Luke Sullivan: Great CDs are almost always great people, too.

by Per Robert Öhlin on December 14, 2010

Recently I posted an article about brutal creative directors. My advice was to get your book out there as fast as you can. Now, if I may, a few words on what I think makes a good creative director.

I once read that a coach’s main job is to love his players. I think the same holds true for creative directors. Advertising is so hard. There is so much rejection, so much brutality, so many late nights. To be able to motivate people in such a business, you have to love them and they have to know it. Not everyone feels this way. A famous CD once confided to me, “You need to have people fear you.” I disagree. Life is short and this is just advertising, people. If this means I’ll always produce less stellar work than a much-feared-CD, I’m okay with that. We all have our priorities. Those are mine.

Good creative directors need to get to know their people. I’ve heard of CDs who dig a moat around their office and meet only with the senior creatives; never with anyone lower down the food chain. This, too, I think is probably the wrong way to go about it. You need to know and love the people who are manning your trenches. You need to know their names, you need to know what they’re working on, you need to know when they do something great so you can lean into their offices and say, “Dude, that was great.” Soldiers do not charge machine-gun nests for generals they do not love.

Good CDs not only improve your work, they improve you. Someone once told me that a great creative director is a “career accelerator.” These are bosses who leave your career in better shape than they found it. That requires someone who is not completely wrapped up in either themselves or the pressures of doing good work. They manage to keep an eye on the lives and the souls of the people who are working for them.

This takes me to a concept I’ve heard described as the “servant leader.”  Writer James Kouzes wrote that such leaders “do not place themselves at the center; they place others there. They do not seek the attention of people; they give it to others. They do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires [but on] the needs and interests of their people. They know that serving others is the most rewarding of all leadership tasks.”

Wow. Sounds a little altruistic put like that, but then I think of a guy like Mike Hughes at The Martin Agency and I realize, hey, he’s right. Here’s a guy who has been quietly building one of the best agencies anywhere and doing it by serving his people, serving his agency, doing it without an ego, and without beating on or intimidating the folks who work there.

Perhaps another day we can talk about all the other things it takes to be a good creative director,  one of which of course is being a good creative. But for my money the most important thing is being a good person – Honest. Level-headed. Friendly. Approachable. And humble.

UPDATE: Since the first issue of this essay on a different website: Mike Hughes, my old boss at The Martin Agency, kindly wrote to me to tell me he agreed with the sentiments in this essay, with one exception: that a good CD has to have been a good creative. He gave several examples, one of which was Bill Bernbach. Mike told me, “They are totally different skill sets.” I think he is correct. I amend my remarks. Thanks, Mike.

FOOTNOTE: There’s a great article on what it takes to be a good creative director posted by the Denver Egoist which you’ll find here.

Luke Sullivan ia a nationally acclaimed copywriter with a 30-year track record, Luke Sullivan is Senior VP/Managing Group Creative Director at GSD&M, a self-described “ad geek” and the author of the best-selling book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising. Luke’s experience includes 10 years at Fallon and five at The Martin Agency, with work for Miller Lite, United Airlines, Toyota, Black & Decker, BMW, Porsche and AT&T. He has more than twenty medals to his credit in the prestigious One Show and has served as judge for many creative award shows. Check out Luke’s blog: Hey Whipple.

Luke Sullivan