What’s the Deal with Celebrity Creative Directors?

January 27, 2016
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Last December, RadioShack named comedian and actor Nick Cannon as its chief creative officer. Cannon is one of several celebrities in recent years to assume a creative leadership role for a business brand. As a designer, one question was on my mind: What signal does it send to designers, art directors and creative directors who have climbed the corporate ladder at marketing and advertising agencies when celebrities like these are appointed to these roles?

But let’s answer this question first — what exactly does a creative director do?

Aquent defines creative directors as follows:

Conceptual thinkers with keen business sense. They formulate innovative concepts that support a company’s goals, keep teams inspired, and ensure creative output adheres to brand standards and delivers business results. Creative directors may collaborate with business leaders, possess knowledge of industry-standard design software, manage budgets, teams, timelines, projects, and also effectively present a creative vision and how that vision will help achieve a business’s goals.

Taking that into mind, can you see your favorite celebrity handling these responsibilities? “We have to be careful because some of these celebrities are smart creative people. Just because they are a rapper or actress does not mean they aren’t capable of being an art director. [However,] I do feel that these appointments can cause a spiral effect and leave folks out who have studied and worked in these respective fields which makes the competition almost unfairly harder,” said designer Melissa Marthol of Milwuakee, WI.

One of the most high-profile creative director appointments was Alicia Keys, former creative director for struggling mobile phone brand Blackberry. This relationship was short-lived, however, and the two went their separate ways shortly after it was rumored that a tweet from Keys originated from an iPhone. For a celebrity and brand relationship to work, the association must be believable and several consumers were not buying it. “[People] who don’t have the experience who are selected solely for their stature is offensive, and will derail the brand’s reach and authenticity,” says Michigan designer Juanita Davis. In a 2014 interview with The Drum, recording artist Kanye West slammed brands that use celebrities as creative directors, expressing his discontent with brands trying to “rent” him, rather than collaborate with him. “It’s time for the best visual designers and content creators to be empowered [to lead].”

This brings to question the authenticity of these celebrity-brand relationships. Do they actually work? Do celebrity creative directors actually bring tangible results to the businesses, or are they just slapping their name on a product/brand in exchange for a check? As a practicing designer, how would you feel if you found out that a celebrity was now your boss? “If you want someone to be an influencer, it has to be authentic and believable. Nick got traffic up for Radio Shack for a few days. Now what?” says designer Kevin Davis of Chicago. Designer Kendall Ridley of Atlanta thinks otherwise. “I don’t mind celebrity appointments to creative director positions, as long as they make sense for the brand. I think most creatives know that most companies don’t really turn over the reins but use the celebrity for their style insight, but more so use their celebrity to sell the brand and move product. Ultimately, it’s a marketing decision.”

In 2013, German shoe and sportswear company Puma named Solange Knowles as art director and creative consultant. When announcing the appointment on her Instagram, Knowles said that it was her “dream job.” She’s already exerted some influence in her new roles, such as taking to social media to delay the Black Friday release of her shoe line as the country awaited the outcome of the Michael Brown case. Knowles’ role appears to involve curating ideas, styles, and designers that appeal to her for her line, and she’s been given props for video direction, her personal style and her “understanding of color theory.” The collaboration works for Puma as well, with Knowles recently releasing her third collection with the brand. Building off that success, Puma has also brought on Rihanna as creative director for another line of sportswear. These appointments show that celebrities can work as creative directors when there is a mutual exchange of ideas at the intersection of business and creativity.

Celebrity is one of the highest forms of influence, and the continued rise of the celebrity creative director signals that its use in business is not going away anytime soon.

In today’s business environment, innovation is a vital component for any brand or company to scale, grow, and remain competitive. By that token, businesses must embrace creativity, collaboration, and the unique perspectives that creatives can bring to product development and the consumer experience. As celebrities are hired as creative directors by more brands, business leaders should ensure that such partnerships make business sense, that the connection feels authentic to consumers, and that qualified workers have a fair shot at ascending to the coveted director roles as well.

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