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How to become a Creative Director in the US

Posted by Timofey Yuriev on November 28th, 2011 at 10:01 am

Adventures of Creative Director

What should be the characteristics of a successful creative team leader?

Each one of us has a unique collection of personal and professional preferences for people we’d like to work with. But instead of looking at others and trying to adjust to the request of the masses, where the leader would become an "all-destroying terminator targeting to become a president", I would like to look objectively at how to be a leader with the most sought-after professional qualities.

When I was dealing with rational, competent professionals, in general, there were no intractable problems in the course of our work, and few inter-personal problems.

Based on this, I would like to tell you some of the stories about what leaders should not be, from my personal experience, communicating with the managing staff in the marketing and advertising industries in New York City.

I need to tell you a bit of my past background, so you’ll be able to adequately access my point of view:

I went to the U.S. in 1996, after finishing my college education in management / economics / architecture. By that point, I was an avid mountaineer, had my own private practice in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and was a successful entrepreneur. I built a night club in Russia during hard economic times. By twenty-two, I was versed in the life surrounding me. And I turned my desire to see another world into practical action.

I did not speak English, knowing only general phrases like "piece of cake" and "no problem." I used some NLP techniques on the immigration council, got my visa and bought a one-way ticket to New York. Then, after working for a year at a car wash and construction sites, sleeping in the streets, I realized that it was time to do something more entertaining. I improved my English, created a few online animations and websites, studied books on graphic design, and drew up a brand new resume containing several years of experience. After about the 17th interview, I got my first offer and my first creative boss:

Sam
Sam, was the owner of a company specializing in online learning, I met him in 1998, getting my first job as a senior graphic designer in a small firm in the lower part of historic Manhattan. Our company shared its offices with another firm, specializing in production of computer games, mainly shooters, and creating all sorts of computer-generated explosions.

Back then, I still did not speak English very well, but my portfolio, in the form of a little fish waving its tail, happily exuding little air-bubbles and shaking the entire screen when someone touched its back, made ​​Sam laugh - that’s how I got my first, legitimate salary at $23 per hour. The next 3 months were spent animating logos, buttons and creating a lot of websites on the side, with cartoons for our company employees. Sam spent most of his time at the neighbors, shooting away the boredom of his life. He had a little contact with us, occasionally sending down the table directives, on which few people paid attention because they were mostly philosophical reflections on the future of our company.

From time to time we had visitors like “monsters” from TechRepublic and ZDNet. Some of the partners of these firms were Sam’s friends since college, creating their empires at the time of the “Internet Bubble” of the nineties. With the “monsters,” we had fun chasing beer and with Sam explaining to everyone that I was a “cool specialist in GUI (graphical user interface),” sending an avalanche of organizational issues in my direction. Soon, with my help, TechRepublic, together with a handful of other corporations, were completely reorganized. I returned to my buttons lit by explosions from the adjoining rooms, and Sam returned happily to his computer shooters. A couple of months later, due to lack of activity I resigned. Two months later, the firm collapsed.

What I found for myself at this point was the:

  • lack of objective
  • lack of leadership

Brian
In the early part of 1999, I found work at a start-up security company specializing in advanced background checks, with its main office in New Jersey. With a fake work permit (it was not an easy time for me), I got a job there as an Art Director. I interviewed with Brian, a 30-something, balding, German-American wearing round glasses. Brian loved to smile without reason to the higher management, Japanese women, because of their obedience, and Judo, sometimes coming to the office wearing a green belt around his waist.

Brian, impressed by my story about the TechRepublic, immediately hired me. The first month, Brian gave me a lot of work to design mock-ups for a bunch of new companies, which he later sold to his superiors as brilliant innovative ideas. From time to time, he advised me what colors to use and I had to teach him the psychology of color, the meaning of graphic elements and the fundamentals of design balance. A month later, confident in his abilities, Brian would stand behind my shoulder all day long, constantly telling me what to do next. By that point my breathing has ceased to conform to its natural rhythm.

Once, over a cup of coffee, the engineers told me how Brian asked them about what computer folders are and how to create them. Over some time, Brian had ceased to ask me anything and became an “expert” on every topic of graphic design and production. At this moment I knew for sure that any given project I completed would be absolutely not the way Bryan liked. A bit later, Brian stopped all communication with me. I didn’t know what to do and as the last step - I decided to go to Brian’s boss. He told me that I had to deal with Brian personally. Brian told me that I couldn’t go home at 6 o'clock anymore, and needed to carry out other office tasks such as sorting mail. I spent a month trying to do work I was hired to do, ignoring any of Brian’s suggestions related to bookkeeping chores and the cleanliness of the place, and eventually resigned.

So, I met with:

  • incompetence

Molly

Molly was a business manager and a networking specialist with a PHD in marketing. After receiving the first client through her connection, my staff carried out the work according to the customer specifications. Molly came back the next day with a request from a client to alter the project by 80%, which would take us another week. Having examined the new conditions, I realized what the customer wanted was an almost entirely new version of our project because the client couldn't clearly express their final goal. The problem was in the preliminary discussion of the project. My requests for direct contact with the client went mysteriously unanswered, and Molly had no idea how to conduct a briefing. I explained to Molly the process once again, and gave her the briefing forms. With great persuasion, Molly went back to the client for a detailed discussion of the project. She returned the next day with a request from another client to alter their project by 80% too. I refused to work with this client, and with Molly.

And that's how I stumbled on:

  • incompetence
  • unavailability
  • indirectness
  • uncommunicative

Mike
Once, in 2001, after the unification of our global company with another, two creative departments were merged. From our side, I was performing the whole process of creative work, and from the other side, the Creative Director by the name of Mike, had a team of an illustrator and a web-designer. He wore charcoal dyed hair and drove around in a Porsche and Ducati.

During the formal introduction, it became clear that I was doing the same amount of work, as everyone on the purebred American team that Mike put together. This didn’t help to create the mood of the rainbows in our brand new company.

The relationship between Mike and the marketing department was exceptionally horrendous; from time to time, he would scream at the Director of Marketing including her little helpers, and then would lock himself in his office, blasting jazz until the end of the day.

Once I came to him with a request from the marketing team to develop a brand new concept for one of our subsidiaries, where marketers had expressed a desire to create soft emotions for the brand, because target customers were pregnant women. At that, Mike explained to me that: “we are not soft people”. The logo turned out in the style of the musical band Rammstein, something that overall resembled the shape of a uniform of Oberführer SS.

Once, a frightened woman in the marketing department complained to me with tears in hers eyes that Mike promised to kill the entire Marketing Department with rat poison. I was getting more and more concerned for their mental health. After this, on recommendation of Mike I was fired. A month later, Mike’ entire team along with him was dismissed from the company, and I was invited back.

I did have a lot of fun with Mike, and I love jazz, but his personal qualities had not led to any productive work.

This is where we meet with:

  • non-authenticity
  • incompetence
  • indirectness
  • negativity

Stories such as above, allow us, with real-life examples, to understand what sometimes can exist in our management world, and with what kind of people we can work, as well as what personal traits are able to lead us into the abyss. So we found out that a leader, certainly should have the following qualities:

  • Must be present.
  • Must have a clear direction - if the captain doesn’t know where to go, where will he send his entire team?
  • Authority and authenticity - you don’t want a leader who is not versed in his own business.
  • Honesty - if your leader doesn't have a confidence, how can his team members trust him?
  • Accessibility - how can we do our work if your leader is a private entity?
  • Positivity - it doesn't mean that your captain has to constantly smile at everyone, but we are predisposed by our nature to do good in our world.

During the growth of my career, I met with many wonderful colleagues, and positive people in the many firms who outweigh all the negative people, they are easy to solve the most complex problems with. If you have a good boss, I congratulate you.

Qualities of a good leader can be summed up simply: know your business, know the target, understand how to develop an action plan, learn to delegate work properly, and most importantly - be truly and wholly, a good person. Everything that you do in every moment of this life - builds you and your environment.

©2011 by Konstantin YurievTimofey Yuriev

One Response to “How to become a Creative Director in the US”

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