17 things a proper creative director does (apart from picking up awards)

Gerry Farrell and business partner Zsuzsa K Farrell

Mum: “What is it you do again, son?”

Me: “I’m a creative director, mum.”

Mum: “Yes, I know that. But what do you actually DO?”

Around 5000 people in the UK have that faintly pretentious title on their business card.

Does the one you work with live up to it?

If you’re not sure, here’s my handy guide to what makes a proper creative director.

1. They don't complain. They fix things.

Prima donnas belong in operas not creative departments. You often hear of CDs 'throwing the brief back'. If the brief’s rubbish, a proper creative director will write a better one. If bad briefs keep coming, he’ll rewrite the briefing template and change the briefing process.

2. They hire creative people who are better than them.

David Ogilvy said “If you hire giants, you will build a company of giants. If you hire pygmies you will build a company of pygmies.” A proper creative director spots raw potential before anyone else and never feels threatened by creatives who are better than he* is, the bastards.

3. They stay later. They work harder. They get the pizzas in.

You don’t see a midwife clocking off just as the baby’s head appears. No use saying “Good luck with the pitch work tonight, I’m off to dinner.”

4. They are the backstop, where the buck stops.

If his teams don’t crack the brief to a high enough standard, a proper creative director steps in, even at the last minute, and cracks it himself. Up until that last minute, he gives his creatives every chance and every encouragement to crack it themselves.

5. They give real appraisals, not just pay-rises.

Creatives at other agencies tell me they don’t have proper job plans and goals. Their CDs say they’re doing great and give them a payrise or tell them why they aren’t getting any more money. I was lucky enough to be sent on the IPA’s four-day Management Skills For Creative Directors course. It was so good, I did it twice. The best thing I learned was how to listen properly. You’re not appraising somebody if you’re doing all the talking.

6. They win pitches.

You’ll struggle to win big pitches without a proper creative director. Of course it’s a team effort but the team have to believe in the work and believe in the guy who’s presenting it. All the bullet points, arrows and triangles in the world won’t compensate for the lack of a great creative idea, brilliantly presented.

7. They never say "I'm not sure" in a creative review.

Creative teams need clear feedback. Not dithering. A proper creative director can tell you right away if a piece of creative work is any good. If it isn’t, he can explain why. If it could be better he can explain how. Those clients who learn to be as open in their feedback as a proper creative director are the ones who make the best work.

8. They are the voice of their agency.

The engine-room of any communications business is the creative department. A proper creative director is the front man. He will say yes to requests to speak about creative work. He will be asked to sit on D&AD and Cannes awards juries and the other jurors will know his agency and its work. When the BBC want an opinion, they’ll phone him.

9. They never forget where they came from.

Proper creative directors go out of their way to see young creatives who are just starting in the business. They will look at any creative person’s work, raw as it is, and give them honest feedback and encouragement. They never forget they were once young too and somebody gave them a break.

10. They're great with clients.

They know how to listen, how to make eye contact and how to read the room. They know when to talk and when to shut up. They ask the right questions instead of knowing all the answers. They don’t bullshit. And they’re not scared to show a good idea because it might be “risky”. They know the clients they already have are their greatest source of new business so they treat them like gold dust.

11. They do their homework.

It’s a mistake to believe that creatives are ivory tower types who sit in their rooms stroking their hipster beards and waiting for inspiration to strike. A proper creative director goes round the factory and watches how the product gets put together. He’ll spend a day outside a supermarket filming and interviewing shoppers as they come out. The best creative directors know that inspiration can come from anywhere but it only happens if you do your homework.

12. They create a 'consensus' culture.

It’s fun listening to stories about creative directors who throw punches and televisions; who tell the suits “don’t come back here unless you’ve sold the idea”. Proper creative directors create calm and consensus around them. They collaborate with their colleagues and they teach their creative teams not to behave like spoilt brats.

13. They have heroes.

I feel sad when young creatives tell me they don’t have any heroes in the business. When I was starting out, I was lucky enough to be mentored by John Hegarty. I worked for great creative directors like Jim Downie and Tony Cox. And I hero-worshipped David Abbott, Barbara Nokes, Suzy Henry, Tiger Savage, Dave Trott and Dan Wieden. I still have heroes, guys like Dave Droga, even though nowadays they’re younger than me. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. To make great work in the future we need to know and be inspired by the great work that came before us.

14. They are ruthless.

A senior account director laid into me once. “I saw one of the creatives in tears after one of your creative reviews.” That surprised me. It may well have happened. I was hard on work that didn’t hit a certain standard. I’m just as hard on my own work. And as I grew up through the business, my creative directors were hard on me. I don’t mean nasty or bullying. But creatives need to learn how to take critical feedback. They’re going to get it from clients, planners and focus groups. The best ones come back with better work. The ones who can’t take it, don’t make it.

15. They are agony uncles.

Creatives can be complicated. They go off the boil, like a striker who can’t score. They fall out with each other. They have egos the size of skyscrapers. They gossip behind each other’s backs. They can be rude to account handlers and planners. A proper creative director knows each one of them inside out. As long as he’s got their backs, they’ll come to him with their troubles and they’ll listen to his advice.

16. They don't take themselves too seriously.

One of my favourite creative directors, Suzy Henry, wrote a great line for Commercial Union, the insurance company. It passed into the language: “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis.” The worst day in an ad agency will never be as bad as an average day in A&E. Proper creative directors hang onto their sense of humour. When there’s time, they get out of the agency with their whole department and have fun. When it’s hard going, the humour just gets blacker. If you walk into a creative department and five minutes go by without somebody laughing, there’s a problem.

*17. They value female creatives.

I’ve written this in the third person masculine because I’m a bloke, not out of any disrespect to the brilliant women in this business.

There have been some astonishingly good female creative directors: Barbara Nokes, Rosie Arnold, Alexandra Taylor, Suzy Henry, Tiger Savage to name five of the best. Working with a great female creative gives your ideas a freshness and balance you just won’t find in an all-male creative department. That’s what I love about working with my other half, Zsuzsa, who’s also the other half of Gerry Farrell Ink.

Gerry Farrell is a former long-serving creative director of The Leith Agency and is now creative fixer at Gerry Farrell Ink

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