My Advice To New Creative Directors

Photo by Vinicius Amano

Congratulations, you’ve been promoted to Creative Director! New job with a brand new title!  Get ready for a lifetime of free swag from Production Houses and non-stop boondoggles to exotic locales on the company dime!  Hello, easy street! Hooray!

Okay. That was fun, but it’s time to get real. Being a Creative Director is a challenging and sometimes difficult next step for an up and coming creative. Shifting gears into a management position can be tricky after years in the trenches, but if you play your cards right it can be the most rewarding experience of your career. Here’s a couple of tips I’ve gleaned over the years that may help you tackle that next step.

Keep your eye on the big picture

It’s not your job to do the jobs of the people who report to you. Let your copywriters write the scripts, the art directors design the layouts, let the account team pick the fonts for the presentation deck and what have you. It’s YOUR job to steer the ship not get into the weeds and micromanage. It’s all right there in the title: just direct the creative to where it needs to be. Get the fuck out of people’s way.

Be kind to your vendors

Don’t be the asshole who needs a specific kind of rare quail egg with your sushi order when you are lucky enough to get a free lunch from an editor or music house. Sure, they’ll smile and get it for you but believe me, they are cursing you under their breath.

Don’t compete with the people who report to you

Remember when you had that boss who insisted on coming up with ideas for every assignment? Remember how the only ideas he or she ‘approved’ were their own? It sucked, right? And it wasn’t fair, remember? I mean, how do you compete when your competition is also the judge? You can’t. So try not to do that with the people who report to you. Not cool.

Don’t expect people to write like you do or design like you do

I had a boss who had a very distinct writing voice. His style was verbose and full of ornamental verbs and adjectives. It was great. Unfortunately, it was nothing like mine. Every time I showed him work, nothing really passed muster with him. And I mean nothing. I finally realized he expected me to write like he did. So, I started jamming in extra words into everything and making my writing about oh…76% fancier. It helped a bit, my stuff didn’t get killed as often, but I was definitely left with a sour taste in my mouth by the whole experience. Now, brands often have a ‘tone of voice’ that need to be mastered so all the work feels consistent and in these cases the writing needs to be policed. But my experience with this particular person was across multiple brands, and for all of them he expected the same flowery purple prose. The beauty of this business is that it draws people from all different backgrounds and experiences. Embrace your teams diversity of style. Don’t make a square peg art direct like a round hole. Okay, that last sentence was weird. But you get the point.

Photo by Atul Vinayak

Put the horse out of its misery

I had a real sweetheart of a boss, who was very respectful of other people’s feelings. I loved working for her because she was so encouraging and protective of her teams fragile creative egos. It was nice. Refreshing even. However, there was a downside: sometimes when you were presenting you could tell that she did not like the idea but you got asked to tweak it. Then tweak it again. And again. And again. You ended up tweaking it so much you didn’t even know what the idea was anymore. Looking back, I’ve come to look at this is as a form of creative torture. It’s dying the Death of a Thousand Tweaks. In the long run, it’s kinder to kill an idea you don’t like or is wrong than to drag out the process of changing it into something it isn’t. Put the horse out of its misery.

It’s a soldiers right to complain.

Hey, sometimes it sucks being a creative. It’s an extremely subjective business we are in and navigating the forest of opinions day in and day out can be very dispiriting. Don’t take your teams complaints personally. They need to vent so they can expel their disappointment and move onto the next assignment. It’s only natural. Listen. Try to address their concerns when you can. Remember: it’s hard being in the trenches.

If all else fails…Scare ‘em—They’re kids

There is a great scene in Bull Durham when the Manager of the poorly performing Durham Bulls approaches the veteran catcher played by Kevin Costner and asks him for advice on how to motivate the team. He’s tried everything and he’s out of ideas. Coster responds, “Scare ‘em…they’re kids…scare ‘em”. This of course leads to the legendary ‘lollygagging’ scene, which I encourage you to watch here. I mention this because I’ve had CD colleagues approach me in a panic because their teams weren’t performing. Do I have to do this myself, they wonder? Sometimes you get caught between wanting to be the encouraging and nurturing leader you desperately wanted for yourself as a junior and wanting to fire and replace the whole bunch of lazy, underperforming babies. My suggestion, which is only to be used as a measure of last resort, is a well-timed, chewing out. It works, but like every weapon of mass motivation: you can only use it once. That said….

Be kind

This is the big one. And the most overlooked. Advertising can be a hard-nosed business. Burn-out rates are sky-high. Raises are a thing of the past. Donald Trump is President and everything is a fucking shit show. So it’s more important than ever to Be One Of The Good Ones. Tell people they’re doing a good job. Or that what they are doing is, in fact, being noticed and recognized as important. Take a moment to tell a team that you liked that idea of theirs that the client killed and that they should save it for something else. When things go well, share the credit. When they don’t, take all the blame. Basically, don’t be an asshole.

Your clients aren’t morons

You know this by now, hopefully, but it bears repeating. They have bosses to report to, families they are worrying about, numbers to hit. If you take the time to learn where they are coming from, it pays off in spades down the road. Every time you meet with your client it is an opportunity to build trust. Fight for your work, but be aware enough to know when to come back and fight another day. Teamwork makes the dream work. Also, see ‘swim in the revenue stream’ below.

Photo by Nicole Harrington

No one likes to be told they are bad at their job

Confession: I have a temper. And when I look back on the few regrets I have in the workplace, every single one of them involves my temper and losing my cool with someone on the account team. Calling people out on their mistakes is a no-win scenario. The person, regardless of the truth of the matter, will never admit to well, sucking and you just look like a jerk for calling them out on it. Also, it just makes it easier for people to yell at YOU when YOU fuck up. Which you will, often.


This one really annoys the hell out of me. If your teams are performing they way they should be, there is no reason to make sure every single person has their ass at their desks from 9 to 6. Or from 9 to Midnight, depending on how much of a tyrant you are. Let’s all acknowledge that creativity doesn’t have to happen within the four walls of a shitty open-floor-plan office. As long as they are performing your job with excellence, your teams should be able to come and go as they please.

No flip-flops in the office

It’s fucking gross. Stop it.

Swim in the revenue stream

And last– but certainly not least–you need to make yourself indispensable. Now that you’ve worked your way into a CD level salary, there is a target on your back. Clients don’t like paying for big salaried people, and holding companies like it even less. The only way to protect yourself from the ax is to make yourself indispensable. The only people I know who have lasted in advertising past their 50s have done it by leveraging their client relationships. The client literally has to think you are the lynchpin to their continued success. They should not be able to think about continuing working without you. This, of course, is easier said than done. And it’s even harder to do this in a collaborative industry such as ours without completely turning to the dark side and becoming–one of those guys. The guys who throw everyone under the bus and take all the credit for themselves. So beware. But it can be done. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes…so SWIM IN THE REVENUE STREAM…BUT BE NICE ABOUT IT!

Well, I’ve hope you’ve enjoyed some free advice from one CD to another. While it isn’t everything I’ve gleaned from my time in the industry, these are some of the things I wish someone told me before I made the leap to CD. Good luck–because in this industry–you’ll need it, grasshopper.

Rob Rooney is an award-winning Creative Director/Copywriter with experience in delivering unique brand-building creative to some of the biggest brands in the world, kind of like Don Draper, but without all that height and chiseled good looks.