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What Makes a Good Creative Director? (Part 2)

Not every CD will possess every quality, even greats like Bernbach, Burnett, Abbott and Ogilvy had a few chinks in their substantial armor.

But this is a good ingredients list of traits. Leave one or two of the minor ones out, no biggie. However, miss out on most of the key ingredients and you have a steaming pile of McDonald’s.

The creative director produces work
I once asked a very, very senior creative team (they were both in their late 50s and were legends in the industry) why they never took the illustrious role of CD. Their answer was confusing to me at the time, being a young scamp just out of college.

They said, “We like doing the creative work too much.” Now, knowing much more about the role, I see their point.

Creative directors have an awful lot on their plates. They’re department managers, agency politicians, slick salesmen, budget planners, strategists, therapists, red tape cutters, you name it, they’re involved.

But a good CD will still want to do some of the work, usually about 25% of it. As a creative, that scares me. The idea that I could only spend a quarter of my time doing what I love most is a chilling thought, but perhaps when the time comes I’ll be ready to slow down on the work and see a bigger picture.

But the fact remains, creative directors should still have the ability to take a brief and produce some terrific work.

A former CD of mine was still collecting copywriting awards after 12 years in his role as the boss. He would pick out an art director, grab a meeting room and crack a brief with his chosen partner.

The work was always solid and effective. Art directors would line up to work with him, and I’m sure the same can be said of copywriters when John Hegarty does the rounds at BBH.

Good creative directors never lose that passion, that drive and that hunger for doing great work. It’s in the blood.

If you have a CD who insists that they don’t have the time to do creative work, then they’re just afraid of making the time.

It’s possible they rose to the position of CD on the back of someone else’s work and a little good fortune. Or, they may have been out of the role of creative for so long that they’re rusty, and only know how to criticize and sound off in meetings. Either way, they’re lame if they avoid the job we all love doing.

The creative director knows every creative brief intimately
The brief is the lifeblood of any campaign, and it should never be allowed to be anything less than perfect. I’ve worked in agencies that gave account managers 10 days to write the brief and creative teams five days to solve it.

This may seem out of whack to the uneducated, but when the creative brief is tight and provides solid, focused direction, the ideas flow.

I’ve read some briefs that were so well-written, my art director and I had covered the wall in concepts after just a few hours. And that’s because the creative director had a hand in writing the brief, and wouldn’t allow any team to read a brief that wasn’t as good as it could possibly be.

This kind of brief is a treasure map, with a giant X to mark the spot, and the CD doesn’t need to be in the room when the creative team is getting the brief, because they already know just what the team is being tasked with.

Conversely, bad creative directors will have little-to-no say in the brief. They may not even see it until the briefing, which is when the creative team working on the job will stare in disbelief at a brief more woolly and directionless than a blind mammoth.

These are the briefs that have four to five thoughts crammed into the single-minded proposition. These are the briefs with no call-to-action, poor background information, unclear product benefits and a confusing list of creative demands and tactics.

If a good brief is a treasure map, this brief is a maze with no exit. And on these briefs, 10 days of solid creative thinking and conceptualizing will result in a random selection of ideas covering the wall like the spray from a sawn-off shotgun.

Worse still, the CD won’t really know how to judge the work on the wall because there wasn’t really a clear strategy in the brief.

When the creative director guides the account team to get the brief ready, expect good things. When the CD shouts “I’m not quite understanding point four” in the briefing, expect long nights and short tempers.

The creative director has a broad range of experience
This one’s tricky. Occasionally, you can have a great CD who has a limited range of experience; for instance, one who has only ever worked in direct mail, or only in pharmaceutical advertising. If they stay within that field, they can often do a great job without having other experience.

However, I think most good CDs are armed with a huge range of experiences, be they copywriters, art directors or designers. They will have attended photoshoots and film productions.

They will know what the inside of a recording studio looks like. They will have direct mail experience, print and web knowledge, and will know a thing or two about outdoor, PR and guerrilla.

It’s kind of like that sergeant you see in a typical army movie, who’s seen so much out on the field that the rookies always turn to him for advice. With a well-rounded CD on your side, you’re in much better hands than a CD whose only experience of direct mail is tearing it up over the garbage can.

The creative director is a shepherd
Who are the sheep? One guess. Almost every CD I’ve had understood that the creatives were responsible for producing the work that paid the bills, and so the creatives were treated with both respect and admiration by everyone in the agency.

I remember an account director leaving the concepts he didn’t like in the cab, and only presenting the ones that he liked to the client. The creatives (i.e. myself and my art director) were pissed when we found out. The CD was furious, and shortly thereafter the account director was asked to look for another job.

A young account manager, fresh from school, thought she could write copy better than any of the copywriters. She changed lines here and there, added her own spin, and all without the go-ahead of the creatives or the CD.

The copywriters felt completely insulted and disrespected, and the CD, well, you can guess how that one ended, too.

I’m not saying that the CD’s job is to fire anyone who dares cross the creative teams. But the CD should set the standard for how the creatives are treated within the agency.

If he or she lets account directors walk all over creative teams, changing copy and art direction at will, then the morale in the department will hit rock bottom. The CD who is a good shepherd will keep the creatives in line, but also keep the wolves from bringing them and their work down.

The creative director can sell or present anything, and do it well
I’ll never forget the first time I was in a presentation with my CD. I was wet behind the ears and terrified of standing up in front of the big cheeses.

The ads I had produced with my AD were bold, funny and did a great job of selling the product. But between my mouse-like voice and his shaking hands, we had about as much chance of selling it in as Donald Trump does of selling Trump Tampons (don’t get any ideas, Don).

The account director did the introductions, the CD stood up, walked across the room and put the three ads down in front of the client. The client laughed his ass off.

The CD said “you’ve bought it. My account director will finish up” then shook the hand of the client and walked out of the room, beckoning us to follow. We told that story in pubs and bars for years after.Although some may say it was too arrogant (the client didn’t make one change to the ads by the way, and ran them, achieving a very nice rise in phone calls), it was both memorable and confident. This guy owned any room he walked into, and had the kind of charisma to pull off a stunt like that.

On other occasions, he wasn’t anywhere near as brash. He knew his clients well, and did the research on pitches. He was so good at reading a room and the people in it that he should have been picking juries for trial attorneys.

Selling and presenting is a skill; by the time you’re elevated to the dizzy heights of CD, you should be damned good at it.

The creative director has balls
Metaphorical balls of course (so calm down ladies, I’m not excluding you here). And what’s more, these balls are big and scary.

A creative director should have the authority and confidence to make some big decisions, and should also take some firm stands against feedback that will either ruin the creative or demoralize the department.

A former CD of mine, who taught me more in two years than I’ve learned in the last seven, was quite happy to fire a client if the work was consistently bad because of their feedback and changes.

The same CD walked into a meeting and said the agency would take no fee for the project, but instead a percentage of the profits the campaign would make.

Imagine, as a creative, how that felt; to have the CD stand behind your ideas, and back your work with the kind of money you could buy a yacht with.

In that case, our campaign ended up bringing in double what the agency fee was. Were we lucky? Yes, if you count having a ballsy CD as lucky.

He knew the work was on strategy and breakthrough (he was the guy who’d steered us in the right direction anyway) and he literally put his money where his mouth was.

The same CD didn’t have any hesitation in quitting the firm a few years later, when a corporate merger made the place take on bad clients, adopt bad working practices and refuse to stand up to client feedback of any kind.

The CD had standards, he had balls, and right now he’s making a shitload of money doing what he does best; being creative director at yet another hot agency. When you have a CD with big balls, your book will soon fill up with great work.

The creative director knows how to motivate
Gordon Ramsey may think he’s a great motivator of people, but in reality he’s a bully that makes for good television. You don’t get people to want to work harder for you by shouting, screaming, berating, abusing and humiliating.

Motivation comes from a place of respect and trust. Good creative directors will want you to do well for you, not for them. They will instill in you the kind of passion and drive that makes an eight-hour day become a 13-hour day.

They will get you so charged and excited about a project that you will set your alarm clock for six a.m., battle traffic and eat a cold hot dog for breakfast, because you know you’re on a mission to do some great work.

If your CD’s idea of motivation is to threaten you with pay cuts, demotions, crappy accounts or losing your job, you already know you don’t want to work for that CD any more.

Loyalty to a CD and an agency is built on good relationships, not bitter ones. Sure, you’ll work for the asshole for as long as it takes you to find another job, but word will soon spread that the CD is a raging dick, and the agency will find it more and more difficult to hire genuinely good creative talent.

The creative director wants honest opinions, not nodding dogs
There are some real narcissist CDs out there who believe that their opinion is the only opinion, and that they are basically a god surrounded by peasants. And gods generally don’t take well to criticism, negative opinions or, dare I say it, honest answers.

When I left my first job, I had a CD who was open to every opinion and critique. Not only that, but he encouraged my art director and I to fight back on decisions we disagreed with.

He wanted to see some fight from us, which helped us defend our work to clients and account teams. It’s an essential skill to have, to know how to fight for your ideas intelligently, and good creative directors will happily take your opinion with both respect and consideration.

They may tell you to sod off anyway, but they’ll love the fact that you have the passion and fortitude to stand up for your beliefs.

Now, when I went to my next job, the CD didn’t share that sensibility; something we found out the hard way when my AD and I presented concepts for our first campaign.

The CD asked for us to rethink the ideas and do them a different way. His way. With a smile on my face, I dug in my heels and defended the idea to the hilt.

That’s when the CD stopped me mid-rant and said, and I quote “this is not a democracy. If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it. What I want you to do right now is go away and rethink the idea just the way I said. I don’t expect to have this discussion with you again.”

We were at that agency for about six months. It was five months too long.

Finally, the creative director improves the work
This is what this whole article has been leading up to; a summation of the good CD over the mediocre CD; the proof of the pudding, so to speak.

And it usually involves your CD having most (or dare I say all) of the qualities I’ve mentioned over the last two weeks, culminating in one important fact:

A good CD will improve the work. Period.

No matter how much of an advertising genius you think you are, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be improved upon by a good CD.

It could be a simplification of your idea. It could be a small tweak that makes a big difference. It could be taking your idea down an avenue you never thought of. It could be turning the whole idea on its head, or pulling an idea out of your trash can and saying “this has potential, don’t abandon this one.”

If the good CD always improves the work, there are certain things you’ll put up with.

Maybe the CD is arrogant, or hardly ever in the office, or expects you to work every other weekend. But when he or she comes into a room, changes your work for the better, and leaves you to collect the D&AD or One Show gong, then you’re in good hands.

Well, I hope that’s covered the main points. I had a list as long as my arm, but I had to chop it down for the sake of my aching fingers (alas, my typing skills leave a lot to be desired). And if you made it this far, you clearly have too much time on your hands. Get back to work, slackers.

This article has been edited for length.

For "What Makes a Good Creative Director? (Part 1)",
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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