Confessions of a Bad Creative Director
Though I am currently freelancing as a web site designer cum web site coder, and yes I deliberately used ‘cum’ just then whether or not it was appropriate, for six or seven years of my professional life I was a creative director for two firms. There was a period of time of about a year in there that I was replaced by another creative director, whereupon that individual was titled the executive creative director so he could make more money and throw more weight around than I, but after his ascension it came to pass that the clients liked him even less than they liked me, so he was asked to step down and I was brought back in just before the whole endeavor collapsed in on itself like a giant ego.
Due to my extensive experience acting as a creative director, which is considered to be middle management because it is a positioned that is managed by upper management (those concerned primarily with keeping the company healthy rather than dealing with the challenges of actually talking to employees) and manages another layer of people who may, in turn, manage yet another layer though only rarely and in circumstances that I personally have never seen, I thought I would pass along what I learned while in that position as a warning to potential employers of my lack of grace, charm, nuance and comfort in the role as well as a cautionary tale for any creative-minded individuals out there thinking they might want to “move into management” rather than staying exactly where they are, sitting in front of a computer monitor, reading this during working hours.
That isn’t to suggest that creative directors aren’t sitting in their offices staring down at their own expensive (usually much more expensive, for reasons defying logic since they generally don’t need a lot of computer horsepower to read e-mail and play Peggle) notebook computers also spending their company’s wages reading internet sites rather than, I don’t know, thinking about teal or something. Only that most of them are already there, where I presume they want to be, so any advice I may offer will likely be ignored, rejected or summarily dismissed as the ravings of an obviously ill-informed nincompoop cum jerk.
I should also like to point out that although I was a creative director and had a small staff of worker bees reporting to me, I was also actively engaged as the creative lead on several accounts at the same time so I was not the kind of creative director in a large agency who merely passes judgment on the work of others and is expected to be the mouthpiece for the work to the client instead of someone who actually produced something on a daily basis, assuming enough coffee was readily available.
With that lengthy preamble out of the way, here’s my advice to any creative director wannabe out there who believes their lot in life would be greatly improved if they were, you should excuse the expression, “in charge.”
Your Primary Responsibility is To the Client
You will be told things like “our employees are our greatest asset” and “your job is not to hand-hold the client.” An important lesson to learn early on is that although even the people telling you these things may actually believe them, the exact opposite is true.
Your company won’t survive without clients, but there is no employee (including you) so important that replacing them is ever an issue of important consideration to your employer. Your job is to make the client happy at any cost, including personal integrity, embarrassment, accepting the blame for anything that may occur at any point during a given project and apologizing abjectly on behalf of yourself, your team, your company and your higher-ups. You’re all idiots, when it comes down to it, and the client is always right. Sell your soul now and give up whatever vestiges of pride about your opinion, your talents, your taste or your capabilities you may have duped yourself into believing.
You Will Have to Fire Your Friends
It’s inevitable, since you’re all down there in the trenches together, that you will become friends with the people you’re expected to manage. If you didn’t like them, you probably wouldn’t have hired them, and if you came into the job and adopted some people you don’t particularly care for, the fact that you’re all “in this together” will likely, at some point, foster a grudging respect between you. At any rate, you’re going to be spending so much time with these people that you’re going to end up considering them to be friends, or at least pals.
Downsizing happens. Or clients leave. Or something. There’s always a reason to fire someone. Sometimes it’s just a bad fit, and you get to be the one to pull them into a room alone and break the bad news.
Normally, this will not be a surprise to them, because you’ll have gone through the motions of putting them on suspension, or warning, or something like that. They got a bad review. Their client hates them. Their work is suffering because someone died. I’ve seen it all.
What this amounts to is you trying to be “professional” while you tell someone their work sucks and you would prefer if they never came back again. And then you have to have them sign something that’s like a “no hard feelings, you can’t sue us later because we told you this was coming,” and possibly even a “I have to escort you back to your desk now because we can no longer trust you to wander around on your own, so you can collect your meager collection of pictures and toys and books and whatever and get out right now.”
Did you know that most employers can fire you for no reason at all? That’s right, it’s called “employed at will.” While you can’t legally be fired based on your race, gender, religion or disability, you can still be fired for no reason and they don’t actually have to disclose why you were fired. In some states you can still be fired just for being gay, of course. This is America, after all.
It’s Best to Surrender Your Sense of Pride Immediately
Maybe it was just me, or my set of circumstances, but I found that I had a very hard time being right. Or on the occasions that it was agreed that I was right, it didn’t matter because of one circumstance or another and we had to do the wrong thing, make the wrong choice, go the wrong way, and usually it was because it was what the client wanted.
It’s the client’s money, after all, and the client’s product when all is said and done. But one funny thing about creative endeavors is that everyone has an opinion, whether it’s informed or not, and it’s arrived at in arbitrary ways and doesn’t really require logic to get there. Some people like blue. Some people like green. And some people like teal.
A pause while I say a few words about teal: I don’t hate teal, but for me, “teal” has become a word fraught with hidden meaning, because I have a very distinct and powerful memory about a particular project involving a color scheme for a certain product and the client insisted on going with teal, because their agency of record (a company I think had their collective head up their collective ass) had established that teal was going to define this product in all branding documents and material. If you’ve ever had to try to work with teal, you may know that it’s a very distinctive color and somewhat challenging to work around. The color “teal,” for me, signifies defeat, surrender, and giving up everything one believes. There was simply no way to fight against it, no matter how poorly teal folded in to the company’s established color scheme, because it was a done deal. Even though, honestly, it wasn’t — but it became the battle around which everything else circled like vultures, and having lost the teal war meant giving in on everything for that client from that moment onward. I was always wrong, because I was wrong about teal.
Over the course of my short career as a creative director, perhaps I wasn’t the gruff, annoying, finger-pointing asshat that I was supposed to be. Part of a creative director’s job is to sit at the meeting table and be immovable in one’s convictions. The problem with that position occurs when your management team tells you one thing, but does another. I was often cast as the enemy or the devil behind my back, and then asked to back off from my beliefs or positions creatively because the client didn’t like it.
Well, frankly, they’re not supposed to like me, they’re supposed to trust me. I’m pretty sure I was doing good work, but over the course of time, as every decision I made was second-guessed or overruled, I started to lose my confidence in my ability to make creative decisions. So I stopped making them.
It was like a disease I didn’t know I had. It was simply easier, and everyone was happier, if the client made all the creative decisions. Even though a lot of them were bad, wrong and blatantly ugly, all that mattered was the client’s happiness. The surrender of power leached outward into every aspect of my life, and I became incapable of making any decisions at all.
In retrospect, it was my own fault for not being better at articulating why teal is bad. That’s all it comes down to in management of creative endeavors — no matter how much experience you have, or knowledge or training, if you can’t explain why teal is bad (or good) you’re bound to fail.
Beware the Assholes
It was sometimes easy to hate an entire company because the people I was dealing with were, to put it mildly, difficult. Often, the health of the company was the biggest contributing factor. If a company was doing good, the employees felt secure in their jobs, so they were working from a position of power and comfort. If the company was doing poorly, fear was the motivating force and suddenly every decision and every solution came under tight scrutiny and became suspect.
This is completely understandable, since I’ve been there. I know what it’s like not to know what you’re going to be doing tomorrow. I know how it feels to be on shaky ground and to wonder if anyone “up there” has any clue about what the hell they’re doing.
That said, there are also people who are just assholes. No matter the position they’re in, or the health of their company, or who they report to, you’re going to run into assholes. They’re inside your own company, and they’re lurking in the hallways and offices and meetings at your client.
Friend, there’s just nothing you can do about that, except to keep in mind that they are the asshole, and they’re (hopefully) the only one. Deal with them as assholes. Smile and nod and agree with them. They’re always right.
Don’t let them turn you into an asshole, too, because there’s just no recovering from that once it happens. If you get labeled as an asshole, that’s going to stick with you no matter where you go or what you do from then on. And because you become treated like an asshole, your assholishness increases exponentially. Beware!
You’re a Manager, Not a Creator
A creative director is expected to wear many hats, but the hardest one for me to wear was Manager. I wasn’t trained in business, I don’t know anything about running a business, and I’ll never be good at it.
But being a manager has almost nothing to do with that, anyway. You’re not managing the business, you’re managing people. You’re managing their expectations and hopes and fears. You’re rewarding and punishing them. You’re watching them and listening to them and prodding them.
So, I’m not a “people person,” I think that’s well established by now. I don’t enjoy small talk, I don’t want to go to Happy Hour, I don’t want to join in with team building exercises and cheer on the captain of the company ball team. As such, I’m a rotten manager.
The dichotomy about the creative director is that it’s likely that they got to that position be being creative. They’re good at designing things, and making things, and directing the designing and making of things. Once a creative director becomes a creative director, however, most of that is stripped away and they’re left with saying things like “I like that,” or “I don’t like that,” or “Did you try this?” They need to step away from the box and look over shoulders more. They need to encourage the employees under their direction but not do the job for them.
It’s almost entirely unsatisfying for a creative person to try to tell someone else how to do something rather than doing it himself. But that’s what you have to do.
The person who succeeded me as executive creative director was kind of an untalented hack. The person may have been good at some point, but for the life of me I could not understand how to go from their scribbled tumbleweeds of inked directions on a sheet of paper to making the logo sing. “Just do this,” the person would say, while scribbling three jagged lines and a circle. I suppose that’s good creative direction, because it called completely on my creativity and not at all on theirs. But as the person looking for guidance, it was utterly useless and I lost all respect for that person.
It’s a fine line, and you have to tread it.
You Will Stop Having Fun Now
If you really want to be a creative director, keep in mind that most of your daily communications are going to deal with unhappy clients, unhappy employees and unhappy managers. Happy people keep to themselves. They’re happily coding, or happily designing, or happily… managing. You’re only going to hear from people when they’re unhappy.
Unhappy clients are the worst thing in the world. They issue threats. They make you feel incompetent. They go over your head to your manager and make them unhappy. It’s likely that you’re going to have a pile of unhappiness on your desk that keeps getting higher, because unhappy clients make unhappy employees, which make unhappy managers. And you’re the only one who understands where all the unhappiness is coming from.
Because it’s your fault. Suck it up, accept it, admit it, move on. Unhappiness of this nature can’t be easily mitigated by letting it fester. It’s also nearly impossible to deal with because it usually concerns egos and opinions and expectations rather than concrete things like missed deadlines or botched launches. In the end, your happiness is the least important, and sacrificing it will make everyone else happy.
You don’t actually want to be a creative director. The money is nice, but you won’t do anything with it but buy vodka in very large bottles. Your vacations will be spoiled by an inability to decide where to go or what to do without a client telling you. You’ll start suffering those Sunday night sweats where you dread going to sleep because getting up means it’s Monday morning and you know the pile of unhappiness on your desk is higher, still, not to mention that your East Coast clients have been at work for three hours and their unhappiness is three hours riper than your West Coast clients.
Most of my bad experiences as a creative director are likely due to some deeper personal issues I’d rather not face, except online and in extended blog posts detailing everything that’s wrong with me. It’s also important to note that the company you work for — and its management team — has a great deal to do with the unhappiness you face yourself. If your management isn’t behind you to back you up and, instead, uses the opportunity to support you to instead manifest its own fears concerning the loss of a client because you’re an incompetent untalented hack, you’re up shit creek and you never even had a paddle. No one told you there was a paddle. There is no paddle.
August 28, 2008