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 week: Alexanda Hulme, Creative Director at R/GA, Los Angeles, USA.
About Alexanda Hulme
Alex(anda) is a multidisciplinary designer working across brand, visual design, behavioural design and user experience. Previously he worked for Interbrand Amsterdam, Moscow and London (2007–2012), DixonBaxi (2016–2017), Eight Inc. (2015 & 2017–2018) and Wolff Olins (2018–2020). He is currently a Creative Director for R/GA California.
Foto: Alexanda Hulme
Tell us your own path from Designer to Creative Director.
"After graduating I was ready to step foot into the industry but struggled to find any good design jobs in Manchester. At this point, I decided to set up a small design collective with a friend and our 'agency' gained considerable recognition, even though we really had no experience or guidance in building a profile. I threw myself into pitching for work, finding new business, briefing freelancers and just trying to get paid on time. For a few years things were going well, but I was exhausted! I quickly decided that I wanted to learn from more senior/mentor figures within a reputable agency so I approached some international branding agencies hoping someone would give me a chance. I wanted to work in another country and experience a different culture as I felt it would help me to become a better designer. That's how I ended up at Interbrand Amsterdam.
After 4.5 years working not just in the Amsterdam studio but also across Cologne and Moscow, I was able to win a number of design awards and work on some big global projects. I moved back to the UK with Interbrand to work in London for a year before moving on from the corporate branding sector to gain experience across agencies that I truly respected (DesignStudio, Koto, Studio Output, Ogilvy, DixonBaxi) and then eventually joining Eight Inc as Design Director and more recently in a combined role as Creative Director for Wolff Olins London and New York, traveling globally to meet with new and existing clients, pitching and delivering brand roll outs across their teams.
Currently I work for R/GA's branding practice as a Creative Director."
What was the hardest part of the transition from Designer to Creative Director?
"The most difficult part of transitioning to Creative Director was to reset my personal focus and goals from wanting to be the best designer I could be, to being the best creative leader. Suddenly it wasn’t about me anymore — I may be the ultimate creative decision maker but without a team working well together it's impossible to deliver great work. I quickly realized that you are only as strong as your weakest team member and it was my role to ensure every person had the tools, support and confidence to create outstanding work."
"I quickly realized that you are only as strong as your weakest team member and it was my role to ensure every person had the tools, support and confidence to create outstanding work."
What specific qualities are essential to become a great Creative Director?
"Clarity, communication and ambition. You need to be able to explain your ideas and decisions and how they align to the ultimate goals of a project. This is less about what I like and dislike but why it does and doesn't work. This then needs to be communicated to the team to make sure expectations are aligned and everybody understands them. Maybe most importantly you need to inspire both clients and those around you, by having an ambition to create great work. Great work attracts the next generation of talent, it brings new ideas to the table, new voices and great clients with a similar ambition."
Tell us about some of the pros and cons of being a Creative Director
Being responsible for others
Having a voice that carries greater weight
Building a team with a collective goal
Being closer to the key decision makers
Too many meetings
Putting out fires
Having less peers to share problems
In your view what are the primary responsibilities of the Creative Director in an agency setting?
"Although there are variations across the studios I have worked in a few are universal:
Define and articulate the problem
Produce great work that adds value to our clients' businesses
Encouraging designers growth and development
Always look to build new processes and ways to approach projects that can be scaled across the network
Be a voice for the creative work."
Describe your management style.
"I'm unsure how this may come across but I try to be the Creative Director that I wished I had when I was a Designer. By that I mean someone who is clear in their direction, decisive and brave in their choices and has trust in the talent of those who work with them. I've worked with both good and bad Creative Directors throughout my career and always managed to take learnings from them, although sometimes it's how not to do things."
How long did it take you to feel completely comfortable in your role?
"To be honest I don't think it's a bad thing to be uncomfortable in the role, I think sometimes being comfortable can lead you to losing your edge. My advice is to own the uncomfortable as it makes you sharper, more focused and ultimately produces better work.
In short I try to admit that I don't have all of the answers to a creative challenge (and that's uncomfortable!) but I have belief that I will enable those around me to find it."
Did you ever suffer from what's known as 'imposter syndrome'? If so, how did you deal with this?
"I don't know if I can call it imposter syndrome but there are definitely times when I've questioned why I am in a meeting and what value I am there to add."
"My advice is to own the uncomfortable as it makes you sharper, more focused and ultimately produces better work."
What has been your biggest learning experience as a Creative Director?
"Brian Boylan founder and President of Wolff Olins gave me a great bit of advice that has stuck with me — 'you have to make the role your own'. I understood that as there is no blueprint for the role, it's about translating your experiences into something that guides others to a creative output be it clients, project managers, strategists or clients.
Is it important to set and adhere to a creative vision for the agency? If so why?
"I think that is dependent on what that creative vision is — does it have inherent flexibility, an ambition to challenge the status quo, a need to stand apart and is inclusive? Then yes. If you proudly stand for something and communicate that to both your clients and the market you can attract the type of talent and clients that enable you to keep evolving that vision. If that creative vision is about a visual treatment or a dogmatic way to create and output work that alienates others 'because they are not the right fit' then no."
Should a Creative Director be hands on or hands off?
"I don't think there is a right answer here, you have to be the Creative Director you are meant to be. If you are comfortable leading by example then get hands on and create benchmark work that inspires others. If you prefer to inspire by placing trust in your team then let them take the initiative. Either way you need to make sure you give those who you lead a voice in the process rather than just your own. You're a team leader not an individual."
What tips do you have for building and nurturing a healthy and vibrant creative culture within an agency?
"Be brave, be experimental and more importantly be inclusive. Building and nurturing a creative culture is arguably the hardest part of the job, and as with most things in life actions matter more than words. In my experience to build a creative culture you have to get hands on, it can't be a top down initiative you need to use your privilege to give others a platform through both formal and informal events — put the creative work up for crits, let others show their side hustles or portfolios, allow people to say no to working on client projects they don't believe in, embrace new points of view. Also having a Friday beer (pre covid) with everyone doesn't do any harm."
"People are smart, they can see straight through false enthusiasm so you need to have honesty when you talk to your team."
What tips do you have to continuously inspire creative teams?
"I think you need to pick your moments rather than continuously inspire. People are smart, they can see straight through false enthusiasm so you need to have honesty when you talk to your team. What are your ambitions, why do you want the project to succeed, how does it link to the agency's goals?"
How do you maintain your own creativity to ensure you remain on top of your game?
"I have a hunger to not just design the work but to design the machine and processes that make it. I'm curious and interested in how we can evolve and grow how we create brands — we are still following the mechanisms from 20–30 years ago. How can we introduce new learning and onboarding for clients in the creation timeline, why aren't we establishing and then designing for behaviors first, what happens when the primary touchpoint of a brand is a verbal AI interface? These are some of the things that keep me excited about the future."
How do you create a balance between giving your team creative space while maintaining overall responsibility for the creative output?
"It has to be balanced. In my last two roles as Creative Director for my KPI’s I’m equally judged on the creative development and fulfilment of my team as I am on the creative work. To do that I need to give them responsibilities and trust them to deliver and if they can't, they need to have the confidence to come back and ask for help.
I found the best way to do this is to be clear in what they need to deliver and when, to be open to other ways of approaching the creative brief but also to make it very clear that I am the one who is responsible for presenting the work and final sign off. As long as upfront everyone understands their roles and ambitions for the project I can then empower the team to deliver it"
In your opinion what is the best way to give feedback on creative work?
"It's about clarity and communication, explain the lens you are viewing the work through and then break down your feedback for others to understand your decision making. This allows others to grow. I never reduce feedback to taste by talking about what I like or don't like — it's about what works for the project and why."
How do you defend creative ideas to stop bad things happening to the work?
"It has to be strategically aligned with a clear narrative, if you can resolve that challenge it makes it very difficult to substantially change the work. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t change a client's point of view, if they don't like something for an emotive reason no rationale can change that, you need to accept it as part of the creative process."
What has been your biggest success as a Creative Director?
"I only think I can answer that once I've retired.
What was the best piece of advice ever given to you as a Creative Director?
"Be confident but don't be egotistical."
And finally, what advice would you give to anyone who has recently been promoted to the role of Creative Director?
"We have one of the greatest jobs in the world, we are literally paid to make shit up! Take the work seriously but remember to have fun."
About Graham Sturt
Graham Sturt is Creative Director and Partner at D8, a strategic design and branding agency with studios in Amsterdam and Glasgow. During his career Graham has held roles at a number of leading international agencies, collecting numerous awards for his work.
Graham is active in the creative community as an awards judge and collaborator, providing workshops and mentoring for emerging creative talent.
Photo: Graham Sturt (Photography: Jerome de Lint)
A passionate advocate of Dutch design, he hosts an ongoing series of interviews with some of the countries greatest designers called 'Dutch Design Heroes'.