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: Barry Schwarz, Creative Director and co-founder of Addikt.
Barry started as a digital designer in 1996. As digital media evolved he moved along with it towards digital creative direction & motion design.
In 2004 he co-founded Addikt. Since then he has worked for clients across the globe such as Maserati, BNNVARA, TATA Motors, Housing.com, Star Sports IPL and Booking.com
Addikt has offices in Amsterdam & Mumbai and focusses on creating memorable brands and telling stories that are worth sharing across screens and between platforms.
Foto: Barry Schwarz
Working both in Europe and Asia, Barry has developed a global understanding of branding, design, clients, and communication, essential for creating valuable connections between brands and their audiences.
Barry Schwarz has been a guest speaker at various international design festivals, has judged at a number of international design awards and is a former member of the advisory board of the Dutch Designers Association (BNO).
Tell us your own path from Designer to Creative Director.
"My first job as a designer was with Netgate a startup digital agency, one of the first in The Netherlands in the early days of the web. The internet was so new, nobody really knew what was possible so it was all exploration for me. It was a small team and I was the first creative they hired. I left that agency after 3 years and at that time I was leading a team of 12 digital designers. So my initial path from designer to team leader was a relatively short one.
I left to start DZPLY, a 2 man design studio — being very much hands-on and doing more than just digital design. I think this was where I matured as a designer and a creative. When we started Addikt in 2004 our main focus was on motion design and we rapidly grew to a team of 16. But only when we opened our Mumbai office in 2010 did serious Creative Directorship came into play."
What was the hardest part of the transition from Designer to Creative Director?
"I think the hardest part was to take the lead, without taking the lead. When a project or a pitch comes in you want to create room for opinions, thoughts, and ideas. And not just your own ideas. You really need to try to bring confidence to the team to create innovative work instead of simply following orders. But at the same time, there must be boundaries set and goals to be met.
My transition was organic along with the growth of Addikt. At that time the projects and clients also changed. With the change in our clients I found I needed to adapt and guide our designers from designing cool and beautiful things to developing solutions, which is a totally different game."
"With the change in our clients I found I needed to adapt and guide our designers from designing cool and beautiful things to developing solutions, which is a totally different game."
What specific qualities are essential to become a great Creative Director?
"As a CD you probably need a large dose of empathy but also be a bit masochistic when it comes to challenges. As such I often think 'why didn’t we just go the easy route?'
These two qualities — empathy and masochism — are actually quite connected. When going head-to-head with a project or a pitch you need a team that has your back and is willing to fight all the way to win that pitch or finalize that project. So you need to cherish the team and show them that you also have their backs. It’s sort of a trade off in mentality.
Maybe also a good answer to this question would also be responsibility. You need to feel responsible for the entire thing — the work, the team, the client, the agency and the culture.
Communication skills are obviously also important. You need to be a social person and to be able to hang with your teams and with your clients."
Tell us about some of the pros and cons of being a Creative Director.
"Pro’s: working with enormously talented people, getting to know new people, new industries & new cultures.
Cons: you sometimes get disappointed when you end up working with people who are mentally not flexible enough to think along into the unknown."
In your view what are the primary responsibilities of the Creative Director in an agency setting?
"I think that would be creating an atmosphere of belief and positivity. Both with design teams and clients. As a CD you need to inspire and sometimes push while keeping both the clients' and the agencies' interests in mind. Why do they need this and why are we doing this? As CD you are responsible for the work that goes out and therefore also for the image of the agency."
Describe your management style.
"Erm… I would probably say loose or adhoc. I’m a bit of a chaotic person and sometimes that shows. I really think this is something you would have to ask the team.
I try to organize things as non-hierarchically as possible but not everybody is comfortable with that. Especially non-Dutch team members are not really sure how to deal with this. So I try to give them more structure when needed.
Everybody else is free to pitch in whatever they feel is required. But it has to be better than what's currently on the table."
"I try to organize things as non-hierarchically as possible but not everybody is comfortable with that. Especially non-Dutch team members are not really sure how to deal with this."
How long did it take you to feel completely comfortable in your role?
"I'm still not 100% comfortable but I think that is a good thing. There needs to be room for improvement. When it comes to presenting work and dealing with international clients I'm confident but also conscious. When you walk into that meeting you know what you are going to tell them, but you also know you will learn something new. So be prepared for the unknown.
When it comes to handling teams I think as a CD you want to be surprised by your teams and hope that they come up with something better than you imagined. You are always aiming at that but if the magic doesn’t happen the question is did I not brief them correctly or is there something else I should have done better. It is a bit like parenting."
Did you ever suffer from what's known as 'imposter syndrome'? If so, how did you deal with this?
"Hahaha. Yes. That dates back to my early days at the digital agency when we were exploring this new thing; the internet. We had an idea about what digital design could look like but we didn’t know for sure, nobody knew because it was never done before. So we would just bluff our way through and of course in the end somehow make it work. That is actually the thrill you seek in creating new things."
What has been your biggest learning experience as a Creative Director?
"At one point while doing a pitch presentation for one of India’s top 10 corporates I realized that it’s all a game. There are certain rules but the game has to be played. If you don’t see it as a game you’ll go mad, but if you see it as a game it changes everything. Now I also want to win this game… and that improves our performance."
Is it important to set and adhere to a creative vision for the agency? If so why?
"I think so. The team needs to know where we are headed, what the goals are, what the dreams are. What we tolerate and what we disapprove of. The vision guides the culture and attracts the people you need to reach those goals."
"..it’s all a game. There are certain rules but the game has to be played. If you don’t see it as a game you’ll go mad, but if you see it as a game it changes everything."
Should a Creative Director be hands on or hands off?
"In a perfect world, I would say hands-off but in reality, it feels like I’m the emergency brigade and filling up the gaps other people can’t fill. I spoke to a number of other CD’s who also feel they are the super-sub in many projects.
So in reality, very much hands-on and usually not on the most fun parts of a project."
What tips do you have for building and nurturing a healthy and vibrant creative culture within an agency?
"Be a nice person. Have an open mind. But be clear on what needs to be done/solved. Plus the occasional office drinks of course. This is where all the unspoken things get said and usually get solved and new interests are shared.
With the Amsterdam team we often go boating through the canals in the summer after work. So basically, create a social environment where people feel safe so their work can shine."
What tips do you have to continuously inspire creative teams?
"We work for a number of design platforms that organize design conferences or creative awards like Kyoorius, the OneClub, or AdForum’s PHNX. This gives our designers the opportunity to also visit these conferences or at least see all the winning work. Another big source of inspiration is agency collaborations.
By joining projects with agencies that are complementary to us we learn the most and get the newest insights. Especially with our international partners and international projects."
How do you maintain your own creativity to ensure you remain on top of your game?
"I don’t know, I guess just keep an open perspective. You learn something new every day and try to improve yourself every day. For me travelling really helps. Not only because you interact with different cultures and new clients but also the traveling time itself gives you time to contemplate and overthink stuff.
Before Covid, I was in India and Asia every other 6 weeks, which gave me a lot of mid-air me-time. No calls, no meetings, just you and your thoughts. And your iPad of course."
How do you create a balance between giving your team creative space while maintaining overall responsibility for the creative output?
"I think that’s the most complex thing about being a CD. In the end, you need to fully stand for whatever you present to the client. If I’m not convinced, it will not convince the client either. But I’m also aware that I don’t know everything, and I might learn something new from the team. I don’t just need to love it visually, I also need to understand it. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board, but with maybe new or better directions from me.
I think we are all aware that we are on a quest to find the best solution. Whoever gives the best solution shouldn’t matter, could be one of the designers, could be me, but could also be an intern."
"I think we are all aware that we are on a quest to find the best solution. Whoever gives the best solution shouldn’t matter, could be one of the designers, could be me, but could also be an intern."
In your opinion what is the best way to give feedback on creative work?
"I think that depends on the relationship you have with the team or with the creative. Not only does it depend on the personality, but also what you may expect from them based on their experience or skillset. I think it’s important to try and understand why the work was created the way it is and what was the idea behind it.
So, starting by asking questions is always good. That makes it more into a conversation instead of a personal-flaming-critique, which creates more understanding and helps in the next stage of the process. And sometimes wrapping it up in a shit sandwich (positive-negative-positive) also works."
How do you defend creative ideas to stop bad things happening to the work?
"If the idea is good and does the job, people/clients can still always think of 1000 reasons why it should be different. But there is only 1 best solution. You need to decide with the team that something is the best solution and then hold on to it.
We try to deliver guidelines that are as idiot-proof as possible. We also do workshops with the clients and their agencies on how to implement the work if we don’t do that ourselves."
What has been your biggest success as a Creative Director?
"I don’t know if that can be pinned down to 1 single project or occasion. I think the journey that we took on as an agency to go on this adventure in India and work with great partners for some of the biggest companies there has been amazing. This has not just developed me as a creative and a CD but also as a person."
What was the best piece of advice ever given to you as a Creative Director?
"When I was working on my first job at Netgate, I was introduced to Jim Clark the founder of Netscape, the biggest web browser in the world at that time. A colleague introduced us and told him I led the creative department at Netgate. When we shook hands, he pulled me closer, like Trump also does, and gave me the advice: “Have fun, but be smart”. It sorts of creeped me out at that moment but those words always somehow stuck with me. For Addikt I still hold on to these 2 criteria, if it is not both smart and fun to do, why should we do it."
And finally, what advice would you give to anyone who has recently been promoted to the role of Creative Director?
"It’s a game, not an ego contest. Learn every day and play the game to get the best work out, have fun and leave the ego at home."
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'.