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.