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September 21, 2015
So You Want to Be a Creative Director
The creative part of my advertising career can be divided into two segments: the agency world and the client world. On the agency side, I have been a copywriter, a senior copywriter, this odd thing called a copy supervisor, and a creative director. On the client side, I’ve been a director of advertising and a vice president of creative services.

Looking back on the trajectory of my career, which began with my first agency job in 1986, I find myself a little surprised at two things: first, how many agencies for which I worked in 26 years, and second, how often I was laid off because my employer lost one, or more, accounts on which I worked. I started to add up the agencies and lost count at around 20, which includes stints as a full-timer as well as a freelancer (and one agency at which I had both roles in the course of a few years). I was laid off from staff positions seven times, which averages out to about once in less than every four years.

I liked my life as a freelancer, so I did not seek a position as creative director until later in my career. Which leads me to this deliberately short, and not definitive, list of advice for those who aspire to this job and want to succeed in it.

#1: Claim the role before you actually earn it. I started thinking of myself as a creative director many years before the title became official. It had the effect of forcing me to see a broader perspective. It also had a calming effect. I was a bit hot tempered in my formative years as a copywriter, losing my cool when a client, or my CD, rejected concepts, or someone higher up offered critiques of my copy. As soon as I adopted the (pretend) mantle of creative director, I saw things differently. I also paid more attention to how my creative bosses arrived at their decisions and interacted with agency staff and the client. Pay attention.

#2: Listen more, talk less. This one is closely connected to #1. You can almost tell simply by listening who the junior creatives are in any agency. They talk more, and don’t necessarily say that much. Senior creatives trust their idea-generating skills. They trust their ability to ask the right questions. They learn to listen to the inner voice, their muse, their source of inspiration. As you hone this instrument, the aspiring creative director learns to focus it on more important endeavors, like truly hearing what the client wants, intuiting what is beneath the surface, and developing a solid working relationship with account management staff. Learn to listen.

#3: You don’t have to be the best creative in the shop. This is perhaps the hardest  advice to accept. I never doubted that I could out-write anyone, but I never fooled myself into believing that my concepting skills were on the same level as, much less superior to, some of my colleagues. But as I gained experience, and the confidence that comes with it, I trusted my ability to see a good idea when it landed in front of me. You could debate my creative decisions over the years, but I combined my instincts with a solid ability to sell the ideas I liked to my clients. The rule of thumb: You can’t do everything; learn to nurture your creative team. Hire people who are smarter than you are and get the heck out of their way. Let them do their jobs. They’ll make you look good.

#4: Don’t be afraid to change your mind. When you can accomplish #2 with poise, this one is easy. Other people not only have good ideas, they have good rationale for those ideas. Listen. Consider them. When you reject an idea, then change your mind for solid reasons, you earn truckloads of respect from your direct reports.

#5: Praise in public. Criticize in private. Never confuse the two. You will command loyalty when you commend others effusively in meetings and public gatherings. But if you ever had your head handed to you in front of your peers by a thoughtless boss, you understand the second point. It’s the mark of an amateur manager. If you want to be an inspiring — and trusted — leader, never forget this one.

Success as a creative director has much less to do with your creative abilities than it does with your bedside manner. Manage people well, including your own ego, and you will be a star.

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Howard Ibach is a college English instructor in Los Angeles. For almost 30 years, he was an advertising copywriter and creative director. He leads a half-day workshop on writing inspired creative briefs, and writes about briefs on his blog. He is the author of the critically acclaimed graphic textbook, How To Write An Inspired Creative Brief 2nd edition. It is available on Amazon, BN.com and other online retailers. It is now ranked #1 on About.com's "Ten Advertising Books You Absolutely Must Read." Visit www.howardibach.com for more about the Inspired Creative Brief Workshop and how to purchase the book.
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