What the Hell Is a Creative Director Supposed to Be?

An Evolving Take on a Key Role at Any Agency

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
Looking back over my agency career, I find it frightening that in the early days of PJA Advertising, I was the creative director. Tell that to our current staff, and they would stare at you with disbelief and probably break out laughing. But there was a time when I wrote copy, pitched ideas to clients, built the creative organization and approved all the work that went out the door. This was not always a good thing. Like anybody, I was limited by my own particular tastes, style and judgment. It became increasingly clear that hiring a creative director was what we needed to expand our range.

Since then you might say I've been on a quest to define the ideal role of a creative director, and to build an organization that stays open to creative possibilities. No surprise that my thinking has changed and evolved with the growth of the agency.

I've come to the conclusion that the job of creative director is bigger and more important than any one task. Rather than the person with the best ideas, or the person who is the best judge of good work, or the person who can best manage the creative process, a creative director needs to shape the creative brain of the entire agency and build a creative conscience. His influence extends well beyond the creative department. This conviction has made me question many of the traditional expectations for a creative leader.

For example, when we were smaller, I thought it was essential that a creative director produce the most high-profile work. It went with our player-coach model, where managers were expected to be hands on. Plus, we couldn't afford a creative director who wasn't producing billable work. I still think that's a good thing, up to a point. However, when you get to a certain size, a creative director becomes most valuable when he sees the importance of creating the conditions for other people to do great work. That's a tough transition to make.

It's only natural that the best creative directors will become stars. When that happens, you run the risk of building the agency around the cult of one creative personality. I've got nothing against superstars, but what's even better is to find a creative director with the talent to develop an entire team of them.

At other times I've valued a creative director who can oversee all the agency work and be the arbiter of what's good and what makes the final cut. This introduces another dilemma. As the single voice of authority, the creative director becomes a creative dictator. No matter how talented they may be, when all the work goes through one creative filter, interesting voices and ideas will be lost. This dramatically narrows an agency's creative range, and ultimately produces a singular tone and style, which is the fastest path for an agency to go from being regarded as innovative to being stereotyped.

Of course, someone has got to make decisions. There are misguided concepts and bad ideas that need to be killed. Rather than be a one-sheriff town, the creative director should spread this responsibility among a group of trusted people. When you've got a lot of talent in one agency, there is seldom a single best idea. Instead there are a lot of good ideas that just happen to be different. That's a good thing, and one of the benefits that clients get from working with an agency. A creative director needs to keep that diversity of ideas alive.

I've gone through stages where I thought the most important role for a creative director is to be a skilled manager. When you've got growing accounts and you're struggling to manage work across multiple offices and geographies, you're desperate for a creative leader who can protect the quality of the work and make the trains run on time. Those are important skills, and at key moments, they can save an agency from crashing and burning, but they won't lead an agency to greatness.

In my evolving view, a creative director's most valuable contributions take place outside of the day-to-day agency operations.

He needs to cultivate an active debate about what makes for good work, so that diverse ideas thrive and many people have the power to choose the best direction to pursue.

She needs to shape the environment that attracts creative people, and that makes the rest of us more creative than we thought possible.

He needs to find ways to model the creative process throughout the organization, so that people know what it looks like when they see it.

As hard as it may be, she needs to make people believe that she can do the impossible and create experiences that have never been done before. That's when the door opens for creative breakthroughs.

The job doesn't come with operating instructions. I'm lucky that I work with a couple of creative directors who have the gifts to operate at this level. It takes a lot of guts, because when they succeed, they ignite a creative force bigger then themselves. That's a daring move for someone whose career rides on a creative reputation. For my money, if you can unleash the creativity around you, that's the top of the game.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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