What 'Project Runway' Can Teach Agency Creative Directors

High Wide & Handsome's Mike Wolfsohn on Why Tim Gunn Is a Fitting Role Model

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Mike Wolfsohn
Mike Wolfsohn
Watching "Project Runway" may not make you the next Diane Von Furstenberg, but it could help you in your quest to become the next Dan Wieden. I admit, I tune in occasionally on Thursday nights at 10 o'clock. In a matter of an hour, one can observe many of the dos and don'ts of being an agency creative director -- as exhibited by celebrity judges Tim Gunn and designer Michael Kors, respectively.

While Tim's best known for his catchphrases, he is also the consummate creative director on the show (and likely in his role as chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne). Here's why:

Tim Gunn
Tim Gunn Credit: Lifetime
  • He never imposes his own taste on the contestants. Rather, he tends to celebrate sensibilities that are different than his own. In essence, he doesn't ask, "Do I like this?" but instead focuses on what really matters in both the fashion world and in the marketing world: whether the target audience will like it. Maintaining objectivity is a special and important skill.

  • He doesn't dictate solutions. Gunn doesn't say, "Make this red, make this longer and make this fuller." He says, "I'm not sure this color is right; we're seeing an awful lot of skin here, and I'm concerned there may not be enough volume in this area." Following that up with his trademark "Make it work" is simply his way of saying, "It's up to you to find solutions you're comfortable with, ones that still allow you to express your distinct creative style."

  • He maintains his composure. Sometimes we forget that emotions are contagious in a creative environment. When the leader appears confident, everyone is confident; when the leader appears panicked, everyone panics. Whether delivering glowing praise or harsh criticism, Tim never loses his cool -- a good lesson for those hot-tempered top creatives in adland.

In contrast, fashion designer (and "Project Runway" judge) Michael Kors constantly demonstrates what not to do as a creative director.

Michael Kors
Michael Kors Credit: Lifetime
  • He's lazy. We see Kors donning the same t-shirt and blazer on every show (hello, black turtlenecked creatives). He claims it's because he spent so many years worrying about his attire that he's earned the right to stop trying. But making excuses for being uninspired is, itself, uninspiring.

  • He's destructive, not constructive. It's easy to say, "That dress looks like a garbage bag," or "Those pants look like they're from an M.C. Hammer video." It's much more difficult -- and much more valuable -- to explain where a designer went wrong and what he or she could have done differently to achieve a better result.

  • He rests on his reputation. Like so many ad agency creative directors, Kors seems to be thinking, "I've accomplished a lot in my career, so even if I say something meaningless, people will think it's brilliant." He fails to recognize that having achieved success doesn't necessarily qualify him to help others do the same.

The "Project Runway" finale is quickly approaching, but I've already picked my winner. Tim Gunn, a fitting role model for any creative director, is in. Michael Kors, you're out. Auf Wiedersehen!!

Mike Wolfsohn is founder-chief creative officer at High Wide & Handsome.
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