Creative Directors vs. Creative Leaders

by Sam Petersen
, 4 min read
Creative Directors vs. Creative Leaders

Andrew Lincoln, creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky, describes being a creative director in these words:

"Basically, I work with art directors, copywriters, and developers and hope to inspire them to work as hard as they can to create the best work they can. I make sure that when we present work to the clients, we're bringing them the best work. Sometimes I'll mention Don Draper and Mad Men when I try to explain what I do. Being a creative director is a little bit like that minus all of the smoking and drinking and cheating."

Lincoln's description of being a creative director captures the ideal role of a creative director because he doesn't just talk about the managing and decision-making part of his job, but also the leading part. A great creative director is a great creative leader too, able to motivate and inspire a team and help individuals develop their talents and creativity. A meme-worthy quote for creative directors says, "Directors direct things, while leaders lead people." Reviewing logo designs and pitching ideas to clients are important aspects of a creative director's role, but just because you can sell an idea to a client or approve a good color scheme doesn't mean you're a leader.

Results from a recent study by Workfront show that bad bosses are the number one cause of poor work/life balance. So, for the sake of the graphic designer, web designer, and copywriter, whose sanity and work/life balance are at risk, creative teams need creative leaders, not just creative directors.

What distinguishes a creative leader?

You can spot a creative director who's also a creative leader from a mile away if you know what to look for. Creative leaders do four things that distinguish them from merely creative directors: empathize with the team, listen to and involve the team, fight for creative time, and defend the creatives.

1. Empathize with the Team

Creative leaders have been through the trenches already. They were the overworked and underpaid graphic designers years ago. They still remember what it's like to have a project manager breathing down their necks to get the deliverables ready for the client, and they're ready to empathize with their team. If they don't like a design or a layout, they don't tell the designer it sucks, they work with her to make sure she knows what's expected and how to get it right. They praise good work and help everyone on the team cultivate individual creativity. creative-brief

2. Listen to and Involve the team

In his book, The Corporate Creative, Andy Epstein touches on the value of listening. He claims that in any conversation two people are talking to you: the person in front of you and the person in your head commenting on every little thing the other person is saying. "To succeed … you have to tell the person in your head to shut up. You can talk to him later," Epstein writes. "In the course of a conversation, you need to clearly hear what your peer, manager, or client is saying to you at the moment she's saying it."

A creative leader listens to his client, his superiors, and most importantly, his team. Because he listens, he knows how to react and what problems to address. He knows who should work on what project and who's at their wit's end and needs a break.

If a creative director is really listening, then by default he's involving his team. Rob Baird, creative director for Mother New York, told FastCo Design in an interview that creative direction is about team building and working with different types of people and businesses. "You have to be able to be a team builder and a morale builder and to be able to keep everyone feeling that they are a part of something," Baird said. "It's a lot easier to make tough decisions when everybody feels involved in the process."

3. Fight for Creative Time

A 2013 study by Getty Images showed that about 70% of creatives said they need more "creative time," and more than 60% reported having "great ideas" but neither the time nor support to execute them. Creative leaders make sure their teams have enough creative time by:

  • Meeting less: They only schedule meetings if they're necessary and they make the necessary ones short and sweet.

  • Consolidating processes: They look for ways to consolidate administrative processes, such as request management and time tracking, into a work management tool, or at least hire a traffic or project manager whose role is dedicated to non-creative tasks.

  • Streamlining approvals: They give prompt feedback and approvals, either in person or with a digital proofing tool, but never through emails.

  • Prioritizing requests: They help filter requests so that the most relevant projects receive priority. Plus, they make sure their teams aren't given more than they can handle.

4. Defend the Creatives

Creatives too often receive verbal abuse like, "What do you guys do all day?" or "Can you just make it pop more?" Both of these comments come from a lack of understanding, and sometimes respect, from the rest of the business. Here are three ways creative leaders defend their creatives:

  • KPIs/Data: Creative leaders are as averse to numbers and graphs as the next right-brained designer; but if it's a matter of proving the value of their team and protecting their creatives, they'll manage as many spreadsheets as it takes. Creative leaders work with upper-management to develop key performance indicators (KPIs). On-time delivery rate, client satisfaction ratings, and billable hours are just a few KPIs teams might track. They can then take this data to the rest of the company to prove their team's impact.

  • Chargeback Billing: In some cases, in-house creative leaders might track billable hours (much like an external agency would) and prepare a chargeback billing system, where internal clients are financially responsible for the work they request from the creative team. This way, departments can see just how valuable the creative team's work is to the company.

  • Project Showcase: Creative leaders take pride in the work their team produces. They show it off for everyone to see, especially executives and potential clients. They realize that much of their credibility and business as a team comes from showcasing—usually through an online portfolio—their best work.

Don Draper isn't a great creative leader, exactly; but that doesn't mean you can't be. If you don't change anything in your directing style from this post, do something with this advice on creative leading from Rob Baird: "Enjoy the energy that comes with helping others create their best work."

To see how other creative leaders are tackling these challenges and more, download the ebook "Balancing Process, Creativity and Productivity."

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