How Not To Suck as a Creative Director.

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 11.01.12 PMI think it’s a shame that so many people, when they become creative directors, forget what it was like being a creative. Most of them seem to forget what it was they themselves most needed, back when they were a workin’ creative. They forget what it was like. They forget what they were like.

Me? When I was a young copywriter, I was (among other things) insecure, arrogant, clueless, impatient, and always cynical. Always cynical. And cynics are hard to lead because they don’t believe a thing most managers have to say. And the thing managers do that cynics find most grating?


“Hey, it’s not so bad we have to re-pitch this client! I just know you can come up with something better!”

Cynics hate cheerleading. Cynics don’t want account people to beat around the bush saying, “It’s okay, your ads are with Jesus now.” Just say “Dude, your campaign died because the client didn’t get it. And yeah, it sucks.” I’d counsel managers to share the creatives’ pain, to share their frustration. They don’t need you to come in and plop some whipped cream on the shit sandwich.  In fact, when one of my teams was told they had to do something that was stupid or just kinda sucked, I said, “Hey, when you have to eat a turd, don’t nibble.”

Cynics hate cheerleading. They also hate pretty much everything about corporate structure: memos, meetings, time sheets, expense reports, all that H.R. stuff. It bores them or irritates them. The smart creative manager will do everything he or she can can to streamline the corporate red-tape and act as a buffer against agency bureaucracy.

Cynics also hate meetings. They’re a huge time-suck. Cynics think, “Why did we even have that meeting? You coulda just leaned into my office and said it.” My suggestion: fewer meetings, more conversations.

Here’s another interesting thing about creatives. You’d be surprised how much torture we can take if you just tell us why we’re being tortured. Creatives like transparency. They wanna know what they’re part of. They wanna know why they’re being asked to do something, even if it’s a dumb reason; and in this business, it usually is a dumb reason.  Smart creative managers don’t try to “protect” creatives from the bad news; and in this business, it usually is bad news.

It’s bad news, so just say it. If you try to tiptoe around it, you’ll end up sounding like that guy in Office Space who was always goin’, “Uh, yeeeeaaahh, if you could just go ahead and come in this weekend.”

Another thing I wish I’d heard less of when I was a young creative?

It usually comes during a creative meeting. Someone in the back of room puts down their donut and says, “Well, if I could just be the devil’s advocate here for a sec….”

Dude, shut up.

Ideas are fragile. The bubble can pop so easily. Instead of being the devil’s advocate, why not be the angel’s advocate? Don’t just blurt out what you hate about something. Not liking stuff is easy. Anyone can do it. It’s harder to find out what’s good about the idea. The trick is finding that little coal and then blowin’ on it till it’s flame.

I forget where I read this quotation from writing coach Jay O’Callahan, but it went like this: “It is strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses. When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive.” He went on to suggest, “If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose our intuition to notice beauty.”

I found this very same advice from a venture capitalist, David Sze of Greylock Partners: “Anyone can tell you why something’s going to fail. The real trick is to find out why something will succeed.”

Before I wear out my welcome here, I’ll just close with one last piece of advice, this one from my old boss, the late Mike Hughes of The Martin Agency.

Mike said that rejection is such a daily part of this business, and so it’s important to remember creatives need to score a victory every once in a while. It doesn’t have to be a huge win; just a little victory at the right time can keep creatives very motivated. He said:

“[A creative director should help find] relief for the people with thankless jobs – the copywriter on the account that has a new direction every week, the account person who deals with the especially difficult client, the project manager on the project that can’t be managed, the planner who’s partnered with a not-very-good creative team.

“Sometimes that relief means the top people at the agency need to get involved with a problem client or account. Sometimes it means moving people into different positions – even if it makes everyone involved feel a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it means creating or investing in projects that have a high likelihood of meaningful success, even if that success isn’t a financial one.”

Oh, how I miss Mike.

–Luke Sullivan

[Full disclosure: I didn’t plan for the essay to stop this abruptly, but the fall quarter is ending and I gotta run.]








  1. You can also just behave as a regular working man and stop being cynical. Do you really think you’re ‘special’ for other people that work with you, and that they have to treat you in a special way? I’ve worked with creatives when I was starting as a Producer and honestly I have to put up with that shit when I have clients, and seniors bitching about stuff. Having creatives that bitch about things only makes it worse. Just shut up and do as you’re told because that’s how we all get to a result… I have to do that too, CD’s as well, everyone.

  2. Pete Campbell, ladies and gentleman. Thanks for stopping by, Pete. Now back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

  3. “Just shut up and do as you’re told.”
    I think I heard Fenske say that that was the key to making great advertising.

  4. Thanks for the great article Luke, I’m currently in the cynical copywriter stage myself. While I’m also trying to take Pete’s no advice to shut up and do as I’m told, I could definitely relate to everything being said here

  5. That was lovely Luke. Thank you. ~ heidi

  6. Really nice article, but can I tell you how tired I am of being referred to as a “creative”?

  7. This is relevant to all young cynics in the workplace. Yes they’re arrogant, but that’s because they recognize that the result of their efforts out of the gate are simply better than their peers. What they don’t get yet is how to mesh personally within the team or have experienced an up-and-comer out-shine them. So yes, give it to them straight and allow them the extra time they need to develop the soft skills of understanding nuanced or ridiculous situations at work and managing their righteous emotional reactions. But talk them through it because as you said, they need transparency, they need someone to explain why the soft stuff matters and experience the results of good workplace behavior.

    • YES!!!

  8. George Carlin said, “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” Creatives are dreamers, and when ideas die, so do dreams of what they could have been. It’s tough, but that’s the job. If it were easy…

    I also think creatives need thicker skin. I know I did. It was hard to understand how to be a professional. I had to come to terms with the fact that, when I walked in the door, what I created wasn’t for me. I enjoy the process, so when I finally let go and realized that not every idea was a thing of beauty, life got easier. I was able to chase the real ideas – the ones with fangs instead of teeth.

    I suppose that means I’ve graduated to the second phase of copywriters – we start as cynics and evolve into philosophers. I wonder what’s next, and my inner idealist hopes it doesn’t suck.

  9. You’re right, Luke. When we’re CDs we forget what it was like to be a creative. We also forget that what made us a good creative does NOT make us a good CD.

    It’s one reason why so many CDs suck. Going from “Me” to “We” is something we should be trained to do. Instead, we get the promotion but no one teaches us how to set our own ideas aside and make our team’s brilliant ideas and emotional needs our first priority. A lucky few creative are born leaders/managers. The rest of us go down in flames or take years to learn that T – E – A – M means Together Everyone Achieves More.

    Unfortunately, everyone on the team isn’t the same. So while your cheerleading advice is sound – when dealing w/cynics, creatives are as varied as the ideas they come up with. Some of them are delicate flowers who need a gentler touch. The trick is to figure out who takes their medicine straight and who needs a little sugar to help it go down.

    One piece of advice you shared that is universal is “Anyone can tell you why something’s going to fail. The real trick is to find out why something will succeed.” CDs everywhere, I encourage to take this to heart and remember that sometimes your most important job it to keep picking the best ideas out of the trash bin and polishing them until they’re seen for the gems they are.

  10. Pretty words no one could disagree with except those of us who have dealt with the infinite number of variables that go into “creative direction”.

    If only those (like educators, politicians and blog writers) practiced what they preached…

  11. This couldn’t be any more different to my experience (from both sides)… Nurture through positivity. There are too many assholes already out there.

  12. Preach, Luke!!!
    I’m going to pass this around the agency if you don’t mind.

    (Oh…..and I miss Mike as well.)

  13. Luke(look), what advice do you have for some dude aspiring to be a creative? I’m that dude.

  14. Nice article! Very Helpful. Thanks for sharing. Keep inspiring us. 🙂

  15. 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. 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



  1. If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas? - Kill or be killed - […] Here’s a great article from ‘Hey Whipple’ author Luke Sullivan on what makes a great CD. […]
  2. The Links | The Good Read Guide 5th December | Rebecca Hawkes - […] + How Not To Suck as a Creative Director. […]
  3. How not to suck as a creative director | Dead Famous Hive Mind - […] By the Hey Whipple guy. […]

Leave a Reply to Kayela Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Suggested Reading

There is no shortcut. This is how we learn it. Bit by bit.
View List

Recent Tweets

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.