Weber Shandwick’s Christine Fitzsimons on the art of production
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.
How do you define the creative director role?
What’s really important is mentorship — understanding what people’s strengths are and how you help them grow. How can you give you team projects that elevate their strengths while challenging them to grow in new ways? Continuously answering that question is the most important part of the job.
It’s also very important to help out the whole team, including the other creatives around you who are outside the smaller group you usually work with. Sharing tips, tricks, and feedback with the greater team around you helps everyone grow stronger.
My big passion is production. I think it’s a bit of a dying art, especially for more junior creatives. We do a lot of social, big campaigns, and earned media activations. But the way the industry is going, it’s becoming harder to get on those larger shoots and productions. Brands are budgeting less for these big campaigns. When those campaigns do come up, who do you send? How do you make sure all of your junior creatives get that experience? I learned so much in situations like that, so I try to pass that on and share that knowledge as much as possible, even when those opportunities aren’t directly available.
Why is production such an important skill for creative directors — why do you say it’s a dying art?
Media is so fragmented now. There are so many things trying to get your attention. It used to be just broadcast, radio, print, digital, and out of home and now there are so many different channels. When I say “dying art,” I really mean people are losing or not learning that understanding of how much production value you should put into each thing for a specific return.
If you’re making something for TikTok, maybe you want something more lo-fi, because that fits your brand and the space at which you want to get the work out. You don’t want to belabor it, you don’t need huge returns on a video-by-video basis. Or if you’re doing a big, broad-scale campaign, where there’s a large budget and a need for high returns, how much should you invest in each stage and component of the production? What can you do in-house? What should you bring in contractors for?
A TV commercial is usually one of these big productions that requires deep thought and planning — production skills. But it’s the same process for YouTube video, a social video, or anything else. The challenge is understanding that the steps are essentially the same for any project and figuring out the level of investment you should give each step for different types of projects.
When you come up with concepts you feel particularly confident in, what’s the hardest part of getting them produced?
I’ve got a great example — one of our clients is HealthCare.gov. Many creatives tend to think healthcare is boring, that health insurance and government clients generally come with too much red tape and confusing rules that’ll get in the way of the work. Junior creatives always want to work on brands they find personally exciting, brands they think are cool in their personal lives. But they’re missing out.
With a client like HealthCare.gov, you have this amazing opportunity to make really exciting work because of those perceived obstacles. That’s what makes it such a great challenge: you get to take a swing at breaking through that public perception of healthcare as scary or boring. You get to change perception. You have room to play.
Last year I worked with one of our copywriters here, Tom Mangione, and our Group Creative Director, Amy Leonardi, on a project for HealthCare.gov. We created a jingle to sell insurance, focusing on life experiences outside of the normal signup process. We came up with the song itself, all these great visuals, just trying to hit the earworm mark, and it worked!
We had this challenge, we came up with this idea we really liked and believed in, and we got it through. It’s on billboards, all these social assets are out in the world. Especially with government clients, they’re very clear on what they’re looking for in terms of return on investment, targets, and messaging clarity. It’s actually freeing — you start with these targets, you brainstorm, and you just keep tweaking your ideas or coming up with new ones until you’ve found something that you really believe in, both as creative and in its capacity to hit those targets.
You’re always going to have to make sacrifices. The client is going to request changes that catch you off guard. Just pick your battles. Most things, you should be able to just adjust and move forward. The things you really believe in, just make sure you can tell the story of why it’s necessary not to change them to hit those client goals.
What is your approach to building a strong creative team, and how do you foster their talents?
In a post-COVID world, it’s so much easier. Talent now doesn’t have to be restricted to your geographic area. Hiring remote talent opens you to so many great creatives who may not be able to live in the traditional industry centers like New York, DC, or LA. Look outside those traditional talent centers. Give opportunities to people who maybe haven’t worked with such-and-such big brand, but have a portfolio of great creative. There’s just so, so much great talent out there.
It’s really important to talk to your network of friends and ask them for recommendations, as well as to foster that network in the first place. If you’re a creative looking to find jobs, too, I really recommend fostering that network. It can be intimidating, but it will do so much for you.
Finally, I listen to my team to find out what their current pain points are. What can I do to help my team? They’re the ones actually in the work every day, actually doing the work. Any hire I make should be alleviating pressures or difficulties they’re facing — that makes it easy to narrow down a talent pool.
What are three things that you find crucial to doing your job?
The first thing is people, absolutely. If you have a strong team around you, the work will be strong. Writers, designers, creative directors, producers, of course, but not just the creative department! Strategists and account people can’t be left out. You need great people selling your creative team’s abilities, telling that story outside of your walls, so you can actually get the opportunity to make great work. We all have the same goals
The second thing is Google Slides. It’s a crucial collaboration tool for so much of the work that I do, from concepting to execution. We have so many creative deliverables to ship at any given time, and so many team members we’re working with. Having a tool like Google Slides, where it’s easy for us to mock up, add designs, add assets, and give comments is huge.
The third thing is a range of websites to provide design inspiration. Design Inspiration is of course one of these and Eyecandy is incredible. Lately, looking through production company websites, or illustrator websites, designers, directors, visual artists, 3D companies — any creative’s site showing off their work — has been such a source of inspiration. Especially when you have resources to bring in outside collaborators, finding an amazing creative you can bring in opens up so much.
What is a piece of advice someone once gave you that’s proven repeatedly useful in your career?
There is one piece of advice I keep coming back to. When you’re hiring people, remember that you’re hiring them for much more than just the immediate project you’re working on. There’s a story behind this. At a previous job, we had a client, Hasbro, that was based in Pawtucket. So we’d take the train from New York up to Rhode Island all the time, a 10 hour total train ride for a 1 hour meeting.
One of my old creative directors there, Michael Anderson, when we were hiring, would always say, “Can you be on the train with this person for 10 hours?”
I thought this was a great test. You can bring someone in, you like their book, they clearly have talent, but working with them — spending time with them — is a totally different question. Can you get to know this person? Do you admire their ethics? If you can develop a real relationship with someone, you’ll get better work out of the both of you. It’s about trust and connection.
Creativity is so much about just being with someone and bouncing ideas off of each other — riffing. You need that connection, you need to be able to see each other at your best and worst and still get through it.