How to be a great creative director


It's many designers' ultimate goal to become the creative director of a successful agency. Not everyone gets to achieve their dream – you need more than a great creative resume and fancy letterpress business cards, it takes skill and talent to reach that level. However, you can put yourself in a better position to achieve your goal if you pay heed to advice from those who have been there and done that.

So what kind of qualities do you need to become a creative director? We gathered 20 great tips for success in the role from some experienced creative directors: Digitally Roasted's Sam Cox gave tips 01 to 07, Chris Jones chipped in with numbers 08 to 12, and Gary Holt, David Law and Simon Manchipp of SomeOne added 13 to 20. Here goes…

01. Put the time in

Constantly nourish and develop your creative side. That doesn't just mean honing your skills in a particular software or becoming great at recognising Pantone swatches. It means thinking 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.

02. 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.

03. Oversee

Being the creative director differs from other creative roles in the sense that you have much more of an impetus on making sure things are right. Some ideas probably do look great and maybe are on trend but maybe they are not 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.

04. Keep things on-brand

One of the most important things we do is ensure that any material leaving the company looks right and sticks 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.

05. Manage

Creative directors are usually in charge of the design team, which goes from junior to senior designers, as well as any web-based creative. 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.

06. 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.

07. 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 photoshoot for a new ad campaign.

08. Inspire your team

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.

09. 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 truly 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 you need to take the time to listen to your team and accept that you can learn from them.

10. 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.

11. 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 by throwing stress balls at each other or flying the office's remote control helicopter around is just as important.

12. Have good peripheral vision

It's one thing to specialise in a particular 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 brings so many disciplines together, it's essential to keep a very open mind to anything exciting from any industry.

13. 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.

14. 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.'

15. Be a sponge

Be a sponge for as much culture (both high and low) as you can fill your mind with. Then forget about it. It will remind you when it's needed.

How to be a creative director

Gary Holt, David Law and Simon Manchipp have all been creative directors of SomeOne

16. Be a parent

Look after your studio family and encourage them to flourish. See the good in everything they do, but be consistent in your advice.

17. Stop bad things from happening to great ideas

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.

18. 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.

19. Filter

Great creative directors may listen to their clients 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.

20. Evangelise

There's nothing worse than seeing a project presented by someone who doesn't really get it. Doesn't understand it, 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, 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 its chances, co-ordinate people who could help it, channel it to concentrate it. They become evangelical. They believe.

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.

Contributors: Sam Cox, Chris Jones, Gary Holt, David Law and Simon Manchipp

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