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May 4, 2009
Show Runners and the Future of Advertising
Job descriptions just don’t cut it anymore in advertising. Perhaps you’re a mid-level ad agency Copywriter. Does Salary.com’s description of your role make sense?
“Writes, proofreads, and edits copy brochures/print and other forms of documents. Familiar with a variety of the field's concepts, practices, and procedures. Relies on limited experience and judgment to plan and accomplish goals. Performs a variety of tasks. May report to an executive or a manager. A wide degree of creativity and latitude is expected.”
No offense to Salary.com. They’re just doing their job. And so, likely, are the 4As and the government and most HR departments—organizations that really like neatly specified job descriptions.
I’m missing a few items from the description above. Like the words “digital” or “interactive.”
These are symptoms, from the front lines, of a broken system. The roles inside every ad agency have changed tremendously because of technology in the past very few years. Those of us on the front lines mutated because we had to. But the job descriptions, and thus the system-wide understanding, the process of budgeting and getting work done, have not evolved—especially in the creative departments.
I still see a need for Copywriters, Art Directors, Designers and Producers focused primarily on what those roles have always focused on; though fewer in those roles, and with less and less to do. Now there’s a new role emerging—one we’ve been nurturing at Hello Viking—that demands a job description and place within the modern advertising agency.
The Show Runner
This is a job born of Web 2.0 and social media. I’ve borrowed the title from the entertainment industry, and my inspiration for the description from Los Angeles Times columnist Scott Collins. During the Writer’s Strike in 2007, Collins articulated a position familiar to anyone working in television, called Show Runners. According to Collins, they are:
“... ‘hyphenates,’ a curious hybrid of starry-eyed artists and tough-as-nails operational managers. They're not just writers; they're not just producers. They… develop story lines, write scripts, cast actors, mind budgets and run interference with studio and network bosses. It's one of the most unusual and demanding, right-brain/left-brain job descriptions in the entertainment world.”
Doesn’t this sound somewhat familiar? Let’s consider the workload for a Show Runner working in marketing and advertising right now:
They can write
The most obvious skill. Half of advertising is words, especially in the digital space. The best writers are still the best writers, regardless of where their words come to life.
They can write code
Another way to put this is, they’re not afraid of code. These people might not be fulltime developers, but they’re willing and able to parse some HTML, a little CSS and even Flash. They’ve demonstrated this ability, too, by creating and augmenting their own digital profiles.
They’ve got PR skills
Show Runners intuitively understand the communal and conversational aspects of social media. They understand the quid pro quo and have acted accordingly. They’ve created relationships online; they comment on blogs; they promote others as much as themselves. You can trust them in front of the mic or a camera or during a Twitter storm.
They can research, measure and analyze
In other words, they’re strategic thinkers. And detectives. In the larger agencies, you might have an entire department dedicated to these tasks. But Show Runners can work alone, if need be, to get the goods. For example, a Show Runner can parse an AdWords account and make appropriate, immediate decisions about keywords and campaigns.
They’re naturally integrated
You know the type—Collins calls them “hyphenates.” They can deliver great work across any medium, in any medium. They not afraid to design a button for a website and deliver the layered PSD for development. Or edit a movie. They’re comfortable in the recording studio and on the film set.
They’re entrepreneurial
You don’t have to ask a Show Runner to get started. In fact, the best are working for you and developing their own online content, their own web and mobile apps, on the side.
The Show Runner is listening, analyzing, suggesting appropriate action and responding swiftly, because the nature of our instantaneous digital culture requires it. They are, in some respects, an advertising agency of one. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, might describe them as T-Shape People, “They have a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T… But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills… and do them as well.” In the modern cycle of marketing and communications, Show Runners literally keep your brand’s show running.
When a client asks me how a complex, integrated social media campaign will get done, and who will do the work, I describe the role above. In fact, I suspect Hello Viking will employ mostly Show Runners in the near future, and ask them to moonlight in traditional ad mediums—as the work of marketing jumps from finite, long-developing campaigns into nimble, infinite, always-on conversations.

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As a writer, creative director and drummer, Tim Brunelle started in advertising in 1993 after receiving a B.A. in Jazz from the University of Cincinnati. Since then, he's worked with TBWA/Chiat Day, Heater/Easdon, McKinney & Silver, Arnold Worldwide, OgilvyOne, Mullen and Carmichael Lynch. Tim now works for his own entity, Hello Viking.

Tim has provided strategic and creative leadership to A.G. Edwards, Anheuser-Busch, Brown Forman, Goodyear, Harley-Davidson, Porsche, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Volkswagen.

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