How to be a Creative Director

Doug Carter is the Creative Director at Ivor Andrew. Kindly send compliments and insults to him.

Spoiler: It's your job to direct the creative.

So you want to be a Creative Director, huh? You want my job? It’s not as Don Drapery as you might think, but it is filled with awesomeness.

10 a.m. office bourbons aside, most everyone in this role will describe a completely different road map to their position and to their success. The job description for CD varies widely, as does the compensation, but don’t let that stop you. If it’s in you, this seat is likely the pinnacle of your creative career.

I was first anointed this position at the ripe age of 26 — a very early and inexperienced stage of my career — and while it looked unbelievably cool on my business cards, I didn’t realize at the time that I didn’t have anything that it took to be a real CD.

I had talent but not nearly enough experience. That was a shame, because experience is what really carries you far in this role. Hell, there are guys on my creative team with more talent than me, but that’s not what gets you the CD gig.

So what does? Good question. Thankfully, I’m no longer 26. I’ve learned what it takes to do this job well.

1. You have to want the increased responsibility.

I’ve worked with a ton of unbelievably talented creatives in my career. A bunch of them could have easily ascended to Creative Director, and a bunch of them had ZERO interest in actually making the jump. That’s because the closer you get to this position, the less actual hands-on creative work you’ll conjure out of thin air. AKA the stuff you love most about the job. Brutal, right?

What you’ll be doing much more of is making important decisions. Not just about the creative work your team puts in front of you and you put in front of clients, but the people on your team, the project quotes that are created, the team workflow and responsibilities, and myriad other important roles.

And speaking of clients, you’re now the creative face of the account and the creative voice of your company. You’re the one presenting the work and putting everything on display for every major pitch and proposal. It’s a team job, but you’re the one everyone sees. It’s terrifying at first, uncomfortable soon after, and something you may eventually come to enjoy. Fingers crossed.

One of your biggest tools in dealing with all this responsibility is that aforementioned experience. I’m not talking about simply the number of years you’ve had the job title. I’m talking about doing every type of creative project you can imagine, making tons of mistakes, working in various industries, solving lots of problems along the way, and of course, making tons of mistakes.

It’s often catch-22 experience, the kind that you don’t get until just after you really need it. But hold onto the lesson for the future. It’s what allows you to make intelligent, qualified, and often difficult decisions on things that can make or break a project or a client relationship.

Above all, you have to welcome being the one tasked to make those creative decisions.

It’s not a light ask, and it’s not for everyone. But if it is…

2. Get ready to take blame and give credit.

Here’s the reality of the CD life:

If it fails, it’s on you. If it succeeds, it’s your team’s efforts and talent. Take the blame when things go poorly, and give credit to your team when there is success.

(Don’t worry too much about your ego. If you take blame and give credit consistently, your team will notice and applaud your contributions. Sure, they might be sucking up for their next performance review. Whatever. Praise is praise.)

Once your team has the information they need to create, stay in the background as much as possible and let them do their thing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve worked with many so-called “leaders” who would just as soon throw you under the bus for a failure as they would take all of the credit for a win. Those people are poison. Not only should you not work for them, but clients would do well to stay away from them, too.

So, you’ll be creating less and never taking credit for anything. Still in? FANTASTIC. You may just have what it takes. One final thing.

3. You have to prepare your team for the next step in their careers.

I’m not going to compare myself to a mama bird and my team to my babies, because that would be weird. But let’s be real. They’re probably leaving the nest eventually. The question is, are they ready?

One of the most important parts of this job is the role of mentor and teacher. I believe that I am very much responsible for the quality of my team when they rise to their next position somewhere down their career path. Sure, I want all of my them to be with me forever, but that’s not realistic.

Honestly, I want their next boss to be blown away by their professionalism, experience, attention to detail, street smarts, and overall polished package. I want it to be because of what I brought to their career development. It’s my job to make them all better overall creative talents.

It’s the role of the CD to put the best people in positions to excel. Hire the best talent, give them an unobstructed path to get their jobs done, and guide them to stardom. This is always a challenge. You have to understand that you’re probably not the most talented individual in the room (hint: you should most definitely NOT be). Surround yourself with incredible people and let them shine. Maybe you’ll learn something in the process, too.

Now go steer the ship.