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7 habits of highly effective creative directors

7 habits of highly effective creative directors Doug Schumacher

When iMedia asked me to write this article, the first thing that came to mind was all of the creative directors I've worked with in my 20 years in advertising. From my staff jobs at DDB, Chiat\Day, and BBDO, to the years of freelancing extensively for Los Angeles agencies as well as shops in San Francisco, New York City, London, Australia, and Hong Kong, I've had the opportunity to work with many of the top creative directors in the business. My career has given me a front-row view of a broad spectrum of creative and management styles. Those experiences are something I've always valued greatly.

This article is about the traits and practices I've observed in other creative directors that I have tried to integrate into my own career. Something I find interesting is that after taking inventory of what they've taught me over the years, I realized that despite an immense amount of change in the business, the central themes remain the same. It's about working with the people around you to create the best pieces of communication possible. And that transcends any era or medium.

So here's what I've learned -- in no particular order.

Know the technology behind messages
While the word technology may imply an online focus, I'm talking more to the mechanics of any given medium. It doesn't matter if it's TV or billboards. Learn as much as possible about the production process. It's expected that you'll know the various styles and tones of messages in your given area of expertise. But understanding the production process is where you can uncover new production capabilities. This could be a video processing technique, or a way to use Flash that hasn't yet been done.

I'm not saying you have to be an expert on the subject. In fact, you surely won't be. There are way too many specialists for that to happen. It's more about having a working familiarity with how things are done. Years ago, I asked one of the top interactive producers what I should be doing to know more about technology platforms. He said, "Read Slashdot." I replied that I had no idea what those guys are talking about. He said it doesn't matter. Scan the headlines, and you'll end up with a sense of what they're talking about and what the capabilities are. That can be enough to prompt a good idea.

Knowing the details of the industry you work in also demonstrates to clients that you've taken your thinking to a deeper level. This gives clients more confidence in pursuing your recommendations.

Practice your presentation skills
When I started in advertising, I reasoned that I was an outgoing, Type-A personality who liked to tell jokes at parties -- of course I could do a great presentation. But I've changed my views since then. For one thing, presenting is as much about listening as talking.

Creatives often spend too much time talking about what they like about the idea, versus what the client will like about it. It's fine if you can cover both, but good presentations are brief, not exhaustive. Trying to cover too much ground is like a client who wants to put too much information into the ad.

I've always liked Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule for presenting to VCs. Use 10 slides. Take no more than 20 minutes. And don't use a font size smaller than 30. This forces a short presentation, a clear outline, and leaves plenty of time for discussion (i.e., listening).

I realize VCs are a unique breed, so I'll often venture outside those parameters. But the principal idea is there. And for extra credit, check out presentations by Kawasaki's old boss, Steve Jobs. He's mastered the art.

To cement all of that, I also recommend more direct speaking experience, such as working with a coach or joining speaking groups like Toastmasters. Practice is key, and running your presentations past an objective audience that will give you immediate feedback is the best practice you can get.

Let people have some skin in the game
Half the creative director job title is "direction," but that doesn't mean you have to run an autocracy. And while I think this has always been the case, new media has made it an imperative.

Compared to past campaigns, today's campaigns cover a vast range of media and vehicles. And all of those elements are key to optimal campaign performance. There isn't any way a creative director can know everything across the spectrum. And everyone knows that. But you need more than just other people's advice. You need them to care. You need them to be emotionally committed to making the campaign the best it can possibly be. And people do that when they're inspired, not coerced.

So, keep discussions as open as possible. In advertising, today more than ever, a great idea can come from any corner of the office, at any level. 

Learn about other sides of the business
Creatives need to know how to make great pieces of communication. Creative directors need to know things like how those campaigns fit in with the much bigger picture of the client's long-term business goals, their brand personality, their marketing objectives, and even what they have to spend on all of that.

I recall an article about how John Lennon was always able to speak very specifically about a broad range of instruments and the way they could be used. This always earned the respect of his fellow musicians in the studio, despite the fact that they were obviously more technically proficient at those instruments than him.

The same can be applied to working with anyone throughout the campaign process. The more you understand a given area, the more you can engage the people working in that area. And that leads to cooperation in the near term and more effective solutions in the long term.

Approach with case studies in mind
Stephen Covey, author of the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," the inspiration for this article, speaks of visualizing where you'll be at the end of your life. Campaigns have their own lives, too. And visualizing the desired end result is a good guide for staying on track throughout the campaign.

This will also help to ensure that you've thought through all the different moving parts of the campaign. Good case studies tend to be big in scope and far-reaching in nature.

At the end of the day, the best thing a campaign can do is generate a positive case study for everyone involved. If that happens, it means all the things that had to come together for it to succeed, did.

So, project where you'd like the campaign to be when it's done. From there, you're on a clear mission to make that happen.

Make time for creative and strategic thinking
Another one of my creative directors had a great line. He said, "I don't know what I do all day, but it keeps me there until 8 at night." Agencies run at a faster pace than most businesses, outside of startups and entertainment companies. It's easy to get swept up in back-to-back strategic meetings, creative reviews, and pitch presentations. Suddenly the day, week, or month is over, and that's pretty much all you've done.

The only thing that's ever worked for me is to put a stake in the ground for uninterrupted time to spend on client and industry directions. Perhaps the most tactical of all these tips, this one also seems to be the easiest to put aside when things get busy.

Experiment with your medium
It is much harder to understand something through observation than via first-hand experience. I think that's pretty true for anything. It's certainly true of my experience with new media. Furthermore, the barriers to entry across all media -- whether plain text publishing or video production -- have fallen through the floorboards.

While corporate communications will usually differ quite a bit from personal communications, the difference between the two is shrinking. And, it's not a bad thing to view a familiar medium from a different angle.

From blogging to podcasting to video production, getting a hands-on view of a medium or vehicle will better familiarize you with various types of content. And if you lift up the hood and check out the inner-workings, like site analytics, then you can learn even more about what resonates and what doesn't. And, at the end of the day, experimenting with communication tools is a great way to connect and network with people doing interesting things.

These are seven things I've found to be helpful in keeping my head above water in this business -- with a major contribution from the creative directors I've been fortunate to work with. It's certainly not an exhaustive list. So I'll end the article with a call-out to anyone else, creative directors or otherwise, to comment below about anything you've found good creative directors do to make the work and the work environment around them better.

Doug Schumacher is the president and creative director at Basement Inc.

On Twitter? Follow Schumacher at @memerunner. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Doug Schumacher is the co-founder of social media content strategy tool Zuum. Zuum reveals a number of key insights into what type of social media content will generate maximum impact for a given industry. His interactive career began in 1996...

View full biography


to leave comments.

Commenter: Blaise Nutter

2009, July 21

Nice article, Doug. I feel the same way still about Slashdot - don't know what it means but I know it's important and I'm gonna hear about it shortly. And I'd never heard Kawasaki's advice on presentations before.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2009, July 06

Well put, Langston. I like your emphasis on long-term versus short-term.


Commenter: Langston Richardson

2009, July 04

Doug, Great post as always. Habit #6 has been my life ever since I became a CD in both traditional advertising.

One thing that maybe something to remember is that Highly Effective Creative Directors must be able to inspire their teams to great executions, especially for those projects and clients that aren't the FWA/Communication Arts/Webby/Addy winners. I've always taught my staff how to be creative and understand the business of the office as well as the business of what clients want in their creative agencies.

This is not sexy and is akin to laying down cement for a foundation of a house. But I found that those embracing this will lead to long careers that are both fulfilling and balanced.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2009, July 02

Jill, Richard,

Thanks. Glad to be on your Twit roll ;)


Commenter: Richard Henderson

2009, July 02

Nicely put. Amen. Thanks, Doug. Added you to my Twit roll - and I mean that with no disrespect. Richard

Commenter: Jill Demby Guest

2009, June 30

Terrific article. Great way to break it down. I'm a big Covey fan. I love what you said about taking input from "every corner of the office."
You just never know what's fulminating in that PA or accountant's head! Thanks.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2009, June 29

Thanks for adding your example. That's big. It's something I consider key for our entire company.

OK, veteran in training ;)
Agreed on the 'fun' part.

Check the link I posted above. Apple posts a lot of the boss' presentations on their site.

Commenter: charles bayer

2009, June 29

Great piece -- not sure about the 'veteran' bit though -- funny thing, the older I get the more fun I'm having. Cheers Charles Bayer. Yup, I'm an ECD now.

Commenter: Kathryn Klein

2009, June 29

I'd like the extra credit... Where can we find presentations by Steve Jobs?

Commenter: Don Spector

2009, June 29

As a former creative director myself (BBDO/West and Foote Cone L.A.) I really liked your 7 habits for effective creative directors. You might want to add this to your list.
Years ago, when I was a copywriter at Needham Harper & Steers in New York, I asked my boss, the creative director, what he was most proud of. I assumed he'd mention things like the two Clios we had just won, or winning the Xerox account in a 10-agency shootout. But instead, he told me what he was most proud of was the fact that his creative department had the lowest turnover of any major New York agency. Frankly, I didn't get it.
But a few years later when I was creative director of BBDO/West, I remembered what he had said and, from that moment on, I did all I could to make the agency—or at least my department—a great place to work. And it worked. We turned out good creative, our clients were happy and it was fun coming in to the office. My turnover rate was very low so I didn't have to spend my time—and the agency's money—looking at portfolios and working with headhunters to find creative replacements.
Creating a good work environment may sound like a feel-good-Kumbaya kind of strategy but it can really pay off.

Commenter: Doug Schumacher

2009, June 29

Thanks for the comments.

I definitely agree these can extend well beyond creative direction.

Yes, it's always greatly appreciated when those working with the creatives understand what the creative process involves. Thanks for the link. I'll be checking it out.

Great question. Here's a resource I've gone to:
There are a lot of Jobs presentations on YouTube, as well.

Commenter: Kathryn Klein

2009, June 29

Want that "extra credit" -- Where can we find presentations by Steve Jobs?

Commenter: masn masn

2009, June 29

Doug -

Thank you for laying this out for the industry to see. The best strat, placement and analytics in the world don't add up to much if the message we put in front of the audience isn't compelling. It is critical for all stakeholders that surround creatives to understand how creatives work best. Non-creatives, please don't mis-interpret this as coddling - I think Doug would agree.

As a veteran Project Management lead, I applaud your central theme that recognizes that the work we all do is a collaborative endeavor.

For another lead Creative's hilarious take on the denizens of our ecosystem, with a special call out to producers. Take a look at this missive by Ted Royer, Droga5's Executive Creative Director:


Commenter: Lori Shecter

2009, June 29

Great post and guess what? It applies to good habits for most functions, in my opinion! (especially sales)