Superdigital’s Assaf Swissa on knowing when to be loud and when to get out of the way
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 to be a creative director, in your experience?
It's a lot of pretense. The term creative director has become stale. It’s so…decorative.
Often, the creative director is just the rooster that squawks the loudest and can get all the other roosters to fall in line. Nowadays, I am definitely a creative director in name and not in reality. A good creative director is someone who actually directs other creatives, literally, and I am terrible at that.
I'm a lone wolf that works best with other lone wolves — if we're all together, we could take down a zebra, and then we part ways again. Before my analogies go totally off the rails here, the last thing I’ll say is, coming from a background of operating like a lone wolf for a while, part of my skill and job as someone with this title now is turning the pups into better wolves. I can show other people who think and operate like this how to move in the world, help them grow.
As the leader of a creative agency, what does your work entail?
I started our ad agency, Superdigital, almost 10 years ago. Back then the reality was I was selling myself. I had pretty decent instincts, I could talk faster than your average schmuck, and usually, if I could talk fast without so many interruptions, I could close a deal.
Besides fast talking, I was cursed and blessed with a very specific gift — I either know the creative and have this amazing creative idea right now, or I will never have it. It's not like I need time to go back and think about it and maybe figure it out — no, I either have a great idea in the moment or this is not a creative problem I’ll be able to solve.
It’s that instinct that always made me killer in a meeting because I could just say that golden idea instantly, and whoever I’m presenting to is blown away. Or I can’t, and they kick me out. It’s about speed, not so much being thoughtful.
Mercifully, I don’t have to operate like that anymore. It’s not sustainable, it’s not scalable. There are better creatives than me in the company now, people who are thoughtful and very strategic. But when the agency started, that’s what paid the bills — I was pretty good at identifying opportunities and positioning things live, in the middle of a conversation.
Usually, when you’re having a conversation with a potential client or collaborator and there’s a missing piece around creative, you're having one conversation. If you can install some kind of creative idea instantly, mid-conversation, you jump ahead to a context that wouldn’t have existed until multiple meetings later. People suddenly have a reference point that creates new possibilities. That sort of conversational leapfrogging was my killer talent in the early days.
As you’ve built Superdigital, what have you done to make sure that the team you’ve built is as good as possible?
I tried many, many things over the years, and I could never get it quite right. I got that wrong for a lot of years. I was always frustrated and angry — why is this happening? Why is this creative trash? Why is the team even letting me see this?
The way I crawled out of that hole was by getting the hell out of the way. I learned that I was the ultimate micromanager. I touched every single piece of work before it went out the door for years. Then one of our top dogs, Biz, she gave me an ultimatum. I'll never forget this. We were working on a big project, and she says, “You get the hell out or I'm getting the hell out. You pick.”
I loved that attitude. Sorry, I'm getting the hell out! I stepped back, and the project turned out incredible. As we’ve grown, she has taken a little bit of that mandate — get the hell out — and applied it to herself as well. You can’t scale a team without getting out of the way. Otherwise, why did you hire all these people?
I am proud to say that we let the flowers grow in their own direction around here. It is a little bit chaotic, to be sure. There's about 40 of us now. When people take a job here, they either quit in three months or they last for 10 years. The way we work is unusual; people love it or hate it.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to people currently coming up in the creative industry?
That thing that you don't know the answer to, they don't know the answer either — so just speak up, sell your idea.
I wish I knew that when I was younger. If you can solve something that you aren’t even sure you know the answer to, you’re going to be a hero. Maybe that comes from confidence or belief in yourself, but if you see the answer and it ends up being right, you’re onto something. That’s instinct. The hard part is just explaining that flash of instinct to someone else.
Everyone's struggling with the exact same uncertainty when approaching a problem. Don’t be afraid.
What’s the most important thing you need to do your job well — or that you make sure your team has?
I don't know that we've totally achieved it, but just being organized. It's getting harder than ever these days. There's just so many inputs and so much data coming in — the hardest part is remembering what's important.
I do my best to make sure our team doesn't get caught up in the noise. In our business, in America, and in the whole world right now, there’s just too much to pay attention to. And so much of it, even if it’s hot and feels so important today, it’s dust in the wind tomorrow. All of a sudden, it's consumed, and it doesn't matter. Nobody remembers it — it never mattered. This applies to news items, social media, products…there’s so much shallow stuff in our culture.
Everything out there is designed to incite a reaction: “Oh my God, I need to pay attention to that.” Here’s the thing: you don’t. That’s the biggest thing I do for myself, and try to do for my team — make it clear that 99% of what’s out there doesn’t matter. Learn to tell the difference between what actually matters to you and what you’re being told should matter to you.