Creatives like to think that we're just in it to make great stuff. But in the end, you're not only building your portfolio, you're building your career, as well.
But like every building, there are lots of levels. From the ground level to the penthouse, every role is different. So, let's decipher the levels of the creative hierarchy, and how long it takes to jump from one to the next.
Art, Copy, & Design
Let's start by defining the specialties:
- Design - The master craftsperson. Your focus is on visually communicating the message or concept. There are a lot of different types of designers, each with their own specialty.
- Art Director - You make things look good. You'll work alongside a designer sometimes, but you'll also work with photographers, directors, production artists, etc. You should master visuals and help direct others to craft the visuals. However, you also focus on concept, as one-half of the creative team...
- Copywriter - You're the wordsmith. Your specialty is figuring out the best way to say whatever it is that needs to be said. As a team, you and an Art Director are responsible for the conceptual aspect of a project.
A Role, By Any Other Name…
A few things to keep in mind:
- Just the USA - I'm focusing on the United States market. Other countries have different terms for positions, but the same thought applies.
- Not Every Agency - Not all positions are at all agencies. Usually, smaller shops have less hierarchy. Larger shops fill in the levels, and sometimes even add a few more in.
- "Art Director" - A detail of semantics here. In the advertising industry, "Art Director" is a specialty, as in Art Directors and Copywriters. But, in the design world, an "Art Director" is more managerial, almost like a Creative Director, in the sense that they lead a team of designers. They share the same name, but are two completely different positions.
All the Positions
Each of these levels could be for Art Directors, Copywriters, or Designers:
(1-2 internships, 3-6 months each)
You've gotta start somewhere. And the bottom is a good place to do that. You may be awesome and leapfrog this level, but most people need these under their belt to start their career. Along the way, there’s a spectrum of what you can expect:
- Student Programs - If you're in between semesters as a student, but you get an internship, there's usually no plan to hire you. The truth is, agencies want to give you experience, while getting some cheap labor. But once the program is done, back to school you go. If you get any work produced, count yourself lucky.
- Worthless Grunts - This is the internship stereotype: grabbing coffee, building decks, assembling printouts, and doing pretty much anything you’re told. Be careful about taking these jobs, because it's a big tradeoff: is the agency's name on your resume worth the pain?
- A Tryout - More and more, agencies want to get the milk without buying the cow. Or at least test the milk first. If you can prove yourself during the internship, this is the one that might hire you. You'll be in the weeds of produced work, likely comping up pitch ideas or helping design or write creative.
As an intern, nobody expected much of you. But now, you're a professional, and there will be expectations. Mainly, you're expected to try really really hard. Juniors are early in their careers. The industry hasn't tarnished your pristine joy of getting paid to think up things. So, if you seem entitled, lazy, or stubborn, it doesn't matter how talented you are: you won't be moving up.
The work you do will be substantial, but guided. They'll be actual, produced projects; maybe some small ones, maybe some large ones. At a good agency, your managers or at least a senior level team will help train you, but you need to come in with some basic level skills:
- Art Directors & Designers - You need to know how to use the programs. Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. You'll be comping, building decks, and putting visuals together. And learning those basics on the job is a bad sign.
- Copywriters - Write hundreds of lines to get to the good ones. I'm not joking. Every level of creative does it, and doing it now will show you're serious.
As the poet Britney Spears says, "You're not a girl, not yet a woman."
Being midlevel means that you're an established creative. However, that's a broad range. And not all midlevels are the same.
Early on, you've just matured enough to move beyond a junior. You don't need things explained to you, and you can handle some assignments on your own, rather than being spoon fed by your manager. You still have much to learn, from craftsmanship to concepting. However, at this point, you should know your strengths and weaknesses.
As you near the end of your midlevel journey, you're becoming more and more independent. Your focus should be on mastering your strengths and developing past your weaknesses. If you're serious about your career, at this point, you should already be doing what is expected of a senior creative.
(3-5 years...or forever)
You're not perfect, by any means, but you are expected to be great, both conceptually and executionally. Your managers don't have to keep an eye on you. You work well with other parts of the business. And generally, you're the workhorse of a project.
However, this is the end of the road, when it comes to executional advancement. This should actually be the most populated level. People who have come into their own as creatives, as masters of their craft, reside here. After this, you need to learn an entirely new set of skills, or at least be prepared to learn those skills: management. Or as we call it, "direction."
Associate Creative Directors
Once we get to this point, the line between Art Directors and Copywriters blurs. Because, like I said above, it's no longer about pure execution; you're being groomed to direct others.
As an ACD, you need to be really good at your craft, but you need to learn how to make others great at theirs, as well. Approaching the Creative Director role, you should be working with other people, likely leading a project with juniors, midlevels, or seniors on it.
When I first became an ACD, I had a hard time figuring out what my role actually was. I even wrote about having to decide between when I should be in the clouds or the weeds of a project. Because as others are working under you, you can't be the one that solves the problem or comes up with the idea all the time. You need to help your team get there.
To be honest, not everyone is cut out for this level. And not everyone even wants to be at this level. It's a totally different job. Some people love focus and creating. Some people love guiding and developing others. There's no right or wrong, it's just a matter of preference.
(5-10 years...or forever)
Okay, this is what many people define as their ultimate goal. You're a Creative Director, woohoo! But guess what: that fine line you walked between creating and guiding as an ACD. Well, you jumped over that line with this new role.
This takes a lot of getting used to. Your sole job is to make sure the teams you're leading are able to do what they do best: concept and execute. But your sense of creativity should be as sharp as a needle at this point. You're directing them, guiding them, and deciding what work lives and dies. You're responsible for finely tuned feedback and creative vision for your teams.
Sometimes you'll have to run political interference with other departments. You might need to throw your weight around, go over other lower-levels' heads to get shit done.
But, you'll also have to be the bad guy/girl sometimes. You'll remember how hard it was to spend nights and weekends working on a project, yet have your own Creative Director kill those ideas. Now you get to be the asshole.
Group Creative Directors (GCDs), Executive Creative Directors (ECDs), Chief Creative Officers (CCOs) may all exist above the Creative Director role, depending on the agency. They may even have senior or "global" prefixes to their titles, as well.
The higher you go, the more you direct more and more groups underneath, becoming more and more involved in the overall vision of the agency or network.
And as for Vice Presidents (VP) or Senior Vice President (SVP): those are titles usually reserved for more business and partner-side elements of the job. For example, there can be SVP Creative Directors. The higher up the VP title, the more you're involved in things like profit sharing and such.
A Role, By Any Other Name
These are a guide. The time you spend in each role may be shorter (or longer) depending on your skill level or the agency's needs. Some agencies hand out titles like candy. Some hold them closer than a old lady's pearls.
In the end, you define how you're going to behave in your role. It's your choice to go above and beyond expectations. But fall behind, and you'll be stuck in that role for a long time.