CDF’s Black Book: Alvin Chan

As part of the BNO Creative Directors Forum, Graham Sturt interviews leading Creative Directors about the transition from Designer to Creative Director. This episode: Alvin Chan (Cheil).

What makes a great Creative Director?

For many designers making it to the coveted role of Creative Director at a reputable agency is viewed as a 'dream job', and the realisation of reaching the very top of the career ladder. The truth is, only a select few talented individuals actually achieve this accolade, and when they do many find it hard to successfully transition from Designer to Creative Director.

Unfortunately, the ultimate Creative Director user guide, addressing the infinite number of new soft and hard skills necessary to triumph in this challenging role, has yet to be written. Until it is, the BNO Creative Directors Forum has opened its own black book to ask a number of Creative Directors from leading studios for their advice and top tips on how to make it.

This episode: Alvin Chan, Creative Director of Cheil Worldwide, Seoul, Korea.

About Alvin Chan

Alvin Chan is a senior brand and marketing specialist with 27 years’ experience working with Tier 1 global brands: delivering brand direction, integrated campaigns and brand experiences. Holding senior creative positions in world class brand Nike and G-Star Raw as Global Creative Director, responsible for the global brand directions in advertising, retail design, digital and events.

He is currently the Executive Creative Director for Cheil Worldwide HQ in Seoul, Korea, responsible for Integrated Retail and Digital for Samsung Electronics Globally. For Omni-channel Retail, he is the global creative lead for all online and physical retail executions. And for Samsung, he leads all flagship and non-flagship product launches for Galaxy Mobile devices.

Photo: Alvin Chan

Tell us your own path from Designer to Creative Director.

"After graduating as a Graphic Designer in Curtin University in Western Australia. It was by chance that I fell in love with Dutch design through my Honors year thesis research. In the beginning I did my time as designer and later senior designer in a brand identity and environmental graphic studio in Melbourne Australia. Then after 5 years, I decided to take a sabbatical to work overseas and followed by passion of Dutch design to The Netherlands. It was a dream to work at Studio Dumbar where I learnt a totally new approach to design. It was amazing to learn from Gert Dumbar for a year in a studio that more resembled a fraternity of fun than a studio. 

Later I continued the journey to another Dutch design establishment — Koeweiden Postma; where I eventually became co-creative director with Jacques Koeweiden. A few years later, I transitioned back to a more international role when I moved to Nike as European Creative Director, and later the Global Creative Director. From that point onwards I kept the Creative Director role for TBWA Paris, G-Star Raw and also started my own studio Superlarge. I am currently the Global Executive Creative Director at Cheil Worldwide for Samsung Electronic in Seoul."

What was the hardest part of the transition from Designer to Creative Director?

"As a designer, it was all about sharpening your ideas and perfecting your craft. As a visual communicator, the starting process was about trying to make your ideas tangible, and hopefully your expression is inspiring and reaches others. After some training you start to become somewhat good at it. The big gap to become a Creative Director is that you need to influence and guide others to do the same. I find that most designers aren’t necessarily good communicators and sometimes socially awkward. So, most aren’t naturally suited to be Creative Directors. You transform from an individual to a collective mindset. It also means letting go of total control and unleashing creativity in others. That transition is difficult because no one else will create and work like yourself. So, it can be frustrating and you always have the idea you can do it better yourself. Once you realize that you can achieve more by guiding others and continue to learn, then you can truly be a Creative Director."

"Once you realize that you can achieve more by guiding others and continue to learn, then you can truly be a Creative Director."

What specific qualities are essential to become a great Creative Director?

"People skills for sure. It is of course essential to be creative and understand what it takes to make great work. It is our job to be the North Star of quality and reach the goals in delivering great designs. However, 'relationship is everything'. We need to influence and guide our teams, and we need to passionately present and defend our ideas. So this takes people skills to influence others to create, and persuade a client to buy that idea."

Tell us about some of the pros and cons of being a Creative Director

"Sometimes the con is that you become more a supervisor and have less time to be hands-on creative yourself. For me the joy of creating something that surprises myself is still an amazing experience. However, through the years, I have also appreciated seeing someone I direct, and guide grow and flourish to become a better creative. The higher you grow in your role, the more you get into management roles which moves you further away from the reason you wake up every day to go to work. However, if passing on your knowledge can enrich other people’s lives, it can also be a very rewarding transition."

In your view what are the primary responsibilities of the Creative Director in an agency setting?

"The CD role is to be the North Star of interpreting the brief and transforming that to powerful solutions. They are the role models and standard-of-quality creatively. This also encompasses doing the right thing as a human being."

Describe your management style.

"Fluid, diverse and adapting various influencing skills based on the subject. Through my wealth of experience and a keen interest of human behavior, I am highly sensitive that everyone needs a different approach to be taught, inspired and managed. Creatively, I always set the bar and lead by example. I like to be clear and confident in my direction and give room for my creatives to improve what I set as goals. I have a clear end in mind, but I am an inclusive leader. I thrive when my team steps up and delivers amazing work."

How long did it take you to feel completely comfortable in your role?

"Quite a long time as I was and still am quite an individual, sometimes introverted person. My creativity is inside my head, a place of quiet contemplation and decision making. And being a CD, you need to vocalize, share and pull people along. It wasn’t natural, but I had to learn, and appreciate the joys of letting go and the greater good of achieving more together."

Did you ever suffer from what's known as 'imposter syndrome'? If so, how did you deal with this?

"I think everyone goes through that motion to ‘act’ as the leader, before becoming one. Moving to a senior role like this, you always have an impression of being in control and the leader you think you should be. And most creatives have a sense of ego. I have always been confident, but never thought I was better than another person. I stood out naturally and didn’t need the limelight all the time. So I didn’t really experience being an ‘imposter’, but it took time to get used to it. So instead of just having the title, I owned the role and started working with it."

"The best kind is a hands–on Creative Director that leads by example but doesn’t impose their ideas on others." 

What has been your biggest learning experience as a Creative Director?

"That it’s not about me but about a shared mission to create great work together. I would say having good ‘influencing’ skill is vital."

Is it important to set and adhere to a creative vision for the agency?

"It all depends on the type of agency. Some design agencies have distinctive styles and leaders who have signatures. And working in that type of company, you are an extension of that vision. One would hope that you join the agency because you feel aligned with that.

Other agencies are more about a creative process and celebrate individual expression. I had the privilege to do both, and they were all enjoyable to learn from.

At the end of the journey, it will teach you to find your own voice. So, when you start your own agency, you can decide whether it’s an extension of your signature, or an expression of your creative philosophy by empowering others."

Should a Creative Director be hands on or hands off?

"I think it depends on the situation. The best kind is a hands-on Creative Director that leads by example but doesn’t impose their ideas on others.
There are often CD’s that always interfere with the design process as they cannot lose control. So being hands-on can stunt the growth of the creatives and make them lose motivation. However, as the director of the agency, you need to get the result to the specific standard you see fit, and sometimes, you will need to do that."

What tips do you have for building and nurturing a healthy and vibrant creative culture within an agency?

"Try to hire someone that will replace you one day. Empower others to flourish to become great creatives and help them to get there. Create an environment of trust and a common goal, where we all strive for the greater good. For me I value ‘attitude’ amongst most skills, and with the right collective attitude, you can achieve amazing things."

"Leaders aren’t born, they are made."

What tips do you have to continuously inspire creative teams?

"Learn from other industries and venture into the unknown. Pick up new skills and never settle for mediocre. I often find inspiration comes from people around me. It can come from the intern to the seasoned creative. We all have rich experiences in our own way to contribute. Learn from each other."

How do you maintain your own creativity to ensure you remain on top of your game?

"I try to change industries and explore unknown territories as best as possible. Working in another business, working with new people and countries. The ability to still creatively perform regardless on circumstances drives me. It’s easy to get comfortable in what we know, if you don’t stay sharp, it becomes just a job."

How do you create a balance between giving your team creative space while maintaining overall responsibility for the creative output?

"As a CD, you set the target to reach. You have to give your team the chance to find their own way to get there. Some might need more coaching; others might work best with more freedom. You need to do what it takes to end up in the best possible place at the end. However, when pencils come down and you need to present, the work should be of the highest standard representing the agency. So the aim is to be able to spread the contribution to get the maximum results. But sometimes, the CD’s role might be to intervene and be more hands-on to save the day."

In your opinion what is the best way to give feedback on creative work?

"Honestly, objectively and with encouragement. Creatives are sensitive souls and what I learnt fast and still practice today is direct feedback. However, you need to substantiate it with reasoning to help the creative understand the choices and learn for next time."

How do you defend creative ideas to stop bad things happening to the work?

"There are a lot of things that are out of our control as creatives. It is important to know that. It could be factors such as company sales, leadership decisions, ill-informed judgements, etc. The role of the CD is to build the rationale of the work as best as possible so the client ‘buys it’. And do the best job to convince it’s the best solution for them. ‘People skills and ‘empathy’ go a long way to be able to guide the creative work through dangerous paths to the light at the end. I often find logic wins and if you involve the client early on, guide a sound and strong process, deliver the best results and passionately present, that’s the best we can do."

What has been your biggest success as a Creative Director?

"One of my best successes was my time as CD at G-Star Raw. I was in the right place and right time. Being the first CD of brand and coms for the company and having the trust of the owner and senior management, I was able to connect all the channels to launch a totally integrated campaign: Art Of Raw. For the first time, the brand had a consistent messaging from design, advertising, PR, retail, events including music. It was a joy to see the stars aligned for a powerful outcome. Sometimes even with the greatest experience behind you, you need luck to be able to be given the keys to the car."

What was the best piece of advice ever given to you as a Creative Director?

"Leaders aren’t born, they are made. You don’t just suddenly have the charisma and knowledge to do the job. You need to work on it."

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone who has recently been promoted to the role of Creative Director?

"Be generous and share your ideas. Make others better. Continue to do the things that make you happy."

About Graham Sturt

A passionate advocate of Dutch design, he hosts an ongoing series of interviews with some of the countries greatest designers called 'Dutch Design Heroes'.