FIG’s Emily Sheehan on defeating the fear that kills great creative ideas
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 does your role entail?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I couldn't figure out how to translate it into a real job until I stumbled upon ad school. That ended up kicking me down the road as a creative at places like Barbarian and Mother for the better part of 10 years.
I had a long-term creative partner that whole time, so I learned a lot about collaboration right from the beginning. I learned to love just figuring out an idea together and grappling with a brief. You bring something to the table, they bring something, and then you go back and forth until you have a solution that works. That's my favorite part of the job — actually solving business problems with creativity — which is very hard to explain to people who run numbers all day.
That problem-solving aspect is ultimately why I wanted to be a creative director, rather than just a creative. I love seeing how my creatives think, grappling with an idea together, and coming to a solution as a team. I can concept on my own until the cows come home, I can come up with a ton of ideas, but figuring out how it all actually works together will always be the most exciting part for me. It's also the most challenging part, because you have to work with a ton of different people who all have different approaches and backgrounds and experience levels. You learn how to meet people where they’re at, when and how to push. It’s a dance.
What defines a truly effective creative team and working environment in your brand of work?
I CD solo right now, which means I work more closely with my ECD than ever before. It's exciting to manage up and down at the same time. It's on me as a CD to figure out how to work with different creatives on my team and not just apply my own way of thinking to everything. You should ideally be teaching and uplifting people, enabling them to do their own best work, not just to execute exactly what you think the work should be.
On the other hand, sometimes expectations aren't met. That’s normal enough. But you have to learn — I'm learning this every day — how to motivate as well as how to meet each person’s unique needs. For me, I’m a deadline person. I thrive on a hard stop, but not everybody works that way. So it’s on me, or any creative director, to understand my team, learn their limits, their working styles, and what gets them excited.
The way I’ve figured out to understand a team is to give them the brief as it stands and see what they can do. You see what you get back, and adjust your approach from there. It’s fascinating to learn how other creatives’ minds work.
What’s really hard about building a creative team is, at the end of the day, you can't really control someone's creativity. You shouldn't even want to, but you do have an output to meet. What I do feel like I can control is how I build relationships, both outside of the department and with each individual creative on my team. I can learn what they respond well to and make sure my ECD and leadership also feel like they have a hand in it. That’s what I mean by managing both up and down, just building trust in both directions.
What’s the hardest part of actually shepherding a great creative idea, something you want in your book, out into the world?
Fear. It's always fear. It’s either internal fear in the CDs, the creatives, anyone on the team internally, or externally, it's clients fearing their own bosses. It's everyone on both sides of the relationship fearing looking stupid. That's also why people are mean to you at work, or clients are rude. It's just fear of looking bad, fear of making mistakes. That goes back to, for me, the importance of bringing everyone — not just your creatives, but the account people, the strategists, the clients, everyone — along for the ride.
Getting past that fear can start with the creatives. They have to be the first people to stand up and say, “this is a good idea, let me explain why.”
The real challenge is just continuing to sell that idea up and out, to keep believing it’s a good idea and getting buy-in from all the people who need to buy in. You need to have a bit of backing and strategy ready. Maybe it needs a good name, maybe it needs a great line – but it can't just be “this is funny and I like it.” You have to come with, “this is funny, but it’s also good for the business, and here's why.” That’s one of the main things that defines a great creative, a great designer or writer: that they show no fear while presenting an idea.
As soon as you can bring in other departments and get their buy-in, to turn them into believers of your idea who will fight for it to their boss, and to the client, you’re essentially set. You just need that vision and that business/strategy justification. Show your account people that this is exciting, that it’s our job as a team to push exciting creative work, that it’s a thrill to do this together. When you do bring it to the clients, you just can’t hesitate and you have to bring proof of why the idea will work. You need at least one insight that rings true for them.
Getting great ideas through is simple in concept, tough in practice. You need to show no fear, but not just for the sake of showing no fear: you need a reason to not be afraid, that you’ve come up with on your own and you can use to convince the people you need to convince.
We all have the ability to sell a good idea. You need to defeat the fear in yourself first – and then in the people you’re selling it to.
What are the three things that you can't do your job without?
I need a notebook — I need to be able to get off the Internet. I have to trust that I'm smart enough to come up with my own ideas. Once we've all read the brief, we should know what we need to know. Then I need to be able to go offline, think on my own, and put pen to paper. That’s how you learn to trust your own brain, by just writing out ideas and explaining to yourself why they’re good.
I need to be able to talk to other people. That doesn't just mean coworkers. That means my friends, my boyfriend, calling my parents. Great ideas come from places and people you wouldn't expect! A random conversation with your friends on the weekend might unlock that problem you’ve been trying to solve at work.
Both of those things are just crucial to coming up with original thoughts and work. If you only rely on the internet, you’re going to end up accidentally recreating something that’s already out there.
Third is therapy. Having a place to spit out everything that I've second guessed myself on or been frustrated by during the week is so important. It doesn’t benefit anyone to dump those frustrations on my coworkers or loved ones but if you don’t vent, you become reactionary.
What's a piece of advice you were given years ago that’s had a major influence on your work?
I was a poetry major in college. Short-form poetry — useless, I know. Almost every creative writing professor I had told me to write literally everything down. Don't stop writing. I had teachers who were obsessed with the concept of automatic writing — the idea of feeling like a spirit is writing through you.
It sounds a little silly, but that’s really how you should write. Sit down, give yourself a minimum of 20 minutes, and just keep writing until you run out of things to write. Maybe for the first two minutes you have to really push yourself, but then you catch a groove. Edit later.
I was taught that practice in the context of writing poetry and novels, but that’s how I think about and approach the writing I do for work now. This goes back to my point about a notebook — I put it all in my notebook. If I had the gall to write it down, then there’s probably something to it.
The way I write is also the way I think and the way I problem-solve creatively. Usually one of the first three things that makes it onto paper will be the right idea for whatever project I’m working on. But you have to keep writing and edit down to it. The first step of writing sifts out the detritus in your brain, then editing what you’ve written sifts it down to the real quality.
Write until you can’t anymore – and then you can edit. You can’t start from nothing.
Is there another piece of advice you’d share with someone trying to get ahead in a creative career?
I do have one more piece of advice: bring complete thoughts to the table. Push yourself to have an elevator pitch for every creative idea you share.
Everyone can regurgitate insights they find online. We all have access to all of the internet, everyone you’re working with has access to the brief and the problem it’s trying to solve. What will push you further than anyone in your peer group is being able to explain why you think an idea is good, succinctly. You should be able to finish an idea and say it in literally one single sentence.
It’s so hard for people to do this, myself included. No matter how senior they are, they’ll say, “I think there’s something to this.” Sure there is. Put it in a sentence, maybe three sentences, and give it back to me. Then it’s an idea. If you can’t finish the thought on your own, it’s not an idea. Not yet.