I spoke to 20 creative directors in 2 weeks; here are 5 things I learned
Written by Shane Hegde, Air’s CEO and Co-founder
Creative Ops comes from an endless need for efficiency
Over the past year, my team and I have been hard at work sharpening Air’s positioning within the category of creative operations. I’m not a creative director — I don't have first-hand experience with the challenges distributed creative teams are facing in today's content-driven world, pushing harder than ever to meet so many demands.
But I am on LinkedIn. So I’ve been reaching out to all the best creative directors and creative ops leaders I can find, seeking to learn how they approach this work, and get feedback on how we’re seeking to solve the challenges of creative ops with Air.
Thankfully, many of these folks have been happy to get on a call with me and speak about their work, about the challenges and pain points they face, and how they’re charting a course to success in today’s difficult, media-driven world.
I’ve taken over 20 calls in the last two weeks alone, and I’m truly grateful for the time and consideration these very busy people have given me. There’ve been so many insightful and fascinating moments in these conversations but I wanted to share these five nuggets that came up time and time again (anonymized out of respect for the candor with which they were shared).
Highlights from 20 conversations with creative directors
1. The hardest part of creative work is letting go
The need for creative assets rarely comes from the creative team itself; creative assets are requested through briefs tied to business needs. Creative teams work hard, they get inspired, and they deliver — then the feedback comes. There’s a need for clear, cogent communication so both the requester and the creator can align and arrive at a final product that passes the creative’s quality standards while meeting business needs.
The hardest part of creative work is letting go of something you’ve created.
By letting go, I mean you’ve created this beautiful pitch, you’ve sold it, and then execution starts to happen and changes start filtering in. Then in post, there are so many changes. With your initial vision, there’s a moment where you have to choose what to let go of and what not to let go of.
2. Inspiring your team is the most rewarding part of being a creative director
There’s a crucial difference between individual-contributor-level creatives and their creative directors, or other team leaders. Almost all creative directors are drawn from the ranks of creative teams. What defines a truly great creative director and draws them into the role? A strong ability to identify and nurture the talents of others.
I know this is going to sound really weird. But the most inspiring thing for me has been growing my team. When I get to sit with someone and think through something with them and see that spark in them and that passion burn, I'm like, yes, like that gives me meaning.
So I would say growing the team here, fostering creativity, and trying to create a safe space for them, where they feel like they can sail forward and not be afraid.
There were so many times in my career where my creative directors didn’t know how to inspire me. They'd just give me the solution or they wouldn't let me try different things — and I want my team to try things, to just go out and do it and see what happens, you know, not be afraid.
3. Creative operations is often messy, scattered, or even essentially nonexistent
Many of the creative directors I’ve spoken with hadn’t heard the phrase “creative operations.” Those that did had first heard it working at large organizations — household name-type brands. Lacking a cohesive term often meant they lacked a strong, efficient creative operations practice.
I didn't really have a title for it [creative operations]. It’s in my day to day — I have to manage the business in terms of processing the creative requests that come in. That's my job. I don't have a traffic coordinator or any sort of help on that end.
So that becomes my challenge, we have these things called ‘back schedules’ that the account team manages. So I have deadlines with things that can't move, and on the other hand, some things that can move. Right now I probably have 45 projects in the queue across two brands and I have to constantly go in and check the timelines.
As I assign who's working on what, I'm managing all of that in a little bit in my head, and on my crazy board over here. I also use a word document, which is very janky, sort of like a spreadsheet, with a table and it scares me.
4. If you want your creative team to deliver great work, involve them in the process as early as possible
Storytelling has never been as important a business tool as it is today. Every brand has an about page on their website, multiple social media channels, newsletters, you name it. With every marketing channel so crowded, brands need to tell a really engaging story to stand out. To accomplish this, the people tasked with telling the story need to be involved with the product’s they’re building a story around as early as possible.
We’re trying to shift the mindset. Typically, there’s a handover culture: your product team comes up with the product, and they hand it to the product marketing team. The product marketing team comes up with a name, and they hand it to the sales team. The sales team tries to figure out how to sell the product, and they’re reluctant to hand it to marketing.
This is so often the process, but what I've learned over the years is that you have to involve marketing — or whatever is tasked with defining and telling the story — at the beginning. Ideally, you would have the story before you'd have the product.
Why does this shift need to happen? So that when you do finally receive that creative brief, when marketing finally says “okay, this is where we're going to spend our hard-earned money to take this to market,” the story is already baked in — or at least the rationale of why this product exists.
Then we can be really creative about how we want to deliver the product, as opposed to saying, ok, now we’ve got this product, what do we do with it?
5. Content is king
Content has long been just a subset of the marketing department, but with an ever-increasing demand for content, those that produce it are growing empowered, with some companies building dedicated content departments adjacent to, rather than beneath, marketing departments. What does this mean? It ties into the previous point: those that tell the story will increasingly become more respected, influencing business decisions early on instead of simply executing on creative briefs.
Right now we’re starting to see more Chief Content Officers. The role is gaining traction because we are living in a social media-driven world where content is king.
The reality is sinking in on how important content is. It’s not just marketing. It is how every single team sells the story of the brand.
Why Creative Ops?
Lastly, a word on Creative Operations and why I’m so bullish on it: every company is now a media company. It’s no longer just marketing teams with a constant need for fresh creative assets: every team across an organization has a need to produce, distribute, and efficiently manage a constant volume of content.
Creative ops is, to put it simply, about efficiently connecting the people and tools involved in the creative process or the process of producing and sharing images and videos. Ensuring that creative briefs are clearly and thoroughly defined, that assets are easily accessible for the people who need them, and that no necessary part of the creative process falls through the cracks.
An effective creative ops system should first optimize the mindless steps of the creative process and then automate real time understandings of what content is being created, who is using it, where it’s being distributed, and how it’s performing. More and more, that’s what is confirmed in these conversations — and that’s what we’re solving for at Air.
At Air, our core objective is supporting day-to-day efficiency. A consistent refrain I heard from creative directors was the challenge in finding those efficiencies, in saving time and money without sacrificing quality — especially in today’s challenging macro-economic environment.
We believe Air can be the language that translates the chaos of creativity into one focused workflow — bridging the gaps between each step of the creative process through our platform-centric product development strategy. These insights and quotes only strengthen that conviction.