Category: creative direction

Thoughts on Creative Direction: Be Invisible

I was with a number of executives recently reviewing a huge project. They were presenting to their boss while I played the role of fly-on-the-wall, observing and taking notes. The review went extraordinarily well.

As we were leaving the meeting, a thought occurred to me: I was invisible. Not just during the review, but throughout the entire process. The executives I worked for were the heroes here, as were members of my team who contributed to the project. But I was completely invisible. This got me thinking.

As a Creative Director, you should be invisible. The last thing a presentation, or just about anything for that matter, should be about is you. The work should be the center of attention. Your client should shine. Your boss should be the hero. Your team should get the credit. If everyone around you is getting the accolades, you did something right.

This is a foreign concept for many CDs to grasp. So much of the creative business is fueled by ego, often times the bigger the better. You may be familiar with “Imposter Syndrome”, there also exists “Creators Syndrome” and the myth of the lone creative genius. I’ve even been overheard declaring “if your ideas are good enough, you can be as big an asshole as you want.” That may be true, but being an asshole does not make you a good leader. Getting the best out of people and making certain the work is excellent does.

Do you run a risk by being invisible? Sure. Everyone wants to be seen as being valuable and contributing to the success of a project. When you’re invisible it is hard to quantify what you did; your role as the leader may not become apparent for weeks, months or ever. If all goes well, your success comes later on down the road, like when you are chosen for another plum assignment, or repeat business keeps coming in the door, or you retain employees who are happy, healthy and productive.

It may be hard to put your finger on it, but that is when your success becomes tangible. People around you feel and understand why they are successful. Your role then becomes all too apparent.

What is a Creative Director?

No one outside the advertising industry had ever heard of a Creative Director until Mad Men came out, than Don Draper became that iconic figure and suddenly the role became crystal clear. When I introduce myself as a CD people often ask me if I am like like Don. My stock reply is that we’re exactly alike but I don’t smoke. To know me is to understand the humour in that statement.

I would like to say that the job is all about 3 martini lunches, naps in the afternoon, brainstorming all night and all those things that sound so glamorous to young people in the business. It’s all about leadership.

dondraper-lessons-1024x428Despite what you read here, I identify with Don Draper on many levels. Perhaps another post for another time.

It took me a while to understand what a CD actually is, though. For the longest time I thought the job was the next rung on a tall career ladder. Back in my days at Unleaded, I definitely had that mindset. I felt I had to be the quarterback, much like Don Draper, pushing myself and the team across the field to score. But that is hardly what the job is about, and a large part of what makes me laugh when I see some 25 year old telling me they are a CD. You’re barely out of diapers at that point kid; there’s no way you’re a leader.

The Creative Director is not the quarterback. Furthering the football analogy, the CD is actually the coach, and if you’re lucky you have a good solid quarterback working for you. Your role as CD is to get the team ready and set them in motion to score. (A little more irony: I don’t really like football that much, but like most sports, games often help tell stories.) Being the CD is all about putting the right people in the right place at the right time to achieve a goal. Sounds simple, but when you’re team is comprised of creative folks, here is where it gets interesting.

Simon Sinek said it best in the title of his book, “Leaders Eat Last”. That one sentiment captures the very essence of a Creative Director. There’s very few Don Drapers out there who swoop in to save the account, or be the mighty creative force who everyone relies on to win. Rather, if you’re doing your job right, you are often invisible because the machine is humming along smoothly. No one will see the inner workings. Or at least they shouldn’t, especially your boss. The downside is that you don’t get all the glory, and you will get the blame should things go south. It ain’t easy, but I find it all strangely rewarding.

My team entered 15 pieces into the BMA Houston Lantern Awards and eight were accepted into the show for the presentation on 16 Nov. I could not be more proud. The younger version of me would have been jealous. Most of my creative efforts this year are still on the proverbial cutting room floor, or buried deep on the archive drive never to see the light of day again. Not to say I did not do anything this year, that is just how the year shaped up. Instead, I look at the current environment of the oil and gas industry, which I’m in the middle of, and I see what my team was able to accomplish despite these challenging times. Let me reiterate: Put the right people in the right place in the right time. And defend them, shield them for outside forces. Give them the room to succeed. I’m lucky that I have some good quarterbacks, and running backs and linemen, etc. I had to do my job so that they could do theirs, and it worked.

That’s being a Creative Director.

For other’s insights into the job:
A primer on creative direction as compared to art direction and design… and what they all mean in a digital context.


How to be a great creative director
What qualities do you need to become a top creative director? Five leading creative directors offer their views.


Managing Designers on Two Different Tracks


FROM TRADITIONAL TO DIGITAL – THE MODERN CREATIVE DIRECTOR