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

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

tore claesson December 14, 2010 at 5:35 pm

A very good post. I think it’s pretty obvious than none of us want to have a boss we’re afraid of. So why some aspire to be feared is beyond me. Sure, it may keep them in power the way things work right now. But if we look to ourselves we want bosses we feel are helping us. It doesn’t mean the boss has to love everything we do. Sometimes we need to get sorted out. I’ve been a CD most of my adult life. The older I’ve got the more I’ve understood the role of helping people with their jobs and careers rather than having them do work I can take credit for. The latter has become a problem in our industry.
People need to be personally associated with awards to thrive. Generally you rise to become a CD because you do some good ads or something and win some awards.
If you win enough of those awards you may become an ECD at a famous agency. To keep your job you need to keep winning awards. Awards have become so important in our industry they’ve basically corrupted it. And corrupted the CD role. CD’s are desperate to win awards to stay on top, to keep their jobs. Or to get the next job if they want to change jobs, move someplace else, or need to change jobs if get laid off for whatever reason. So the creatives they hire and boss over are their tools to their personal success more than anything else. The “servant leader” (James Kouzes), will not survive. Because nobody will recognize the job such a leader actually does. Our industry has been corrupted by the awards. The glitter of metal gongs. The lists. The rankings. Thus a lot of work that actually never ran but won awards have built careers. It is not advertising. It does not serve the clients. And it doesn’t serve the nice guys in our industry well either. The nice and talented guys get robbed. It is actually possible to be both nice and creative. But a great many good people in our industry live in fear today. In fear of not winning awards. In fear of being punished for servicing the client rather than the egos of their bosses. Bill Bernbach was also right about the skill set. To be a great CD may not be the same as being a great creative. Dave Trott has written abut is as well. But the reality is that many CD’s today got there by being great copywriters or art directors and not great people people. The logic tends to suggest you must be able to do fantastic ads yourself. But as with coaches, you may not need to be the best catcher, or pitcher, or scorer, or tackler, or runner to be a great coach. In fact, it may have nothing at all to do with it.

Per Robert Öhlin December 14, 2010 at 6:11 pm

I grew up in sports. First it was ice-hockey. Then running. And later, swimming. After that I started to coach young, aspiring swimmers to work harder than they ever thought possible, and encourage them to set goals beyond their imagination. From this experience I’m convinced that a ”nice” leader has a bigger potential to make his team more creative than just being an arrogant prick.

Per Robert Öhlin December 15, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Just finished reading the second part of the article mentioned in the footnote. It’s a bit long, but offers great advice.

Håkan Engler December 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Yes, it’s a great post. It reminded me of a big international survey I once read. The question was: What is the reason for any soldier to climb out of a trench, run over a field against enemy fire that most probably will kill him? The answer was never religion, not even for very religious people or countries. It was never the king or the country or the ethnic origin. Not even opression or hate. And definately not heroism or ambition. The answer was always: The group. The feeling of doing it together. Sorry for the violent paralell, but I think a really great CD (and/or CEO) creates a culture where people will give everything for eachother. In the long run it’s such agency cultures that succeed. And still our media is obsessed with individuals.

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