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

By / /

Volume 25 In a Series By Felix

Last week, I started to point out some of the many qualities of a good creative director. Not every CD will possess every quality, even greats like Bernbach, Burnett, Abbott and Ogilvy had a few chinks in their substantial armor. But this is a good ingredients list of traits. Leave one or two of the minor ones out, no biggie. However, miss out on most of the key ingredients and you have a steaming pile of McDonald’s.

So, on to part two. If you think I’ve left out any important detail, please explain in the comments section. If it’s anything to do with fashion sense or owning a cool car, please kick your own ass, I don’t have the time.

The creative director produces work
I once asked a very, very senior creative team (they were both in their late fifties and were legends in the industry) why they never took the illustrious role of CD. Their answer was confusing to me at the time, being a young scamp just out of college. They said, “We like doing the creative work too much.” Now, knowing much more about the role, I see their point. Creative directors have an awful lot on their plates. They’re department managers, agency politicians, slick salesmen, budget planners, strategists, therapists, red tape cutters, you name it, they’re involved.

But a good CD will still want to do some of the work, usually about 25% of it. As a creative, that scares me. The idea that I could only spend one-quarter of my time doing what I love most is a chilling thought, but perhaps when the time comes I’ll be ready to slow down on the work and see a bigger picture. But the fact remains, creative directors should still have the ability to take a brief and produce some terrific work.

A former CD of mine was still collecting copywriting awards after 12 years in his role as the boss. He would pick out an art director, grab a meeting room and crack a brief with his chosen partner. The work was always solid and effective. Art directors would line up to work with him, and I’m sure the same can be said of copywriters when John Hegarty does the rounds at BBH. Good creative directors never lose that passion, that drive and that hunger for doing great work. It’s in the blood.

If you have a CD who insists that they don’t have the time to do creative work, then they’re just afraid of making the time. It’s possible they rose to the position of CD on the back of someone else’s work and a little good fortune. Or, they may have been out of the role of creative for so long that they’re rusty, and only know how to criticize and sound off in meetings. Either way, they’re lame if they avoid the job we all love doing.

The creative director knows every creative brief intimately
The brief is the lifeblood of any campaign, and it should never be allowed to be anything less than perfect. I’ve worked in agencies that gave account managers ten days to write the brief and creative teams five days to solve it. This may seem out of whack to the uneducated, but when the creative brief is tight and provides solid, focused direction, the ideas flow. I’ve read some briefs that were so well-written, my art director and I had covered the wall in concepts after just a few hours. And that’s because the creative director had a hand in writing the brief, and wouldn’t allow any team to read a brief that wasn’t as good as it could possibly be. This kind of brief is a treasure map, with a giant X to mark the spot, and the CD doesn’t need to be in the room when the creative team is getting the brief, because they already know just what the team is being tasked with.

Conversely, bad creative directors will have little-to-no say in the brief. They may not even see it until the briefing, which is when the creative team working on the job will stare in disbelief at a brief more woolly and directionless than a blind mammoth. These are the briefs that have four to five thoughts crammed into the single-minded proposition. These are the briefs with no call-to-action, poor background information, unclear product benefits and a confusing list of creative demands and tactics.

If a good brief is a treasure map, this brief is a maze with no exit. And on these briefs, ten days of solid creative thinking and concepting will result in a random selection of ideas covering the wall like the spray from a sawn-off shotgun. Worse still, the CD won’t really know how to judge the work on the wall because there wasn’t really a clear strategy in the brief. When the creative director guides the account team to get the brief ready, expect good things. When the CD shouts “I’m not quite understanding point four” in the briefing, expect long nights and short tempers.

The creative director is an idea catalyst
I originally had this as part of the creative brief section above, but then I kicked myself in the ass for almost forgetting that good CDs won’t just give starting points after the briefing, but at any (and sometimes every) stage of the job.

It’s all well and good to have a CD say “knock my socks off guys” but it’s hardly something that gets the ideas flowing. If you have a good creative brief, you may not need any help at all to get the ideas racing. But usually a few choice words of wisdom from the CD at the start of the brief can really help focus the team on a great direction.

I’ve known some teams who raced off like a greyhound, covering the walls in work, only to discover that just five minutes with the CD could have saved them days of blood, sweat and tears. I’ve also known teams who knocked it out of the park on the first try…only to have the CD come in and help them hit another home run in the opposite direction (or launch the damned ball into orbit around Neptune….but more on that later).

Creative directors, good ones, are an encyclopedia of advertising and design. They’ve seen a lot, they’ve created a lot, they’ve tasted success and failure a million times. In effect, they are armed with a tool kit that helps them plant seeds at every stage of the job. The creative director, with one or two pearls of wisdom, can make sure the creative team strikes gold every time.

The creative director has a broad range of experience
This one’s tricky. Occasionally, you can have a great CD who has a limited range of experience; for instance, one who has only ever worked in direct mail, or only in pharmaceutical advertising. If they stay within that field, they can often do a great job without having other experience.

However, I think most good CDs are armed with a huge range of experiences, be they copywriters, art directors or designers. They will have attended photoshoots and film productions. They will know what the inside of a recording studio looks like. They will have direct mail experience, print and web knowledge, and will know a thing or two about outdoor, PR and guerrilla. It’s kind of like that sergeant you see in a typical army movie, who’s seen so much out on the field that the rookies always turn to him for advice. With a well-rounded CD on your side, you’re in much better hands than a CD whose only experience of direct mail is tearing it up over the garbage can.

The creative director steers the whole ship in the right direction
The work that comes out of the creative department is the agency’s product. It’s their Ferrari. It’s their iPod. Or in many cases, it’s their crappy fake iPod with no warranty and buttons that fall out upon first use.

The agency lives and dies by its creative work, and that ultimately comes down on the creative director. In an agency, the creative is king. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a big role with a fat paycheck. Whether you have huge clients with deep pockets, or lame clients who are strapped for cash, the creative director will influence the kind of work the creative department is pumping out. And ultimately, that will affect the kind of work the agency can pitch for, and therefore the client roster it can build.

I’ve seen some agencies that started life with a dog of a client list, and five years later had a portfolio you’d kill for. That’s what a good CD can do. I’ve also seen some bad CDs come into an agency and bring the quality of the work down. Good clients leave, bad ones replace them and before long the creative department is decimated and the people who are left are stuffing envelopes. Everyone in the agency, including in-house agencies, is looking to the CD as the captain of the creative ship.

The creative director understands strategy and planning
One CD once told me, and I shit you not, that “he didn’t give a crap about the words, he just wanted it to look good.” He’d come from BBH, which at the time had the screensaver “words are a barrier to communication.” No prizes for spotting the irony in that one.

Anyway, as a result of his vastly imbalanced view of creative work, strategy went out the window on many jobs. When the strategy on one particular job called for “reserved intelligence with a touch of class” he decided it was too boring and directed us to do an irreverent, visual-only solve that ignored almost every part of the brief, the strategy, and the weeks of planning. Yes, it was clever. Yes, it looked cool. Really cool actually. But it was 180% from where the account team had instructed us to go.

Of course, when the client saw it, they flipped. Not only was it off strategy in so many ways, it was also impossible to fit into the national campaign they had already been developing with another agency. We had to work nights and weekends to play catch-up, and even then he insisted on tweaking things to move away from the strategy and closer to his own vision. A CD may not agree with the strategy, but he or she should understand it and adhere to it. And if it’s wrong, they should speak up before the brief ever gets on a creative team’s desk. (See my earlier point about creative briefs.)

The creative director is a shepherd
Who are the sheep? One guess. Almost every CD I’ve had understood that the creatives were responsible for producing the work that paid the bills, and so the creatives were treated with both respect and admiration by everyone in the agency.

I remember an account director leaving the concepts he didn’t like in the cab, and only presenting the ones that he liked to the client. The creatives (i.e. myself and my art director) were pissed when we found out. The CD was furious, and shortly thereafter the account director was asked to look for another job.

A young account manager, fresh from school, thought she could write copy better than any of the copywriters. She changed lines here and there, added her own spin, and all without the go-ahead of the creatives or the CD. The copywriters felt completely insulted and disrespected, and the CD, well, you can guess how that one ended, too.

I’m not saying that the CD’s job is to fire anyone who dares cross the creative teams. But the CD should set the standard for how the creatives are treated within the agency. If he or she lets account directors walk all over creative teams, changing copy and art direction at will, then the morale in the department will hit rock bottom. The CD who is a good shepherd will keep the creatives in line, but also keep the wolves from bringing them and their work down.

The creative director can sell or present anything, and do it well
I’ll never forget the first time I was in a presentation with my CD. I was wet behind the ears and terrified of standing up in front of the big cheeses. The ads I had produced with my AD were bold, funny and did a great job of selling the product. But between my mouse-like voice and his shaking hands, we had about as much chance of selling it in as Donald Trump does of selling Trump Tampons (don’t get any ideas, Don).

The account director did the introductions, the CD stood up, walked across the room and put the three ads down in front of the client. The client laughed his ass off. The CD said “you’ve bought it. My account director will finish up” then shook the hand of the client and walked out of the room, beckoning us to follow. We told that story in pubs and bars for years after.

Although some may say it was too arrogant (the client didn’t make one change to the ads by the way, and ran them, achieving a very nice rise in phone calls), it was both memorable and confident. This guy owned any room he walked into, and had the kind of charisma to pull off a stunt like that.

On other occasions, he wasn’t anywhere near as brash. He knew his clients well, and did the research on pitches. He was so good at reading a room and the people in it that he should have been picking juries for trial attorneys. Selling and presenting is a skill; by the time you’re elevated to the dizzy heights of CD, you should be damned good at it.

The creative director has balls
Metaphorical balls of course (so calm down ladies, I’m not excluding you here). And what’s more, these balls are big and scary. A creative director should have the authority and confidence to make some big decisions, and should also take some firm stands against feedback that will either ruin the creative or demoralize the department.

A former CD of mine, who taught me more in two years than I’ve learned in the last seven, was quite happy to fire a client if the work was consistently bad because of their feedback and changes. The same CD walked into a meeting and said the agency would take no fee for the project, but instead a percentage of the profits the campaign would make. Imagine, as a creative, how that felt; to have the CD stand behind your ideas, and back your work with the kind of money you could buy a yacht with. In that case, our campaign ended up bringing in double what the agency fee was. Were we lucky? Yes, if you count having a ballsy CD as lucky. He knew the work was on strategy and breakthrough (he was the guy who’d steered us in the right direction anyway) and he literally put his money where his mouth was.

The same CD didn’t have any hesitation in quitting the firm a few years later, when a corporate merger made the place take on bad clients, adopt bad working practices and refuse to stand up to client feedback of any kind. The CD had standards, he had balls, and right now he’s making a shitload of money doing what he does best; being creative director at yet another hot agency. When you have a CD with big balls, your book will soon fill up with great work.

The creative director knows how to motivate
Gordon Ramsey may think he’s a great motivator of people, but in reality he’s a bully that makes for good television. You don’t get people to want to work harder for you by shouting, screaming, berating, abusing and humiliating. Motivation comes from a place of respect and trust. Good creative directors will want you to do well for you, not for them. They will instill in you the kind of passion and drive that makes an eight-hour day become a 13-hour day. They will get you so charged and excited about a project that you will set your alarm clock for six A.M., battle traffic and eat a cold hot dog for breakfast, because you know you’re on a mission to do some great work.

If your CD’s idea of motivation is to threaten you with pay cuts, demotions, crappy accounts or losing your job, you already know you don’t want to work for that CD any more. Loyalty to a CD and an agency is built on good relationships, not bitter ones. Sure, you’ll work for the asshole for as long as it takes you to find another job, but word will soon spread that the CD is a raging dick, and the agency will find it more and more difficult to hire genuinely good creative talent.

The creative director wants honest opinions, not nodding dogs
There are some real narcissist CDs out there who believe that their opinion is the only opinion, and that they are basically a god surrounded by peasants. And gods generally don’t take well to criticism, negative opinions or, dare I say it, honest answers.

When I left my first job, I had a CD who was open to every opinion and critique. Not only that, but he encouraged my art director and I to fight back on decisions we disagreed with. He wanted to see some fight from us, which helped us defend our work to clients and account teams. It’s an essential skill to have, to know how to fight for your ideas intelligently, and good creative directors will happily take your opinion with both respect and consideration. They may tell you to sod off anyway, but they’ll love the fact that you have the passion and fortitude to stand up for your beliefs.

Now, when I went to my next job, the CD didn’t share that sensibility; something we found out the hard way when my AD and I presented concepts for our first campaign. The CD asked for us to rethink the ideas and do them a different way. His way. With a smile on my face, I dug in my heels and defended the idea to the hilt. That’s when the CD stopped me mid-rant and said, and I quote “this is not a democracy. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it. What I want you to do right now is go away and rethink the idea just the way I said. I don’t expect to have this discussion with you again.”

We were at that agency for about six months. It was five months too long.

The creative director doesn’t play the second-guessing game
If you’ve been in this game for any length of time, you’ll already know how this one plays out. You present the work, you get great feedback, and then it begins. The second guessing starts flowing out of the CD’s mouth like fetid sewage.

“I love it. I think it’s funny. But I think the client may not get it, so dumb it down.”
“I’m not sure they’re ready to go here yet.”
“Are we being over-confident here?”
“I think we need a few safer options, just in case.”

When the CD starts playing this game, the work suffers and the team feels abandoned. A CD needs to have real confidence in the ideas, and will not spend hours umming and ahhing over work that everyone knows is solid and ready to present. If you’re one of these CDs, please, stop being so lame and start standing up for your vision.

The creative director doesn’t care about being popular
You just cannot be a great CD and be friends with everyone in the agency, and every client, and every production house, and, well, you get the point.

If a CD is going to stand up for creative work and make tough decisions, he or she is also going to make a few enemies. This is the nature of the business. Like Wayne Campbell said in Wayne’s World, “It’s like he wants us to be liked by everyone. I mean Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes everybody liked. They left that to the Bee Gees.”

If your CD is strutting around the agency like one of the Gibb brothers, I guarantee he or she is not quite as popular as they think they are. Creatives are just plastering on fake smiles as they try and figure out how to get the hell out of there, so that they can work for a decent asshole.

The creative director doesn’t micromanage
There are some CDs who have no confidence in the people beneath them. Even though they are supported by senior teams and ACDs, they will insist on seeing every stage of every project. This has many drawbacks.

First, it creates a bottleneck because nothing can get done until the CD has approved it. Even the smallest tweak in copy or design has to be routed through the micromanager.

Second, it makes everyone beneath the CD feel superfluous. What’s the point of being an ACD if you can’t make a simple change to an idea without the CD holding your hand?

Third, it makes your relationship with the CD become strained and resentful. If you’re all lining up at the CD’s door every 20 minutes, you’re spending more time with the boss than the job you’re working on. And when you can’t find the CD, the job comes to a halt.

A confident CD will realize that they only need to see the bigger picture. The details can be handled by less senior members of the department. If you’ve got one of those micromanaging CDs, you should probably go. They’re either standing over your shoulder right now or calling you into another meeting about hanging punctuation.

Finally, the creative director improves the work
This is what this whole article has been leading up to; a summation of the good CD over the mediocre CD; the proof of the pudding, so to speak. And it usually involves your CD having most (or dare I say all) of the qualities I’ve mentioned over the last two weeks, culminating in one important fact:

A good CD will improve the work. Period.

No matter how much of an advertising genius you think you are, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be improved upon by a good CD. It could be a simplification of your idea. It could be a small tweak that makes a big difference. It could be taking your idea down an avenue you never thought of. It could be turning the whole idea on its head, or pulling an idea out of your trash can and saying “this has potential, don’t abandon this one.”

If the good CD always improves the work, there are certain things you’ll put up with. Maybe the CD is arrogant, or hardly ever in the office, or expects you to work every other weekend. But when he or she comes into a room, changes your work for the better, and leaves you to collect the D&AD or One Show gong, then you’re in good hands.

Well, I hope that’s covered the main points. I had a list as long as my arm, but I had to chop it down for the sake of my aching fingers (alas, my typing skills leave a lot to be desired). And if you made it this far, you clearly have too much time on your hands. Get back to work, slackers.

Here’s Part One.


  1. Matt Crest March 12, 2009

    This article is obviously

    This article is obviously geared towards large agencies, but there are some really great pieces of info in here even for solo freelancers or small shops.

    You could modify some of the language and apply it to working with your interns or sub-contractors. And the comments on pitching clients don’t really change for big agencies or small studios.

    Well written and thoroughly enjoyed both parts of this series.

  2. PalmerPolanski March 13, 2009

    What’s a CD ?

    What’s a CD ?

  3. John Bellina March 13, 2009

    A great rant. I also agree

    A great rant. I also agree this article feels most like what I have experienced in larger, stronger and more disciplined agencies. In smaller shops, sad to say, the overwhelming experience has been that wannabe Creative Directors with the title of “President” tend to get in the way.

    Your anecdotee in the “CD has balls” section begins to cover this, but it deserves an additional section titled, “The creative director will not be bought by his paycheck”

  4. Ian March 13, 2009

    thank you.

    thank you.

  5. Jeremy Brady March 13, 2009

    This isn’t a rant so much as

    This isn’t a rant so much as a course outline for a university lesson in creativity. Young turks, take note of these lessons, they will server you well.

    Bottom line, excellent article.

  6. B. March 13, 2009

    Okay, do CD’s like that

    Okay, do CD’s like that really exist? And, if so, how do I find one? I would love to experience working with a good CD. They don’t have to be great, just good.

  7. paul suggett

    paul suggett March 13, 2009

    Yes. I can think of two great

    Yes. I can think of two great CDs that I’ve worked with, which makes it tough for the others to measure up.

  8. B. March 13, 2009

    I would love to work with a

    I would love to work with a great CD. I hope someday I can experience such a thing. I would suspect a great CD would improve one’s own design skill…yes?

  9. paul suggett

    paul suggett March 13, 2009

    You bet. My copywriting

    You bet. My copywriting skills improved, but so did my ability to think through a strategy, present work, debate intelligently and a host of other things. When you’re with a good CD, you get to learn a lot.

  10. Shane March 16, 2009

    Great read for those who seek

    Great read for those who seek guidance from a reputable C.D and an equally great read for C.D’s who wish to better themsleves. This is definetely going to be forwarded around the office!

  11. BK March 25, 2009

    Great insight, great article.

    Great insight, great article.

    Really, though, this is more a tutorial on management styles — these are universal qualities we all want from any decision-maker where creativity is at play.

    Bold, experienced and empowered leaders who trust the talent of their teams are a sad rarity in many organizations.

  12. Chris June 29, 2010

    These posts are the most
    These posts are the most insightful and accurate assessments of this odd job I’ve ever seen consolidated in one place. Keep the URLs intact; I’ll be sharing this widely for a long time when I get those “so, how do I get to be a CD?” Damned if I knew how I got here, until now. Thanks for the hard work on this.

  13. dave ross August 6, 2010

    so true….
    so true….

  14. jojo August 6, 2010

    A tad long, but it’s a good
    A tad long, but it’s a good post. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a “good” CD. Some have been good in one area and terrible in another. Some terrible at all of them…

    As much as I agree with the post, I sometimes think working with a good CD is a pipe dream. The better experience I’ve had, is working for one who was pretty much so lazy, apathetic and absent, that the ACD and I basically ran the team and the accounts and the CD would only sometimes poke his head in to ask how everything was going and then leave. It was a lot of responsibility, but you learn very very quickly. However, we still had to deal with the ECD who was a bitch to work with…

  15. eric kiker August 6, 2010

    Amazing article. Thanks
    Amazing article. Thanks Felix.

  16. Your CD August 10, 2010

    Ok, first of all, sorry for
    Ok, first of all, sorry for taking so long to give you feedback. I was out of the office (you know how busy CD can get).

    It´s a nice idea, not so fresh but has some insights in it and can be meaningful to some people but…

    1) It´s very, very long.

    2) Cut the part about you interviewing some great CDs, I know it´s meant to give you credibility but even before finishing the first part, it´s obvious only YOUR opinions based only on YOUR experience ended up in here, and that´s not bad, just don´t try to sell it like the voice of the industry instead of your own, you´ll be more credible that way.

    3) Change the title to: Wishful thinking about Creative Directors.

    4) You sound a little like a wuss every now and then, like somebody who wouldn´t be happy even if he got to work next to Jesus himself, man up the whole text and it´ll be fine.

    5) It would be nice to include the CD vision as well, maybe some “real interviews” with some quotes, and verbatims to have both sides of the story.

    Other than that, it´s fine, nice work. Please have it posted by tomorrow morning.

    Is this specific enough for you?
    Your CD.

  17. Rajan Nair March 22, 2011

    I already commented about
    I already commented about Part 1. What can I say, except that Part 2 is wonderful, too.
    Some of your readers have commented above that looking for a CD with the qualities you highlighted is like looking for the unicorn. I disagree. I have worked under one. And one good guru is sufficient in life if you’re ready to learn.

  18. Art Director May 6, 2013

    Excellent! Really insightful
    Excellent! Really insightful and well written. Cd’s like this do exist. Our agency is a great place to work because of it.

  19. KimM March 18, 2014

    Excellent piece—very
    Excellent piece—very thorough and timely.

    Although, with the economy, unfortunately it’s hard to fire bad clients nowadays! And too many of them have it coming … 🙂

  20. BrettM March 20, 2015

    glad to see the url is still
    glad to see the url is still intact 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *