What does it take to become a creative director?

Leftover-PizzaRecently an overly ambitious young copywriter came into my office and asked, “How do I become a creative director?”  My answer was simple.  “First you’ll have to work your ass off.  Nights, weekends, whatever it takes.  Second, you’ve got to be incredibly prolific.  Plan on coming up with at least 12 ideas for every project you get.  If those ideas meet with rejection, plan on coming up with another 12.  Third, volunteer for the toughest assignments, the ones everyone else runs away from.  And finally, assume total responsibility for the quality of your work by paying attention to every single detail.”

“Wow, that’s great advice,” the copywriter responded.  “So that’s what it takes to become a creative director?”

“Oh, no,” I corrected him.  “That’s what it takes to become a senior copywriter.  Then you keep doing it over and over and over.”

The lesson:  focus on performance, never on title or power.

The above story is “borrowed”  from a tale that former secretary of state, Colin Powell, likes to tell.  The original story is actually about an army private who aspires to become a general.

24 comments
Spencer Ostrander
Spencer Ostrander

"The lesson: focus on performance, never on title or power."

This is a very wise posting. I personally find it to be especially relevant to my current acedemic life. As a design student it is important that I remind myself that comprehension of the material
and quality work supecedes an empty quest for symbols of status (grades, diploma).

edward boches
edward boches

Shep:
True. Interestingly, I'm not advocating any of that, was just using the examples to make a point that one's simply focus should be on doing great work, not on the title. Clearly this is a subject that stimulates conversation as the comments far exceed the post in length, thought, points made, etc.

edward boches
edward boches

David:
Thanks for stimulating conversation around balance. Actually, I'm a big believer in balance, but that came later in my own career, after I had kids. Early on it was passion that made sacrifice easy. As some have said, perhaps not in exact words, if you really love what you do, it doesn't feel like either work or sacrifice.

David Saxe
David Saxe

very nice addition to the conversation and I couldn't agree more. and thanks for including the assumption that passion is the pre-condition to true commitment. i find that once you find passion and inspiration, you have to work backwards a little bit and make sure you're balancing commitment with everything else that's important (family, friends, faith - whatever it may be). if expertise takes a minimum of 10,000 hours (Gladwell's Outliers), I'll be the first to admit that finding true balance may add up to sacrificing greatness.

I guess my point is that 40 hours of inspired work supercedes 70 hours of indifference. If your copywriter wants to become a creative director for the paycheck and a nicer car...pass no matter how committed he/she is.

Shep Kellam
Shep Kellam

The Olympic athlete had it mostly right. Talent, commitment, sacrifice. The last part is the question. If you have the first two, sacrifice is not an issue. You just do it. Where's the sacrifice in doing what you love? It's a choice. Not following your passion? Now that would be a sacrifice. One more thing. Stop with all the hard work, long hours, pain, anxiety and suffering. We're not steel workers, we're ad people. I find real joy in my work. If it were all you described, I wouldn't show up every day. And neither would those who work for me.

edward boches
edward boches

Yes, love and passion are key. Didn't mean to leave it out, but assumed that one probably wouldn't commit without the passion. Unless, perhaps, a former Eastern bloc athlete with few options. But true. Forget who said it first, but age old advice includes "do what you love, the rest will follow." If this is a subject (creativity, passion, finding what you love to do) that interests you, I highly recommend reading Sir Ken Robinson's The Element: how finding your passion changes everything. Great book about the importance of finding what you love. Guess I'll have to do a post about it.

Dylan
Dylan

Leo/Joe:

You're both right to route the discussion back to passion. Passion is purpose.

It's usually what gets us started in the first place. When we progress it burns brighter and when we stumble it must burn brighter still. Without that driving force to remind us this is who we're meant to be then we are limited to the kind of innovation we can expect from a machine--purely work without heart.

Of course, like any flame, passion can die out if not properly nurtured. Not everything we're responsible for is tied directly to our passion, yet we are still responsible. As such, we must always remember to find means to keep passion nourished even in times of work that leads to spiritual famine.

It's the least we can do for our number one internal cheering section.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

Edward, I would add one thing to talent, commitment and sacrifice - passion. The best of the best in sports, business, etc. love what they do. I listened to an interview recently about top college players transitioning to the NFL. The message was clear from the NFL coaches - those who don't truly love the game are in for a short career in the NFL.
.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Sound Familiar? =-.

Joe Jacobi
Joe Jacobi

Always love to see the plight of the Olympic athlete woven into such discussions :) I'll only add that it never hurts to love what you do. In the Olympic movement, as I'm sure it happens in others too, it's a shame to see talent, commitment and sacrifice without that love of the endeavor. But it does happen.

edward boches
edward boches

Dylan/David:
Good conversation. An Olympic athlete (forget who) once asked what it took to achieve his goals responded, "first there's talent, then there's commitment, and finally there's sacrifice." If you want to get to the top of any profession, that's what it takes.

David Nathaniel Musgrave
David Nathaniel Musgrave

Dylan,

I think you have made the most sense here. Greatness is just a result of being by doing. Do the job and do it until it hurts. Certainly, that will gain an individual notice, and promotions follow notice and hard work. It is inevitable.

Leo Bottary
Leo Bottary

Edward, I think your advice is certainly consistent with how I was brought up professionally. I also think we have to be careful about how we interpret the junior copywriter's question. (S)he may have been speaking about the role/sensibilities of being a creative director versus title and power. Also, I know Mullen is the kind of organization that lets people lead regardless of where they sit. First step to being a creative director may be working in an organization like Mullen that allows people to lead and grow regardless of title and tenure.
.-= Leo Bottary´s last blog ..Sound Familiar? =-.

Dylan
Dylan

It reminds me of an expression I like to use which is "in being you will become."

Immerse yourself whole-heartedly into what it is you do.

If it's being a great writer, write until your hand out-bleeds your pen. If it's being a great ice cream scooper, scoop until those knuckles turn blue. Sure the first words won't sound so pretty and maybe your initial scoops look more like scrapings from an iced windshield. But over time, in being what it is you want to be, you will become it.

A writer is meant to write and a scooper, to scoop. Greatness is just a result of being by doing.

David Saxe
David Saxe

Great post and application of that story. I would be curious to hear your thoughts, though, on the idea of working "smarter", not necessarily "harder". Late nights and weekends are often expected, but I find folks who take steps to learn, broaden their knowledge base and deepen their expertise are the ones who separate themselves - not necessarily the folks who are willing to work 15 hour days. Willingness to work hard shows an employer that they have someone with the pre-condition to excel. I find that inspiration and humility to learn is where you find that you have a future leader. Thoughts?

Seth Simonds
Seth Simonds

That copywriter blew an entire conversation on vague career advice that might have been spent ingesting real thoughts on how to improve a current project.

I suppose it'd wreck the storyline for the creative director to remind the copywriter of that fact?

A great reminder to seek out challenges and focus on quality first. Thanks!
.-= Seth Simonds´s last blog ..Is There a Place For Rants on a Professional Blog? =-.

Teresa Basich
Teresa Basich

I know what to strive for. Always great food for thought here. Thank you. :)

Joe Jacobi
Joe Jacobi

Thanks for posting this story, Edward. Always enjoy your posts because they go far beyond advertising. Hope all is well with you.

-Joe

Stuart Foster
Stuart Foster

Game on? ;)
.-= Stuart Foster´s last blog ..Can’t Close? Activate Your Community =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Matt:
Been a long time, thanks for stopping by. I'm sure by now you could be giving advice. It is funny that it's all so obvious (focus on performance not power) yet sometimes we lose focus.

Matt Laurence
Matt Laurence

Excellent advice, Edward. Thank you for that, and for the various guidance and kicks-in-the-pants you gave me 15-20 years ago, between some Ad Club classes and my years at Mullen in the Mac production/design department with Laurie Miles and Lee Busch. Hope all is well at the new Mullen mothership.

Chris Wooster
Chris Wooster

Perfect timing. This puts a nice exclamation point on my advice to a Junior Copywriter just this morning.

I also pulled out the John Wolfarth trope: There's two words in the title. Make sure you are both "Creative" and "Director." Half is in the thinking. The other half is rooted in inspiring those around you to elevate their game.

edward boches
edward boches

David:
Good points. A couple of things. The creative process, as you know, has few rules. But there is one: you do whatever it takes to get to great. If you can do that by being smarter, power to you. But often, the best people, smart, thorough, honest in their self-assessment just can't stop trying to make things better. So they keep going. Secondly, in this day and age, with reviews that include dozens of agencies, with diminished budgets, with more competition than ever, it comes down to the last half of a percent. Every detail counts. Hard to get it all done between 9 and 6. Finally, my real point wasn't that you should work 15 hour days. It was the idea that you should focus on doing great work and solving the problem at hand. Then the rest will follow. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

edward boches
edward boches

I have actually known people who wasted so much energy on worrying about the others around them and their titles and their assignments that they forgot what it was they were supposed to be focused on: the work.