Do Not Tolerate Brutal Creative Directors.

“Life Is Too Short To Accept Brutal Creative Directors.”

In which we have a short but vigorous discussion about creative directors who act out on their childhood issues by brutalizing and traumatizing other creative people. I myself have been fortunate to have had a long career and never been abused by the caprice and arrogance of a brutal creative director. But they are out there. Please join me in my fervent hope that a print-out of this column finds its way onto every one of their polished marble desktops.

The creative director enters the room. Finally.

His untroubled gait belies the fact that he’s fully 35 minutes late. After setting down his mocha-decaff latte he begins to stare grimly at the ideas tacked up on the wall. He brushes his pony-tail off of his shoulder. He sneers, rips an idea off the wall, crumples and drops it to the floor.

He then dispenses what he calls creative direction. To his little clutch of scribblers he gives this helpful and articulate re-direction.

“It’s crap.”

Now he’s working his way down the bulletin board and the campaigns begin to die like soldiers in front of the guns of Gallipoli, in wave after wave. Accompanying the death of each idea comes similarly helpful creative advice:


“Bitch, pleeease.”

“Like I’d do that.”

And finally the wall is bare. No ideas are good enough for his majesty. As he takes leave, over his shoulder he quips, “I’ll know it when I see it, people.” No discussion about what was right about the work, what was wrong. And though his title is Creative Director, there is no direction given to creative.

In a world of sharp objects within easy reach, it’s a wonder these asshats last as long as they do.

Okay, this Latte-Ponytail Guy, he’s just one kind of brutal creative director but these dickheads come in different flavors. The worst ones actually berate and browbeat creatives, bludgeoning them with words that serve to improve neither the work nor morale.

And when their words do in fact improve the creative, these guys will defend their behavior by describing it as “brutally honest.” Unfortunately, all that the employees remember is the brutality, not the honesty.

Imagine how stupid this kind of brutality would look if we could see it in some other venue.


“Hey, I didn’t get to wear this red paper Manager’s hat by makin’ milkshakes as crappy as this!”

Why advertising creates so many of these tinpot dictators is a mystery. What, pray tell, warrants any kind of arrogance at all? Dude, this is advertising. You’re not pullin’ babies out of burning buildings. You’re not curing cancer. You make commercials for cry-eye. Websites. End-aisle displays. Jesus.

If I could get one of these guys alone, my speech might go like this.

Dude, sit down. And toss that fuckin’ latte. Listen, I don’t care …. I said zip it, Pony-Tail. … I don’t care that you were once on a “big Volvo shoot” with Robert Goulet. I don’t care you won an award that one time. I don’t care that you wear sunglasses indoors. The thing is, none of that crap gives you the permission to treat people poorly. Somewhere along the line, dude, you seem to have gotten the idea that establishing a high bar means you can whack people with it.

In a recent post about good creative directors on the Denver Egoist, I read this:

“You don’t get people to want to work harder for you by shouting, … abusing and humiliating. Motivation comes from a place of respect and trust. Good creative directors will want you to do well for you, not for them. They instill in you the kind of passion and drive that makes an eight-hour day become a 13-hour day. If your CD’s idea of motivation is to threaten you with pay cuts, demotions, crappy accounts or losing your job, you don’t want to work for that CD any more. … Sure, you’ll work for the asshole for as long as it takes you to find another job, but word will soon spread that the CD is a raging dick, and the agency will find it more and more difficult to hire genuinely good creative talent.”

My advice?

If you work for a dick-tator, drop a dime on him or her and let H.R. know. If you can get another job, do it and do it fast. And on your way out, spread the word. This isn’t gossip. You’re providing a valuable service to your creative brethren by putting up a warning sign: “Steer Clear. Toxic Dickweed Ahead.”

Or you could, just-by-accident, leave an invitation to my Nov. 10th webinar on King Kreative’s marble desktop: “How Not To Suck As A Creative Director.” Hey…,I’m just sayin’. Register here.


    • Thanks so much. I knew it was on the Egoist, but I couldn’t find it on the site. Thx dude.

  1. Your book was the reason I became a copywriter and this essay is the push that I needed to leave this agency. Thank you

  2. I’ve heard stories about people like this, but thankfully have never worked for any. I don’t understand the people who do, and stay.

  3. Good essay. One that every creative director should read. David Ogilvy’s advice to newly appointed creative director’s was simple: “In my experience, there are five kinds of creative director: 1. Sound on strategy, dull on execution; 2. Good managers who don’t make waves … and don’t produce brilliant campaigns either; 3. Duds; 4. The genius who is a lousy leader; 5. ‘Trumpeter swans’ who combine personal genius with inspiring leadership.”

  4. I think that if the only way you motivate your people is through pay, fear and abuse, then what you have are not collaborators or even employees. What you have are henchmen, and that makes you the villain of the story being told around you.

  5. is this autobiographical Luke?…or should I call you Mr Jello for leaving boxes of it on spineless AEs desk back when you were a young (but entertaining) writer dickweed? Seriously tho, the biz of CDs not giving any D really pisses me off seeing how over paid they usually are. Simply being quality control isn’t enough.

    • Dude! Nice to hear from you again. You are a BIG SHOT at Martin now. And I remember when you were just another one of those Jell-O gobbling account exec’s with a spinal calcium deficiency. 🙂
      Lordy, I was such a pill back then. Hope you will forgive my youthful (and narcotic-fueled) indiscretions.

      • Yeah, I’m one of the idiots that run this place now. And I may have been a jello gobbling AE back then, but I still beat your ass at chess every time, usually in like 5 moves. But don’t feel bad, I’ve made a career out of out smarting CDs. 😀

  6. Wisdom as usual, with a Doctor Who poster thrown in for good measure.

    The best CDs I’ve worked with over the years have been those that allow the writers and art directors on their team to fail and learn from the process. They have demanded rigorous discussion about The Work from top to bottom on the team. Friction makes the blade sharper, as long as the friction is about The Work.

  7. Nice article Luke. Hope the Wall of Awkward is doing well.

  8. Nice article. Promoting people to just above their level of competence is a universal truth.

    Two reasons I started my own little place: Years ago, as a designer I didn’t like the smack-talk of CDs who brought nothing constructive to the conversation, and later, when I had to step into a directorial role, I realized I wasn’t a good manager of other creatives (I got better, eventually). Good CDs motivate and collaborate. Sometimes that means telling someone their idea isn’t working, but you always have to follow up with the _why_ it isn’t working–not just throw a tantrum.

  9. Just found this fascinating article about Alex Bogusky in the online edition of Fast Company. Can’t say that he’s a “brutal creative director” – I’ve never met the man – but it definitely sounds like working at CP&B was/is a challenge.

  10. Love it. And so true. I worked for a BCD once and it was exactly as you describe it. Said BCD’s ranting, sneers and silent treatments only motivated me to find a new job. Luckily I’ve also worked for some CDs of the kickass variety, KCD if you will. And it’s truly amazing what kind of great work you can get produced with some constructive (key word) criticism.

  11. Looks like this is going around in circles. The Denver Egostit’s Felix has quoted you in this new article, which is on a similar subject. Worth a read.

  12. Tanks Luke. This is so true. I LOVE YOUR BOOK.

    • thx dude. I appreesh.

  13. Acting out on their childhood issues is a great description. My partner likes to respond to the rants of A-hole creative directors by informing them that their “High school is showing”.

  14. THANK YOU for this! I’ve been in the biz for over 15 yrs. and have never worked for someone like t his – until I took an in-house job! I have no idea what the portfolio looks like of the CD I work for, but I’m guessing it’s pretty lame. She re-writes my copy, makes it worse and completely cheesy. (I say this and I don’t even have an ego)!
    She has threatened my job, yelled at and mocked me for an innocuous email I sent which she – and only she – misinterpreted, and the coup de grace- told me I give her the work of a junior writer.
    I quit 3 days ago and gave 4 days’ notice. I’m going back to an agency, with people I know,processes I know and where the bar is high.
    She now has 3 open head count for writers that she can’t fill. And she deserves it.

    • well good for you! And just think, some poor kid is gonna take your old job next week or the week after and have to find out for him/herself all over again.

      • It’s funny – you know who hired me? Carole Hurst! (We went to PC together). Then SHE quit! (Smart girl). No bad feelings, we’re still buddies. And she feels appropriately guilty for leaving me here. 🙂

        Yeah – I feel bad for whomever gets this job, but I’m not being quiet about this place either. Also, the ECD here has decided she’s not going to hire any more ad people – the work we give her is too “cute.” (her words, not mine.)

        I sooooo want to send her the speech you wrote as I leave tomorrow. I’m not usually unprofessional, buut this isn’t a bridge I mind burning…..

  15. If your creative director confides in you will with ill-words about your co-workers, let someone know immediately. Gossip comes on a sliding scale of severity. But it’s always a big problem when it comes from someone running the show. Lesson learned: When they stop confiding in you, you’ve probably become the gossip.

  16. Unfortunately, I’ve had more of these than the good kind. I once had a CD at McCann tell me to “keep squeezing it” when I asked him where to take a campaign on which he’d just shot down a dozen or so concepts. Ten years later, I still don’t know what that means.

    I think the larger issue is that we spend so much effort in this business on teaching people to be talented creatives, but almost nothing (at least that I’ve seen) on teaching them to be talented creative directors and leaders. Too often, we reward people for their creative chops by making them managers; it’s a totally different skill set.

    Thanks for the article.

  17. Ad agency Creative Directors need to take their ego and shove it up their ass. There is nothing “sexy” or “glamorous” or “cool” about being an ad agency CD or ECD. They aren’t artists or rockstars or whatever the fuck else they think they are. Most of them are unqualified and untalented and just ended up there by default after putting their time in at the company. Advertising is not art. It’s not even really that cool. We are all just the companys and clients bitch so until you become an actual famous, real, “artist” check your ego at the gate please and realize you are just another brick in the wall creating stuff no one will remember in 6 months.

    And Luke I love how you put it: “Creative Directors are just glorified sign makers.” LOL



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.