One Eye Open: Creative directing without being an overlord.

With a title like Creative Director it comes with the job that your opinion and ultimately your direction is required daily. Learning how to do it while not becoming a hovering overlord but still keeping one eye open is tricky. But where you weigh the specifics of that guidance make a huge difference to your team’s output, effectiveness and dare I say possibly even to their mental health.

Last summer I wrote an article on 3 Don’ts and 6 Do’s For Creative Directors. It was originally posted on on my LinkedIN articles feed and seemed to have been appreciated (and shared as far as Mexico’s ad industry more than a couple times – cool!).

The first point for the 3 Don’ts was “DON’T be a pixel pusher or mandate specific direct changes…”

As a counter to that point my first “DO” was “DO work to give specific feedback that not only explains why you think it’s not working, but ideas on how it could work better or where to take it…”(read the article for more of that.)”

With this article I wanted to specifically focus in on that point and counterpoint with some more detailed examples and tips on ways to give direction without micromanaging the processes (*until you’ve gone a few rounds and are forced in some cases to micromanage – which can and will happen at times.) and even when it’s ok to be intentionally vague in your creative direction.

Before we begin…understand your role.

If you haven’t heard it from someone else then I’ll repeat it here: It is NOT the creative directors job to always solve everything and do everything. There is a dangerous belief when a firm hires a CD if they haven’t before – or if they hire in desperation – to feel that person is a lightening rod for ideas and will magically save them. The job is Creative…Director. There are times when you will roll up your sleeves and do something. (Those times are likely the more fun times.) That is when you are slipping back into the role based on what your expertise is, typically an art director, copywriter, designer, etc. Don’t confuse those key projects or moments with your other role as a CD – even if it is a smaller firm where you spend a good portion of your time being hands on. When you are directing others you are NOT doing the work. You are directing them. That side of your job should be done with a calm and confident hand.

As a CD your power to “see” the finish line in the raw first step from your team and help them bring it to life is where you need to focus. All while balancing all the variables like timelines, budgets, client strategy in your head and still encouraging them. It’s sort of like juggling 50 glass balls and smiling like you aren’t afraid one miss is disaster.

Encouraging the team through vagueness (IE: Freedom)…

It’s not because I don’t have a crystal clear vision in my head when a project starts. I usually do. I could easily say just give it to me and I’ll make it the way I want. But then there is no reason to have a staff. And worse, you cut yourself off from the potential of someone else’s greatness before they have a chance.

It’s also NOT in a creatives best interest to ask their boss to solve it for them or tell them what to do. If they like what they do then they should be eager to solve the brief. Instead they should be seeking advice and suggestions on HOW to solve things. We’re sort of like a tuning rod or a compass. We need something to react to to help you find your way.


I will often guide with intentional vagueness at times. I do this by having a very specific goal and request at the start of project with lots of detail and examples and suggestion…then I will tone it down and leave it very open when it comes to the “how”. How will it be executed? How will it be communicated? It is not uncommon for me to say “surprise me” in the initial stages of ideation. Or if someone has something in their head but are second guessing if they can actually create it (which happens more on the design/production side) I will say “I’m sure you can figure out how, just keep digging.” Then I will have more to say as a project moves farther along or if I feel after a few rounds that it’s just not coming through to get it to par.

The reason for this is intentionally selfish. How can you walk into a room to see a bunch of ideas and gravitate to the one you feel will work best if you helped build some of them? You are automatically influenced by the ones you knew previously initiated with them. And if you give too much direction that early on one idea you are also now too biased and emotionally invested. That can blind you from the better idea that could be just on the horizon. Asking them to work more is almost insulting at that point. You might as well say “I’m going to go with my idea regardless so just make it look and sound better.” (Good luck keeping that team on board for long after a few rounds of that)

Managing the team when they hit the wall…

We sometimes slip into a habit of “good enough” with work. It will happen to everyone from time to time. And It will be more common if you or the team have had a few bad experiences with a client or project. You know that zone – you all just want it to be over. This can lead you to take what’s on the table and try to get it off your team to keep them motivated. This is a dangerous habit. It tells them and yourself that mediocrity is ok and it cuts your mind off from looking for the next great idea that could actually turn that view point of the “bad client” to the one everyone wants to work on. In fact some of the greatest creative work has been done with brands you never expected it from.

How? You have a few options when this happens:

  1. Swap the teams. Have an honest conversation with the team that it looks like their heart isn’t in it. Remind them that we survive by what we do with clients so we can’t just walk away or half ass it. And have to be mature in what happens next. Then ask if they can turn it around for another round or if they need to let it go to another team – or to yourself. The other side of that coin is to remind them that if the fresh team cracks it and it’s amazing they can’t be bitter. Sometimes that fresh team just has less baggage for the project or client clouding their thinking. Then give them other work with equal challenge and expectations to work on so they don’t stay down for long. (And honestly if all they do is hit walls, then it may be time to have another discussion because you job is both mentoring this team, the other teams, and ultimately the client creative relationship so that you ALL can still keep working and something unknown could very well be clouding their motivation.)
  2. Try to inspire and remind them what they do is pretty cool. We’ve all been there. You have spent weeks on the brief and everyone keeps saying no. Now you’re burnt out and feeling like you hit the wall. What you want is either to move on or be re-energized. If you are able to give this team inspiration and remind them what the potential of the project can bring you may be able to turn them back to a positive mentality. Try to have this conversation ahead of a time when you are able to give them a break. Like before a weekend. Or if it’s in the daytime force them to take a break outside the office, send them somewhere to just enjoy life or experience something related to the clients business. This will give them a chance to see if they can energize. And DON’T play the blame game. We all hit walls. Support them through it.
  3. Connect the team with the clients through empathy. If you allow it to be in the creative culture it is common that teams will look down on and even openly criticize clients. That is SO BAD to let slide. There is a difference from venting that a relationship or a client that is difficult versus opening attacking them. Instead you should be balancing difficulty with teaching your team how to understand the client’s position and empathize with them. Some of my best work has been done when I knew the client personally and we trusted each other even if we were on opposite sides of the direction. When we care more about our clients as people we work harder for them because we don’t want to let that PERSON down. And Account people – never hide your creative teams from the client. You are not protecting them you are hindering their ability to relate and empathize.
  4. Bring in a support team. Ask another team to help out. This can be dangerous. If you are not clear on how that dynamic works you can cause problems later. Think about this outcome…you bring in another team to support…they crack it…and they either take it farther leaving the team that spent weeks trying completely empty handed…or they depart and the other team is unable or doesn’t want to take the new teams idea and it all falls apart. Be clear at the start what will happen if the new team cracks it. I have seen this work well if it is a Junior to Senior team as there is a chance for mentorship and growth.

Manage your baggage and use it for good…

Unless you had a high creative position just handed to you the chances are your worked your way up through the same stages much of your staff are currently battling through. Two things happen when you’ve been through the trenches long enough: you eventually make it out and you’ve either learnt good or bad habits along the way. When you start to manage people those habits dictate how you manage your team and how they will one day manage others. This is painfully common in advertising and design. As younger creatives enter the business as interns or juniors they there can often be a tendency for middle management and sometimes upper management to vent about how hard it is, lash out at staff or infuse a mindset that you need to sleep at the office to make it. It is also often the case that as you are promoted based on your creative thinking and success in cracking ideas that you start to move up quickly without interpersonal people training exposure. SO you have someone able to crack an idea but not always able to manage anyone but themselves – let alone inspire others to think up the ideas.

However consider this counterpoint; there are a lot of us who had hard childhoods and rough lives and we still turned out to be generally well adjusted, good adults. If you focus on the negative your are dooming your team’s attitude towards their jobs, clients, and other departments. Instead try transparency if times are hard. Try honesty.


I will never shy from telling my team that it’s going to be a rough patch or that it may be a vague patch that we’ll have to find our way through. But I also balance that with reminders of how lucky we are to do what we do on the good days. That eventually it will pass and you’ll survive if you keep a positive team mentality. And most importantly that they are not alone unless they choose to not speak up – I am there to dive in and help and so is the rest of the team.

There is no exact method to directing without over directing. It does take time and practice and you will fail at it as you go more than once.

No matter how you choose to direct your team…or how your creative director treats you. It is important to remember what each persons role is at the company. This needs to happen both at the beginning of the hire and throughout the working relationship. You should be asking and providing feedback on you performance with each other or you work in a bubble expecting it to just work. Just like you personal lives, the creative manager to creative team relationship takes a lot of work.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But they all deserve the effort and gentle hand to know when to talk, when to listen and when to guide – all without being oppressive, controlling or an ass.


Originally published on LinkedIN.


About the Author:

Todd Lawson is a creative/art director who has made commercials, brands, software and ad campaigns, who understands tech and designs UI & UX, a designer who does large scale paintings, a painter who writes articles, a writer who is constantly curious about what’s next. His curiosity has garnered Cannes Lions, One Show Pencils, CA’s, Cassies, and countless other accolades. In 2014 & 2015, he was Ranked 9th & 15th Best Art Director by Strategy Magazine’s Creative Report Card. As Digital User Experience Lead & Associate Creative Director, Todd helped Grey Canada win ADCC’s 2013 Agency Of The Year. But the story doesn’t stop there. In 2015 Todd left Grey to Co-lead the complete transformation of Dashboard, his past agency, from a 16-year-old marketing firm into a Software SaaS Development Company, successfully selling it to tech firm Vicimus in under 2 years. Todd then led the company rebrand, developed departmental processes, guided UI/UX for product, oversaw and built external marketing plans and rebuilt creative and design teams.

See 18+ years of curiosity at

Vertical Experience: Automotive, AutoTech, Alcohol, B2B/B2C, CPG, Cosmetics, DTC, Entertainment, fashion, Financial, Food, Gaming, Health & Wellness, Insurance, Marine, Not-for-profit, Pharma, Publishing, Software, Retail, Tech, Trade events.

Gallery Artist since 2004. Commercial artist/illustrator since 2001. See artwork at