Creative Agency Culture Business Leadership

What do creative directors need to make them creative?


By Sam Anderson | Editor, The Drum Network

June 27, 2022 | 8 min read

Capturing the muse is a mysterious and idiosyncratic business. To spur their creativity, some need perfect quiet; some need a buzz. Some need spice; others flourish on deadlines. But what do the industry’s creative leaders swear by to get their creative juices flowing? We asked five creative directors from The Drum Network.

A desk with assorted talismans

Top creative directors from The Drum Network on their creative talismans / Juliane Liebermann via Unsplash

Patrick Bennett, executive creative director (New York), Momentum Worldwide: my running shoes

I’d love to cite something poetic like a perfect glass of rhum agricole sourced from the volcanic slopes of Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique. Or maybe that album from 2010 I always listen to when deadlines are looming and creative concepts are few. But if I’m going to be completely honest, there’s only one thing I can give the honor to: my running shoes.

Honoring my running shoes may feel trite, but I do my best learning, thinking and concepting when pounding the pavement.

Almost every morning, I bank between six and 10 miles along well-worn routes crisscrossing Brooklyn. On the weekends, it’s 10 or 13 miles.

It’s an hour or two of uninterrupted time. No meetings. No alerts. No emails. No interference. No distractions. No temptations. Almost every day.

Even if mental roadblocks kept my best ideas at bay the day before, once I lace up those shoes and get out there, the creative juices always flow. A running playlist I’ve been carefully crafting for years or a carefully-selected podcast related to the creative tasks at hand help make this precious time productive and rewarding.

The mileage may vary, but for me nothing else comes close. Recently, I even invested in fully waterproof gear to get my invaluable creative moments, rain or shine.

Lisa Hill, 3D design director, 2Heads: my headphones

The creative process is all about flow. There’ll be blockages along the way, moments when motivation and focus disappear (and other times when inspiration floods in that needs taming). No matter what stage of the process, a pair of headphones is a trusty friend.

Nothing transports you like music. It shifts your mood, sharpens your focus. It’s not only the music. Headphones shut off a whole external sense, turn down distractions and make your own bubble wherever you are.

We’ve all been at a start of a project, delving into the brand, insights and inspiration, and absorbing all the objectives, functional requirements and technical restraints... when focus dwindles. When the headphones are plugged in, there’s something about shutting out the world that brings clarity, bringing the challenge into focus.

The world of music is an endless mood shifter. Music’s a powerful emotional trigger; we release endorphins when listening to music, and our brains are more active. We all know the power of music; how one song can transport you back 20 years. We have our fallback ‘getting ready to face the day’ or ‘pumped for a crazy night out’ playlists.

And there’s the physical symbolism of the humble headphone. Nothing says ‘please do not disturb, I’m getting my head down’ more succinctly than when the headphones are plugged in.

Of course, there’s also a time to take the headphones off, look up from the screen and soak in the world around. Connect with people – you just never know where that next chance conversation will lead.

Charli Edwards, creative director, LoveThat: a habanero pepper

It’s not something I need for creativity, but I need a safe space to get spicy. Passion drives me as a creative director; I love what I do, and so does my team. So when the ideas are flying, we need to have an environment that allows us to be honest with each other. Even when being objective, we can get fired up, but that honesty leads to innovation that we all get behind. It’s exciting and energized, and that’s what I need.

I often come out of meetings and say ‘that was a bit spicy’ – but in a good way.

Joe Hodgkiss, creative director, Nucco: my running shoes, part II

It’s easy to get so involved in the creative process that you get lost. That great idea you had starts to become vague after working on it for hours, and you find yourself feeling that you’re not quite in the right spot yet. When this happens I tend to dig out my knackered trainers, open the door and head outside.

I find running meditative when I’m struggling with an idea. I’ll take myself to my local park and try to do at least three laps. Just changing my surroundings and concentrating on my breathing rather than a specific project does a really good job of hitting the reset button in my head. As soon as I’ve finished I tend to find myself looking at the idea from a different angle. I’ll find a new way of approaching a visual problem or a fresh way of approaching a concept that I wouldn’t have found had I not downed tools and left it for half an hour.

Developing creative solutions isn’t a sprint. There’s a rhythm to it, and having the confidence to say ‘I’m going to leave this for now’ feels vital. I know when I come back to my work I’ll have a new, refreshed angle.

Ben Golik, chief creative officer, M&C Saatchi London: Artline 90 Marker Pen

No matter how digital our inputs and our outputs become, I cannot think without a pen in my hand. Not any pen. The comforting heft and aroma of an Artline marker. Chisel tip. Black ink. It confidently describes itself as ‘high performance.’ I’ll take some of that. It doesn’t matter whether I’m confidently scribing a headline in all-caps in the nib’s pleasing thick/think line, or absentmindedly doodling across a page (A3 70gsm Goldline pad; this also matters).

Something about holding this particular pen cues my brain into thinking mode. It also keeps me away from Google and the rabbit holes therein. I’m untethered. Uninterrupted. Free to follow the flow of ink. There’s probably lots for a psychologist to dig into here. The thick phallic barrel. The promise of indelibility in an industry where so much is so transient. The faint whiff of diesel from whatever EU-approved chemicals remain inside. It’s a heady mix that clears the way for ideas. And the chance to make a permanent mark.

Lori Wittig, creative director at PMG: My kids – Quinn, 5 and Sully, 3

They are brutally honest, imaginative, full of creative ideas and have a perspective on life that reminds me joy can be found in the everyday things. Creativity isn’t always about the latest trends or perfect color palette. Great ideas start with being able to see things from a fresh perspective. And kids are inherently good at that because they don’t know any other way. So, my kids keep me grounded, keep me motivated to work hard, and keep me thinking differently.

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