While a growing body of research analyses the functional mechanisms of the cultural or creative economy, there has been little attention devoted to understanding how local governments translate this work into policy. Moreover, research in this vein focuses predominately on Richard Florida's creative class thesis rather than considering the wider body of work that may influence policy. This article seeks to develop a deeper understanding of how municipalities conceptualize and plan for the cultural economy through the lens of two cities held up as model ‘creative cities’ — Austin, Texas and Toronto, Ontario. The work pays particular attention to how the cities adopt and adapt leading theories, strategies and discourses of the cultural economy. While policy documents indicate that the cities embrace the creative city model, in practice agencies tend to adapt conventional economic development strategies for cultural economy activity and appropriate the language of the creative city for multiple purposes.