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Creative Ops

Audra V. Pace on the differences in creative work at agencies versus a media company

January 24, 2023 · 8 min read

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

Audra V. Pace is a multidisciplinary creative director on a mission to innovate brands, spark inspiration through experiences, and make the world’s content a force for good. Having begun her career as a copywriter, she’s spent most of the past decade in Creative Director and Strategy roles at agencies like Havas, ModOp, and LoyalKaspar, as well as companies like A+E Networks and Thrillist. She currently runs her own creative shop, STUDIO AVP.

Below is our conversation with Audra, edited for length and clarity.

What does your creative direction work look like — what, to you, does it mean to be a creative director?

At this point in my career I’m very multidisciplinary. I started as a writer, then got into directing videos and grew my art direction skill set through that. Those projects grew into 360 campaign work and brand identity. From there, I stretched into editorial design at Thrillist, as well as experiential. Most recently, I've been more or less an experiential creative director. 

I think having that varied background has helped me become a really good creative — both in managing talent and in navigating big complicated projects. All great creative work is narrative storytelling, at the end of the day, whether that takes the form of a video or a single image or a song or a party. All of those things are valid ways to tell a story, make some magic happen, and inspire people. So to me, a great creative director is somebody who is nimble enough to really recognize what the right medium is for the ask, and then set it on fire by pulling in the best creators they can find. It's being the person who can assemble the Avengers to produce something really beautiful.

What's the hardest part of actually shipping good creative work? Where are the biggest breakdowns in between receiving a brief and delivering the finished product?

The answer really changes depending on the environment I'm working in. Having worked in-house for brands, at agencies, and in media: the pain points live in different spaces for all of them. At one place it might be more about building consensus versus dealing with resourcing elsewhere.

This might sound general, but it’s safe to say that resources and time are everybody's biggest challenge. There's never enough time. There's never enough money to do exactly what you want. That's pretty consistent. It’s always a balance producing something that you and your team feel proud of, that your client also loves, within whatever constraints you have. It’s on a creative director to have a very make-it-work mentality and navigate the constraints and challenges on any given project. 

No matter what, your job as the creative lead is to remain zen and cool, especially in the midst of uncertainty. You take in people's feelings, work, and needs; you listen; you make the best of every project and situation you’re given. You can't change the motion of the ocean, you can only adjust your sails.

In creative work, there is an emphasis on work: you need to remember that you're making a product. Generally speaking, we're not making personal art, even if we're making something artful. We're using art to produce a product meant to promote or express something beyond our own individual talent.

What we, as working creatives, produce is often part of something bigger than the thing we make. Still, the people making it may be artists, may have feelings and processes of their own, and they may put something of themselves into the work. That's a really important part of how creative ends up being good, is that talented people  with a point of view made it. All this to say, as a creative director, you do this dance with your team to get them to put their all into the work, but also know that the work is not all about any one person. It’s always a challenge, a fine line to manage.

Audra walked us through how she views and approaches the creative process.
Audra walked us through how she views and approaches the creative process.

What's unique about running creative work at a media company, compared to an agency or other types of businesses?

It was fun and challenging to go into editorial from an agency background. It’s a very different way of operating. At an agency, you get a brief from a client and you’re assigned to execute on it. Everything is already baked, essentially, from the structure of your working relationships to the exact expectations in the brief. When you go in-house to an editorial or entertainment company, the ideas are coming from within. 

Going to Thrillist, the work was more about strategy. Rather than a constant pitch out, brands come to you to be aligned with your voice and audience. There's enormous power in wielding your own platform, which results in a deeper level of trust you can build with the client. There's so much more room for collaboration, which was so nice. 

A favorite example of a client relationship at Thrillist was when we partnered with Virgin Voyages in 2021 to produce a three-day event on a cruise ship. They were launching their first ship and Thrillist was tasked with throwing the launch party. They were trying to get our audience of young travelers to look at the idea of a cruise ship differently. Virgin produces something at a totally different level than the stereotypical cruise ship experience, but how do you get a 26-year-old traveler to change their perception of a cruise ship, particularly in the wake of the pandemic? 

Our teams at the two different companies worked in lock-step, on calls every day thinking through every element of how to tell the story of how a Virgin Voyage cruise was different. We were going back and forth on what would be most attractive to our audience at Thrillist, analyzing insights about who they are, what they want, and what's current in the culture. It was very different from an agency environment, where a client simply says, “we want you to make X.”

What’s so cool about working in the media or editorial space is everybody has this shared hive mentality of what good looks like and what kind of stories we want to tell. You’re really answering to yourself, then you're seeing how it performs with your readers, and it creates this rewarding feedback loop. When you’re creating from this personal place, it tends to perform quite well, because it feels surprising and special. Your audience will resonate when the work has a unique voice and it’s not marketing at all, you're not trying to sell anything. That was very liberating, as a creative. 

What KPIs can you put on creative work? Whether effective or not — what is actually relevant, which ones don’t actually matter? 

It really depends on the project: what platform and what purpose. Sometimes it’s a brand play and your goal is not tied to specific numbers, but to attracting a new type of audience, for example. In other cases, as happens with experiential, the goal is impact within press or awards, or reaching a highly influential set of folks. Still other times — often with product or media — you’re creating for a mass audience; you want straight up eyeballs; numbers matter most. It’s super quantitative. Each of those different types of projects will have a unique set of KPIs, and the strategy behind the creative needs to reflect that.   

It’s the qualitative KPIs that matter more to me on a personal level. It’s not that engagement levels and conversion rate-type KPIs don’t matter — that’s gratifying too, and acts as a level of proof for my skills and abilities. At the end of the day, years from now, nobody will be talking about how much it cost to make X campaign, or how many thousands of likes we got on an Instagram post. People remember how good something was, whether or not it made waves in the culture.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received regarding your work as a creative director, or advice you would give to somebody starting off in this career?

The best piece of advice I've received came from someone who was first my client, then my manager, and now a close friend. When I was pretty early in my career and working with her for the first time, she said, “Ask yourself, do you like this? Would you want to go to this? Would you do this?” 

There’s often this moment when you're so wrapped up in what you’re working on that you can lose sight of why. It’s easy to operate from an eager-to-please place as a creative, where you start checking boxes like, what does the brief say? What is the audience the client is trying to reach? It’s certainly an important part of the job to check those boxes, but you can’t lose sight of the bigger picture, which is just making something that’s good. Your job is to create something that’s more than the sum of those checked boxes. Trust your own voice. Trust the instincts that brought you to your position in the first place.

To this day, I frequently stop and ask myself, “is this cool?” When you or your team have been looking at something for three days and without stopping, it makes a real difference to step back and question if you’re actually proud of it.

A piece of advice I wish I had received — that I probably did receive and just wasn't ready for it at the time — is that your value as a human being is not dependent on how well a review round goes or how well something you worked on performs. Sometimes things in your life go well; sometimes they don’t. 

Creatives can easily take feedback or outcomes really personally. If this is your art or maybe you went to college to just do this specific type of work, bad feedback can be really painful. It's easy to be defensive and genuinely wounded by a few words. 

Anyone reading this, I’d just remind you: one project or one experience is not indicative of your full value as a creative, and especially as a person. Dust yourself off and go make something new. 

This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.

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