Being A Creative Director Is The Opposite Of How You Picture It

I’m going on somewhere around twenty years of being a creative director. I’m still a student of the game, but after two decades of doing it, there is one thing I’m certain of — it’s not anything like people think it is. In fact, in a few crucial ways, it’s the opposite of what you picture.

The Creative Director Gets Little Credit

That’s right — you work your way up through the difficult years of all-nighters, working weekends, pitches, failed ideas and intensely competitive creative bake-offs. You believe in yourself more than it seems anyone else believes in you, perhaps taking your talents to a few different agencies just so you can get that next title up. Then the next one. It’s a long, insecure, unstable slog, taking up the good portion of your twenties and thirties, but finally you make it out of the art director or copywriter delineation into a position that purports to rule over it all: The Creative Director. And how are you rewarded? By giving (or needing to give) away the credit to everyone else.

But wait, isn’t the Creative Director the glory job??? Not quite. It can become “middle child syndrome” very quickly as the needs on all sides of you start to outweigh your own.

If you do your job impeccably well, the CD provides the leadership, inspiration and often-difficult-to-have-to-receive direction that sends younger creatives back to the drawing board. And because that’s hard on them (and you are well aware of that, having spent a lot of your time there), one of the few rewards you get to give away, is credit. And it’s important. This is, after all, the work that becomes their portfolio, differentiates them from their peers and fuels their growth, so it is part of the currency of the job. And you pay it gladly. After all, you already got yours.

But credit is an extremely touchy thing at any organization. Call it the nature of the industry or a generational thing, but all signs point toward a future of giving out more of it, to more people. In some ways, this feels like a natural progression of how business understands or peceieves the creative process.

Nobody remembers that you finished your project on time or on budget. Nor do they hand out awards for beautifully-conceived briefs or media plans — people only remember how the work came out and whether it was awesome. The finished product becomes more than a creative endeavor, but a symbol of all that went into it, including money, strategy, leadership and everything else. And so you see a lot of executives and clients taking ownership and wanting to be the ones to present finished work and stand up at award shows. The work is a reflection of everybody’s efforts. Little room for the hero here.

The truth of being a Creative Director is that most of it becomes the behind-the-scenes work that propels ideas forward — incredibly necessary and oddly utilitarian. But far short of glorious. And while that seems unfair, the payoff is that your position becomes one of the more stable in an organization. As it turns out, Creativity is a business skill. A very necessary one. The counterbalance for its acceptance at the adult table is less individualized credit.

How’s that for irony?

The Creative Director Does Not Have Final Authority

When you hear the term “Creative Director,” most people think it’s the final say on all creative things. Untrue. I divide creative roles into 4 broad territories: Creative Authority, Creative Leadership, Creative Contribution and Creative Ownership. Most CDs fall into the role of Creative Leader. This is the person who shepherds the work through, works with strategists, account teams, clients and presents internally and externally. But, mostly, Creative Leadership provides inspiration and organization to the creative teams throughout the life of a project. That’s a CD, through and through. But while it can be, it’s not necessarily Creative Authority.

These days, Creative Authority is very often a person who is not hands-on with the project, but who is present for reviews. It can be on the agency side or on the client side, but it’s rarely the person who is working on the ideas every day, pushing and fine-tuning them. It can be an agency owner or client, or someone else entirely. But, by-in-large, business is run on money, so you can usually follow either a financial or reporting trail all the way up to the final say on matters.

So, where does that leave the CD? Shepherd.

A CD inspires and pushes ideas from inside the process, close to the flock. But once you have some good ideas, the job is to get them to sell themselves. If they are risky, you point out the reward for going down that path. But mostly you are pointing out how they accomplish the goal and address the strategic direction, because you know that’s exactly what’s on the mind of the person you’re presenting to. Maybe you defend some artistic choices, but it’s not the major part of the job. The bigger part is being a convincing recommender. If you are a very good creative, that recommendation comes with a lot of weight. Sometimes it’s the most important thing that an agency or client cares about — what does my CD think? But, still, while that’s a crucial role and incredibly valuable, like a court jester or a consigliere, you are still at the service of another.

In fact, in another world of irony, a Sr Art Director or Sr Copywriter often enjoys more day-to-day authority than a CD, making many more detailed decisions on things. Art and Copy decide, Creative Directors sway.

The Creative Director Is Not An Emotional Wreck or a Flighty Genius

Well, not any more than anyone else. One of the funniest parts of watching Mad Men (it was a comedy, right?) was following Don Draper’s emotional rollercoaster. I’ve seen a few basket cases in my day, sure — but just as many on the account side as creative. Especially these days with how detailed strategy gets, complicated media has become and time-pressed productions are, rarely do I see a non level-headed creative. They can’t afford to be.

The role of Creative Director is a hub role. By which I mean you have to consider all the people and work that went into a creative brief: the business minds, the strategy, the data, the media — and you have to weave it all together. Plus, you have to manage the production of ideas that necessitate a whole slew of other people: from procurement to directors. You have to not only come up with great ideas but get them made, on time and on budget, on top of managing teams. All of which puts the CD in the middle of all the action, needing to answer a lot of questions all the time. There is simply no room to be the emotional wreck that lore would have a CD be. The work would come to a screeching halt if you were.

And here’s the single most important thing to know about The Moody Creative: everyone already thinks you are one. So, in fact, you have to work twice as hard as others to come across as normal. And most CDs become highly aware of this at some point, or their own careers stagnate.

I’m at a global firm, part of a giant network of firms. In my role, I get to hang out with CDs at other agencies a lot. Most CDs I talk to these days are incredibly savvy and rational, deep inside their clients’ business. Often, in a room full of people, the CD is the least emotional person you talk to, offering sober, critical explanations for things that a lot of other people are too mired in the details of things to be able to articulate as well.

Consequently, if you end up in the role of CD, don’t be surprised if you also find yourself in business meetings, happily married, investing in long-term stocks and getting to bed early. I know, it sounds horrible. You learn to endure.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to follow along on my daily photos and musings on Instagram, here.

I’m just a boy, standing behind this camera asking it to love me. Top Writer on Photography, Prof of photojournalism, Leica Akademie Instructor, lover of tacos.

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