The Rant: What Makes a Good Creative Director? Part 1 of 2.

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Volume 24 In a Series By Felix

Here’s another question for you. What exactly is the job of a creative director? Do you know? If you’re a CD, do you know? You should. But it seems that some do and some don’t, whether they’re taking direction from one, or they actually are the head honcho. And that, my friends, is just not good enough.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and talking at length with, some pretty big creative directors in my time, including greats like Alfredo Marcantonio (Lowe Howard-Spink, WCRS, BBDO) and Jeremy Bullmore (JWT). During the course of our conversations, I always asked the question, “What are the qualities of a great creative director?” What surprised me was how often the same phrases and attributes kept cropping up. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, too many creative directors just don’t make the grade. Here’s the list I’ve compiled in my noggin, over the last 15 years.

The creative director is the last line of defense.
What does that mean, specifically? Well, let me paint a picture for you; a picture from my own memory in fact. You’re sat in the office, it’s 10pm and you’re frantically scribbling down ideas for a campaign. Earlier in the day, the CD rejected your second set of ideas on this job, and the deadline was extended for you to try, one last time, to crack the project and not get your ass handed to you on a plate. In the early hours of the morning, as you chew on cold pizza and swig a few gulps of warm, flat beer, you come to a stomach-churning conclusion; you’re not going to crack this one. You’ve failed.

You go home, take a shower and grab a few hours of sleep (if you can) before your next WIP with the CD. You show the work, you slump your shoulders and that is when the CD does what the CD is paid for, in part. He or she takes the brief off you and within a few hours, something passes by your desk for you and your partner to comp up for the meeting. And it’s great. It’s annoyingly terrific. You kick yourself and wonder why you didn’t think of it. You look at the CD with a new-found respect.

That is the last line of defense. When no one else in the creative department knows where to take a job, or how to crack a brief, the CD can do it. They have the experience, the savvy and the ability to produce the work when no one else can.

If you’re a CD reading this and you know, deep down, that you can’t do that job, well I’m sorry to say that you suck. You really suck. It’s all well and good to surround yourself with talented people who can do the job 95% of the time, but if you can’t step in and solve the impossible ones, you can go to HR right now and ask them to remove “creative” from your title. You are the best of the best. You have no excuses for not being able to do the creative work, even if you spend most of your day in meetings, discussing budgets or pitching work. Without a last line of defense, a creative department has no goalkeeper.

The creative director doesn’t play politics with creatives.
There is political bullshit going on in every agency that you don’t need to know about. Creative directors should shield the creative department from all of the unnecessary crap and make sure that the teams focus on the work. That doesn’t mean a CD shouldn’t keep you informed, but you don’t need to know the intricacies of office politics. You also don’t need to be played off each other, or have those “whispered” conversations with the CD that makes every other creative nervous and fearful of layoffs. Yes, the CD can play office politics and be a shrewd player of the game within the agency itself, but not with the team they oversee.

The creative director gives specific feedback.
Here are just a few choice phrases I’ve heard from bad CDs over the years. See how many of them you recognize:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“I’m just not feeling it, but I’m not sure why.”
“There’s something quite interesting about that.”
“Make it more compelling.”
“It’s missing something.”
“Let me tell you the ones I don’t like.”

A good creative director gives specific feedback, not vague platitudes. Their direction will be considered, constructive, smart and intelligible. And by constructive, I mean a lot more than, “I hate them all, try again.” After a meeting with a CD, you should have definite direction on where to take the work. If you come out of a meeting with a CD scratching your head and wondering what the hell to do next, then you have my sympathies…you’re working with a moron.

The creative director is well-versed in all crafts.
The boss could have a background that’s very different than yours. Great CDs have been copywriters, art directors, designers, illustrators, hell some have an English PhD. But what matters is that although they are experts in one discipline, they understand all the crafts. They’ll know how to guide copywriters even if they can’t write a coherent sentence themselves. They’ll know the difference between good art direction and overzealous horse manure. They get it. If they constantly push design over ideas because they love design, they are myopic. Same goes for a CD with a writing background who only wants 20-word headlines. Great CDs are chameleons who understand the balance between concepts & strategy, and copy & design. Which is a nice segue into the next point.

The creative director is a selfless creative.
When you’re rising through the ranks, you can be as selfish as you like. You can write copy the way you want to write copy. You can art direct the way you love to art direct. That’s not to say the client won’t put the kibosh on it, but you go out of the gate with your best foot forward. And the reason you can do that is because a good CD will let you flex your creative muscles and allow your own work to shine. A bad CD will want everything to look like something from their own book. They’ll want writers to mimic their writing style, or art directors to make things look a certain way. That’s not selfless, it’s not letting the department grow and flourish, and it is demoralizing to the people working under that work ethic; creatives need to be creatives, not production artists.

The creative director is not your best buddy.
I’ve fallen foul of this once in my time. My AD and I became good friends with a senior team at my first job, only to see them suddenly get pulled out to be joint creative directors after a messy merger. And that was just the start of the trouble. We had too much history of getting drunk together, going out for meals, sharing stories, and they just couldn’t get past the fact that they were now our bosses. Everything was too relaxed, we got away with murder and we didn’t really respect them in the same way as a regular CD. They never put their collective foot down, they never once called us out on slack behavior – and the work suffered. Hey, we were a junior team, we had a lot to learn. Eventually, the CDs moved to another agency and the guy that replaced them spent two months kicking the ass of myself and my AD. And rightly so, we got rusty under the friendly regime. If you want friends, don’t look to the CD. It’s a line you can’t cross. You can get on, sure, but throwing up pizza and beer on his or her sofa at three in the morning is just not a good idea. And if they let it get to that point, they’re in the wrong.

The creative director knows the latest trends.
I had a CD, this was a decade ago, who refused to own a mobile phone or watch TV. Now, I know cell phones weren’t in the hands of six-year-old kids like they are today, but millions of people had one. And as for TV, well, that one just made me scratch my head. Even if you hate it as a medium, you’re in the ad business. You need to know your media outlets and the environment the ads will live in. He also didn’t have an email address, which was unforgivable back then, but is punishable by stoning today. David Abbott once said that he had two laptops…one for work, one for home. He clearly didn’t have a grasp on the purpose of a laptop, but he still had one (well, two). Despite a preference for writing copy on a notepad with his feet on the desk, he still knew he had to embrace modern technology. So if your CD has no idea what Facebook is, or looks puzzled when you talk about Twitter or social networking, they aren’t doing their duty, as an advertiser, to understand the modern consumer.

The creative director will hire great creatives.
Several giants in the industry, including the late, great David Ogilvy, talked about hiring people more talented than themselves. His quote on hiring people is one I’ll never forget, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” Unfortunately, some CDs out there are so worried about being knocked off their little perch that they’ll insist on filling the creative department with mediocre hacks. This is not only detrimental to the clients, but the agency as a whole. The work coming out of the department may please your average client, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. And the agency won’t generate new business on the back of cruddy work.

The creative director is well-read.
Peter Souter (AMV) once said that the only books a creative needs to read are the advertising annuals, be they One Show or D&AD. As a student, I agreed with him. Boy, was I wrong. If the CD is always looking in the annuals, they’re always following someone else’s lead. But by reading a wide variety of books, periodicals and websites, the CD is furnished with a mind that can think outside of the annuals, and guide work that other agencies will follow. If you walk into a CDs office and the only books on the shelf are annuals and graphic novels, you could be getting some myopic direction.

That’s it for today. Here's Part Two.

Comments

good article, look forward to part two.

Great synopsis here. Thank you, it was really helpful. That’s really all I can say. You took all the words right out of my keyboard.

Um, Felix, you need to push this article further. And after you’re done pushing it further, you need to take it to the next level, mmmkay? And make it “Archive-y”.

can’t wait to see which of my former cds show up in part two.

thanks felix.

Nice!

Definitely looking forward to part II.

great advice for every manager in my opinion! thanks.

Nice. I was once told by my creative director to make the copy “more writerly.” Sadly, I understood exactly what he meant, but am happy to say I’ve never uttered the same to anyone else.

Fantastic stuff. As a CD myself a lot if what I just read resonated strongly and and helped me tweak a few fixed ways of thinking. Good stuff.

Great read – I come from a very different background from most traditional CD’s and I’ve always felt uneasy about how I measure up to the role. Reading this lets me know that I’m actually not far off (though there’s still much to learn and tweak).

great stuff, f. but everything you’ve said can be funneled down to one thing: the CD makes the work better. period.

This is a fantastic article!

I’m curious as to your “last line of defense” thoughts. How do you feel about saying the CD is the “first line of defense,” one who can start the motor and get the ship moving? (Holy mixed metaphors!)

Thanks for all the great feedback guys. Part two of the article is well underway, and I do indeed address your point Rick (I was saving that one until the end…a kind of summation if you will). Dan, I address your point in a broader section about the creative brief. But you’re right…Creative Directors should be idea catalysts. Anyway, part two will be up later this week. I hope it rounds out the article and covers everything you’re looking for. If I miss anything you feel is important, feel free to point it out in the comments section.

DEAD ON. i know some excellent & wonderful CDs. but i’ve also worked with the ones of which you speak, who appear to enjoy all of the privileges, but avoid the responsibilities of the true role of a CD. my only fear is, as seems to be in line with the personality type of CD, they’ll read this & think it applies to everyone but themselves.

Really insightful. Though I’m only dredging the agency bottom as an ACD at the moment, your observations definitely resonate. It’ll be a lot tougher to look in the mirror this evening, that’s for sure.

Thanks for this.

Dan, I address your point in a broader section about the creative brief. But you’re right…Creative Directors should be idea catalysts.

Awesome! Looking forward to it.

My favorite creative director taught me style and grace. But most of all, he taught me there’s a time and place for everything. And I’d better have a good reason for what I was doing. He taught me things I didn’t fully understand until becoming a CD. One thing I’d add to the list: Teaching balance between client service/relationships, being on strategy and concept/execution.

Christ, it isn’t a Creative Director you need it’s a nurse maid. When are teams going to stop whining and take responsibilities for themselves?

This entire post is telling me that when things go wrong you want someone else to take the blame. You want protecting, you want supporting, you want concise feedback you can act on, you want everything made easy. Well tough, life isn’t like that and it’s time you learned.

“I don’t like it, not sure why” is a perfectly acceptable response when you’re dealing with emotional, illogical things like creativity. It’s also a gentler way of saying” it’s shit” without crushing the team in front of you.

It’s high time creative teams thought like the creatively-minded business people they used to be.

Colin Millward, the legendary creative director at CDP in it’s heyday, just used to say “no”. It taught the creative teams to think for themselves.

David Abbott, arguably the greatest creative director ever just used to say, “I think you can do better”, giving you the responsibility to work out what was wrong with your ad. But according to the Egotist, you’d like to know specifically how you could do better.

Stop moaning, stop whining and work it out, that’s why you’re paid the big money.

I think you can do better David.

Great article! Have been looking for any information on this subject for years! Nice one

A great creative director sees potential and acts on it. End of story.

David,
No.

um, good one, mate, the examples made the difference. now do some about what makes a great copywriter/art director. and THEN see how the little people squirm.

So the next question is “How do people become CDs or ADs?” Is it all about the schooling? What are the quals to get you in the door the first time?

I’m very surprised that only one person here mentioned the client. What about making sure the clients’ goals are met?

Unlike apparently everyone else, I agree with David. This article seems whiney and blamey. There IS a time and place for everything, and sometimes there’s a time and place for “Keep trying.”

But I’ll take a it step further. CDs are supposed to be the agency’s best thinkers. So a good thinking CD will always take responsibility to solve the brief themselves. Not that it will always work out that way, but they should personally assume the weight of coming up with the best idea. Not wait for a team to do it. Agencies shouldn’t promote their best thinkers out of the job of thinking.

So, to agree with the article, the CD should be first, last and main line of defense. They’re not supposed to be there for the teams — they’re there for the work. They should know how to use the teams in service of the work. If they can’t, they’re failing. But at the end of the day, it’s there job to crack the brief on their desk.

Also, one final point. I call bullshit on the assertion that any CD is intentionally hiring middling talent so as not to be overshadowed by their underlings. That’s just the kind of fantasy frustrated junior creatives might delude themselves with. But it’s not real. It certainly does happen that CDs hire the wrong people, but it’s silly to imagine that they’re purposefully sabotaging the work to make themselves look better.

Felix,

While I tend to agree with a lot of what you've written here, despite some points being simplistic and common sense, there are a few deviations from tone that essentially eliminate your credibility. Overall, it's an informative piece. But you dive into a snarkiness ay that's rather off-putting.

"well I’m sorry to say that you suck. You really suck."
"then you have my sympathies…you’re working with a moron."

In an otherwise well-written piece, this is not only out of place, it's amateur. It makes it look as if it's written by a college student who hasn't yet learned how to write.

This is ridiculous. People are ALL fallible and your demands for a CD is not based in reality. Good luck with all that.

I'm a new fan.

David,

From your standpoint, then *what* is the role of the CD?. As the title implies it is to provide *creative direction*. If you're not doing that, you're just not doing your job. And if you can't articulate with words "emotional, illogical things like creativity", then you probably have no business in this business. Your post is just a way to justify your mediocrity.
Talk about the blind leading the blind. If I gave my team direction (or lack thereof) like that, I would just have them bump into walls aimlessly spinning their wheels and wearing them out. That would be either sadistic, or idiotic. Take your pick.

I was extremely lucky to be mentored by a CD who had all the qualities you mentioned above.
I've tried to emulate those qualities, too. It's gratifying to see those qualities identified and put down in black and white, and know that instinctively you've been doing the right thing.
Awesome article. I'm sure, in your role as CD, you must be awesome, too!
Rajan

good read!

Where is part 2?

Fantastic read! I will be bringing this article to my Creative Director tomorrow to see if he thinks he can measure up.

Felix, thank you very much for taking all the time to write this. I learned various things from this and appreciate it.

I would've agreed for the most part except for that whole spiel about how you can't be friends with your CDs. Friendship and respect are not mutually exclusive.

My last CD was an amazing guy and I felt really inspired to do better and be better because of him and we could STILL be throwing up pizza and beer on his sofa at three in the morning. The same with the CD before him. My old agency had an amazing atmosphere that made us more than willing to help each other out when needed and still push each other to do better with regards to work.

I just find it silly when people try to assert that just because you and they couldn't get past the fact that they were now your bosses, doesn't mean others haven't been able to do so with great results.

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