For all its art, creative direction comes down to answering a few questions.

October 16, 2009

What’s the big idea?

A reader asked me to write about creative direction…

Most people consider judging and improving creative work as the most important aspect of being a creative director. But a good CD must also be proficient in resource management and new business. In addition, he or she had better be at least as capable as the best creative person in their department. In other words, if you’re a CD-copywriter than you’d better still be able to write good copy. That’s my opinion.

Still, judging work is at the core of creative direction.

When evaluating creative work the first thing I ask is: Do I get it? Do I understand the messaging? If a campaign idea is baffling in any way then it has a serious problem. You’d be surprised how often even talented people get lost in the kitchen, serving up mystery meat. Tweaking is likely not the antidote. The creative algebra must add up. Every creative idea is an argument for its benefactor. Is it a valid one?

Before falling in love with an idea I check its credentials. I do not want to be hurt later! Is the work on strategy? If the work is not then it must be made to fit or abandoned. That or the strategy must be reexamined. We cannot expect to make good work if strategy and creative are at odds. Seems obvious but, again, you’d be surprised.

The third and final criteria: Do I adore the concept? Does it make me want to run and show my client tomorrow? Am I excited? Am I jealous? This, obviously, is the filter everyone points to as most critical. Most creative directors assume if they love something it must be great. Fair enough. After all, we are paid to make such assumptions!

But we must be careful. (See above paragraphs.) Not all great ideas reveal themselves at first blush. Those that do are precious jewels, well worth coveting. Yet, many ideas are diamonds in the rough. Part of a CD’s job is seeing the gem underneath the debris.

And just because I don’t like an idea does not mean it’s bad. As in all conflicts, when one is frustrated by something our first impulse is toward fight or flight. Again, be careful. Sometimes it is not the idea that is flawed. We may be missing something or distracted. Maybe we are at odds with the messenger. Perhaps we are just being arrogant. Am I giving work a fair shake? Am I looking for the beauty within?

For me creative direction 101 works in three parts:

1) Do I get the idea?
2) Is it on strategy?
3) Do I adore it?

Point number 3 gets all the love. But the first two are critical. There are numerous variables: intuition, experience and talent but for me it really comes down to answering the above questions…in that order.

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5 Responses to “For all its art, creative direction comes down to answering a few questions.”

  1. supdog said

    I like how simply your three points work. Would you agree that account folks and planners may have an easier time with the first two? Thus leaving the third point up for some serious debate and internal selling? Does it matter to you if they adore it as much as you? Or is it enough that they simply support your passion? It seems that without point 3 anyone could be a cd.

  2. Zach Myrow said

    Hey Steffan,
    Nice post. I’m an aspiring CD (eventually) and I’m a copywriter. I wanted to pick your brain on creative managing styles. I’ve had CDs that treat everyone the same, put up standards, award those who meet them, and crush those who don’t.

    I’ve also worked with CDs who work 1 on 1 and figure out how the creative ticks and how to get the best work out of them. That is unbelievably time consuming, but seems to yield amazing results.

    What’s your take? Maybe there’s a better managerial style I’m yet to experience.


  3. SRP said


    Early on I did a lot of one on one. As Chief Creative Officer not so much. Fostering a strong group is key. Plus, it’s part of the fun. Since there are typically many creative groups in an agency you want yours to have its own personality, standards and reputation. Think of your group as a team and then forge a winner.
    Good luck!

  4. heya steffan,

    agree on all points except that cd’s have to be at least as proficient as the best creative.

    i think sports comparisons are relevant – the best players don’t necessarily make the best coaches and vice versa.

    the skill set is pretty different.



  5. John said


    One thing I look for in work, in addition to if its on strategy/relevant, etc, is whether or not an idea triggers additional ideas. That seems to be a pretty good indicator of potential for bigness.

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