What Makes a Great Creative Director?

What comes to mind when you hear “creative director”?

Don Draper confidently pitching on Mad Men? Scruffy hipsters slapping Post-it notes on a whiteboard? Kanye? Maybe that character based on Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada, barking orders at underlings from her huge corner office.

I learned early on in my career that the role looks very different from how creative directors (CDs) are depicted in popular culture. And that the title itself can mean different things to different companies.

There are lots of LinkedIn posts and articles about how great CDs “think outside the box,” know how to “push the envelope,” yada yada yada, but …

What does a creative director actually do?

I interviewed Firewood’s CDs not just to learn more about the role, but also to uncover what it takes to be great at it. What I found isn’t so obvious from a job description you might see online, or even in our official definition of a CD’s day-to-day responsibilities. And even though the role can vary, and every CD has their own style, there are some common themes that came up in my interviews.

Here are nine things a great creative director—especially a Firewood CD—can do to excel, in the words of those who are putting them into practice every day.

1. Problem-solve

It’s natural to think that a CD spends most of their day… well, directing creative. But it’s actually just as much about connecting dots and pushing their team to find innovative solutions to the client’s ask, before execution even starts.

“I think of myself as a problem solver,” says Gray Joyce, Associate Group CD. “Our job is to bring new thinking and a more useful outcome to the problem or situation. We need to see the problems the client might not see yet and solve for them in a creative way.”

Jess Kaihoi strives to solve client goals with a balance between the business need and creative thinking for solutions that go beyond what clients can achieve on their own. “We always want to push that line of what’s possible within the boundaries of the brief,” she says.

“I think of myself as a consultant to our clients,” says Group CD Tom Parrette. “A bridge between their business goals and the creative output of the team. A bit of a translator on both sides, and making the shared goal meaningful on both sides.”

2. Read between the lines

This relates to problem-solving, but with the intuition, creative thinking, and experience a CD and their team bring to the ask. At Firewood, a big part of a CD’s role is to ask the right questions and challenge their team to come up with solutions that are unexpected and add value. 

Group CD Susan Parker says, “A big part of the role is to hear what the client needs even if they aren’t asking for it. They might not be aware [that] a solution exists or might not be conscious of what they need.”

“We bring a different POV to help them solve their business goals,” says Jess Kaihoi. “The value I can add as a CD are those solutions they’ve never thought of before. It’s basically a nonlinear way of looking at a puzzle.”

“Clients can have a brief, but sometimes they don’t know what they need,” says Tom Parrette. “I like helping people define what they need when they don’t know what they need.”

3. Treat clients as collaborators

One thing that sets Firewood apart from other agencies—and has helped fuel our explosive growth—is our approach to how we work with clients. Even with our embedded agency model, where our creatives often work closely with clients on-site, we take it one step further with a more iterative, collaborative process I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

“The nature of tech is pulling us all together, so clients have become much more active participants in their marketing, branding, and advertising—even in collaborating with their agency,” says Gray Joyce.

For Wayne Lee, it goes beyond how we treat and work with our clients: it’s about putting their interests first. “We reassure our clients that we’re looking out for them. It’s about making their work better. We have their interests in mind.”

Ireland-based CD Brian Finucane also spoke to how CDs provide “that level of reassurance for the client, like when you’re pitching a bold idea together. We help them take that leap when the CD is at that meeting.”

4. Challenge the client (in a positive way)

It goes without saying that to be a CD requires diplomacy, especially when the client might be asking for or doing something that isn’t what’s best for the brand or the project.

What I found is that this goes beyond simply navigating internal and client politics; it’s also about having the vision and courage to take a stand on the client’s behalf—even when they might not see or fully buy into the suggestion at first.

“A successful CD is someone who can challenge the client in a healthy way,” says Walter Kuhn. “Asking questions is huge. It stimulates conversations and it opens up a dialogue.”

Group CD Al Nicolini adds, “We can always do what they ask for, or we can push back if it’s not right. We encourage everyone to think about it a little more.”

“Push the client,” says Executive Creative Director Michiel Schriever. “Ask the ‘why’ questions. Quite often they come to you with a creative brief, and they try to answer that need. I always want to know why. What are you really looking for? Quite often you come up with a different solution when you push for those nuggets and go the extra mile.”

5. Treat the team as individuals

For most CDs, and most Firewood CDs, management and fostering growth is a big part of their day-to-day. As part of this project, I wanted to know more about how our Firewood CDs went about this, since we put so much emphasis on people in the form of inclusivity, talent development, and supporting their success.

Taking steps like providing regular one-on-ones, candid feedback, and stretch opportunities are time-tested methods for facilitating growth. But I was reminded that there is no one-size-fits-all playbook for management. CDs always need to stay attuned to their team’s unique strengths, goals, and interests.

“We have to treat management like an individual lesson plan,” says Al Nicolini. “Apply a level of oversight to what each person needs. I think there’s value in not trying to paint everybody with the same brush.”

“Get to know your people,” says Liz Eva. “Get to know what they’re trying to achieve in their work. Be aware that they have these other elements of their lives.”

For Leanne Chabalko, “It’s important to remember that everyone’s approaching the problem with a perspective that incorporates their hyper-individual career and personal journey, as well as a one-of-kind brain. Listening, caring, and giving room for people to do things their own way [are] all required to build happy teams that make great work.”

Ireland-based CD Rob McDonnell says, “For certain people, you’re shaping future creative directors when you lead a team. We CDs have a responsibility to behave and lead in a manner that’s going to help them realize that potential.”

6. Listen and observe

It’s easy to think that CDs do a lot of talking in the areas of presenting, coaching, leading meetings, and directing. But many of our CDs put special emphasis on how important it is to simply listen and observe.

“Listening is one of the most important elements of empathy,” says Liz Eva. “Whether it’s in one-on-ones or in video chats with clients, checking in with people and finding out what’s going on in their lives helps establish and grow a connection.”

“Listening a lot more is a big part of management,” says Gerard Talampas. “Making time for [our team] so they feel supported and heard. That approachability is huge.”

“A lot of discovery happens in side conversations,” says Al Nicolini. “[Our direct reports] might not be using some talent in their day-to-day. Picking up on that can happen over a beer or a side conversation.”

Tom Parrette shared the story of how he came to become a CD as a result of someone else picking up on one of his “hidden” talents. “Right before a breakup, my ex partner told me, ‘You’re a really good writer,’ so I thought about it. Sometimes it’s obvious to you but not the team member. They have to be good at it, and have a desire to pursue it, but observing and pointing out that talent could be great for them and the world.”

Group CD Susan Parker feels that, for clients especially, “It’s key to listen as holistically as possible, since finding a successful solution is often a matter of translation. We all feel we hear different parts of the conversation, so our job is to hear all perspectives and navigate those.”

7. Let people fail

No one at any level wants to present creative that doesn’t land with the client, or struggle at some aspect of their job. A big part of a CD’s job is to protect their team from tasks, responsibilities, or situations they might not be ready for.

But what came up in my chats with Firewood CDs was that they also had to give their team members room to fail from time to time to facilitate that person’s growth.

“It’s OK to make a mistake,” says Walter Kuhn, “and it’s our job to let them know that and be supportive in that moment. If they’re stumbling during a presentation, I might jump in in the middle to help them out. If it’s something small, or they’re struggling, I’ll talk to them afterwards.” 

For Gray Joyce, this spurs him to “give [people on the team] a little more responsibility than both of you think they’re capable of. Giving someone a chance—even with the possibility they might fail—is the biggest thing a CD can give someone.”

“Sometimes it means letting work go through an internal round and sometimes a client round that could use room for improvement,” says Leanne Chabalko. “I’ve found that this is part of the unique balance of giving direction that leaves plenty of room for people to answer requests in their distinctive, personal way.”

8. Have a sense of empathy

I’ve never seen this soft skill come up as part of any official job description, but at Firewood, it’s critical in managing a successful team, strengthening client relationships, and solving creative challenges.

“At the 3% Conference, one of the speakers said to ‘enter everything with curiosity’ and you’ll always be empathetic,” says Leanne Chabalko. “Don’t think only about what’s on your agenda. Be curious about what your teammate is suggesting or where your client is coming from with any hard-to-handle feedback. Be an active listener. Be open-minded. Talk it out. All of those things create empathy.”

“Compassion is something I think you have to have,” says Wayne Lee. “You have to help your team achieve [a] healthy balance. Read when they have a bad day. Have a sense of humor. It can be a pressure cooker, so it’s important to laugh at yourself.”

Curtis Green also works by the golden rule: “Be frank but supportive. I try to be the boss I wish I had .”

This sense of empathy isn’t limited to a CD’s team members—it also extends to clients.

Trevor Dawson says, “Walk in their shoes. Really try to approach the relationship with a predictive mentality. It can change how you explain things or take their feedback.”

Curtis Green says, “Empathize. Consider the situation your client is in. They’re reporting up to people, they have deadlines. Our job is to help them out. Put yourself in their shoes. Listen a little more. Talk a little less.”

Chief Creative Officer DJ Carey says the best thing we can do for our clients is to “understand them and their vision, so we can better interpret what needs to get done. Our job is to steer and deliver on that vision.”

9. Stay inspired to inspire others

We all know that a big part of leadership is inspiring and motivating others. But several CDs emphasized that this has to be more than just talk. It needs to come from within, and it needs to be authentic.

As Jess Kaihoi puts it, “A CD has to be someone who’s authentically inspired. That’s going to inspire other people.”

Leanne Chabalko says, “Personally, I set challenges for myself to read lots of books, see all the great movies, watch creative television, go to live theater, write in my journal, and stroll through museums as much as possible. Long walks in the park or on hiking trails help, too.”

“You have to constantly challenge yourself as a creative and a person to do your best work,” says DJ Carey. “Bringing that to the table as a leader is paramount. It connects you to your team along the journey and brings things back to center when the team needs a breath of fresh air.”

The most important quality of all

The last thing that really struck me in talking to our CDs was their humility. It’s a cornerstone of what we believe and how we work at Firewood. But don’t take our word for it: research shows that humble people become more powerful leaders.

Throughout the course of these interviews, humility came into our CDs’ emphasis on asking questions, their approach to serving their team and client, their willingness to learn new things—even acknowledging flaws and past mistakes.

Gray Joyce put this simply, and it might be a nice way to sum up all of the above: “Great CDs never say they’re great.”

Share
LinkedIn