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Why Being a Good Creative Doesn't Make You a Good Creative Director

4 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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There's a saying in the career world: what got you here, won't get you there. This guy named Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book with that title back in the mid 2000's, and it said something we knew instinctively, but never really articulated. And for those in the creative field, it meant one thing.

You can't just be a great creative to be a great creative. (That might sound familiar. But this is different.)

It's kind of like in sports. Look at Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzkey. They were superstars. Those legendary athletes did wonders as players. But put them on the bench as coaches...they sucked.

Whether it's going from junior to senior, senior to ACD, or ACD to CD. The skills that made you great at what you're doing right now aren't the skills that will help you in your next role.

So, let's figure out what those skills are.

Being Good at Making Shit

When Gretzkey was playing, it was all about puck-handling. The details. He knew where it was going, and he went there. Magic was the same way. The way he could see the world around him, and control the ball, was...well, magical. It was all about the hard skills they needed to be the best.

When you're an intern, junior, mid, or senior creative, you've got one job: make creative great...again. (Okay, I couldn't resist.) You ideate and execute. The better you are at doing those things, the higher you climb in the creative hierarchy.

But maybe you'll want to keep moving up, and something's holding you back. You'll hit a wall and your creative director will see it. You'll be great at making creative, but that's about it.

It's because your expertise is soley focused around creating. It's about the work.

You've spent your entire career sharpening those skills, so wouldn't it make sense that, to go further in your career, you need to improve those skills? Noooooope.

Looks like it's time to expand your skill set.

Making Others Make Shit

Now, when Gretzky and Magic got on the bench as coaches, they realized that it wasn't about their player skills. They didn't need to know how to pass or shoot, they needed to explain to others how it's done. They needed to see the bigger picture of the game, how each player interacted with each other, and how to make all those pieces work together. Unfortunately, they just didn't seem to be able to do it.

The skills that made you a great creative, aren't going to make you a great creative director. Because when you make that jump, it all changes.

As a creative director, you're not making creative. You're making creatives.

It's rare that a CD will get to where they are without having the skills to be a good creative. Of course you had to be able to ideate and execute. But that's not your job anymore. The days of locking yourself in a room for a few days and emerging with brilliance, are gone.

The scales have shifted.

Now you need to have leadership skills, presentation skills, a little bit of politicing, a dash of management, and a whole lot of multi-tasking ability to do what needs to be done.

And what needs to be done is pulling ideas out of others, recognizing good ideas (even when some people don't), and being able to lead a team that's exercising their creative skills.

You'll need to work with other team leaders, to make sure that everyone is moving towards the same goal. You'll have to handle metaphorical fires all over the place, figuring out which ones are important to put out and which ones can burn for a little longer.

You'll need a totally new set of skills than the ones that made you a creative. And those skills are more about the people than the work.

Growing Means Leaving Things Behind

I've written about how ACDs have to find that balance between going deep on one project versus wide on lots of projects. I've talked about how it's not an easy shift, sitting in the middle: 50% working, 50% leading.

But in reality, it's not a 50/50 balance. In the beginning, you'll lean into your strengths, working to solve a problem if you see it. But if you're looking for more, you'll need to move beyond the work, and start focusing on the people.

And if you can't (or won't) do that, your creative director can tell. And so can your team. That's what defines a good director from a bad one: the ability to not only trust their team, but bring great things out of them. Not to do it themselves.

What Will Get You There?

Here's where it gets hard: you won't always know what you'll need in the next stage of your career. In all honesty, I had simply assumed creative directors were just really great creatives. But that's not the case.

I've met plenty of great creatives that shouldn't be director-level.

And I've seen a few creative directors that are better at leading than doing.

The trick is to find that person that can enlighten you. The mentor that will let you know where you fall short. The leader that knows what skills you'll really need to take that next step.

Because all you know is what got you here.

So what will get you there?

Thanks for reading!

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