who have read “Seeing Like a State” should appreciate Theodore Porter’s “Trust in Numbers”.

  20. cdc guy says:

    Ryan, even though urbanists (and environmentalists) may not like Las Vegas…it has happened and we cannot ignore it.

    Up to the recession, Clark County NV was one of the fastest-growing places in the US; it wasn’t “just” a commodified place serving external demands. People actually wanted to move there because of its brand (and despite its poor long-term water prospects).

  21. Everett says:

    It would seem that organizationally and budgetarily speaking, Downtown Development Authorities (DDAs), Chambers of Commerce (CoCs), or Convention & Visitors Bureaus (CVBs) would be in the best position to fill this role, but I think it would be a huge mistake to let them take this type of work on, because they are not prepared for the kind of thinking required to do a good job. Just as a city is more than one iconic picture of downtown, its brand should be more than just a logo. I have yet to see one program that originated from any of these types of organizations that matches the caliber of work typical of the city they belong to. (Or maybe it does match and I am just a jerk with expectations that are too high.)

    I think it would be a better idea for a city to hire a small, multidisciplinary design studio and have them develop a relational design language through which all work will be funneled. What I mean by a relational design language is a set of tools to help the city tell its own story without a designer intermediary. This type of design involves all stakeholders and gives them a voice, but also provides some coherence to the entire group.

    A good analogy is that while the residents and city offices create the spectacular, iconic views of the city, the design firm would create the window through which the city would be seen. The design firm creates the context for the city; a framework through which its story is told and understood. WordPress is another good example; the software equivalent of this design language.

    A relational design language will allow individual city offices to handle smaller projects themselves without the cost and time of engaging a [quality] designer. Then the studio would be able to handle the larger, more labor-intensive projects. A relational design language allows some accepted variance in design to keep the brand fresh, as opposed to just using the same iconic picture of downtown and a logo that would quickly become stale.

    This is not a new or radical idea. It’s been around for a few years and some design-savvy companies and organizations are employing it. Andrew Blauvelt has an article with several good examples here:

    I am doubtful that anything like this will happen at all since it would be a huge multi-year undertaking prone to the perils of an election cycle shorter than the project length. Additionally, the design direction is fairly esoteric. Even though it doesn’t necessarily need to look esoteric, it would be a hard sell to the general public in the midwest. The only hope for anything like this would be a public/private partnership.

    In the comments above, there seems to be some debate over what a brand is. It is not limited to a logo or a jingle. A well-defined brand conjures a narrative, a logo, an image, a jingle, a descriptive vocabulary, an experience and myriad other things that can be associated with a particular place, product or service. See

    @EngineerScotty In the long run, keeping existing customers is always the least expensive choice. Over the period of time that it will take the city to rebound, Detroit will have spent untold billions of dollars in right-sizing itself. (*Hopefully* it does rebound eventually.)

  22. Alon Levy says:

    The criticism of branding isn’t that companies should keep their existing customers happy. It comes from a rejection of the notion that the government should act like a business. The role of government is not to profit, but to improve the standard of living. Growth for the sake of growth rarely furthers this goal. It’s easy to miss this coming from a background of transit, where business principles often do make sense, but most government functions are not about infrastructure, but about people.

  23. Carl Wohlt says:

    No arguments from me. The challenge is that public policies about, incentives for and investments in properties the public sector controls — like a roadway ROWs, parks, plazas, schools and libraries — have a significant impact on the civic “product.” And, by extension, the brand promise of a given location.

    The public sector is frequently the key market making entity in a community (especially smaller ones) via policies and investments. To the degree that the private sector — or a public / private entity like those described by Everett above — can assume responsibility for civic product development, generally the better it is for tax payers.

    But a Chamber of Commerce or a Community Development Corporation usually cannot or will not underwrite the entire cost of market-making infrastructure improvements and other investments in public properties, so the public sector is invariably involved. And when they are actively involved, they are better served by integrating and leveraging private sector business practices, including branding, whenever feasible.

    That said, I can describe a number of instances where a local government affected private sector development practices, but when a spotlight was shown on the activities, it proved to be amateur hour after all.

  24. Everett says:

    Could Community Foundations play the role of private sector in establishing a business incubator for spinning off public/private partnerships to improve a city’s civic market? Would it be politically feasible for the Community Foundation to simultaneously contract a design consultancy to serve as creative director for the city in an ongoing capacity rather than project-based like the Cincy logo?

  25. Wad says:

    Question: Do Cities Need a Creative Director?

    Answer: No. It’s frippery.

    When cities have to start thinking of themselves as brands, the city becomes a Budweiser commercial.

    Think about why Budwesier advertises in the first place. It’s only purpose is to justify its market share.

    Budwesier is “post office beer.” Not many people admit to liking the post office, yet everyone knows about it and count on it to be a constant presence no matter what. That’s Budweiser’s role.

    Yet it still blitzes advertising. It has commercials of Clydesdale horses, parties, frogs, you name it … the only thing it doesn’t sell is itself.

    Budwesier knows it can’t sell its beer on its merits, and that’s the point of the advertising. It amuses its audience while taking their attention away from the beer.

    Cities will resort to advertising-as-sleight-of-hand because it will take attention away from problems that need to be solved through policies, economic incentives and collaboration of interests.

    The city as brand would squelch out any restiveness or pressure to reform or try something new.

  26. Everett says:

    @Wad, branding is a long-term effort that works hand-in-hand with client (corporate or civic) and economic policies to create or maintain an identity for an organization; to provide a coherent persona for all people and activities in an organization to coalesce around.

    The manifestations of branding should always be appropriate to what is being branded. What Budweiser does apparently works for them, but would be entirely inappropriate for any civic organization. I’ve found that any city that tried such transparent tactics has fallen flat on its face, garnering reactions such as yours.

  27. Wad says:

    Everett, the problem with branding is exactly what you describe as a best-case scenario.

    Branding practices work well in corporate command structures. Those have greater flexibility with rules and resources, easier discipline mechanisms and relatively fewer stakeholders.

    You don’t have that with civic institutions. A meme has much less gravity than policy.

    The problem with civic institutions is that they are slow on the uptake. A lot of what makes cities great is due to “splendid chaos,” an event or events unplanned or unforseen that ends up a positive transformation. It could be as grand as Silicon Valley in the 1990s or something as subtle as tattoos becoming something you no longer have to trek to skid row to get.

    Civic institutions rarely anticipate these shifts, and most of the time acknowledge them when it’s too late. By then, you’ve created too many interests locked into place and resistant to change or abandonment.

    If human civilization was able to create great cities without the help of branding experts, we’ll get along fine through the next epoch.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I’ve seen enough bad civic branding efforts to sympathize with your sentiments. However, as I have learned in the most humbling ways possible managing downtown revitalization planning projects, the market doesn’t care about your opinion.

    Understanding what the marketplace does care about matters, and it matters a lot. The place that marketplace opportunities, stakeholder aspirations and available resources align will define a “product” with certain characteristics and attributes — a promise, if you will. Branding is just the act of managing that promise.

    Having a branding strategy doesn’t preclude all of the wonderful and amazing things that happen in urban environments. It should help communicate clearly to prospective and existing investors that you have a focus, a plan and that you are quite serious about it. To me, that’s the ultimate benefit of branding — enhancing investor confidence.

    If the private sector can be organized to underwrite branding efforts, that’s great. Like many revitalization initiatives, however, I think it will be most effective as a public / private endeavor.

    Just my two cents…

  29. Everett says:

    Wad, I don’t disagree that many if not most, civic branding efforts are very poorly executed. That alone speaks to the need for some type of creative director, either staff or consultant. Not having had the chance to work on a civic effort yet myself, I can only speculate as to reasons why most of the work I’ve seen is sub-par.

    Branding, done well, is a long term undertaking. Being “slow on the uptake” is too narrow a view for such a project and can actually be beneficial for this type of work. Anything on a shorter time frame is simply an ad campaign or plain old advertising. Ad campaigns typically run 1-3 years, sometimes as long as 5 years or longer. At the point of those longer measures though, the ad campaign changes into a branding effort. In my mind, branding campaigns are always a minimum of 5 years, but often reach into decades.

    These numbers are mine and they are pretty soft with a lot of overlap, so here’s an analogy: Advertising talks about the great artist in a tattoo shop off of Main Street; a campaign talks about the tattoo shop, the bakery, a restaurant and the vintage clothing shop; branding talks about the “splendid chaos” culture that developed Main Street which allowed the artist to open up a tattoo shop and to flourish.

  30. Valentine says:

    Most definitely. The responsibilities should extend well beyond branding and reach into urban planning, city billboard practices, transit, etc.

  31. David says:

    Absolutely not.

    This is the sort of feel good, follow-the-fad nonsense that led to half the states in the union prefixing “Silicon” to some geographic trait in the late 90s.

    Cities need economic development executives who actually have a pair, and can define simple, distinctive themes. Omaha, for example, doesn’t need a “creative director” to market itself as a leading location for agribusiness. Same with Detroit and cars, Cincinnati with consumer brands.

  32. John Morris says:

    “Most definitely. The responsibilities should extend well beyond branding and reach into urban planning, city billboard practices, transit, etc.”

    The main thing behind any good brand is a ring of truth. Sometimes, a city needs help making it’s good qualities and assets more known, but one can’t just assume thats what’s going on. Often, the city has bad qualities that are too far known too ignore like Detroit’s lack of convenience and density.

    If the reality is remotely good slight spin resonates and people take it viral. Bald faced lies and denial is what most cities do.

    Don’t assume that admiting problems is bad. Look at the buzz Youngstown has gotten for moving openly to acknowledge and fix problems almost everybody knew about.

  33. Hey!

    Washington County, Oregon was calling itself the “silicon forest” as far back as the 80s. :)

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