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Creative Ops

David Scott on creative direction, today and tomorrow

November 14, 2023 · 14 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 to be a creative director, in your experience? And what does the role mean beyond your experience?

It’s a ubiquitous term. You see the role in fashion, in film. It applies in any creative industry. My own focus is global brand marketing. I typically work with companies operating at a global scale — Fortune 500 brands with millions of customers, offices around the world — but it’s the same exercise from that level all the way down to a small startup. The only difference is operational scale and brand reach. 

Creative direction is about strategic storytelling. It starts with a business and their problem, or their product, or an initiative. How are we going to market against these particular challenges and conditions? How are we going to introduce a new product to market? How can we bring this conference or podcast series to life?

Sometimes you’re asked to undertake the strategic exercise of understanding the root of the business problem, the category, the competitors. Sometimes that’s put on the creative director, and sometimes that content is brought to us already prepared. The work I do usually falls more into the creative camp, though it’s still rooted in strategy. When a project travels from strategy into the strategic art space, it’s wrapped up in goals and creative briefs. 

The answer to your question is that the creative director holds the business and artistic strategies together in one person, in one body. You’re taking a problem from the business all the way through craft and launch. The launch aspect is another, further conversation, in terms of media and how each channel works.

In my experience, creative directors are a little less influential at the launch stage. We’re highly influential in the art and craft of the work and a little influential in the strategic business auditing. But it’s about guiding the strategy of everything that’s being made to solve that problem, whether it’s just me, or I’m managing 20 people, or two people.

What’s your take on craft? What is its place in creative work? Has that changed over the past 20 years?

Art and design is very subjective. Everybody sees something different when they look at a piece of art, when they go to a museum, hear a song, or see a commercial. Our senses are different, everybody hears sounds differently, sees colors differently. We’re all unique snowflakes, right?

Craft is interesting because we know that things are interpreted differently all the time. It becomes an activity of polish, detail, beauty. You learn to translate ideas into lighting, or a special finish. It’s an extra layer to communicate meaning.

When I hear people talk about craft having “gone missing,” I interpret that as other creative directors or designers simply following what’s trendy, or work they’ve liked in the past. Craft is about creating a polish specific to the idea at hand, not just being consistent with the present market.

Craft allows you to zig to the zag, in a sense, to carve out a unique position for whatever we’re making, something memorable, something that the client can own. Sometimes, there’s not enough dollars, time, and opportunity to bake that ideal level of craft in, but the best work does have that extra something. Sometimes you don’t even know what it is that makes the best work shine. But it’s probably been strategically put in there, or maybe it’s even been stumbled upon by accident.

Craft is alive and well. The problem is that there’s so much made and deployed in this age of internet technology and generative AI and the quality is so varied. The work that does have a high level of craft to it might be missed or hard to spot, but I do think there are enough of us out there applying a high level of craft to our work, and enough marketing clients and business owners who still really believe in it.

Different generations of designers change their minds, change their thinking, trends change to support whatever people are doing at any given time. How craft is applied and how widely might be a little haphazard, but I believe in its longevity. I’m always pushing for it. 

As a creative director, sometimes you do have to throttle back a bit and know you might not have the time or budget to get into that level of detail. Maybe you’ll get it on the next project or with the next company. You should always strive for it, but you do need to know when to dial back.

How do you think about building a creative team that will be successful and creating an environment conducive to that success?

There are different ways to answer this. There’s differences between building teams in companies versus on the agency side, for example, or project team versus full-time.

Regardless of the scenario, in the beginning you need to assess whether you need generalists or specialists. That’s the best lens filter and lens to start from, and it’s really a question of team size. If I have only five people, including myself, I need generalists. They’ll each be doing more because of the small team size and will need to be able to flex muscles across graphic design, animation, and video, maybe including social — they need many skills.

When you have a larger team, let’s say 15 people, you might be able to go the specialist route. You’re also looking at different tiers — maybe you can have a design director that mentors and watches over the junior designers. And I, as the creative director, will spend more of my time with that design director. You can have specialists who are true experts in their crafts, whether that’s motion versus illustration, or online ads versus visual identity. 

Generalists tend to be a bit more senior than specialists and thus a bit more expensive. Logistically, it’s a question of the budget you have for a team, and then determining the right equation of size and specialist versus generalist makeup.

That all describes a scenario where creative has a higher level of control. The other main scenario is when it really comes down to marketing’s preference. Completely throw out everything I just said and let’s say you’re working with a design-centered company in a very creative space, could be a startup, could be fashion, could be tech. They might say to you, “I want designers who’ve worked for Apple or Nike.” That’s a very special type of designer with a high level of polish and craft. They might have a few years under their belt, maybe not, but they absolutely have a strong sensibility for trends, and classic, beautiful art direction and design chops.

CMOs and founders will often come to you with that very specific personnel demand and that becomes the foundational problem you figure out your budget and logistics around; no matter what, you’re bringing in one of those high-level designers — they could be generalist or specialist — and doing what you can to set them up for success. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.

You’ve been part of both traditional agencies and internal agencies. You’ve built the latter from the ground up. What are your thoughts on these two different models? Is one “better” than the other?

This is a big question, there are many different avenues to the topic. Each model ebbs and flows in and out of favor. There are absolutely times when businesses find one model preferential over the other. I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

My take on this comes from the company’s lens, because whether you have an in-house team or you’re buying out-of-house services, it all starts with the company. They own the budget, they own the business problem, and they’re the ones with the audience.

When you build a team inside, that team is definitely going to be way closer to your business and the issues and problems within the audience. Agencies can get there if they’re working on a long-term retainer, but more often than not, that’s not the case. Agencies these days tend to be brought in on a project basis, which means they don’t have enough time to fully understand your company, your leadership, all the nuances that define the brand, and the problem at hand.

On the inside, your creative team exists in colleagueship to everyone else at the business. You’re doing it together. There’s no two sides of the table. That’s how I operated at Visa, which was great — we were all figuring it out together. It’s smoother than an agency relationship. I knew the partners, and the players, I had meetings with leaders within the business and our partner businesses. You’re really living the work. The biggest challenge of an internal team, though, is to keep them excited and refreshed. You do that by creating a bit of an agency environment.

There are a few ways to operate an internal creative team like an agency. It’s a translatable culture. You could bring in speakers, you could have offsites, take day trips to museums. You can shrink timeliness, do open critiques. Those of us who have been on the agency side are able to transition these ways of working in-house. These are tactics that allow you to fire everybody up. Working in that environment, you feel you’re in a stable business climate but with some of that agency-specific excitement.

I really recommend creatives try both in-house and agency. For me, it's always important to try both sides and see what they have to offer.

Again, from the company’s perspective, on the agency side, you’re getting the best-in-breed work, talent, and technology. On the in-house side, you may sacrifice a little of that, maybe not. As a company, if you’re outsourcing everything, you’re simply going to get the best there is, depending on what you’re able to pay. 

At the same time, when you outsource, you’re not really going to see a lot of what goes into your project’s team and work. There could be other freelancers, offices, and resources that you’re not directly paying for and know nothing about. But you can trust you’re getting the best project possible because of the economics of an agency. They want to retain you as a client and attract new clients with their work. In-house teams don’t have that same pressure.

In-house teams are rarely under the same tight deadlines and pressure as agency teams. When we work there already, the project has been funded for at least a quarter, maybe a whole year. An agency is more so on the hook to prove their value at all times — that’s why agencies offer the best-in-breed. There’s awards they can win. They may recruit on the work they did for your company. They may be pushing to re-up the retainer. And there’s a large markup on creative services with agencies, it can be up to 300%, so they need to constantly justify that price.

Creatives jump between in-house and agency all the time. Personally, the more senior I get, the more I prefer in-house. I’m more interested in the business problems, growth, and questions of audience now, as opposed to focusing more on the craft. At an agency, you’re 1,000% focused on craft at all times. Once you’ve done enough of that to be comfortable with your skills, you want to find new problems for yourself.

I’ll say once more, the two models are fundamentally different, and creatives really should try both. If you’ve worked on the agency side and you end up in-house, you’re going to be a very effective manager of the agencies you hire, because you know exactly how they work and what to ask for. 

Everyone is motivated to come to work for different reasons; creatives are no different. Full-time is more-stable than freelance, as long as we’re not living through such a layoff-prone period. In-house is a little softer, a little more fun, and can be more fulfilling than a cutthroat agency experience. But just the same, there’s value in learning how to create at a high, craft-driven level, then bringing that into a company. It just depends on what the creative’s goals and motivators are.

What are your thoughts on mentorship, on fostering the next generation of creatives?

The mentorship aspect of my work began before I really knew it. I had a chance to teach at the Academy of Art really early on in my career, in my 20s. After that, I recognized how much I loved design education, and did that for around two years, semi-full-time as an adjunct faculty member at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.

After I concluded teaching to focus on my work at Frog Design, I figured out how to roll what I’d learned as a teacher into my work with companies as well. When you’re inside a company, design advocacy is really important. You have to learn to advocate for more dollars, designers, projects, more craft, et cetera. That’s a skill I developed as a teacher, something that never left me.

I didn’t start mentoring in earnest until late last year. I’d always been doing it in various ways with my direct reports and freelancers, just generally helping people and projects along. Anyone working as a manager, or at the director level, has to build that into the work. 

ADPList came along right after COVID, and I thought it would be fun and fulfilling to tap into that teaching route again, to talk to people from all over the world. And it has absolutely given me the same fulfillment I got when I was a teacher earlier on in my career. You don’t do it for the money, you do it for the students, the ideas, the potential. I really enjoy giving back in that way.

I do one call a day, maybe just a handful in a week, and I get to talk to people all over the world. Most of the people I talk to are based in North America, but I’ll get people from around the world, Africa for example, which is mind-blowing — I’m getting a chance to talk with people I may otherwise never meet. It’s amazing to be able to chat with someone clear across the world, to share my perspectives and hear theirs.

When you’re teaching, it’s a major time commitment. You get really sucked in, there’s all these studios. Being able to do an hour here and there throughout the week is so easy, so fulfilling, and, I hope, helpful for the people I’ve been able to speak with.

What are three things you can’t do your job without?

Design thinking and creative thinking come first. It’s about playing and imagining what’s possible. When you get an assignment the possibilities are endless. You have to spark your creativity in some way — maybe you have writer’s block, or designer’s block. If you don’t know what to look at, what to make, what to write, what colors to use, you need to go out into the world and find visual stimuli to start that process. That creative ideation stage has to be the answer; it’s always the first thing.

Second, other designers and collaborators are really important. To look at this in a linear fashion, once you have a bunch of ideas, you have to talk about them with other people. That’s how you build things — it’s like a game of telephone or improv. We couldn’t do this work without collaboration.

That second stage where strategy and other creative folks come into a room and share perspective is so crucial, because we all see the problem in a different way, just like we all see art in different ways. It’s so powerful to be able to think on your own, bring those thoughts to a group, iterate, have fun with it, and push to the next level. 

The third crucial thing, there are a few answers I could choose, but there has to be the right sponsor of the work on the business side. You could make anything you want with a smart group of people, but if you can’t sell it, if you can’t get it funded, it’s canceled. It won’t amount to anything.

A supportive business-side partner is absolutely essential for what we do. We need someone who believes in what we’re doing, or is excited enough just to try.

Do you have any advice for people just beginning a career in creative?

We're in a bit of a challenging market, the economy is more up-and-down than usual. I get a lot of mentor calls asking how to break out, or “I’ve been working for a little while, and now I don’t have work, how do I get work again?”

Creatives in general err towards the sensitive side. By and large, an average artist’s pursuit is very introverted. It’s personal. Even in the commercial world, as a creative, there’s usually a passionate pursuit of art. You may be making commercial work, but you’re still a creator of art, a craftsperson putting your work into the world for people. And that’s a vulnerable thing.

When designers early in their career take a confidence hit in any way, whether it be a bad manager, an unstable job, or economic anxiety, I always tell them: you can design your way out of this.

That can go back to a “design your life” perspective, but there’s many ways to find motivation, many ways to reach out to people. You can ask someone on LinkedIn to review your site. You can do a spec project with a friend or for a small business, just to gain experience or create something you really want to create.

There are so many different ways to spur your creative juices. Museum trips, maybe you’re a writer but you start photography on the side. You have to use the tools at your disposal to keep your creativity up and your name out there. Prevail through the factors out of your control, like the economy or hiring processes. There are so many avenues and opportunities to get noticed. And sometimes it’s harder, but that’s our challenge as designers to design a way out of that problem. 

If your problem is visibility or confidence, you can chip away at that, keep creating new and different things to ideate and spin your way out of the problem. Remember that you need to be fulfilled and happy as a creative to be creative for someone else. So if you’ve tried all the tools immediately available to you and still nothing is working, maybe it’s time to go even further out of your comfort zone. Write a book, start a newsletter, something. Maybe you need time off from creative work; get a barista job, work at a gym. Don’t force the creative if it’s really not coming.

There are so many ways to move forward. Just know that it may take a bit longer to be recognized or rewarded for your efforts than you think. But economies bounce back, budgets increase, and you never know when someone will see something you did, and they know someone, and you pop up in a search or on a social feed, and you get that email, that call. It’s only a matter of time and effort.

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