10 mistakes creative directors should avoid

Look up the job description for Creative Director and you’ll see responsibilities like: lead and mentor creative staff, present clear creative strategies, enhance work with critical and supportive feedback, and remain involved in all areas of the business. Yet even with these clear guideposts, it’s not uncommon to hear gripes from Creative Directors who have written their own version of their roles.

Creative Director is a huge role that isn’t easily earned. The title means you’ve mastered complex creative problems, made work better through endless revisions, and are regarded as an inspirational figure. When you’re responsible for so much, it’s understandable things might slip a little from time to time.

Whether you’re an aspiring Creative Director who needs help guiding your boss back on track or are currently a CD who needs a moment of self reflection, here are some of the most common pitfalls you may want to dig into.

1. Directing more than you listen.

Sure, you have the word director in your job title, but that doesn’t mean you should point your finger and bark orders. That part of your role describes the years of experience you have, which you hopefully gained by listening to and learning from others. This is critical when you lead teams of people, and are ultimately responsible for their success. You’ll never understand their strengths, weaknesses, goals, and fears unless your ears are open.

2. Communicating minimally, late, or unclearly.

In any strong relationship, communication is key. As the parent of your creative family, you need to let people know what’s going on. And your communication should always start with your filter — What information is relevant to my team? Do I need to translate the message to better provide my team with guidance? If it’s a negative message, how can I position it so it doesn’t paralyze the work? One Google executive uses an umbrella as a metaphor for how the most effective managers should communicate. Regardless of what’s raining down, don’t let it fall on your team and drown them.

3. Giving feedback that’s vague and/or destructive.

Let clients or other internal folks be the ones to say, “I don’t like it.” A good Creative Director always responds to work with clear examples of where the team should be headed, gives a reminder of the goals the work needs to accomplish, and points to strengths, weaknesses and why.

4. Withholding praise, or worse, take the credit.

In a study published in Psychology Today, 83% of people surveyed said recognition for their contribution to the office fulfilled them more than any rewards or gifts. While a well-deserved raise is appreciated, what staff mostly wants is a “nice job” now and again. Never forget that junior designers look to you for validation of when they excelled. If they never get that from you, or see you patting yourself on the back for their work, they won’t stick around for long.

5. Being a bottleneck or block the progression of work.

Stand aside, but stay involved. If you think you need to approve every little step of the work, your team will be more focused on that checklist than the creative. You’re also going to overwhelm yourself with check-ins, meetings, and emails that aren’t valuable to anyone.

6. Picking favorites and/or are not inclusive.

The best ideas can come from anywhere, and often they come from the people assigned to the ground level work. Creative Directors set the stage for when and how ideas are received. If you elevate the same people, or discount good ideas because of where they came from, staff will move on to a place where their creativity is more valued.

7. Ghosting out, or stay too far from the work.

Maybe you worked extra hard to hire only the best talent, but that doesn’t mean you can disappear altogether. While your team doesn’t want a boss who breathes down their necks as they create every pixel, they want to be able to pull you in for questions or guidance. As a Creative Director, it’s your job to get the train back on the track if it derails in the eleventh hour. If you’ve been AWOL, you won’t have a clue where to begin.

8. Refusing to go back to your roots.

If you’re a Creative Director, you probably got there with a ton of hard work and late nights. Don’t abandon that mindset. The best CDs assign themselves work on a regular basis (just don’t give yourself the best stuff) to stay grounded and involved in what the team does every day. Just remember, that doesn’t mean re-do the work yourself, or bulldoze the team’s ideas, it’s simply refreshing yourself on what got you where you are today.

9. Skipping your homework.

As much as some creatives would like to hope an intense meditation session will spark their next big idea, it’s good old fashioned research, observation, and understanding that are the foundations of the best work. A good Creative Director isn’t afraid to do the legwork to gather customer and product insights, determine the competitive landscape, and absolutely anything else that’s needed to kick off a project with as much information as possible.

10. Not fighting for the work.

Once you’ve earned your place at the leadership level of an organization, things can get extra political. Creative Directors go to the front lines to present and defend the work. Don’t just let it die on the table. You and the team spent hours on the work because you believe in it. It’s your job to make everyone else in the room believe in it, too.

Creative Director is not an easy job. You bust your butt for years to get there, and the reward is more responsibility and pressure. But even then, it’s a huge honor that comes with the opportunity to make a memorable impact. So whether it’s your first day, or your 20th year in the position, remember: it’s never too late to correct a mistake and get back to being the most incredible CD you can be.


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