In 1989, after graduating from Brigham Young University and The Art Institute of California, I began my career in creative services at a small ad agency called Soter Associates.
From that time until now I’ve worked either directly or indirectly as an art director, copywriter, or creative director in nine businesses—six of which I founded or cofounded, namely: Soter Associates, WordPerfect Magazines, Playwork Communications, MWS Agency, Sum Media, Clarityworx, Cowork Utah, Lava7, and My Social Practice.
What I Call, “The 15 Attributes of Great Creative Directors”
There’s a point where positioning, branding, messaging, creativity, copywriting, design, art direction and client enlightenment meet. Dan Mall has described it as an intersection where art direction and design meet strategy. It’s the intersection where creative directors (CDs) stand.
Creative directors not only assume complete responsibility for that apex, but for every process that contributes to its creation. Great CDs don’t precariously balance themselves on those pinnacles, they own them.
But there’s much more to it.
And while I don’t consider myself a CD who has mastered all 15 attributes below, I do understand what it takes to become a great creative director, and I’m constantly working toward becoming one.
1. Great creative directors have deep client empathy.
Great CDs never disparages clients. Their experience has taught them client respect—no matter how hard that is sometimes. When a client is struggling to see the value of a creative direction, or is driven by fear, great CDs know exactly the right things to say and do.
2. Great creative directors mentor.
By some estimates, 20-something designers now outnumber their 40-and-up colleagues by more than ten to one. These are bad odds for any young person hoping to forge a mentoring bond with an established creative director.
Great CDs teach team members how to thrive without them. They’re generous with their time. Those they mentor one day look back and recognize the uncommon interest a great CD took in helping them become more than they would have been otherwise.
3. Great creative directors read.
Dr. Seuss wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” And I’ll add, “…the more places you’ll go creatively.”
Great CDs aren’t just creatives—they’re savvy marketers with sound insights into the relationship between creative and marketing, each of which cannot thrive without the other.
What are you reading today (both offline and online)?
4. Great creative directors are generous.
Great CDs steer less experienced or less talented designers and writers in the right direction with the intention they’ll find success. Always. Great CDs aren’t possessive about seeding with their own ideas. They share freely without any expectation of ownership or return.
5. Great creative directors are great copywriters.
Even if it’s not their core competency, most great CDs are also great writers—even if they haven’t come from a professional copywriting background.
Writing is a skill that’s developed over time through practice and desire. Whether it’s a five-word headline, a 10-page message architecture, a 300-word blog post, a packaging label, or a tagline, great CDs value clear, well-crafted writing. They care enough to set expectations extremely high for the copywriters they lead.
6. Great creative directors study Marty Neumeier.
In my opinion, Marty Neumeier is the quintessential creative director.
Great CDs have read, and continue to read and study his writings, including the 18 issues of CRITIQUE—a magazine he launched in 1996 “which quickly became the leading forum for improving design effectiveness through critical analysis” and bridged “the gap between business strategy and customer experience.”
CRITIQUE was only published from 1996 thru 2000 and unfortunately, is difficult to find. I treasure my complete set and look back at my decision to subscribe in 1996 as inspired.
7. Great creative directors are clear communicators.
A great CD’s written communications extend beyond the specifics of the project at hand to thoughtful communication with both clients and team members. Designers and writers do their best work when the creative director brings clarity to projects and objectives.
Both clients and team members accept (and even champion) ideas they wouldn’t otherwise when the thinking behind the idea is clear and simple. As Dan Roam has said, “The guy with the best pictures always wins the bid.” And pictures aren’t always visuals.
8. Great creative directors direct and create.
Great CDs never completely remove themselves from hands-on creating. However, they’re smart enough to know when to create and when to direct.
While circumstances widely vary, it’s roughly recommended that CDs spend less than 1/4 of their time producing work. Good CDs who become great CDs recognize that real growth comes at the expense of stepping away from production. For some, that’s a difficult stretch—and at first may feel like a compromise. But as creative directors move from good to great, the realization comes that it’s less about them (and sometimes, their egos) and more about the work itself.
The personal satisfaction that comes from seeing others’ success is immensely rewarding. It also opens up tremendous growth opportunities for CDs.
9. Great creative directors are confident, yet humble.
Creative directors can be the busiest people in the world with never-ending pressure and deadlines. But great CDs never let the people they lead (or clients) see them bleed. Creative directors are ships’ captains. As the storms rage, the thought of sinking enters their minds too… But you’d never know it.
Great CDs provide solutions through thoughtful recommendations. They study challenges out in their minds (and on whiteboards) until they reach their best conclusions. Then, they aren’t afraid to make recommendations and difficult decisions. On those occasions where there’s pushback, great CDs confidently defend their positions, but also graciously adjust when appropriate.
Great creative directors’ confidence is always balanced by an equal amount of humility and gratitude for the positions they hold.
10. Great creative directors admit when they’re wrong.
Missteps by great CDs are rare, but happen. When they do, great CDs own them and do all they can to remedy them.
11. Great creative directors intuitively know when to let go.
Great CDs know when to hold on and when to let go—when to intervene, and when not to.
This is a difficult attribute for most creative people to develop. It will always be easier and faster to do it themselves. And yes, it would probably turn out better as well. But typically, better, easier and faster is not the point. This attribute, coupled with patience, is a key trait that separates good CDs from great ones.
12. Great creative directors are secure.
Great CDs never feel threatened by those they lead. They surround themselves with the very best people they can find, with the hope of keeping creatives who are even better at their particular responsibilities than they are.
13. Great creative directors see beyond the obvious.
For most social media strategies, there are no precedents. Today, “new marketing” requires great CDs to constantly see beyond the obvious. It also requires imagination, research, and the ability to observe effectiveness in unrelated places—then, to adapt those observations back into other products, services, and campaigns.
14. Great creative directors intuitively know what clients will accept.
It isn’t about appeasement. It’s about taking clients places they never thought they would go, giggling with delight along the way. This takes confidence, kept in check by an equal amount of humility. This characteristic can be cultivated and refined in those who are naturally astute. Great CDs are among those people.
15. Great creative directors have deep appreciation for advertising’s history.
Great CDs recognize that stellar, effective work requires a little bit of branding, a little bit of PR, a little bit of messaging, a little bit of advertising, a little bit of strategy, a little bit of marketing, a little bit of design, a little bit of social, a little bit of copywriting, a little bit of art direction, a little bit of positioning, a little bit of code, and a little bit of luck. Creativity is the thread that ties these together.
At its core, today’s effective creative is an outgrowth of yesterday’s effective advertising.
Great CDs have read Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy, William Bernbach, Leo Burnett and others. They’ve studied their work and incorporate what they understood about human behavior.
Great creative directors fight back tears every time they watch Don Draper talk about the carousel. Without this depth of understanding, respect for the craft, and connection to products, a good CD will never become a great CD.