"What makes a creative director a good creative director?"
I was asked that question recently and struggled to answer. It’s not that there isn’t a long list of qualities that assures goodness and effectiveness in a creative director, but to outright answer presumes I’m referring to myself. And not high on the list of being a good creative director are ego and narcissism — though, surprisingly, they’re on there, in small amounts.
The challenging thing about this role, and answering that question, is that most CDs I know, including myself, learned what not to do along the way, not what to do, leaving us not emulating prior greatness but instead trying not to make the same mistakes our predecessors did. This means we were running from something, learning along the way what to do right, and not immediately fulfilling existing expectations and duties as we were taught. All the while, we could have been purposefully running toward our own progression, capability, and confidence, not to mention that of our agency, team, and accounts.
Unfortunately, whether college, ad school, or agencies, there’s no great training for the creative director role, aside from time and mistakes. Oftentimes becoming an ACD or CD was the result of doing something else well — a designer or writer or another creative role who performed their craft well enough to be invited to stop doing it altogether. Who you were and what you knew is no longer. New mysteries, skill sets, and expectations are yours to figure out alone. Spend enough time here, see and make enough mistakes, then survive, and you have the experience needed. Congratulations on your promotion; our system is broken.
The result: all too often, we get the infamous “swoop and poop” directors who pop by late in the game to offer only negativity — a big ol’ steaming pile of “Something’s not working for me, keep trying, bye.” They aren’t there when they’re needed, and they give little love and attention to their team. CDs like this often only have a vision, direction, and plan once they’ve seen something, never before when it’s needed most.
But enough of focusing on what didn’t work, as so many of us have designed our careers on, let’s talk about what some of us works in progress learned along the way through trial and error — the top traits of a good creative director, without coming across as overly egotistical and narcissistic (just the right amount, hopefully).
How to Be a Good Creative Director — the Big Things
Being a good creative director can be broken down into three core traits. Have these, and you’re on your way…
Be Decisive: The biggest thing a creative director does is right there in the name — direct. The team, the client, the work, and ultimately the consumer all need a direction to head in. They needed a purpose-laden pathway, and someone pointing them in the right direction. If no one leads, no one follows, and we all stand still. So, the burden of making decisions lands on this position. Whether you like it or not, eyes are on you, make the call.
Be a Defender: Look out for your people, your clients, and your consumers. If you don’t, no one will. This might be in managing mental health and energy or in fighting for what the team believes in and worked hard for. Fabio Costa of Saatchi & Saatchi used to say the creative director was the punching bag and lighthouse of the work. That means you sometimes need to get beat up a bit, because that’s your job. Other times you light the way, even if only to direct people away.
Be a Teacher: The best teachers you had in school guided you, but they didn’t give you the answers, right? They showed you how to work for it, to learn, to find them yourself. It’s the same with creative directors. Often we mistake direction for directions, and we solve the problems for everyone. It makes us feel good; it reminds us that we have some worth, but it stifles growth and takes the joy of creativity and creation away from the team. Teach what you know, including how to take your job.
How to Be a Good Creative Director — the Other Things
Ok, in truth, the prior section wasn’t entirely accurate. It was a nice, tight example of what a creative director should be, but it’s not true. You have to be more than that. That’s because it is not as simple an answer as one would hope. Different CD roles at different agencies and companies, for different brands, focused on different types of work, performed by different personality types mean it’s not a straight and simple answer. The best creative director in one role might surely fail in the next. So here are some other valuable traits found in the CD role…
Be Dauntless: The life of a creative can be crippling. Your energy, passions, skill sets, and Blood are channeled through the work, which is then promptly shit on by many people, over and over. But, you don’t just carry your own emotions, you carry your whole team’s. That’s why you have to hold true to your motivations and direction and be dauntless in your pursuit of good creativity and growth.
Be Fallible: While being perfect sure sounds nice, no CD is. You must be comfortable being wrong and in making big, dumb mistakes, and then being humble in admitting it. When you make mistakes, and own up to it, and demonstrate how to move forward, so too then can your team. If you lie or hide the fact that you are human, they will too.
Be Thorough: Trust but verify. Trust that the person who did the work made purposeful, skilled decisions, but also understand them. Whether designers, writers, or whatever, they used their knowledge, experience, and likely your direction, so trust in the path they took. They too are an expert at their craft. Trust in them; believe in them. But, verify they took the right path and made the right decisions simply by asking humble questions, not assuming, judging, probing, or outright shitting on their thinking.
Be a Contrarian: When you accept everything as it is, or as you are told, you end up producing boring, stale, non-differentiated ideas. Good creatives push out beyond the expected, into new places. Brilliant and difficult Digital Surgeons ACD Inessa Yusupov is a great example of this. Every idea I share, she challenges it — or, based on the prior trait, she questions it. After this, we have a respectful debate, in which she pushes me to expand on the thinking, to tell a bigger, better story, to ground it in reality and insight. What usually happens is the holes and cracks are revealed, and to fix them, I evolve the idea for the better. The result is better, differentiated work — not the “first idea, worst idea” type that is fueled by laziness and lack of opposition.
Be Informed: Though you’re now less of a creative practitioner and more of a creative swiss-army knife — part creative, part HR, part planner, part accountant, part recruiter, part account rep — you have to stay close to the worlds that inspire and fuel your team, as well as the clients’ worlds. Whether leveraging what’s worked — models & frameworks for successful creative work — or knowing what’s trending and inspiring, you can’t lose the curiosity that helps give you a point of view on things, because all of this information is critical in being decisive and determining the direction the team and work will take.
How to Be a Good Creative Director — the Little Things
And we could keep going with traits that help one be a good creative director, so pick & choose. Find the ones you need and work on them. Also, look at people around you, at all levels and on all teams, because they can teach you about leadership in many ways. Not all of my inspirations were creative directors. But I still use what they taught me where I can, including…
Care for Your People, Not Just Your Projects: One of the first true leaders I worked for was Kurt Kehl, former Chief Communications Officer for the Washington Capitals. This was a long time ago, before the open floor plan offices, when we’d find ourselves shut off from others by cubicles and walls. We could easily be disconnected from each other after being heads down all day, but Kurt made sure we were all connected on the work and, more importantly, with each other. He did this by simply finding time to walk around, every single day, and just talking with us — bringing us together, sharing stories, bringing laughter and togetherness to the office, not just talking about work. If you paid attention, you could find the pattern in his walks, as if he actually scheduled it. But, I started to get excited for those moments. It showed he made time for us — that he cared, because it was clearly purposeful, but he let you think he just happened to be passing by. Through this, Kurt was curating this sense of controlled distance, meaning he was on calls and in meetings most of the day, but then would give small amounts of personal one-on-one time, as well as team time, that we came to crave and appreciate. It wasn’t too much that he was being our buddy, and it wasn’t so little that we couldn’t see that he cared. It was just right. He made you want it.
Set the Tone: Shawn Witt, showrunner (creative directors of the TV world) of TRL during my time on the show, would start every single meeting with some form of game. It could be three minutes of Saved by the Bell trivia or hilarious and awkward improv exercises to loosen us up. Whatever it was, we were laughing, getting to know each other better, becoming a tighter team, and going into everything together, with smiles on our faces. The tone was set that we were a team, we had a ritual of creative fun with a bit of competition, and fun came first, but never at the expense of the work. Another example of setting the tone is Steve Walter, ACD of the Digital Surgeons Content Studio. His motto is “70/30” as in 70% fun to 30% hard work. Might sound like a dangerous imbalance; that we won’t accomplish our goals; that we’d be screwing around too much, right? Well, wrong. 100% wrong. I’ve never seen it fail, not once. He believes, and now I do too, that if you aim for having fun at least 70% of the time on set or in the studio, the 30% work is guaranteed to be better. That’s because energy levels are consistently high and our minds are in a state of play, releasing dopamine and making time feel like it’s flying. Like Shawn’s pre-meeting games, we’re together, working as a team, focused on the moment, moving in one clear, purposeful direction. And when you have all that, you’re golden.
How to Be a Good Creative Director — the Missing Things
So like I said, I’m not so egotistical to think I have all the answers. What I do know for sure though is that the only true, fail-safe, guaranteed-to-work method to being a good creative director is having a great team, which I have, and therefore I’ve been fortunate enough to make more of the dumb, hilarious mistakes that let me make such a list. So, if you’ve discovered more traits of a good creative director, share them with me, please. We’re all works in progress.
Now’s a time for sharing and progress, because we’re suffering a severe crisis of confidence in this industry — not so much within it but in it, as in our clients don’t trust agencies like they once did. That’s on the leaders. Kill the head and the body dies, and the era of great creative directors was killed off long ago, and much of what was once celebrated and adored in the work died along with it. But all is not lost. We can proactively study, discuss, teach, train, and support creative directors and their teams so we’re all better prepared and inspired to lead brands to do great, lively, culturally-defining things. So let’s build them, and ourselves, together.
The world needs creativity, so lead the way.