What qualities do you need to become a creative director and how do you become one? Leading creative directors offer their views.
We asked a selection of creative directors to share their insights and the benefits of their experience. It's many designers' ultimate goal to become the creative director of a successful agency. But the stark truth is that not everyone gets to achieve their dream.
So what kind of qualities do you need to become a creative director, and how do you go about steering your career in a direction that will ultimately win you the position? Read on to get some ideas...
What makes a great creative director?
Executive creative director and founding partner of We Love Digital, a strategic creative agency, with digital at its heart.
Hmm... The creative director. A point of inspiration, a master of the dark arts, a power-crazed egomaniac or someone who has a burning hunger to do brilliant things on a post-it note.
Are there definite rules to what a creative director should be, how many years experience they should have or what background, school or discipline they came from? In short I don’t think so; creative directors come in all shapes and sizes. We've all travelled a varied path and a good Creative Director will add their personal stories to their professional arsenal. For me it boils down to the ability to show creative brilliance and the ability to deliver on it via a great understanding of the audience they are addressing, or a bloody single mindedness to make an idea happen.
How brilliant or successful you become will be based on a plethora of criteria and you evidence these qualities via your reputation, awards and relationships with peers and clients alike.
I became a creative director seven years ago. It took me 13 years to get there. I didn’t rush. I didn’t scramble towards it. I just did the things that I did with plenty of love and attention, and plenty of coffee thrown in to help me through the all-nighters.
I've won awards for some great projects and some great brands. I remember every pixel of every one of them. But I feel the most proud when I think about the people I have worked with and the teams I have helped to develop in the last 20 years. I have loved (almost) every minute of it.
Founder and creative director of NB, a branding and communication studio.
Becoming a creative director is a natural progression from designer and comes with experience and need. Despite having the title, I'm still a hands on creative - not merely the management who gets wheeled in for meetings. It means knowing how designers work; what makes them tick, knowing when they're stuck or need help. It's about trust. It's about providing ideas and above all it's about inspiration.
The 'creative director' role differs from organisation to organisation: it's all semantics and necessity really. I wish we didn't need titles, but it makes it easy for people to know who you are and what you do.
As a founder of branding and communication studio NB I wear several hats, only one of which is creative director. I'm sure a creative director in another company, brand or institution could be a totally different role, although there will be similarities around experience, responsibility and commitment. So there will be different routes to becoming creative director, depending on where you are.
Chris is creative director for the digital agency Blueleaf. He's also worked in branding and advertising.
There is no single way of becoming a creative director. Unlike the more traditional professions (in their grey suits), it's not a case of doing a certain degree, joining a 'reputable firm' and following a strict career path waiting for those above you to retire/die. Like most things in the creative industries, it's a lot less structured than that.
My own path has been far from straight and true, resembling something more akin to a bowl of spaghetti. I started with a degree in Technical Illustration (drawing cars and planes), followed by two years as a multimedia designer producing CD-ROM presentations (remember them?). I then freelanced for nine years doing everything from print design through to advertising and branding, before becoming digital agency Blueleaf's creative director in 2006.
I've met lots of creative directors from a range of backgrounds, designers and copywriters, from branding, advertising or design. There's no consistency, but I think the good ones have all shared similar attributes - mainly the ones detailed above. That's more important than gaining specific qualifications or experience.
Gary Holt, David Law & Simon Manchipp
Branding agency SomeOne was started with not one but three creative directors, Gary Holt, David Law & Simon Manchipp - they thought it would be a "more generous approach to running a creatively-led design practice". Here are their collective views on what makes a good creative directors...
Creative direction is not simply about seniority. Not simply about having risen up the ranks. Some of the best creative people in the world don't necessarily make the best creative directors. It's about attitude, approach and what a creative director builds as well as creates. They're more than just the 'best creative' who's done well.
A great creative director is someone who's able to build an environment and ethos where the very best ideas can be born and thrive. Then fills that environment with the brightest talent. If they can find and retain the brightest, then the agency shines. Harbor the dullest and the agency flame soon goes out.
The exciting part is that this environment is never completely built, never fully finished. The same applies the role of a creative director. It's always changing, just as the business and brand landscape is changing. And so the main thing you need to do to become a creative director is to stay focused, but with an open mind and a willingness to take opportunities wherever they arise.
32 tips for success as a creative director
- Put the time in. Constantly nourish and develop your creative side. That doesn't just mean hone your skills in particular software or become great at recognizing Pantone swatches. It means think about what makes people love the way things look to them. It's more than just making something look good, it's about making it look right for the selected audience. You're never going to please everybody. Stop trying to.
- Innovate. As a creative director I think of ways to improve on existing material. I come up with new ideas to make our product ranges more appealing, ad campaigns and branding.
- Oversee. Being the creative director differs to other creative roles in the sense that you have much more of an impetus on making sure things are right. Some ideas that are done probably do look great and maybe are on trend but they are not always the best thing for the company. Don't get me wrong, I love to create work that's in the now and looks awesome but I still need to make sure that our company's values and ideals are coming across.
- Keep things on brand. One of the most important things we do is ensure that any material leaving the company look right and stick to brand guidelines. Boring I know, but also essential in making sure your brand never lets things slip. No company worth its salt today wants 'artwork' going out the door that's been done in Paint or MS Word.
- Manage. Creative directors are usually in charge of the design team, which goes from junior to senior designers, any web based creative also. I also would say that the creative director is responsible for anyone in the company when it comes down to how things are going to look. You need to have a real understanding and love for your company because you are looking after its image.
- Love your job. For me, the best thing about being a creative director is seeing work that either I have done or put people in charge of in action. It's a fantastic feeling to see your stuff in the press or on the TV. The worst thing is saying no to people, I don't like doing it but I do like making sure that the company's image is upheld. Wait… no... the worst thing of all is going to sleep thinking of so many things that you want to do then thinking that you don't need to write them down, then forgetting.
- Be adaptable. There's no typical day as a creative director. Like today I spend most of my time going over all the artwork and material created for an upcoming trade show. Tomorrow I could be in the woods with a camera taking care of a photo shoot for a new ad campaign.
- Be honest, truthful and humble.
- Develop at least 10 per cent of yourself as ego. You have to be able to sell.
- Over promise ONLY if you plan to over deliver.
- Be a good parent. A strong one who can love and discipline in equal measure. You carry a bag of carrots as well as yield stick.
- 9-5 means the model of a SAAB. Not a time to work.
- You create space for people to f**k up. Through exploration we can create wonderful things.
- You can turn everything upside down, shake it up and put it back together.
- You are happy for people not to love you – well at least not all the time. As long as they understand you.
- You have an ability to listen, think, adapt, and propose, at an unprecedented pace.
- Defend the creative. Make sure the brief is what the brief should be – not necessarily what the client tells you it is.
- Have an opinion. A real one. One that doesn’t rely on bullshit Marketing Speak. Know your stuff and people will naturally listen.
- Be responsible for the entire team. This is your studio. If you get bad work… You are doing a bad job.
- Offer strong, flexible leadership. Becoming a creative director inevitably involves less time in front of Photoshop and more time leading and hopefully inspiring others. My own role still involves some hands-on design/copywriting, but very often it's about me taking the lead on a project, working with the client on the overall approach and then briefing my team to create something wonderful. I'll stay in touch with the project for its duration, inputting regularly and checking everything against the brief and what we believe the target audience wants.
- Be a good listener. Whether it's clients or your own team, creative directors should spend a lot of time listening - really listening. It's the only way I've found of really understanding what a client's issues are, for example. I'm not a huge talker in meetings, I listen a lot and aim to speak only when I've got a really good question to ask. It should be all about the client, not the agency. Similarly, in-house take the time to listen to your team and accept that you can learn from them.
- Share the love. Share what you know with the wider world. Don’t keep it to yourself and don't be paranoid about sharing your expertise, even with competitors. Writing blogs and speaking at conferences are both great ways of getting stuff out there and have the added benefit of helping you meet new people and sparking debate.
- Create the right environment. For us creative types, environment is incredibly important. From what's on the walls to the overall vibe in the studio, striking the right balance is essential if a team is going to produce really exciting work. It's very difficult to define, but the perfect working environment for me is generally relaxed, with occasional bits of Victorian mill owner-style discipline thrown in to keep standards high. Equally, encouraging creatives to let off a bit of steam throwing stress balls at each other or flying the office remote control helicopter around is just as important.
- Have good peripheral vision. It's one thing to specialise in a certain area of the industry and certainly knowing your subject inside out is essential, but maintaining good peripheral vision is a must too. I work for a digital agency producing websites, social and mobile experiences, but I still follow what's going on in branding and advertising, and indeed the wider creative world. Digital is bringing so many disciplines together, it's essential to keep a very open mind to anything exciting from any industry.
Gary Holt, David Law & Simon Manchipp
- Be happy to be hated. It is far too easy to be liked. You just have to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then you will gravitate towards the centre and be average. That cannot be your role.
- Find play more rewarding than work. A tyrant of control. A hissy fitter. A political game player. A talentless publicity whore. An old dog in a world of new tricks. We've met all of those under their banner of creative director, but none of them make for a great creative director. Equally the job description is often misleading. It probably says something like: 'An experienced person who can guide and inspire the creative department while presenting and working with clients to achieve a successful outcome for both the client and the agency.'
- Be a sponge. Be a sponge for as much culture (both high and low) as you can fill you mind with. Then forget about it. It will remind you when it's needed.
- Be a parent. Look after your family and encourage them to flourish. See the good in everything they do, but be consistent in your advice.
- Stop bad things from happening to great ideas. But the best creative directors do something entirely different. They trust talented people to do talented things. Then stop bad things happening to the work, and to the people. Often without the people even knowing it.
- Shut up. One of the most important skills a creative director needs to possess is trust. It's incredibly hard, as most creative directors are creatives who have worked really hard to get to the position where they are listened to. Then they of course want to pass on the knowledge and skills they have acquired. But no hot young designer wants some 45-year-old droning on about photosetting and waxers. They want their ideas approved and published. The client wants the best, most exciting, progressive, and effective idea to create a monopoly for their product, service or organisation. Not something dug up from a 1980s sketchbook. Great creative directors hire really, really good people. Then let them do really really creative work.
- Filter. Great creative directors listen to clients, really listen - to everything. For hours. Because somewhere deep in all those spreadsheets, powerpoints, briefs, and data is the spark that they can pass on to the creative minds that will put pen to paper. They must choose that spark very, very carefully, or risk a fire that can take down the entire ship.
- Evangelise. There's nothing worse than seeing a project presented by someone who doesn't really get it. Doesn't understand, or really like it. If the person presenting doesn't believe in the work, there is no reason for the audience to care. Great creative directors pick their fights very carefully, rarely cause one, but once they have committed to a route, they believe that it is the greatest idea on the planet - and they make a stand for that work. They protect it. They enhance it's chances, co-ordinate people who could help it, channel it to concentrate it. They become evangelical. They believe. And you, as the designer, may never see any of that in the studio - but they will be out there fighting the good fight for a cause they passionately believe in. A great idea.
Did our experts' experience of working as a creative director mesh with yours? Please share your views in the comments below!