I went (back) to college because I knew I wanted to be a Creative. I had finally figured it out, and after spending years as a left-brained network engineer, I had to admit that I hated my IT career and needed to a new path. So, I set my sights on building a design portfolio, and enrolled in Atlanta’s Creative Circus!
Man was it hard! My first assignment was to create a cut-paper poster, three gift bags each with a different re-use – and a toy that would be sold in a museum’s gift shop. Thirty minutes later I was somehow in a library at Emory University, researching early Native American tribes and gathering as much information on their culture and cave drawings as I possibly could. It wasn’t what I expected, to say the least. I quickly learned that this was not an “art” school at all; it was a school that would teach me how to be a creative in the real world of marketing and advertising. I would learn what it meant to be a fantastic designer, a visual communicator, and create work that Roman Mars might refer to on an episode of 99% Invisible.
Sure, I could aspire to those things. I could learn the tools of this creative trade, and finally be able to spin all of the ideas roaming around in my brain into something tangible and meaningful. I could paint the digital and physical world around me with color, give clear direction and make impressions on my fellow humans, influence them, and ultimately speak to them without ever being in the same room. Sounds pretty introverted, right? Well, I am no introvert. I love being out-spoken and, dare I say, opinionated! I also knew that I was limited to what was in my mind, and when presented with the same goal, lots of designers would come up with very different approaches.
Years after graduating I fell in love with the idea of being a Creative Director and leading my own team of creatives into the challenging and rewarding world of advertising. After all, I spent hours getting into the minds of my clients, combing over documents submitted by my marketing counterparts and deep researching early Native Americans, I mean, the target market. Even though I love putting pen to digital paper and whipping up my very own take on all of this information, it was time for me to take the next step in my creative career and lead others. This would take a new set of skills that I never learned in school.
Here are 5 things every Creative Director needs to know:
Luckily, I had management training from back in my IT days. As valuable as that experience was, managing a creative team is very different. It takes a different tone and understanding. Creatives can be anything from overly confidant to completely terrified. They can feel pressure from every group in a company on both the brand and agency side. Learning how to delegate is one thing but being able to measure success, inspire and provide clearly defined goals is way more apropos to the daily management skills required.
You must measure tasks and pay close attention to scheduling to keep things on track. Placing arbitrary KPIs on a designer or art director won’t help them flourish and quickly create. More often than not, there is no sure-fire way to measure a creative team’s success other than speed and efficiency.
If you, the Creative Director, give your team all the information and guidance up front, you should not be disappointed with the end result. If you give clear instruction and open up a dialog with your team in the beginning, you will help insure that they give you the deliverables needed for the project.
Giving direction is as much about relaying client expectations as it is translating what is needed into inspiring thought starters for your creatives. Your creatives are going to be a lot more inspired by the end goal than the three email designs and landing pages needed by the client. Get them into the project intentions and what they can do inside the confines of the deliverables.
This is both my favorite part of being a Creative Director and the most difficult. I am not perfect. I am a human, and thus imperfect by any standard. I would love nothing more than to spend hours guiding, teaching and translating client needs to my team. But I am busy. I have my own list of things that have to be done yesterday, and this is where most of us fail. My main job on paper is leadership, but my team needs a facilitator way more than a time tracker.
Here comes a little insight into my own self-discipline. I have to manage myself as well. Sure, I have a client to answer too. Maybe you answer to someone with a C in their title. No matter what, I have to make sure that I am on track, so I can make sure my team is thriving. I need to be someone that can answer to my team, other teams and the client. I also need to have an answer, so I always need to be asking questions. But, asking the right way is what makes all of the difference.
If you want to get the most creativity you can out of your team, you must give them a place they can fail (with a net of course). I like to bake-in time to fail within most of our projects. Let the team go for broke, and if it results in something unusable, fine. There is still time for them to get back on track. Creatives need to be free to try lots and lots of things. The antithesis would be when we either have a tight deadline, or when the expectation and needs of a project won’t benefit from thinking outside the box. Don’t let your team burn cycles when they don’t need to, or when doing so will only get them stuck in their own heads.
For a CD, leadership is as much about teaching, as it is delegating and allowing your team to go and do what they do. If you have done your job in facilitation and direction, your leadership skills will be used for slight steering inputs and not big course corrections.
Yep, you better know how to sell! Now in all fairness, I learned how to sell my work in design school. I learned how to defend my work there too. When I design something, I have a reason for every single thing I did in that piece. I know my designers do too, and that they can give you a list when asked. It is up to me to sell their work to the client, to get into their heads and trust that they thought through every detail. The client will also have a point of view and a lot of questions that need answers. Being a CD means knowing how to sell this work and bring feedback back to the team in a clear and concise way.
You also have to know when to push back on things that could burn cycles or would sacrifice process, profits or the team. It isn’t common but there are times when red flags are raised that need your negotiation skills to come into play. We have to make the client happy, get them what they need and protect our teams while doing it.
Design school was a huge challenge and one that I took very seriously. There is something about finally figuring out what you want to do in life and then putting all of your proverbial eggs in that basket. While school prepared me for so many things in my career, management was a new and challenging progression that demands careful thought and understanding.