This piece first appeared in a book entitled Creative Director: Year Zero, published by Ihaveanidea.com
I'm posting it now on the 10th anniversary of my first day as an ECD.
My first job as a Creative Director was at Lowe London.
I’d been Group Head and Deputy Creative Director at other agencies, but Lowe was the first time I’d actually been given the opportunity to lead a department as part of a management line up.
As it happens, it wasn’t a job I went looking for.
Charles Inge hired Tony Barry and myself as a team, then promptly upped and started is own agency.
We were offered his job at that time but declined. We felt too greedy. We were getting plenty of work out and decided we hadn’t got doing our own ads out of our system.
The months went by and, as various names were floated around, we concluded we’d rather do the job ourselves than work for anyone else. So, after a quick lunch with Sir Frank, it was decided.
We were finally prepared, after years of doing our own ads, to help other people do theirs.
A pre-requisite of being a successful creative director is having the respect of your department. And that comes, in the first instance at least, from teams knowing you have plenty of experience and large body of good work behind you.
As with our parents, we need to believe our boss has all the answers. That they’ve been there, solved that problem, and probably won an award for it. Creative directors are paid for their opinion. And that’s only worth anything if it’s backed up by more than mere intuition.
Our first few weeks were a steep learning curve to say the least.
After day one I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. The pressure was relentless. Meeting after meeting in which everyone turns to you for your opinion. The level of concentration was unlike anything I had experienced.
Not only were you dealing with a dozen different projects a day, you also had to make sure the people entering your office left with a clear idea of what to do next and felt motivated to do it. No mean feat if they’d come in with something truly rubbish.
Tony and I weren’t joint CDs for long. He decided after a couple of months that he missed sitting in a quiet room doing his own thing. And there was none of that in our new job, so he left.
But I was loving it.
I was relishing the ability to have a positive influence. On creative work, on people’s careers and on the culture of a business.
My guiding principle has always been ‘treat people as you’d like to be treated yourself’. As a creative director this meant: be friendly, be respectful, expect the best of people and try and solve the problems they present you with.
The direction in which I needed to focus my energies quickly became clear.
The ‘sold first time’ rate at the agency was incredibly low at that point. The creatives were exhausted by re-brief after re-brief. They’d not had anyone fighting their corner for quite some time. (Everyone said Charles was a lovely guy but never really wanted to get his hands dirty.)
I got far more involved in projects from the moment the client brief entered the building all the way to final sign-off. This meant a load of extra meetings woven into the process.
But it worked well. Soon there was far more work being produced. And as a creative so many problems go away when one is making work.
I loved getting closer to clients. If you speak directly to the person whose problem you are trying to solve you solve it quicker. And by avoiding any mix up in communication you avoid internal arguments over any possible misinterpretation of the brief. You also learn far more about business than if you’re stuck in your office reviewing work all day.
A few months into the job Chris Thomas, my CEO, told me something rather scary that changed the way I dealt with people forever: As a member of management, never underestimate the effect you can have on people.
This is really hard to get your head round.
It’s very tempting, once you move into a managerial position, to behave the way you always have behaved. The truth is that everything’s changed. From the second you take up that job people see you differently. Every look, every word, every gesture is analysed for its subtext.
For example, you’re walking down the corridor and a young member of staff smiles brightly and wishes you ‘good morning’. However you’re deep in thought; concerned about the pitch that afternoon, the fact that one of your teams has just resigned and that a client has just shredded what would have been the best piece of work the agency had ever done. You hardly notice their greeting. You ignore it and walk on, furrow on brow, totally unaware of the potential lasting effect on them: “He didn’t even notice me, he must think I’m rubbish, someone’s told him I’m crap at my job, I’m probably about to get fired, I’m worthless.” Sounds melodramatic, but that’s the scary part. It can happen.
Treating people the way you’d like to be treated isn’t easy. It takes real effort.
But I believe it’s a vital part of the job.
And it sure helps me sleep at night.