How to be an agency Creative Director
Two of us at J44 have been creative directors in our time and the other two have spent their careers briefing creative directors and then judging/throwing out/spending millions on what they come back with in answer to those briefs.
So here, just for fun, is an opinionated essay on how to be a creative director, should any of our readers have career-change aspirations, or need to better understand those weird creative types in their agencies.
First thing: creative work is the heart and soul of an agency. New, surprising sideways ideas that are relevant and well executed grab the attention of consumers, sell the product and build the brand. Old, unsurprising ideas don’t, unless the client is prepared to spend so much money shoving them in front of people that memorability and sales arrive via sheer repetition. So the first job of a creative director is to build an environment in which great work can be done. In this respect, you’re like the keeper of an aquarium – for the fish to thrive, you must look after the water they live in.
So what’s the water like in a creative department? Well, it has lots of permission in it. Acceptance of trial and error. Excellence and good examples to aspire to. Strategic advice. Guidance and encouragement. And, oddly you might think, not too many opinions. If you’re the sort of creative director who says ‘my way or no way’, you’ll eventually fill your department with people who aim their work at you, rather than at consumers. You’ll also fail to do the second job of the CD, which is to grow people. You must try to recruit people who are, or could be, better than you. I loved working with good people who had unexpected ideas – who were capable of the sideways-look – and I think it’s really important that, when you find real talent, you acknowledge it and manage it in a way that helps it to grow.
Of course, creative people aren’t easy to manage. They’re cats, not dogs, with an emotional approach to their work that, say, quantity surveyors don’t usually have. So that’s another set of skills you must develop – those of a football manager with a team of highly-strung individuals. And what about outside the confines of the creative department? Well, your job becomes even more complicated here.
A good CD is as much a strategist as the agency planner and as aware of budgets and sales targets as the client. That client relationship is vital. The client must know and trust the CD and the CD must know how to turn the client on. Challenging ideas are sometimes hard to sell, so a good connection between you and the client will help this to happen more often.
You must also be a businessperson. An agency has costs and cashflow issues like any other business. Great work must be produced within these constraints.
Stay current – that’s another imperative. We all grow older and, while I’ll never dismiss experience, it’s important to recognise that the consumers of your messages (and the people in your department) may be a generation adrift of your vintage. So keep your ears and eyes open. Read widely. Ask questions. Pick brains. Do your homework. Watch TV you hate. Use social media like a teenager. Don’t let the stuff that turns them on pass you by.
Last point? You’re the catalyst. You’re the one who’s job it is to encourage that sideways-look to start that amazing creative chain reaction whose results are great ideas, brilliant execution, good sales, strong brands, happy clients and a famous agency.