Role Call | Richard Christiansen, Founder and Co-Creative Director

Richard Christiansen, founder and co-creative director of advertising agency Chandelier Creative, says sometimes the smartest guys in the room need someone to challenge them.

Richard Christiansen of Chandelier Creative | Photo: Barbara Anastacio

There are few sectors of the economy that offer as wide and interesting a range of career opportunities as fashion. In a new series that coincides with the launch of BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent, we highlight some of the industry’s most interesting jobs and the talented people who do them.

NEW YORK, United States — Richard Christiansen is the founder and co-creative director of Chandelier Creative, a global creative agency with offices in New York, Milan, Beijing and Shanghai. Based in New York, Christiansen was a creative director at art book publisher Assouline, before founding Chandelier Creative eight and a half years ago. Today, he works on brand strategies and advertising campaigns for clients including Net-a-Porter, Target, Salvatore Ferragamo, Lane Crawford, Bergdorf Goodman, Old Navy, Club Monaco and Nars.

BoF: Please describe your current role.

RC: I’m the founder and co-creative director of Chandelier Creative. It’s my responsibility to lead the creative for our clients. This happens on many platforms and in many ways, but ultimately it’s about keeping a brand relevant and exciting. Day-to-day, I direct the creative team in New York and collaborate on projects in our offices overseas.

BoF: What attracted you to the role?

RC: The ability to problem solve. I’m drawn to complicated projects that require smart solutions. My education was in business and law, so I’m attracted to not only making something look dynamic, but also­ helping brands make money and become more relevant.

When I opened the agency, Facebook had just started. “Blogger” wasn’t even a job title yet. A decade later, look how different it is. Our entire visual and emotional diet has evolved. It’s faster, more impatient, and more informed, but with less depth. It’s much less grounded in back-story and meaning. But the things that attracted me to this job have continued to amplify.

BoF: What is the most exciting project or initiative you have worked on?

RC: On a business level, that would be the reinvigoration of Old Navy this past year. The brand is powering forward and there’s much more ahead. We lucked out, because the new team at Old Navy is very smart and willing to try new things. For a mass retailer with a thousand stores, that’s rare. Our TV ads have consistently produced sales increases, including one that had the best results in 20 years. From a business/financial POV, it’s exciting to see such direct results from my work.

From a creative point of view, Lane Crawford has always been my guilty pleasure. The projects we’ve done together have been among our most creative (and most copied). When I get cynical about retailers, I think of Lane Crawford. They’re not afraid to challenge their customers.

Currently, we have an ongoing project with the Richard Avedon Foundation. This is a different kind of project for me, not consumer facing. Being in that archive, editing those photos, you think about the time before social media and Photoshop, and you really understand the power of real talent producing iconic work. It’s put a fire in my belly, and made me think about problem-solving differently.

BoF: How is your role changing? What are the forces driving this change?

RC: My role continues to change with digital and social innovations – but that’s the easy part. I’m more curious about how consumers are changing, from an emotional point of view, not a rational one.

I’m obsessed with the search for meaning in retail. As consumers we’re increasingly over-connected and underwhelmed. I feel it too; I’m bored because I’m over-connected. There’s little surprise for me now as a shopper. I know this sounds like PR talk, but we need to entertain people, not sell them things. More than ever, retail needs to become theatre. Brands need to be become entertainers.

Selfridges is one of the few retailers to do an awesome job at this. I’ve been telling all my clients to get on a plane and go there. Just fly to London and open your eyes.

The other force I feel is the huge decline in actual experience. The iPhone was created to make it easier for people to experience the world. Instead, they’re experiencing less of it: uploading photos of art, but not going to galleries. Falling in love with people they’ve never met. Instagramming and counting the likes. It’s making us all experts at everything and masters at nothing.

This is changing our customers and the work they respond to. It’s also changing my role as a CD, in terms of finding new talent. Great creatives need to have experienced the world. They need to be thinkers, and be able to join the dots, to solve problems. That’s getting harder to find because young people are “experiencing” less. The future belongs to the curious, not the connected.

BoF: Tell us about a time you failed and how you learned from it. 

RC: Collaborating with a client is like a slow dance. It’s much more difficult to be a showstopper if your partner can’t move with you. Creatively, you need to have the same dance steps. When the agency was younger, we were asked to take part in a very large project for an American fashion retailer, including television ads, print, digital, and the stores. We were hungry and excited, and I threw myself into it with unbridled enthusiasm.

From the first meeting, I realized that the senior people at the brand wanted to shift the DNA of the company to something different than its core values. Everyone at the brand, from the president to the CD to the marketing director had a new vision. It felt instinctively wrong to me, but how could so many talented people be wrong? My team and I were really stuck, and I respectfully said that I had concerns. I voiced them a bit louder, but there was no way to change their minds. I liked the people very much. I didn’t want to have a fight, but I disagreed with their ideas.

Ultimately we did execute their vision and the result was beautiful, but it didn’t feel like their brand. In my heart, I knew it was wrong, and I was worried that consumers wouldn’t believe it. My instincts were right. The company loved the work, but sales were terrible.

I think about this often. Never again will I let that happen. Sometimes the smartest guys in the room need someone to challenge them. And if the people paying your bills are not in sync with your gut instincts, an honest, candid discussion must happen.

BoF: What advice do you have for people who are interested in doing what you do?

RC: I was trained by Oliverio Toscani at Benetton. He believed in throwing us in the deep end, sink or swim. He’d look for people who could break a problem down to its simplest components, and then build from there. His advice still applies: Be thirsty for the world, and seek inspiration everywhere.

My advice is to travel the world and be curious. Learn to make things with your own hands. Make lots of mistakes and learn from them. Oh, and go see Selfridges!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

To explore exciting fashion industry roles like this and others, visit BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent.