How Not To Suck as a Creative Director.

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I think it’s a shame that so many people, when they become creative directors, forget what it was like being a creative. Most of them seem to forget what it was they themselves most needed, back when they were a workin’ creative. They forget what it was like. They forget what they were like.

Me? When I was a young copywriter, I was (among other things) insecure, arrogant, clueless, impatient, and always cynical. Always cynical. And cynics are hard to lead because they don’t believe a thing most managers have to say. And the thing managers do that cynics find most grating?

Cheerleading.

“Hey, it’s not so bad we have to re-pitch this client! I just know you can come up with something better!”

Cynics hate cheerleading. Cynics don’t want account people to beat around the bush saying, “It’s okay, your ads are with Jesus now.” Just say “Dude, your campaign died because the client didn’t get it. And yeah, it sucks.” I’d counsel managers to share the creatives’ pain, to share their frustration. They don’t need you to come in and plop some whipped cream on the shit sandwich.  In fact, when one of my teams was told they had to do something that was stupid or just kinda sucked, I said, “Hey, when you have to eat a turd, don’t nibble.”

Cynics hate cheerleading. They also hate pretty much everything about corporate structure: memos, meetings, time sheets, expense reports, all that H.R. stuff. It bores them or irritates them. The smart creative manager will do everything he or she can can to streamline the corporate red-tape and act as a buffer against agency bureaucracy.

Cynics also hate meetings. They’re a huge time-suck. Cynics think, “Why did we even have that meeting? You coulda just leaned into my office and said it.” My suggestion: fewer meetings, more conversations.

Here’s another interesting thing about creatives. You’d be surprised how much torture we can take if you just tell us why we’re being tortured. Creatives like transparency. They wanna know what they’re part of. They wanna know why they’re being asked to do something, even if it’s a dumb reason; and in this business, it usually is a dumb reason.  Smart creative managers don’t try to “protect” creatives from the bad news; and in this business, it usually is bad news.

It’s bad news, so just say it. If you try to tiptoe around it, you’ll end up sounding like that guy in Office Space who was always goin’, “Uh, yeeeeaaahh, if you could just go ahead and come in this weekend.”

Another thing I wish I’d heard less of when I was a young creative?

It usually comes during a creative meeting. Someone in the back of room puts down their donut and says, “Well, if I could just be the devil’s advocate here for a sec….”

Dude, shut up.

Ideas are fragile. The bubble can pop so easily. Instead of being the devil’s advocate, why not be the angel’s advocate? Don’t just blurt out what you hate about something. Not liking stuff is easy. Anyone can do it. It’s harder to find out what’s good about the idea. The trick is finding that little coal and then blowin’ on it till it’s flame.

I forget where I read this quotation from writing coach Jay O’Callahan, but it went like this: “It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses. When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.” He went on to suggest, “If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose our intuition to notice beauty.”

I found this very same advice from a venture capitalist, David Sze of Greylock Partners: “Anyone can tell you why something’s going to fail. The real trick is to find out why something will succeed.”

Before I wear out my welcome here, I’ll just close with one last piece of advice, this one from my old boss, the late Mike Hughes of The Martin Agency.

Mike said that rejection is such a daily part of this business, and so it’s important to remember creatives need to score a victory every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be a huge win; just a little victory at the right time can keep creatives very motivated. He said:

“[A creative director should help find] relief for the people with thankless jobs – the copywriter on the account that has a new direction every week, the account person who deals with the especially difficult client, the project manager on the project that can’t be managed, the planner who’s partnered with a not-very-good creative team.

“Sometimes that relief means the top people at the agency need to get involved with a problem client or account. Sometimes it means moving people into different positions – even if it makes everyone involved feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it means creating or investing in projects that have a high likelihood of meaningful success, even if that success isn’t a financial one.”

Oh, how I miss Mike.

–Luke Sullivan

[Full disclosure: I didn’t plan for the essay to stop this abruptly, but the fall quarter is ending and I gotta run.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Condensed List of Some of the Stuff I Teach at SCAD.


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I once read that smart companies should give away what they know. I didn’t get it at first but the more I read, the more I saw how these “generous brands” actually attract paying customers. Cool. So, with that in mind, here is a condensed version of pretty much everything I try to cram in my students’ heads every quarter.

What is the truest thing I can say about my product or category?

It’s not a very big idea if it doesn’t fit on a Post-It note.

Platforms start talking to you and won’t shut up.

Where is the emotion in this product, service, or category?

Identify and leverage the conflicts/tensions/polarities in your product or category.

All drama is conflict. Find a “bad guy.”

When everything is okay, people are not interested.

Bad is stronger than good.

Without is stronger than with.

Remember, it’s “got milk?” not “have milk.”

If tension’s not evident in your category, make it up.

What is the wrong thing to do? Be disobedient at every turn of the way.

Will people talk about this idea?

Are you sure they’ll even let us do this idea?

Don’t make things for the internet, make things out of the internet.

It’s less about messaging, more about content.

It’s less about ads, more about experiences.

It’s less about talking to, more about talking with.

It’s less about making people want stuff, more about making stuff people want.

The new ideas may not look like ads as we know them.

The new ideas come from culture not commerce.

The new ideas don’t just fill media spaces, they create them.

The new ideas are shareable and participatory.

Would the press cover it?

Would a person use it?

Would a person share it?

“Is what I’m working on beautiful useful or entertaining?” (from R/GA)

You can’t become X by saying you are X.

Brand actions speak louder than brand words.

A brand can’t claim it’s authentic. It must be authentic.

Authenticity doesn’t mean no agenda, just transparency.

Can you tell the idea to your best friend with a straight face?

Simplicity: You idea should communicate in a FLASH.

Product = Adjective

A platform is an idea that creates ideas.

A platform is not a story. It is the mother of stories.

Big ideas are good. Long ideas are great. (Doing one good idea is kind of like doing  one push-up. It’s pretty easy. The trick is to do it a lot.)