Jason Busa is a freelance Creative Director with 18 years experience in advertising, at such agencies at Saatchi & Saatchi, Publicis & Hal Riney, and TBWA\Chiat\Day. He has helped shape many iconic brands such as Apple, Honda, Visa, HP and Sprint. And his most-excellent blog, thwartd, first published this piece that should be a must read for every Creative Director. Check it out.
If you want to fail miserably at being an effective Creative Director, follow these 20 rules.
Before we get into the rules, let me first say that I’ve worked in a few well-known, A-list advertising agencies in the last 18 years and I’ve experienced the best and worst of Creative Directors. Many of these experiences have helped shape my own approach to creative direction. Like a sponge, I’ve absorbed the characteristics I’ve admired in my CD’s. And rejected the ones I didn’t.
It’s a shame that most CD’s have little or no training in managing or leading people when they are promoted to the position of “Creative Director.” Their management style and leadership abilities are rarely even a consideration. Oftentimes, the best creatives make the worst CD’s. Perhaps because selfishness serves individual creatives well, but shepherding other creatives requires generosity.
Every advertising agency should have a program for newly promoted CD’s. A program that trains them how to be good leaders and good salesmen, and gives them the skill set required to be truly effective.
Now, on to the playbook. Follow these simple steps if you want to become the worst, most hated Creative Director on the planet.
1. Start a clique.
Nothing projects an aura of exclusivity like your own little posse. It should be no more than five people with whom you spend idle moments in your office, laughing at this or that. Make sure and discuss out loud where your posse is going to lunch, so those who are excluded from your club will be able to hear you and feel increasingly ignored and forgotten. Make sure to keep all the best projects within your inner circle and assign all the crap assignments to the others.
Comment: This happens every day in just about every ad agency in the world and it demoralizes those who are excluded. Instead, make a concerted effort to get to know every individual in the creative department, to understand their special talents and abilities. Some of the most talented people are often wallflowers. Good creative directors will help them come out of their shell by befriending them. Be affable and connect with people. They will work harder if they feel valued and feel more comfortable when presenting ideas to you.
2. Contribute your own ideas.
You can’t trust other creatives to get it right, so make sure and contribute your own ideas as well. Then pull in some creatives to wrist them, as you stand over their shoulder at the computer screen. Finally, heavily promote your ideas and poke holes in all the others. Your ideas are better after all. But don’t forget, you’ll need a couple straw dogs in there so make sure and approve a couple ideas from lesser creatives as well. At the end of the day, you are the linchpin, the genius, the savior, the one who is going to carry this agency forward. So don’t feel bad about it. Later on, everyone will thank you.
Comment: This is one of the classic moves that guarantees you’ll be a hated CD. Yet, many Creative Directors do this very thing. How is it they fail to remember when they were the junior or mid-level creative and their CD pulled this dirty trick? When it happens, it’s clearly a conflict of interest. A word to the wise: if you want your creatives to respect you, resist the temptation to toss in an idea. Yes, it’s difficult to keep your brain from trying to solve problems, but focus on strategic problem solving and selling ideas instead.
3. Ask creatives to just email you their ideas.
You’re an important, busy person. You don’t have time to sit with every team. And besides, time is running out on this project. So just have everyone email you their ideas and you’ll get back to them later. This will surely save everyone’s time. It's a win-win. And plus, it’s so much easier to kill the ideas you don’t like without having to look those people in the eye.
Comment: I’ve always appreciated Creative Directors who made time to personally meet with every team working on a project. The act of sitting and discussing ideas is extremely profitable for a few reasons. (1) It gives the team an opportunity to talk things out. Very often, an idea in raw form needs explanation. Especially if it’s truly original, because there’s nothing that compares. (2) The discussion often introduces improvements to the idea or even spawns a better idea. (3) The discussion builds the relationship between CD and creatives, enabling more cohesion, understanding and level of comfort.
4. Re-write all copy and re-design every layout.
You have very particular tastes. They made you the Creative Director because they like your tastes. So don’t feel bad if you need to re-write or re-design every piece of creative that comes your way. You are a genius with experience and vision and your creatives are not. They’ll learn quickly and soon be presenting ideas that conform to you, then everyone will be happy.
Comment: Without a doubt, diversity of style in writing and design within a creative department makes for more dynamic, multi-dimensional work. Most would agree with this statement, yet many (if not most) CD’s tend to re-sculpt everything to fit their own personal aesthetic. It’s as if they were a chef who really loved Mexican food, and didn’t care much for French or Thai or Italian. Which means if you bring them a magnificent goat cheese ravioli, they are likely to add their own ingredients, such as cumin, chili powder, cilantro and maybe some jalapeños to spice it up. The dish you end up with is a Frankenstein dish that nobody will be happy with. This is particularly true where there is a lone CD in charge. Instead, CD’s ought to force themselves to celebrate the individual tastes and styles of others and step out of their comfort zone. A CD partner can be an immense help in providing some perspective and help avoid mandates, dictates and Frankenstein-ing, so company CCO’s are advised to always use team CD’s instead of appointing lone CD’s. Fostering the unique visions of others will help build a more diverse repertoire of work and generate greater fulfillment within the creative department.
5. Make every assignment a “Gang Bang.”
You want the best work and you want it yesterday. So why not assign multiple teams to the next project so you can generate more ideas? By making teams compete to win, you will make them work harder and faster. Create a pressure cooker and maybe you’ll get some diamonds.
Comment: Many will disagree with me on this point, but I believe assigning multiple teams to one project is counterproductive. Sure, it can generate more ideas, but the ideas are generally not as good. Here’s why: when you are competing against others to win, you don’t edit yourself as much. You will propose almost any idea, even if you don’t love it, just because you want to win. Losing means not producing anything and that sucks. So you are less inclined to edit out your own mediocre ideas. After all, who knows what the CD will like? And if you have to play more office politics to ensure that your ideas win, so be it. Instead, CD’s should assign one team to very project. It may seem risky because they will probably generate fewer ideas, but—more often than not—the ideas will be stronger. A creative team will be more concentrated, more selective, more passionate, more collaborative, and less protective and political. Nine times out of ten, the safest, most mediocre ideas win in a “Gang Bang” scenario, no matter how great the CD. I’ve seen it time and time again. If you’re a CD, put this theory to a test and see what happens. I bet the outcome will be better.
6. Show personal favoritism.
You have your favorite creatives. The ones who share your creative sensibilities. The ones who frequently come by your office to chat. The ones who join you for lunch. The ones who make you laugh. Make sure to give your attention to these people and simply ignore the others. The others are introverts or socially awkward or simply uncool, so why waste your time with them? At the very most, an obligatory “hey” in the hallways should suffice, just to acknowledge their existence. But don’t invest any more of your precious time with them.
Comment: Whether we realize or not, every CD has been guilty of showing personal favoritism. We tend to favor the individuals who are more on our radar. The ones who hang around the most and engage with us more often. They become our friends and there is nothing wrong with having friends, but there is a sinister element to this phenomenon. These “friends” tend to get better treatment and better assignments. How often have two teams presented an idea that is almost identical? And how often does the favorite team’s idea get the green light, while the less favorite team’s idea gets rejected? Even parents are guilty of this with their children. Some kids seem to get away with more stuff than their siblings. The sad reality is, personality has little to do with creative ability. But we allow personality (of the people we prefer) to sway us. They convince us to approved mediocre ideas, while a genius idea is overlooked, perhaps because a less familiar creative team’s presentation was a little flat. So what’s the solution? There’s no easy solution. But a good CD will be mindful of this and strive to be more inclusive. A good CD will avoid “gang bangs” which pit teams against each other (where, naturally, the favorite teams will have the advantage). A good CD will engage more with the quiet/shy types in the creative department, and possibly discover that there’s some serious genius hiding out there amongst the wallflowers.
7. Be aloof and never circulate the creative department.
When people are as important as you are, it’s imperative that they come to you, not the other way around. After all, you are the Creative Director. They know where your office is, so they can stop by if they really want to talk. They’ll know if your busy because you won’t bother to look up when they’re talking. You’ll keep your eyes focused on your computer screen or iPhone while they talk and you’ll give them some “uh-huh’s” in return. And when they pass you in the hallways, stay glued to your iPhone, checking your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. Don’t worry, they’ll take the hint and better understand their place in the world.
Comment: The most insecure CD’s are the ones who can’t look people in the eyes as they walk down the hallway. Instead they’re looking down at their iPhone. This is tragic. A Creative Director must become more of a people-person when they are promoted, not less. They need to initiate more interaction with all of their creatives and stay closely connected—not just with a select few. The most beloved CD’s are the ones who are dynamic, sincere, friendly and involved—not fearful and self-absorbed.
8. Announce surprise check-ins.
It’s not easy managing multiple projects and attending multiple meetings. There’s so much happening, that it’s natural to become a little overwhelmed and let things slip. You don’t want to be riding your creatives so give them some space. But if the creative teams are failing to be proactive and keep you updated on their progress, send an email right now and demand to see their work before lunch today. And then voice your displeasure if the work isn’t up to par.
Comment: The above is a typical scenario. The intentions are good—to stay out of the creatives hair—but the surprise “check-in” can throw a wrench into the gears. Surprise check-ins can catch a creative team off guard. They might have only sketches and notes, and not be in a very good place to present their ideas. And it might be more difficult to see the genius of their ideas when they’re just lumps of coal—not yet polished diamonds. When you are the CD, you are the manager. That means you are in control of managing time. The best way to manage time is to put check-ins on the calendar right from the start. That way the creative teams will have milestones to work toward and they can better manage their time and be prepared, without any surprises.
9. Hover and smother.
It’s your privilege—no, your responsibility—to check-in as often as you can. After all, it’s just being prudent. You know your creative teams are likely to be slacking off, so become a human metronome by sending frequent emails and making frequent office visits. This will keep their lazy butts on task and producing.
Comment: Nothing paralyzes creative minds faster than a CD who has nervous energy and creates tension by riding their teams like a jockey with that little whip. If this is you, please stop. You’re not helping the situation. Instead, schedule your check-ins in advance (preferably from the very start) and stick to them. Don’t nag your teams with incessant emails and “pop-ins.” Your negative pressure might just debilitate them with creative block.
10. Give vague feedback.
If a creative team is presenting an idea to you and you’re not sure if you love it or hate it, give them indirect feedback. Tell them “there’s something there” and ask them to think more on it. Or tell them you sort of like it but don’t love it. If they press you for more concrete feedback, tell them, “I’ll know it when I see it.” This is a great stall tactic and the best way to avoid committing to something until you’ve wrapped your head around it. Never admit that you’re honestly not sure about something. You’ll appear weak. Just stall with vagueness until you have the perfect answer. After all, if you don’t commit one way or the other, you don’t have to make a retraction later.
Comment: As humans, we all appreciate a person who has an opinion. Nothing is worse than being managed by a person with a indecisive mind, who gives vague feedback. If, after you’ve given an idea some careful consideration, you truly don’t love it, just kill it and move on. Only approve the things you love. Don’t give people false hope by keeping an idea alive, just to spare their feelings. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t give a creative team an opportunity to persuade you, if they really feel passionate about something. CD’s often think they must give an immediate yes or no answer, like a judge who’s heard a week’s worth of testimony by the prosecution and defense and now must render a verdict. The truth is, sometimes we don’t get an idea right away and that doesn’t make it bad. If you are truly undecided on an idea, take ten minutes to talk it out. Ask the creative team to re-present it to you. Ask them to help you see their genius. Admit you don’t quite see their vision and give them another opportunity to reframe their argument. Then make a decision. But don’t send them away with a vague response.
11. Don’t bother to learn anyone’s name.
The only name you need to remember is, “Hey.” Your brain can’t possibly hold all those names, so clear some space in your head and save it for more important stuff. People come and go anyway. It’s just a waste of time to memorize something you’ll forget later.
Comment: A CD who doesn’t bother to remember anyone’s name is sending a clear signal: You are an unimportant cog in the machine and I don’t value you as an individual. It’s a clear sign of disrespect and self-importance to never remember anyone’s name. Good CD’s try to remember names. It’s personal and respectful. And that respect is reciprocal. People will respect you more for taking the time to recognize them as unique individuals.
12. Berate people in front of their peers.
Sometime’s you have to put people in their place. And when that time comes, it’s better to do it in public. That way other’s will think twice of crossing you. After all, fear is a good motivator and if they fear you, you’ll get less pushback, fewer obstacles and get more accomplished.
Comment: The opposite is actually true. People who are belligerent and abusive in public might indeed evoke fear, but their actions do not win hearts and minds. Statistically speaking, positive motivation is far more productive. People will work twice as hard and twice as long for you if they like you. Despots and dictators alienate people and eventually their reputation spreads and they find themselves alone. Good CD’s win the crowd with wisdom and tact, and choose to confront people privately.
13. Change the strategy at the last minute.
You’re entitled to change your mind as often as you like. As long as it benefits the project. The destination is all that matters. How you get there is inconsequential.
Comment: When the strategy changes at the last minute, it’s a sure sign that the system is broken. It means that not enough time was spent thrashing at the beginning of the project to hammer out a sound strategy, and now everything must be scrapped. If you rush to build the foundation of a house and it’s not solid then the house will eventually topple. This happens far too often in advertising and it’s a damn shame. The ones who suffer are the worker bees to slave away, spending nights and weekends to build something that the architects just bulldoze down. Smart CD’s insist on spending extra time at the beginning to nail down a solid strategy and get everyone in alignment before creative development begins. Then, once construction starts, there’s no turning back.
14. Don’t ask for more time.
Admitting that your teams haven’t cracked the big idea yet is embarrassing. Your clients are expecting to see work on the day you promised and you’ve got to make this meeting no matter what. That might mean winging it with some B-plus ideas, but perhaps, with some nice production value, they’ll shine up a bit and become A-minus ideas. Asking for more time is like admitting defeat and you just can’t do that.
Comment: Sometimes the big idea doesn’t come as quickly as you’d like. When that happens, delay the meeting. By not delaying the meeting, your sending a message that you’re more afraid to anger a client than to do what’s right. The right thing to do is delay the meeting until you have some brilliance to share. Otherwise, it’s just a compromise. And rarely does anything good come from a compromise.
15. Make everyone else work the weekend while you stay home.
The big presentation is Tuesday. That means your final internal regroup is Monday and—yes—everyone is going to have to work the weekend. That’s bad news for your worker bees, but if they value their jobs, they’ll do it. And since they’ll be jamming all weekend, you’ll want to stay out of their way, so just check-in periodically from home or from your iPhone. They get paid to burn the midnight oil. You get paid to stay fresh for the big meeting.
Comment: The above is generally the rationale of most CD’s. They feel they’ve earned the right to stay home and have no problem letting their underlings burn their weekends. But it’s a missed opportunity. Creatives have tremendous respect for a CD who joins them on the battlefield. In ancient times, real leaders led their armies into battle. They were in front with their soldiers, not in back, watching from under a shady tree while sipping tea. Respect is earned by example and it demonstrates an appreciation for everyone’s hard work when the CD is alongside his teams late into the night. It may not be necessary to stay all night, but at least until 1:00AM, to show your support and to be available to provide guidance and feedback.
16. Show very minimal appreciation and praise.
Be very limited with your appreciation. The creatives are lucky to be working here and that’s thanks enough. Plus, if you show too much gratitude, it will be more difficult to take credit for the ideas later on because you already thanked people for them. And if the ideas fall flat at the client presentation, you haven’t fully committed and can back away from them gracefully. As far as giving praise, give very little. You don’t want your teams to be confused and disgruntled if you praise them one week and have to lay them off the next week.
Comment: Showing appreciation and praise to creative people is often more rewarding than a bonus. Artists crave praise, particularly when it’s given publicly. Over time, they’ll forget about the bonuses they got, but they’ll remember that you praised their work for years to come. And they’ll become addicted to it, working ever harder to garner more praise. Be generous with your praise. It’s a powerful motivator and it also creates good karma.
17. Don’t stand up for good ideas if it means sticking your neck out.
You’ve worked your ass off to get that CD position and you’re not going to fall on your sword for one stinking project. The risk is too high and there will always be more projects. Sure, you should push back and sell hard, but know your limits. You don’t want to piss off this client.
Comment: Great ideas deserve true champions. CD’s who don’t take no for an answer. CD’s who use intelligence, charm, persistence and passion to sell an idea. Resistant clients might not like a duel and might even slam the table if you refuse to give up. But that’s your job. No football player ever made a touchdown by running backwards, away from the defense. He runs into them, around them or over them and gets to the end zone any way he can. And he doesn’t worry about getting hit. That’s what it takes to be a playmaker. If your employer can’t handle that, find a new employer.
18. Create more layers.
Somewhere you read that real leaders know how to delegate. So, in the next new business pitch, make your life easier and create plenty of layers to filter out the crap. Assign team leaders to curate the best ideas and bring you just the cream.
Comment: Delegating can indeed be a more efficient way to achieve a goal during the production stage of a project, but definitely not during creative development. You want as few layers and as few filters as possible when brainstorming ideas. That’s because idea gems are sometimes disguised as mere dirt clods and they need to be bounced around and broken down for their genius to be revealed. Or at least tossed around to get others inspired. That’s why group brainstorms can be very profitable in the initial stage of creative development. As the project progresses and ideas are solidified, you can start delegating specific tasks and assignments. CD’s erroneously believe they are being prudent and efficient by creating approval layers up front to filter ideas. But what they are really doing is limiting the open cross-pollination of ideas and missing potentially hidden gems.
19. Be brutal.
Intimidation is one of your best tools. It dissuades dissent. It makes people think twice about crossing you. It creates the impression that you’re a skull-cracker and the seas will part for you more easily. So be blunt and be brutal. You’re not in the business of avoiding hurt feelings. You’re in the business of making great ads.
Comment: There are many brilliant CD’s that are just plain jerks. And there are equally as many brilliant CD’s who are nice and diplomatic and respectful. Both methods can be effective. The only difference is the brutal CD will be hated and eventually alienate everyone and the nice CD will establish lifelong friends and build a loyal following.
20. Be arrogant.
Flaunt your genius. Swagger. Walk slowly and walk cool. Have every meeting in your office. Make sure your chair is higher up than anyone else’s. Make sure and get in the final word. Brag about your accomplishments. These are just a few of the tactics that will ensure that people respect your talents.
Comment: Nobody likes arrogance. Nobody. And yet, the arrogant types seem oblivious to their own arrogance. They think they’re just being confident. But people know the difference. So lose the chip on your shoulder and be humble, be magnanimous, be friendly, be kind. These qualities won’t make you weak, they’ll help you build strong relationships and connections. Don’t believe you deserve respect just because you have talent and just because you were ‘anointed’ to the position of Creative Director. Use humility and hard work to earn respect.