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What Makes a Good Creative Director? (Part 1)

Here’s another question for you. What exactly is the job of a creative director? Do you know? If you’re a CD, do you know? You should.

But it seems that some do and some don’t, whether they’re taking direction from one, or if they actually are the head honcho. And that, my friends, is just not good enough.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and talking at length with, some pretty big creative directors in my time, including greats like Alfredo Marcantonio (WCRS, BBDO) and Jeremy Bullmore (JWT).

During the course of our conversations, I always asked the question, “What are the qualities of a great creative director?”

What surprised me was how often the same phrases and attributes kept cropping up.

Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, too many creative directors just don’t make the grade. Here’s the list I’ve compiled in my noggin, over the last 15 years.

The creative director is the last line of defense
What does that mean, specifically? Well, let me paint a picture for you; a picture from my own memory in fact.

You’re sat in the office, it’s 10pm and you’re frantically scribbling down ideas for a campaign. Earlier in the day, the CD rejected your second set of ideas on this job, and the deadline was extended for you to try, one last time, to crack the project and not get your ass handed to you on a plate.

In the early hours of the morning, as you chew on cold pizza and swig a few gulps of warm, flat beer, you come to a stomach-churning conclusion; you’re not going to crack this one. You’ve failed.

You go home, take a shower and grab a few hours of sleep before your next WIP with the CD. You show the work, you slump your shoulders and that is when the CD does what the CD is paid for, in part.

He or she takes the brief off you and within a few hours, something passes by your desk for you and your partner to comp up for the meeting. And it’s great. It’s annoyingly terrific. You kick yourself and wonder why you didn’t think of it. You look at the CD with a new-found respect.

That is the last line of defence. When no one else in the creative department knows where to take a job, or how to crack a brief, the CD can do it. They have the experience, the savvy and the ability to produce the work when no one else can.

If you’re a CD reading this and you know, deep down, that you can’t do that job, well I’m sorry to say that you suck. You really suck.

It’s all well and good to surround yourself with talented people who can do the job 95% of the time, but if you can’t step in and solve the impossible ones, you can go to HR right now and ask them to remove ‘creative’ from your title.

You are the best of the best. You have no excuses for not being able to do the creative work, even if you spend most of your day in meetings, discussing budgets or pitching work. Without a last line of defence, a creative department has no goalkeeper.

The creative director gives specific feedback
Here are just a few choice phrases I’ve heard from bad CDs over the years. See how many of them you recognise:

“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“I’m just not feeling it, but I’m not sure why.”
“Make it more compelling.”
“It’s missing something.”

A good creative director gives specific feedback, not vague platitudes. Their direction will be considered, constructive, smart and intelligible. And by constructive, I mean a lot more than “I hate them all, try again.”

After a meeting with a CD, you should have definite direction on where to take the work. If you come out of a meeting with a CD scratching your head and wondering what the hell to do next, then you have my sympathies; you’re working with a moron.

The creative director is well-versed in all crafts
The boss could have a background that’s very different to yours. Great CDs have been copywriters, art directors, designers, illustrators, hell some have an English PhD.

But what matters is that although they are experts in one discipline, they understand all the crafts. They’ll know how to guide copywriters even if they can’t write a coherent sentence themselves. They’ll know the difference between good art direction and overzealous horse manure. They get it.If they constantly push design over ideas because they love design, they are myopic. Same goes for a CD with a writing background who only wants 20-word headlines. Great CDs are chameleons who understand the balance between concepts and strategy, and copy and design. Which is a nice segue into the next point.

The creative director is a selfless creative
When you’re rising through the ranks, you can be as selfish as you like. You can write copy the way you want to write copy. You can art direct the way you love to art direct. That’s not to say the client won’t put the kibosh on it, but you go out of the gate with your best foot forward.

And the reason you can do that is because a good CD will let you flex your creative muscles and allow your own work to shine. A bad CD will want everything to look like something from their own book.

They’ll want writers to mimic their writing style, or art directors to make things look a certain way. That’s not selfless, it’s not letting the department grow and flourish, and it is demoralising to the people working under that work ethic; creatives need to be creatives, not production artists.

The creative director knows the latest trends
I had a CD, this was a decade ago, who refused to own a mobile phone or watch TV. Now, I know cell phones weren’t in the hands of six-year-old kids like they are today, but millions of people had one.

And as for TV, well, that one just made me scratch my head. Even if you hate it as a medium, you’re in the ad business. You need to know your media outlets and the environment the ads will live in.

He also didn’t have an email address, which was unforgivable back then, but is punishable by stoning today.

David Abbott once said that he had two laptops: one for work, one for home. He clearly didn’t have a grasp on the purpose of a laptop, but he still had one (well, two).

Despite a preference for writing copy on a notepad with his feet on the desk, he still knew he had to embrace modern technology.

So if your CD has no idea what Facebook is, or looks puzzled when you talk about Twitter or social networking, they aren’t doing their duty, as an advertiser, to understand the modern consumer.

The creative director will hire great creatives
Several giants in the industry, including the late, great David Ogilvy, talked about hiring people more talented than themselves.

His quote on hiring people is one I’ll never forget, “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Unfortunately, some CDs out there are so worried about being knocked off their little perch that they’ll insist on filling the creative department with mediocre hacks.

This is not only detrimental to the clients, but the agency as a whole. The work coming out of the department may please your average client, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. And the agency won’t generate new business on the back of cruddy work.

The creative director is well-read
Peter Souter (AMV) once said that the only books a creative needs to read are the advertising annuals, be they One Show or D&AD. As a student, I agreed with him. Boy, was I wrong.

If the CD is always looking in the annuals, they’re always following someone else’s lead. But by reading a wide variety of books, periodicals and websites, the CD is furnished with a mind that can think outside of the annuals, and guide work that other agencies will follow.

If you walk into a CDs office and the only books on the shelf are annuals and graphic novels, you could be getting some myopic direction.

This article has been edited for length.

For "What Makes a Good Creative Director? (Part 2)",
click here.

Written by Felix Unger

Felix Unger is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. The Denver Egotist features the best creative, the best talent and best resources in Denver, keeping it all in the greater context of what’s happening internationally.
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