Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Replay: Do Cities Need a Creative Director?

[ The second part of my point-counterpoint on the usefulness of states is a bit delayed. In the meantime, enjoy this one from the archives – Aaron. ]

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.

This post originally appeared on May 6, 2010.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Arts and Culture, Civic Branding, Urban Culture

7 Responses to “Replay: Do Cities Need a Creative Director?”

  1. Danny says:

    Even in private market companies where there are creative directors, they usually are much lower on the food chain than the companies that Tyler loves. They usually are somewhere between the product managers and the CMO.

    There is good reason for this, as not everything in life is driven by creative vision. The mighty iPod was certainly a creative vision, and they have done an incredible job of maintaining that creative vision through the various iterations, but in the end, their incremental sales are still driven by price competition. How many iPods do you think they could actually sell if they sold for the same $400 price tag that they debuted at?

    A creative director driven organization can, if done well, place an organization at the forefront of fashion. But that is it. Can they make their organization market leaders or market dominators? Can they drive disruptive innovation? Can they lower the cost of living of their customers? Can they decrease poverty? Can they decrease inequality? Can they remove crime from the streets? Can they make our impact on our environment more sustainable?

    Tyler certainly has a bias toward the companies that are driven by their creative directors, at least when those creative directors are pretty good. You can see as much by the clothes he wears, in addition to the stuff that makes it into his magazines. But not all of us are millionaires or billionaires. We, as humans, have an astonishingly different set of criteria for our consumption than Tyler Brule.

  2. In the plans I’ve written, I’ve included a variant of this text:
    A destination’s identity (brand) is the sum of what people think when they hear the community (brand) name. It’s how prospects feel when they first arrive at the destination’s website or see an advertisement, read an article in a newspaper or magazine about the community, or discuss the place with friends, and it’s what people expect to experience once they arrive to a place after having selected it over other choices.

    Community branding is an important issue that all municipalities must address. At its root, it is about identity and vision and being focused at all times on realizing the vision that the community intends to achieve and maintain. Everything about Cambridge either supports or diminishes how the city is perceived throughout the region and beyond.

    There are well-branded cities and places…with well-defined stories (narratives and themes), distinct attributes, consistent messaging, and delivery of the brand promise at all (touch) points where the community is “consumed.” Less well-branded communities believe that community branding is just a logo … and fail to focus on making the total (complete) experience congruent with the promise –able to be delivered on all dimensions within their destination.

    Successful destination branding requires:

    1) Clear definition of the place and what it offers;
    2) Being distinct;
    3) Delivering on the definition and the promise;
    4) Consistently communicating the definition in all forms.

    Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve as a community’s “brand managers”—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner.

    That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.) and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning.

    The materials that the community uses to communicate (print media advertising, brochures, websites, radio and television commercials, billboards, public relations placements, press releases, etc.) also must be consistent with the vision and positioning of the community’s branding program. …

    This language is probably a bit more digestible for folks than using the term creative director. It’s about identity, competitive advantage, development, branding, and integrating all of this into programs.

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    One further comment to Richard’s list: it’s got to be grounded in the reality and history of a place.

    Think of the best “places”, and no one set out to invent them to meet some perception of customer need as one would invent the iPod, iPhone, or i(Blank).

    Instead, places that are organically unique tend to capitalize best on that difference. German Village in Columbus, Ohio didn’t have to be invented or marketed. It started with immigrants (including one great-grandfather of mine) who settled in with people like them. They imported certain aspects of their culture and lived with them daily, as my grandmother did growing up there. The current “destination branding” relies entirely on the “backstory” provided by the unique history and culture. It is saleable because it is authentic, real, and believable.

    Likewise, Columbus, Indiana has a strong brand rooted in reality: it is one of the single greatest concentrations of important modern architecture in the world. After that, the destination branding is easy…but that’s the starting place.

    This is not to suggest that it is impossible to create a popular place out of whole cloth (or swamps and orange groves); Disney is a master of this. You know what you’re getting with the Orlando brand.

    As Aaron has documented well, Indianapolis is in the mature phase of a decades-long effort to brand the city as a sports and convention destination. But such a deliberate and expensive city-wide branding is rare for a large community, and one might argue that despite its success in creating the reality, the Indianapolis brand isn’t strong or top-of-mind. More people would free-associate the (historical, authentic) auto racing with Indy than “sports and convention destination.”

    I’d assert that for every planned-and-executed example, there are far more authentic, real, homegrown places that are or could be the basis of a municipal brand.

    But there’s a question about whether a big city CAN have a city-wide brand identity. Can the whole place be part of the same story? Do the massive warehouses and suburban office parks along the interstates in every major metro reinforce any particular brand image? Are suburban strip malls substantially different in Indianapolis and Denver?

    Places are significantly different from manufactured products: unlike Apple and other creative corporate entities, a city branding officer cannot possibly control very much of the whole user experience because there are so many dimensions. (This may be related to Western-style liberal democracy; such actual control may in fact be possible in places like Monaco, the Vatican, and Singapore where strong single-party or single-family control exists.)

  4. Andy says:

    Excellent response from all the commenters so far. Branding already happens in most large cities through a very decentralized range of organizations, whether they be media outlets, neighborhood groups, tourism bureaus, merchandisers, or other nonprofits. I don’t understand how a mayor-appointed “Creative Director” would be able to control the branding message the way Brûlé describes. It is literally impossible to transplant this feature of a hierarchical corporation to a democratically governed municipality. His idea demonstrates a failure to understand cities in a free society and a naivete or ignorance about how they work.

  5. Carl Wohlt says:

    One the things I like about the idea of a city creative director is the marketplace consciousness it would help to elevate within the public sector. Not just for promotional purposes but for core product development strategies that attract the interest of talent, resources and investors.

    Public “product development” initiatives such as commercial district master planning or streetscape enhancements tend to be heavily process driven, focussed on internal issues, needs and politics. Smart companies in the private sector are obsessively focussed on ever evolving external marketplace dynamics. As Richard Layman aptly pointed out above, brands are sum of what all people think, not just the insiders – community leaders, civic administrators and stakeholders – responsible making development related decisions.

    Internal audiences are very important. Community stakeholders should feel good about the development activities that strengthen their quality of life. But external markets may have an entirely different view of what decision makers think is important. For example, good minded citizens may be pushing for a high quality recreational amenity to enhance liveability while the city’s image and identity are taking a beating because of the awful commercial strip out by the interstate intersection. The new recreational amenity would provide instant benefits for citizens, but improving the commercial strip may be a
    more effective strategy to enhance long term economic sustainability.

    A good creative director would make the entire marketplace a part of the conversation and help to find and leverage development opportunities that address both audiences.

  6. WRT Chris’ point, in the two plans I’ve written, they’re based on historic preservation-identity-authenticity principles because the commercial district revitalization framework I espouse derives from the asset based approach. (Actually I prefer the “identity-positioning” concept over branding per se for communities. A lot of people get offended by the branding language as they perceive it as the domain of “advertising” and corporatism.)

    WRT what Carl wrote, in those plans I specifically included images and recommendations about what he said “image and identity taking a beating because of the awful commercial strip.” The recommendations focused on form/urban design, not use.

    What is amazing to me is this… I live in a center city (DC) and I mostly care about center city issues. The plans were for small town commercial districts. Note that their issues aren’t all that different from “neighborhood commercial districts” in bigger cities, which is what I mostly deal with.

    But when I did those plans, I had a lot of leeway to go beyond the scope. So when the commenters have made the point about things you can/can’t do, e.g., I actually critiqued the marketing efforts of the tourism organization, or even the layout and design of the local newspaper and limited webaccess to content for potential visitors.

    But I think that the typical firms doing such plans don’t allow themselves to be as wide ranging.

    One of the plans is online here:

    What’s crazy for me is that while I feel like I talk into the wind in DC, that I have little impact, in those small towns they are actually implementing many of the recommendations. It’s definitely weird.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Not weird, Richard. Smaller cities and towns are generally more homogeneous and thus more susceptible to wide agreement about the actual direction and needs. People are more likely to find general agreement about the state of things, what’s working, and what isn’t.

    Midtown commercial districts in large cities are noisy, diverse places with many competing influences, goals and drivers. They are often “drive-throughs, not destinations”, and sometimes are fixed on a “golden era” that won’t come back. The biggest conflicts tend to be over the role and necessity of cars and car-serving places, because such places generally have the good traffic counts that drive national-chain commercialism.

    What’s bad is that the history and authenticity of such places has often been long-since erased by successive waves of redevelopment. The midtown area where I work is on its second or third wave in many places and there are not too many visual reminders of its 150-year development history.

    This is why plans and planners take over, IMO. There is a perceived need to create a new place starting with the built environment. Hence, the default options of “streetscaping” and creating gateways to set the tone.

    The best examples of midtown revitalization are usually centered around a healthcare or university campus, because those places utilized a master plan and tens of millions of dollars and decades to really change things in a coordinated way. One current “good example” is Penn in West Philadelphia, along the Chestnut-Walnut one-way pair. 35 years ago it was a lot of land-banked surface parking and scattered old neighborhood remnants, some residential, some retail/commercial, some office, plus an old central post office and its supporting spaces. It’s a lot different today.

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