What Makes a Good Creative Director?
The role of the creative director is critical to the success of a creative team, from personal development of team members to fulfilling basic managerial roles. Unfortunately, creative directors rarely have management training or experience.
In the design career path, there are few greater achievements than a skilled designer or copywriter becoming a creative director. It’s a wonderful promotion. Unfortunately, creative people do not usually make good management. Finding the right mesh of talent and interpersonal skills is a very difficult task, which is why good creative directors have been revered — there are so few people who can be creative and manage creative.
I suppose this post should be prefaced with a disclaimer. I have worked in one agency, four in-house design groups, owned my own business and worked with dozens of creative directors as a freelancer. My personal anecdotes tend to originate from an in-house perspective, though good leadership traits are universal.
I’ve been thinking about what it takes to head a creative group — the experience, talent, managing ability and self-confidence. The qualities it takes to gain respect from the notoriously rebellious mindset of a creative.
Experience is probably the most common trait among creative directors (though not the most important) and encapsulates several key ingredients.
Design and copywriting experience, of course, is critical. Years of working in the trenches, testing ideas, failing, succeeding, winning awards and leaving empty-handed have built a foundation of practical design application. Experience teaches what works on a website, what helps an ad pull, what makes a brochure get read. Experience provides a second level of intuition — “yes, it looks good, but will it work?”
When a creative director has worked in the same company or the same sector for a number of years, that practicality becomes even more refined. There are CDs who excel at creating sizzling consumer campaigns because they have been in that game a long time. That same person would fail in the healthcare market, where another creative director has learned what helps sell pharmaceuticals to doctors. And both of them would fall short in a technical B2B market, where yet another creative director has learned how to make companies connect and market themselves to each other though better design.
Age is related to experience, but only in the language of maturity. Life experience is directly related to maturity, and maturity is critical in managing a team of creatives (AKA, a herd of cats). Two of my past creative directors were more than ten years older, and they are the two I remember as being the most adept.
Acting as the Director
Designers and copywriters have the potential to make terrible managers, but who better to lead the team than a former in-the-trenches creative? Most creative directors get promoted because of their skill, not because of their leadership qualities, but technical skill has little to do with guiding the communication output of an organization.
These are the bigger qualities CDs need to worry about:
- Being OK with the fact that the time to actually create — writing or designing — will be less than a fourth of a non-managing creative.
- Being able to provide constructive, specific and intelligible feedback about work.
- Understand the specific ying-yang balance of copy and design. Creative directors who favor one aspect over the other will earn the scorn of the neglected party.
The skills of creative director need to expand from the finite world of colors and grammar to include the over-arching marketing direction. Yes, this text is nicely kerned, but does the piece accurately represent the company’s brand? It’s the “director” part of creative director.
I recently saw David C. Baker speak at a conference, and his topic was “Managing Creatives.” His presentation was excellent, but he made one (self admittedly) controversial claim: that creative teams do not need any special management treatment. In other words, they should be managed like any employee — accountants, mailroom workers, salespeople, etc.
This means that creative directors must be just as effective as any other manager in the company. Since most have no formal management training, this can be a difficult but critical obstacle.
Being an effective manager boils down to one baseline theme: do you enable your employees to work to their full potential? You can’t make people work hard, after all, especially the naturally contrary creative species. In my experience, creative directors fall short in their management roles by any combination of the following:
- They try to be their employees’ friend. If a manager counts any of their best friends as one of their employees, they have failed at their job.
- They do not delegate responsibility. Instead of trusting their workers to get stuff done, they hoard responsibility, skewing priorities and placing unneeded pressure on themselves.
- They don’t produce. Creative people need to be reminded that their manager can create good work too.
- They play God. Good creative directors understand that they are nothing more than middle managers, halfway up the ladder, and the buck certainly does not stop with them.
- They micro-manage.
- They fail in their basic management roles — not providing timely or thought-out reviews, not making “executive” decisions at critical times, poorly managing projects, not recognizing employees’ successes and not shielding their employees from the fickle and harsh temperaments of Upper Management.
Confidence and Security
Beyond the above, a good manager needs the intangibles: confidence and security. They understand and exude the fact that they control the creative output, work education, and general business comfort of their team and act as such. Which means being a grown-up: confident in making decisions but secure enough to take suggestions.
I am sure I am leaving major points out, so please contribute if you see a glaring omission.