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Episode 117: 5 Signs Of An Extraordinary Creative Director (minisode)

​"Your creative agency shouldn't be in the friend-making business."

Lisa's on the show to chat about five traits to look for in a creative director! She shares what creative direction is, some red flags to look out for, and how you can find a creative director or agency.

​Follow us: @wheeliecreative

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Welcome to Outside by Design, today it's a minisode with me, Lisa Slagle, the owner of WHEELIE, which is a creative agency for people who thrive outside and the sponsor of this podcast. So. Convenient how that works, isn't it?

First of all, I would like to thank everyone who listens to this podcast. Producing a podcast is a lot of work. It's expensive, it’s super time consuming. We have a great guest lineup this year. And if you're a big fan of the podcast, it would totally help us out if you would leave a review and five stars. If you feel it's a five star podcast, which I hope you do. And if you don't, send me an email and tell me how you think it could be a five-star podcast.

But we're pretty proud of it this season. And I know I'm proud of it. So if you could throw a five-star review and a comment in the app wherever you listen to podcasts, that really helps this get into the ears of more people. Enough of that, let's get into it.

[intro music]

Today's mini-sode is called Five Signs of an Extraordinary Creative Director. Before I get into that, I'm going to tell you what and I'm going to tell you why. Actually I'm gonna start with why. I always start with why.

Why am I doing this podcast on creative direction? We constantly get asked by prospective clients about the investment level and why some creative work is more expensive than other creative work and why freelancers cost a certain amount and why agencies cost a certain amount.

And I always flip that back around and say, “well, actually, let's not look at what they cost. Let's look at the value you'll be getting.” Because not all creative directors are created equal. And not all agencies are created equal. And it's a learned skill as well as a natural talent when it comes to creative direction. It's a very interesting balance. I think I could talk about it all day. I'm not going to talk about it all day, but if you want to talk about it, shoot me an email and we'll talk about it.

Anyway, people often ask, “what is a creative director?” and to me, creative direction often feels like an oxymoron, because can you direct creativity? Yeah, you can. You definitely, definitely can. Because a great creative director - and the job of a creative director - is to provide the vision and lead a team. So it's about this like, half visionary, half analytical role where you have an idea and you figure out how to get there and you figure out what type of results you're going to get for your clients. It's oddly analytical, even though it's a highly creative job. You are in the room with stakeholders and decision makers. And - oh, as a vegetarian, I think the word stakeholder is just fucking ridiculous, but anyway - you're in the room with stakeholders, we're all holding stakes. And then, you know, the goal is to produce return on investment. For every dollar spent, your client should be making much more than the money they spent on you or your agency or your creative work. So the value has to be there, first of all. But…

A creative director is typically in meetings a lot. They're not necessarily the one doing the work. They're guiding the work. They're leading a creative team and they're probably working with an art director.

Art direction is super fun. I guess the difference between a creative director and an art director is a creative director is setting that vision and value. And the art director is really getting to focus on those details. So if you're a detailed person who loves creative control, You might make an excellent art director. And if you're a visionary person who gets bogged down by details, you might make a great creative director.

Anyway, we have been expanding quite a bit at WHEELIE. We have been contracting creative directors, looking at hiring creative directors. I have been spending a lot of time examining what is effective and on brand for WHEELIE as we expand our creative direction.

And so this is subjective. This is from me, but here is my conversation. Five signs of an extraordinary creative director.

Number one, an extraordinary creative director will ask why about everything all the time. All the time! They are highly, highly curious about everything. They want to know how things work, why they work, why people behave they do. They have fine tuned analytical skills and they would never ever use the for word sentence, “because it looks cool” because that just wouldn't be good enough. “Because it looks cool” is awesome, but again, not super focused on why it looks cool or why someone would perceive it as cool or why cool is important or what else we find important. You know, it's just like every question opens another question and that is a sign of an excellent creative director.

Number two, an extraordinary creative director can see things that other people can't. Like dead people. Just kidding. [laughs] No, just kidding. But they can see... they have vision. Future casting is sort of the more professional way to say that they have extraordinary vision. But basically, a creative director like this has an innate ability to close their eyes and see something that isn't even real yet. And so it's this beautiful form of channeled imagination, where they can say, “okay, we're going to do a campaign about XYZ.” They can close their eyes - or even with their eyes open while they're talking to people - be able to see something that isn't even real yet. And then the real skill, the real trick of it, is being able to guide a team and lead a team to help bring that vision to life as well. But we'll get to that in a second.

So we covered curiosity and now we're onto vision. And vision is remarkably important to creative direction, being able to see how people might behave if they interact with this product and its natural habitat. If they see this ad at this exact time. How people behave, what they're feeling when they're looking at their phones. And also just kind of like what it means to experience something from a unique lens. Vision is remarkably important to creative direction because it's not about the work itself. It's about the impact of the work. And being able to see predicted impact is a pretty special trait. And I don't know how trainable that is. I kind of think that one has to be unique to the person.

And I guess a sub skill that's remarkably important to vision is being comfortable with risk and actually having the confidence in your vision to take a risk and say, “I don't know if it'll work, but I bet it will,” or, “this might not work out, but let's just try it anyway.” And kind of having that underlying confidence that “yeah, we got this.” And that's important.

Number three, they understand the universal in the specific. And I'll say that again, they understand the universal in the specific. How you do small things is how you do all things, right? Basically. But nuance is where it is at. And the longer I'm in creative direction, the more I realize that.

How simply can you say something where it still has impact? Because that's the word choice that's gonna rock the shit out of your campaign. Or, you know, the one image that's going to hold up the entire brand. And kind of the understanding that one thing your brand puts out is reflective of your entire company's ethos.

But there's also room for risk. So it's this really interesting balance of risk and predictability, and also, like, really understanding what makes something special, whether it's a brand or an experience or a person, kind of being able to recognize these differences and the nuance and the things that we can connect with as humans. I will say again, if you'd like details, art direction might be your path because it involves just fucking nailing those details. And you know you crushed it in art direction when no one even notices your art direction, by the way. When someone comments on the art direction, it might be overdone enough that it's noticeable. But when it goes unnoticed, it means you did a great job. You created a very, very believable reality.

Anyway, the universal in the specific right, every single tree starts from a seed. So every seed is a tree, right? So kind of just balancing how something starts as to what happens to it, that what one person feels is another expression of something that you will feel or something that you have felt someone else can relate to. And that we're all just humans expressing ourselves. You can bring that into marketing. You can bring that into a lot of things. But it's critical in creative direction.

Which brings me to point number four, a great creative director loves humanity. And they probably love psychology. They know how people think and feel and act. They understand the interconnectedness of all things. They know how to communicate with an audience as well as a client or a creative team member. You know, so they can speak on a huge level from a video perspective or an idea for a brand, and they can also sit in a room with a human being and talk through the ideas and be able to explain, “Hey, this is where we're going with this. Here's why.” They're very good at communicating because they understand people. They understand how to address the person in the room, they understand how to modify their tone and diction. They understand different things that people connect with, which is typically feelings. And they also know how to inspire a team, lead a team, collaborate, express that vision that isn't real yet. And to quote RBG, they know how to lead in a way in which people will want to follow.

This could not be more true with creatives, by the way. And I will say that creative direction is an interesting balance of learned practices and innate talent. And I think, just for me and my journey, leading a team was not something I was born with innate talent to do.And I feel like I'm finally to a stage where I'm really proud of my leadership. So that feels good.

But yeah, creative directors tend to love humanity and psychology and they probably understand humor. I think humor is the hardest thing to integrate into creative work because not everyone thinks that the same things are funny. And so using humor is something that takes great risk and great confidence and skill. So I also think that stand-up comedians are often geniuses because they really understand the human condition and enough so that they not only like fully embrace it and understand it in detail, but they can also kind of make fun of it.

And the fifth sign of an extraordinary creative director is a weird one: they aren't driven by being friends with everyone. A great creative director is not a people pleaser. They really don't give a shit about impressing the client. They really care about results. They care about ideas, they're open to other people's ideas, definitely. And they know how to champion an idea when they see a good one. But a great creative director uses creativity as a tool to solve larger problems. And they have this holistic view that doesn't stop at the people in the room.

The clients in a room and the stakeholders, are very important to a great creative director. However, they’re a small percentage of the actual impact that the work will have in the world. And if you have a creative director that can argue their point and hear your ideas and integrate your ideas, but also say, “Hey, That's not going to be effective because XYZ,” or whatever, a great creative director will push back against their clients.

And if you are a client and your creative team is always like, “Oh yeah, that sounds good. Whatever. Oh yeah.” Like, “you let us know what you want to do.” That's a very likable tactic from a human perspective, but your creative agency shouldn't be in the friend-making business. Your creative agency should be in the human connection business and the business of impact. And so just food for thought, if you ever find yourself kind of going head to head with your creative director, that's a sign that they believe in their ideas that they believe in your brand, and they believe in the impact that your brand could have enough to the point where they're going to stand up for how they think it should show up in the world. So. Little reframe on that, if you've ever been frustrated by a creative. However, you know, If you're working with a designer without a lot of experience, who's trying to tell you that 12 fonts are the best expression of your brand voice, obviously, you know, use your best judgment there.

But I would say an excellent, excellent CD will push back and question things, right? And that comes back around to asking why all the time, the very first thing. They'll push back. They'll say, “why do you believe that? Why do you think this?” And that's when you know that they really care. And the second your creative director or your creative team stops pushing back is the second that they are letting apathy take over. And the second it's time to find a new creative team because your creative team should care about what they're doing a hundred percent.

And so that's what I have to say about creative directors and creative direction. If you haven't caught on, we are in the market for creative directors for summer ‘21, a lot of fun work in the pipeline. So feel free to shoot me your resume if you're a creative director doing freelance work, it's

And, yeah, again, thank you for listening. Thank you for supporting the podcast. And as always, thanks for being here.


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