The true value of a Creative Director
This is a touchy subject for most in the industry and one that gets debated a lot, so I thought why not join in the chaos of a conversation with my 2 cents and opinion on the matter.
I think it is important to give some background on myself to those that have no idea who I am. If you already know me or don’t care too much about me as a human, click the skip on down button to the next section to read some strong opinions.
I studied industrial design & engineering with the dream of becoming a car designer. After many sleepless nights and a room full of models our head lecturer informed the remaining 10% of the class that it will be near impossible to reach that goal. In such a competitive world and in a country where the industry was dying (Australia) we would need to complete our masters in Europe or Asia and be fluent in the language yesterday.
So… I decided the next best thing would be 3D and designing cars for gaming, so I changed my course and deep dived in. Keep in mind that this was a while ago, like flash websites time frame so it took multiple computers to render out short animations leading to long nights of waiting and hoping it didn’t fail. While waiting I started to learn code and began to build flash games and websites for friends, which actually led me into falling in love with design again. The ability to bring motion into design was a game changer for me and still one of my favorite things to date. Fast forward a few years and a few more pivots to my career path and I was lucky enough to have landed a job designing for Lee Jeans. The job was a multi hybrid role, from art direction of lookbooks to designing garment graphics to opening a gallery with Monster Children. It was also here I started to understand business and management. By the end of position I was running their whole garment graphic division and made Lee the highest selling t-shirt brand in Australia and helped land multiple national wholesale contracts.
From there I decided to move into a pure design role and started at a small studio called Marilyn & Sons. It was here I started to refine my style and approach as well learning how a design practice ran.
The studio was focused on branding with a love of both print and digital, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be. We had major clients like Nike as well as small galleries where we acted as their in-house design team. A great learning experience but I wanted to learn more, and this meant moving on to freelance for other studios and gain my own client base.
My freelance years made me who I am today. I got my own studio space that allowed me to express my style and vision for my work and a space to bring clients that made it feel more elevated than most freelancers. I split my time between taking on small brand jobs and working as an in-house freelancer at larger agencies, such as McCann working on Coke, Maybelline and other global brands. This also allowed me to see how the advertising world worked, and paired me with my first strategist. I had to answer to the Senior Art Director who then reported to the Creative Director who was full Mad Men energy. Everyone was terrified to say the wrong thing but knew he could solve any issues with one word.
This is where I learnt the power of language. Before this my learning came from art direction and design and not any real strategy at all, just I can make this look cool and people will buy it.
I decided I wanted to open my own design practice, a place where I could use all my combined knowledge and give clients more than a traditional studio. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone as the workload would be too much for one person. At the time a friend was already helping me on some projects and we had a great bond so I asked him if he wanted to give it a go.
duo d uo was formed. We wanted our own identity to break through the noise and actually have a POV and something to say. Our stationary was soft pink and gold, including actual gold edging handled by a book binder who specialized in bibles. It was great to see the reaction and all the features we received because of it.
Our work was split between brand identity and folio websites and big digital roll out projects. We landed the contract to support Top Shop as they launched in Australia, which meant taking their campaigns and rolling out the creative across all touch points both digital and physical - 1000’s of outputs at a time. This led to landing a role on the global Westfield rebrand team where we helped roll out the new identity across Australia which allowed us to take on more freelancers.
The end of the studio was a huge learning experience. We had little to no understanding of business models, finance, bookkeeping or growth which led to partnership breaking apart and having to close the doors to go our separate ways. This was a bittersweet moment, on one hand we just closed my passion and love of design, but on the other it was the reason I moved to the US and pushed myself and my career to today.
I took a job as a Creative Director at Funkhaus in the Los Angeles, which was kind of crazy looking back on it as I had never been to the US and instead of visiting first I just packed up my life, got on a plane and rocked up to their office with an attitude of let's do this! Their studio was well known in the film and production industry with a heavy focus in digital having created websites for nearly every production company in LA. My time there was amazing and I still smile thinking back on those days of everyone drinking beer at 11pm in the studio with music blasting as we worked on refining branding, which didn't feel like work at all. In my 2 and a half years there I really pushed the studio to grow and mix up their style. We started taking on more branding work and branching out of their lane and into fashion, hospitality and lots of print work.
I was getting the urge to open another studio, but deep down I knew I wasn’t ready. I needed to keep pushing, keep refining and learning from the best. So where do you do that?
In walks R/GA the heavy weight of the time, an agency that built perfection and designers who came from there went on to lead some of the best studios. They had recently opened an office in LA and I set my mind on working there. Applying to be a Design Director was my best chance of getting in and a role where I could prove to myself I can sit with the best. I am not going to lie, my time at R/GA feels like design Stockholm syndrome. We would work 7 days a week pulling 12 to 16 hour days and even working in the office on Christmas day, but we kept going back the next day. In my time there I rebranded SanDisk, G-Technology, WD, launched a new product for Western Digital, gave Cap'n Crunch a brand refresh as well as HotWheels and built maybe 50 pitch decks. I also led the design across R/GA ventures at the same time.
To say it nearly killed me is an understatement…
During my time at R/GA Ventures I fell in love with the startup culture and wanted to find a way to just jump in head first. An old client at Funkhaus had reached out to me about coming to his new job to be the CD and help build out a creative department. At the time the company was made up of WestwoodWestwood, an editorial style business that hadn’t been updated in a while and needed a full overhaul. dFm which acted as a creative/production company where both were outsourced and finally basic space which was an app that sold second hand clothing from influencers. I love a good challenge so I took on the job.
WestwoodWestwood was more than a rebrand, it was a full 360 business transformation— from creating a fluid brand identity system that adapts across categories and environments to merging an experiential agency with a content studio and designing a website to house a robust editorial platform. For those interested you can see the full case study here.
Using our knowledge from WestwoodWestwood we expanded the offerings at Basic Space to include experiences, our first being at Miami Art Basel with Heron Preston partnering with Cash App which was a shop stopper and gathered a lot of positive press.
Post repositioning we raised nearly $10m to support the growth of the business, then came Covid and the world stopped. All experiential work came to a halt and the company needed to shrink down to reduce costs which led to me leaving dFm.
Another bittersweet moment but ultimately the best outcome as it is the reason I started part-time.studio.
I wont get too much into part-time.studio as I will be doing a post on that down the line, but I will say it was the right time in my career to launch and has been an incredible journey so far. I have been lucky enough to be represented by AUFI from day 1 and can’t thank Nick and Toby enough for trusting me and my vision.
So now you have some background and context on me, let’s debate.
What does a CD really do?
This is a very broad and open question as CD’s hold different roles across industries, but the core of that position does and should stay the same.
A creative director is a person who makes high-level creative decisions and, with those decisions, oversees the creation of creative assets by their team. They need to not only have a strong background in design, but also a deep understanding across a multitude of areas such as strategy, production, development, language and art direction to name just a few. The role also requires great leadership skills and the ability to manage teams, clients and productions. You don't have to be the best designer in the world, and once you reach this level you may actually never design again. A creative director has the responsibility of their designers, it is their job to help them grow, improve and have the very hard task of telling those designers to go back to the drawing board, this isn’t good enough. Which as a designer can hurt and have seen many start complaining about their CD and say the good old line “They don’t even design, I should have that job.” This is where we see designers quit and start their own “Studio” just so they can call themselves Creative Directors. When they should have stayed and absorbed as much feedback and knowledge as possible, both in design and in business and management.
So in the simplest terms a CD is a leader. A leader of ideas, a leader of creativity, a leader of growth and a leader of the next generation of talent.
What makes up a great Creative Director?
Personally I think a great creative director needs to have experienced life. They need to have failed to understand that pain and growth. They need to be critical thinkers and have the ability to look beyond a brief and see a future far ahead of where we are today. They also need great empathy and leadership skills. Creatives are often introverts and find it hard to grow in their careers and won’t raise their hand up, they won't put themselves first and will avoid the uncomfortable questions. A great CD will know and see this and change their methods to support this and build an environment of trust and reward on work, not the loudest in the room. I believe the best CD’s come with their own strong vision and POV of the world and this is what separates them from the rest. It allows them to continually refine their process, team and skills until they are untouchable.
Why has the title of Creative Director been so watered down?
The self proclaimed Creative Director of the influencer generation would have to be the main cause. I can’t tell you the amount of times I would meet people out in LA who introduce themselves as CD and when you ask where they work “Oh I have my own brand.” which is amazing and I fully support, but it is the next part that kills it for me. When you ask to see the work they are always “Just starting out” “We haven't launched yet” which of course the We is an I and if you ask about where they worked before this they are either right out of school or have never held a job in the industry. This isn’t to say this is impossible, I have met some people who went from school to starting a brand and after a few years have become very successful, but in general that is nearly impossible.
Secondly we have the celebrity that holds a creative director position at a random company to try make them relevant again. 99.9% of these positions are more brand ambassadors than creative directors, and I can tell you they are not leading teams, creating brand strategies, directing commercials or giving real design critique.
What is the true value of a creative director?
If you have made it this far you should have a good understanding of what a CD is, some may even have a contrasting opinion on the matter, and if so please jump in the comments with your thoughts.
The value is their knowledge, leadership and vision they bring. The right creative director can turn a company around and the wrong one can destroy a company. We only have to look at what Alessandro Michele was able to do for Gucci or Matthew Williams at Givenchy to see what the right appointment can achieve. On the purely brand side of things the value comes in the ability to blend strategy, design and innovation with an outlook of 10 years in the future that gives the brand and team the tools, guides and confidence to continue to grow and perfect.
On the other side we have bad CD’s that just offer up the visuals with an outlook no further than today. This is where we see brands having multiple rebrands and never quite hitting the market positioning right, it can also be referred to trend designing which may look great today, but there is no brand experience system in place and leaves the company dead in the water when they try to grow.
My advice to any young designer out there wanting to be a Creative Director, ask yourself where does your passion sit? You don’t have to go down the path of being a CD if design is what drives you and makes you happy. Some of the best designers in the world are that way as they never moved out of design. If you are a big picture thinker and always look beyond the brief and how each element can affect the brand and consumer then you might be well on your way.
For me I love design and always will. But my passion isn’t on the tools, it is in the vision setting, the foundation building, designing business models and pushing the boundaries of what is possible at the intersection of design and technology.
Would love to hear other people's thoughts on this or how they became a Creative Director and was it the right career path for them.
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