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Creative Ops

Adrián Flores: Creative is a trade

October 25, 2023 · 13 min read

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

What does it mean, for you, to be a creative director? What is the practice?

Trying to describe what a creative director is gets down to some of the problems we have in the industry. That label, “creative” — everyone is creative, everyone can be creative. Some people tend to be more creative than others. But the idea of being “a creative,” is language from a time when the ads were called “the creative.” So creatives made the creative — it didn’t mean that other people weren’t creative, it was just a trade descriptor. 

As we’ve moved along, that word, creative, has become more impressive in our culture — and everybody in an organization thinks, guess what, I’m a creative, too. Sure you are, but you’re not the noun, you’re the adjective.

I’ve seen a lot of kids in this industry — 23, 24, 25 — applying for jobs, saying they’re a creative director. I’m like, you’ve barely finished school! You can’t fully understand what it means to be a creative director in the context of what we do in the agency world at that point. A creative director has a particular skillset around bringing people together. They’ve made piles of work before and they understand all the pitfalls. You just haven’t done that yet at 24. 

Then there’s the CCO, the ECD — is someone in that role still a creative director? There’s a lot to unpack around this label and how it’s used. It depends on the world you’re in, too, because it’s so different in advertising and marketing versus, say, the fashion world.

So “creative director” is a really broad term that’s heavily misused. But in essence, for me, the creative director is the person responsible for setting the vision. They’re helping everyone else lift up individual elements so the whole feels harmonious. In my world, the creative director is like the conductor of an orchestra. You keep the tempo, keep the beat, make sure everyone knows when and where they’re supposed to come in. You’re meant to bring everyone together so we’re singing in unison to make something beautiful.

Well, is a CCO or an ECD still a creative director?

It’s a challenge. People get those top titles and become removed from making work. So many end up simply being the creative selector. If push comes to shove, that person probably won’t be able to sit down and bang out a 30-second script in 30 minutes, which is what they’re demanding of the people under them. Maybe they could do it once upon a time, but so many of them lose touch, and you can see it.

There are people, though, who have risen to those really high levels and still get their hands dirty, who are conscientious about still going to shoots. I think anyone who stops going out and making stuff loses touch where things are going, they get stuck in time. Every time you’re on set, you’re meeting different directors, different DPs, different stylists, whatever. You’re hearing about everything they’ve been doing and seeing, how things are progressing. You’re seeing new tricks, new techniques.

If you’re never in those environments where people are actually making the stuff, your brain is going to be stuck where things were when you got that big promotion and stopped making ads in 2014 or whenever. I’ve worked with agencies all over the world and had exposure to all different styles of leadership. It really stands out when you’re working with some of the people who stopped making. Once you stop making as a creative, you’re dead. I never want to become that. If you’re not active, you’re nothing more than a manager.

You’ve worked in advertising in Sydney, London, Berlin, and New York. Did you experience different ways of working in each country, each city?

It's agency to agency you see the difference more than country to country. Some agencies are more strategic, some are more about individual creative’s voices. If you’re at a 10-person shop, everyone does everything. But sure, there are some patterns in how creative is done in different countries.

I was quite fortunate that I started my career in Australia. There’s a very deep British history to how they approach advertising, but it moves at the speed of a US-based agency, and you’re dealing with relatively small budgets, so you do a lot more when you’re younger than you do in the States. It’s changing now, but when I first came to the States, there were these very siloed types of creatives: these guys are our shopper creatives, these guys are our digital creatives. When I first arrived, I didn’t understand it; this is dumb, because I can do all these things. That’s what I was taught to do as a young creative in Australia.

But then you realize the complexity and the scale that exists in the US. I think that's very hard for people who haven't lived and worked in the US to understand. The US market is the size of the EU, and they speak one language, but within that it's not a monolith in the way that Australia or the UK is. There are very distinct regional differences, even though everyone still speaks the same language. So your media breakup is different. The messaging is different, and then what you have to do for different types of retailers is very different from how it operates in other countries. For a lot of advertising people from other countries, they're just not aware of the scale, and why that scale and complexity exists. 

Imagine you’re working on an EU ad. All of a sudden you're doing permutations for all the different parts of Western Europe, that becomes really complicated, because you're dealing with all these different, regulatory things, different languages. It’s no different in the US, just it’s all in English.

The US also has a different culture around selling. They’re very open about it compared to other countries — just sell it to me, we both know what’s going on here. That shows in the approach to advertising.

What do you think about mentorship, how the industry produces the next generation of creatives?

Something I find really weird about America is that people go and do a college degree in advertising. Creatives think they need to do a two-year, three-year advertising course.

In Australia, there’s something called the Australasian Writers and Art Directors Guild. AWARD. And of course, AWARD has their own award show, but they also have the AWARD School. It’s one of the best programs in the world to prepare you to work in advertising. You do it at night over the course of a few months or so. There’s a blind application process where you just respond to four queries, you send them in, they cut them down, and they offer you a place. Then you go and learn from actual, working creatives at night. At the end of it, you build a portfolio, they have a show, they hand out best-in-show awards, all that. And if you pass all that, you’ve got a job guaranteed at the best ad agencies in Australia. The One Show actually has a great program for young Black creatives similar to AWARD’s, we have a few graduates on my team. 

That kind of education is great. But when people go and do even a two year advertising degree to become a writer — it’s better to go study English Literature, go do journalism. Go explore the world and understand how normal people act. Then you’ll know how to make an ad because you’ve seen the world and you’ve got real shit to pull from, rather than just referencing ads.

You’ll see portfolios from many people coming out of ad schools, and it’s like — anyone can make a condom ad. But can you make toothpaste interesting? That’s great that you can write a rousing manifesto for an epic Nike film that needs a $5 million budget, but can you make a toilet paper ad on a $300,00 budget?

To be fair, kids are taught to think about the big-budget stuff because you want to keep them engaged and excited about the possibilities. But the reality is, we’re just selling shit. We’re trying to make products interesting so that people spend their hard-earned cash.

Most jobs out there suck. Most people aren’t given too many opportunities to express themselves. So they’re going to come home, turn on the TV, watch the ball game, the reality show, and enjoy a few hours of escape. In that moment, you’ve got to make them care about brushing their teeth or wiping their ass. That’s what advertising is.

In terms of training, it’s a difficult time right now, coming out of COVID. You’ve got a bunch of kids that just spent years at home, maybe they’re even a couple of years into a career, and they’ve never been to the office. You learn the most by having a senior art director hover over you. By having the lead copywriter stand over your desk and look at your headlines, telling you how to move words around. Doing that in-person is so much easier. You form better connections than over Zoom.

As an industry, we’ve got to figure out how to upskill these kids, make them fit into the workplace, live up to their potential. They’re not used to the workplace environment. Losing those early years affects your social skills, your creativity, and your ability to explain yourself, which is an important part of the job.

What kind of improvements do you think could or should be made to how young creatives are trained today?

I don’t have an answer for how to fix training for younger generations, but one thing that’s obvious is that, as we’ve held up the conceptual part of the job higher, the craft has slipped. That’s also because we now work across so many different media, right? Instead of just coming up with an idea and executing it on a poster, a radio, and a TV ad, there’s 17 different platforms we need to fit it for, make it native to. But you’ve still got the same amount of money as when you only had to make three things.

The industry has changed in terms of the output and what we need to make. I think we’re going into a space where, as a young creative, you have to be a maker. My generation, you didn’t necessarily have to make as much stuff, you could just come up with ideas — here’s where we’re going with it, here’s how we’ll execute it, now let’s find the people to execute each part. Now, you either have to know how to design, do motion, or be a damn good writer who can stretch across multiple tones of voice and multiple executional touchpoints. And then you have to do it all yourself. Even as a copywriter, you’ve got to know how to hold the phone, edit little films, do a whole social shoot yourself.

That’s the thing: being a creative is practicing a trade. That’s what really differentiates you from the rest of the agency. It’s a craft and you have to hone it over a lifetime. The way you get better is continuing to do shit. I started out writing for magazines. I got my first paycheck for writing when I was 17, I wrote for magazines through college, then I made war documentaries, and then I got into advertising. So I’ve been writing in different formats and for different media, professionally, for 25 years at this point. And I’m always improving — I have to be.

People tend to think advertising is much sexier than it really is. Yeah, it’s a really good job. It’s not hard labor. It’s really fun. I’ve had a great career and it’s taken me around the world, I’ve rubbed shoulders with famous people and had amazing times, most of my best friends I’ve met through this industry. But at the same time — it’s a fucking trade. You’re getting paid to apply a craft on the behalf of an entity that can’t express itself, which is an organization or corporation. You need an artistic sensibility to play the role but you’re not here to be an artist. You’re a type of salesperson.

What does “success” mean in creative work? What defines a successful piece of creative? What defines a successful creative team?

Well, I hate the award culture that’s taken over the industry, it’s a bunch of back–patting masquerading as success. A lot of the work you see winning the big awards — did any normal human interact with that? There’s no way a normal human saw that and said, “Fuck yeah, I want to eat that burger.” There’s a very small group of people who like to congregate in the south of France once per year and gladhand each other.

A piece of work is good and effective if it reaches your target audience. That’s it. Lots of ad people make ads for other ad people. But we’re not selling to each other. Most of the work I make, I’m not the audience — I’m quite lucky in my current role to do a lot of cool shit, but most of my career, I haven’t been the target audience. It’s not about my dollars — I’m not going to buy such-and-such product I’m making an ad for; I’m here to help the client sell it to a particular type of person.

If you’re not getting the views, if you’re not getting the sales, what are you doing it for?

What are three things that are crucial to how you do your job?

Experience. All the mistakes you've made before are the things that teach you how to do it right the next time. You need to make a lot of mistakes. If you can learn from other people's mistakes, you'll get further quicker, but most of us can't. I'm a dumbass, so I definitely learn from fucking up over and over again. 

A team. This is one of the things where when you're young, you think, “Oh, isn't it my idea? This is me.” That idea didn't come from nowhere, man — it took an account person to talk with the client to get us that opportunity for your idea to even exist, then you had a strategy team to do research, then you worked with your CD or your ECD to formulate a brief. Look, if it's a good brief, and if you're lucky to work with talented strategists — like I currently am — the brief does half the job for you. That's the beauty of a good strategist, they’re basically creating your headline for you as a copywriter. 

You, as a creative, have to understand that you don’t do everything by yourself. Everyone around the agency is going to touch your idea by the time it gets to a client. And then the client is going to be a part of it, too. We don’t just hand it off, the client has a point of view. They set the table with what became the creative brief. They’re giving you inputs while it’s all happening — that pushes it along and helps to make it great. At the end of the day, every ad you see has been touched by probably thousands of people. The whole process takes more than a village, it’s a metropolis.

Time is the third thing. The more time you have, the better anything will be. The more time you have to sit with a problem, to work on the craft and hone it, the more time you have to edit, the more time you’ve got on set — time will help you. Time management is an underrated skill that we don’t really press on young creatives. If there’s a bunch of shit you don’t want to do, just get it done. Once it’s done, it frees up time to concentrate on the shit you do want to do. Then you can carve out more time for that project you want in your portfolio.

What’s a piece of advice you’d give to a creative just beginning their career?

Show more of your personality in your portfolio, that's important, especially when you're young. I hire for potential, not for what you've achieved so far. I'm hiring for upside. Because you're young, even if you've achieved what seems like a lot, you've achieved very little in the greater scheme of things — in your career, life, whatever it might be. So make sure that your portfolio shows your personality and shows your ambition, shows your upside. 

Make your portfolio for the job you want, not the jobs you've done. So it doesn't matter if you've only done certain types of work. From that work, how can you present it in a way that shows people that you can do the type of work you want to get to?

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