What Doesn't Kill You Makes You ... a Stronger Creative Director

We Can Learn Invaluable Lessons From the Worst Bosses We've Ever Had

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Over the course of my career, I've been blessed to work for some of the very best creative directors in the business -- and some of the worst.

Working for the bad ones seemed like hell at the time, but in retrospect the lessons I learned from them were every bit as valuable as those I learned from the good ones. It's true, as the song says, that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It can also help you become a better creative director.

The Creative Director from Central Casting
Take for example, one not particularly talented creative director who seemed to have received his training by watching episodes of "Thirtysomething." This guy would toss a football in the hallway with his sidekick all day, while laughing at his own jokes. He never once tried to connect with any of the creative people he inherited when he was hired.

The night before a big client presentation, he told my art director and me that our TV campaign would be the recommended one. We were ecstatic, thinking we had cracked the code: We had impressed the new CD with our work, and we would be shooting a big new TV campaign!

At the presentation, my partner and I showed our campaign last. Or so we believed. After presenting our work we sat down triumphantly, only to have our exalted leader stand up and say, "And then we really thought about it…" as his partner produced a batch of TV boards from out of nowhere.

My art director and I were crushed.

Lesson Learned: As a creative director, never compete with your staff. Support them, work with them; provide them with guidance. Don't put them in a position where they feel you are using them to sell your own work. You will lose their respect instantly.

As a writer, I still love to write, be a creative problem solver and contribute to the agency portfolio. But I try to do it in ways that won't make the creatives feel exploited or demeaned. One way is to work on the thankless, less glamorous projects that they'd likely prefer not to work on. Another is to work hands on with each team, rotating my way through the department and making sure not to play favorites. It's a great way for each side to learn how the other thinks and build mutual trust.

The Creative Director Who Could Not Be Seen
Another creative director insisted on building a wall of propriety around him. While no work could go out without his approval, it was almost impossible to gain access to him. You had to make an appointment with his secretary, and his schedule was almost always full.

Once, my art director and I had been trying to get work in front of him for several days, but to no avail. With the client presentation set for the next day, we had no choice but to try to grab him in the hallway. Our last chance came at about 7:30 in the evening, as he headed for the elevator on his way home. We stopped him, explained that our meeting was the next morning, and showed him the work. "I hate it," he barked in his shrill voice, handing the work back to us as he stepped into the elevator. "Aren't you glad you stopped me?" he cackled as the doors closed between us.

Lesson Learned: Don't create a wall between yourself and your staff. Your door should always be open. Don't wait for them to come to you. Go to them. You aren't just the head of a department; you are the head of a family. You all face the same obstacles. Show them that you understand and appreciate what they are going through and that you are there to provide them with the guidance and support they need to succeed.

The Hall of Famer
I had a creative director who was such a legendary writer that he had been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame. He was cantankerous and pretty difficult to present work to. I once showed him a headline for a refrigerator that could recognize the food you put in it and self-adjust accordingly. I still consider it one of the best I've ever written: "It won't treat a head of lettuce like a piece of meat."

He killed the line because he thought it "punny" and wrote one of his own, playing on another benefit of the fridge -- that it could easily be set into the wall for a seamless effect. His line? "Sometimes what stands out the most is what stands out the least."

I was angry that he killed my line for one that I felt (ironically) stood out far less.

Lesson Learned: While I didn't agree with everything he said, or the way he said it, I did appreciate the mass of incredible work this guy had compiled over the years and wanted to garner as much knowledge as I could from him. He was like Yoda. He taught me more than anyone about the art of writing body copy, and for that, I will always be grateful. I make sure to pass on his pearls of wisdom to everyone I mentor.

A great creative director is a parental figure, teacher, editor, psychologist, HR specialist, ego booster, negotiator, disciplinarian, shoulder to cry on, and so much more. The best creative directors I have worked for have understood this and believed in letting good people do what they do best, while providing them with firm direction, encouragement, guidance, support and occasionally, cover. They didn't have oversized egos and felt that their people's successes were also theirs. I loved working for them and owe them a fortune for all they taught me. But I learned just as much from the bad ones, and owe them as many thanks, too.

Mark Drossman is creative director at GráficaGroup.
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