Great CDs Are Almost Always Great People, Too.

Recently I posted an article about brutal creative directors. My advice was to get your book out there as fast as you can. Now, if I may, a few words on what I think makes a good creative director.

I once read that a coach’s main job is to love his players. I think the same holds true for creative directors. Advertising is so hard. There is so much rejection, so much brutality, so many late nights. To be able to motivate people in such a business, you have to love them and they have to know it. Not everyone feels this way. A famous CD once confided to me, “You need to have people fear you.” I disagree. Life is short and this is just advertising, people. If this means I’ll always produce less stellar work than a much-feared-CD, I’m okay with that. We all have our priorities. Those are mine.

Good creative directors need to get to know their people. I’ve heard of CDs who dig a moat around their office and meet only with the senior creatives; never with anyone lower down the food chain. This, too, I think is probably the wrong way to go about it. You need to know and love the people who are manning your trenches. You need to know their names, you need to know what they’re working on, you need to know when they do something great so you can lean into their offices and say, “Dude, that was great.” Soldiers do not charge machine-gun nests for generals they do not love.

Good CDs not only improve your work, they improve you. Someone once told me that a great creative director is a “career accelerator.” These are bosses who leave your career in better shape than they found it. That requires someone who is not completely wrapped up in either themselves or the pressures of doing good work. They manage to keep an eye on the lives and the souls of the people who are working for them.

This takes me to a concept I’ve heard described as the “servant leader.”  Writer James Kouzes wrote that such leaders “do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires [but on] the needs and interests of their people. They know that serving others is the most rewarding of all leadership tasks.”

Wow. Sounds a little altruistic put like that, but then I think of a guy like Mike Hughes at The Martin Agency and I realize, hey, he’s right. Here’s a guy who has been quietly building one of the best agencies anywhere and doing it by serving his people, serving his agency, doing it without an ego, and without beating on or intimidating the folks who work there.

Perhaps another day we can talk about all the other things it takes to be a good creative director,  one of which of course is being a good creative. But for my money the most important thing is being a good person – Honest. Level-headed. Friendly. Approachable. And humble.

Obviously there is a lot to being a creative director. Ways in which we can improve both morale and work and create a huge Kick-Ass-A-Thon in our departments. Oh…speaking of which, I am giving a webinar on November 10th at 1pmEST on how to kick more ass as a CD, or anyone who manages creative people. Register here.


UPDATE since the first issue of this essay on a different website: Mike Hughes, my old boss at The Martin Agency, kindly wrote to me to tell me he agreed with the sentiments in this essay, with one exception: that a good CD has to have been a good creative. He gave several examples, one of which was Bill Bernbach. Mike told me, “They are totally different skill sets.” I think he is correct. I amend my remarks. Thanks, Mike.


Footnote: There’s a great article on what it takes to be a good creative director posted by the Denver Egoist which you’ll find here.


  1. I agree whole heartedly.

    I’ve worked for mostly the ego-centric kind of CD, and I have to say that I’ve also learned more from the nice guys than from the assholes.

    The asshole way of Creative Directoring stifles the creative and has the opposite effect of what it’s intended to do. The work gets worse, not better.

    Great post.

  2. I’ve never been a CD, so please take my remarks with a grain of salt. (It’s always so easy to judge other people’s jobs until you have to do them yourself.)

    I think you’re absolutely right about the importance of being a good person. I say this because I know from personal experience that whenever I’ve had to be creative “under the gun” – with the knowledge that any mistake would be used against me in the court of creative opinion – I sucked. (Some would say I always suck, in which case I sucked even more in those situations.)

    In my opinion, creativity is such a sensitive thing that you need a “general” who will have your back even when the work stinks. Sure, the CD needs to tell you it stinks. But they also need to make sure you know they believe in you, and that you’re not gonna get canned for having a few bad ideas.

    Then again, I know people who seem to do better work under that kind of pressure. So maybe it’s just a question of knowing how to motivate individual team members? (Just a theory… I really don’t know.)

    While we’re on the topic, I think this approach makes sense for ANY managerial role. The best managers are the ones who see their jobs as being serving the people they manage, helping them to do the best work they can. I don’t think it’s limited to creative work. It should apply to accounts, strategy, media, tech, etc.

    • I agree, Mario. This post describes not only what makes a great creative director, but the traits of a leader in general. If I were in an interview for this kind of position, I’d quote it.

  3. Thanks Luke! Such a refreshing perspective on the responsibility of great leadership. “Without a vision, the people perish” and this holds some clout in the creative dept too. Great people will lead great people to do great things. When the work is mediocre, much can be attributed to the personal development and management (or lack thereof) with the creative staff. If unhappy or uninspired, client accounts suffer = agency blah.

  4. Amen. Thanks, Luke.
    These kind of CDs have been rare in my career, but those who do fall into this category have made me a much better creative.

  5. I totally agree with you and MIke about what makes a great CD. I’ve always thought being a good CD was a lot like being the guy with the broom on a Curling team.
    You don’t throw the stone but you clear the path for the people who do. If you’re good at it, people will gain more confidence and start to need your help less and less. Who knew not being needed was such a great feeling!


  6. Who is going to disagree with the idea of working for someone nice over an asshole? Being nice, however, does not a good creative director make. I’ve worked with total assholes with strong vision and direction that have won at Cannes – and I’ve word with nice guys who never really get the job done.

    Advertising is more complex than a checklist of elements that will lead to success – otherwise every campaign would be the Old Spice campaign. The same applies to CD’s – what works for one person may not work for another. Agencies build environments around the talent they have (or visa versa).

    Being a leader, good person, and humble are nice attributes – but not a recipe for success.

  7. One of my most important lessons as a parent was when I realized that each of my boys required a different style of parenting. One-size-fits-all wasn’t going to cut it. What worked for #1 was a disaster for #2. And my experience shows that as it is with children/parents, so it is with creatives/creative director. I agree that the measure of a good CD is to “not only improve the work, but improve people.” (Fantastic line, BTW). The truth is different folks are motivated to grow by different strokes. And that’s a big part in what makes this job so damn hard.

  8. There are those who might say that leadership and creative directoring are, arguably, different things. The first is about providing vision, honesty, strategy, feedback, direction and creating an environment for the group and the individual to succeed. The second it about getting the best ad/idea bought and made.
    I don’t necessarily subscribe to that point of view but I can see what they mean…

    The best advice I ever got about leadership was ‘it’s about them, not you’.

  9. So great to hear there are others who put being human up near the top. Fear never inspires great work. It only snaps shut the part of the brain that was previously wide open to fresh thinking.

  10. Thanks for such a positive post. I sincerely couldn’t agree more. In my career, I’ve worked under the asshole CD and the good CD and I definitely agree that the latter has inspired me, my work and my career immensely more than the former. Here’s to all the great CDs out there.

  11. This reminds me of something Seinfeld said about parenting. People were asking him if it was hard being a parent. I think they were alluding to his changing lifestyle. But he cut right to the heart of it and said, “no, being a good parent is just the same as being a good person.” Or a more clever version of that sentiment.



  1. Welcome to Steve-land. « - [...] think ad legend Luke Sullivan summarizes it best in his blog: “Great CD’s are almost always great people, too.”…
  2. What makes a great creative director - [...] the articles that i mentioned above are by: Felix Unger at Design Taxi Part 1 and Part 2 Luke…

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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.