The Route to Creative Director Starts With a Passion for New Ideas

Cultivate Great Taste, Excellent Judgment and Some Cold-Blooded Decision Making

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Let me tell you about the perks of writing for Small Agency Diary. There’s no pay, very little fan mail and to date a shortage of six-figure speaking engagements. On the other hand, I’ve met new friends, impressive people from every corner of the advertising industry. Best of all, on rare occasions, someone writes asking for advice. Whether I’m qualified or not, I always answer. 

The most recent request came from Stephanie Blanchard, a web copywriter with leadership aspirations. She asked, “How does someone become a creative director? Specifically, how does a copywriter make the transition to creative director?” She also confessed to having no talents as an art director and wondered if that was a liability. 

There are certainly people more qualified than I am to answer this question. But this is what I absolutely believe: even in our hyper digital, technology-driven, social world with a million new channels, a creative director is still the bedrock of every great agency. 

The problem is that definitions of creative directors are like chili recipes. There are hundreds, and while they all include various combinations of peppers, meat, beans and tomatoes, the results vary dramatically. Creative director is the most amorphous job in the advertising business and will look different at every agency. 

So, Stephanie here is my response:

Don’t be fooled by all the stylistic differences that go along with the job. There’s the emotional wild man, the uber intellectual, not to mention the creative rock star and the strategic wonk. That’s just window dressing. The real substance and common denominator among great creative directors is passion --  a passion for new ideas and the relentless drive to make them real. Every great creative director finds her own individual path for getting there. 

For my money, I think you’ll need to develop a collection of specific skills, and they can be cultivated whether you start as a copywriter or art director. 

There’s no getting around it, creative directors need both great taste and excellent judgment. I mean more than just making the work look good. They also need to possess a sense of what it takes to connect with people. They need to know just how far to push an idea before losing their audience.  Like a master editor, a creative director can take someone else’s work -- trim here and add there -- to bring it together as a satisfying whole.

It’s human nature to fall in love with your own work, but a creative director needs to be cold-blooded about ideas and concepts. You need to be able to look dispassionately at your own work and trash the bad ideas. Maybe more important, you need to be able to see when someone else’s work is better than your own.

That leads us to empathy, a word not usually mentioned in the same breath as creative director. Good creative directors can get inside the head of an audience and understand their lives. It’s more than just insight. It’s the ability to tap into human fears, dreams and aspirations. That knowledge guides the creative process and determines which ideas deserve attention and which ones should get killed.  

While everyone in this business should pay attention to social and cultural trends, the best creative directors are sponges, absorbing subtle shifts in ideas, music, art, film and literature. They don’t imitate or copy, but rather build on these influences to create work that feels both new and relevant. 

Whether you start this journey as a writer or an art director, you will need a craft that lets you bring your ideas to life and make them tangible for other people. (Here’s a dirty little secret -- most great creative directors, even the visual ones, have some gift with words.)

Being a creative director requires tremendous self-confidence. Navigating the dozens of ideas on the table, resolving debates, and getting to the work that matters the most is not a job for the weak-of-heart or the insecure. You need the ability to commit to a direction, defend it and then sell it to your clients. Hopefully you’ll have more hits than misses. 

Early in my career, an agency CEO told me that when hiring a creative director I had to make a choice between hiring either a great manager or a great creative talent. You couldn’t get both in one person. I never accepted that tradeoff, and I still don’t. It’s true that some creative directors have a gift for management, and others ignore all the administrative detail to focus on the work. You’ll find talented people all along that continuum. The test, and the only thing that agency leadership should care about, is whether the creative director can create magic. 

Can she bring talented people together? Can she find creative gold in mountains of chaos? Can she excite clients and make them believe in new ideas? Can she take a great concept and transform it into a campaign that supports an entire marketing plan? Ultimately, can she make emotional connections with the consumer? 

Don’t wait for someone to offer you the job. You need to think like a creative director in order to become one. Regardless of your job title, start to think beyond your individual assignments and start to take responsibility for the entire account, and ultimately the creative success of the entire agency. Then, you’ll be on your way. 

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