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Creative Ops

Associate Creative Director Erika Canfijn on establishing and defending a creative north star

May 03, 2023 · 4 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 what does the role entail for you?

I’m a freelance associate creative director, so I’m concepting creative, then overseeing all kinds of collaborators to produce that creative, all while participating in meetings as the defender of that creative work.

That’s really the core of the role for me: at the end of the day, what I do is defend the creative work.

I’m a huge car enthusiast, so my career, by very careful design, has led me to work mostly on automotive accounts. When I was growing up, those were my two passions: cars and creative. I always wanted to marry those two interests and I’m very happy to have done so.

What I love specifically about working in automotive and why I’ve remained in this niche is I get to do two specific types of work. The first is enthusiast-driven projects — which I really love as a car enthusiast myself. I'm talking to people who get exactly what I'm trying to do and I get to tap into my network of awesome creative collaborators who share my passion for cars. The second type of work is in the luxury space, diving into the established world of these treasured brands and creating very immersive work for that specific luxury demographic.

What’s most difficult about getting good creative ideas completed and out the door?

You have your vision, you have your north star and there are all these hoops you have to get through. Everyone, both within the agency and on the client side, has opinions — which is a good thing, to be clear — and you have to ensure that all these different people feel heard but that the creative vision doesn’t become warped or overworked. That's a really obvious answer, of course; I’m not the first person to say it, we're all fighting the good fight here. 

Another thing that's very difficult is being truly open to collaboration, whether that’s with your internal team — processing a good idea that comes from a department other than creative — or just letting your creative collaborators do their thing. Just because you edit and take photos on the side doesn't mean you need to micromanage the expert that you hired to do the job. Trust the people you hired! You get so much more out of people when you give them the freedom to put their creative vision into the work, but that’s a muscle you have to train. People can lose sight of that and end up micromanaging the passion out of their creatives.

What makes an effective creative team?

A good team requires strong leadership. What really defines that for me is establishing a shared vision. A good leader establishes the north star of a project at the start — both the ideal and the realistic expectations of what the end result should be. Not every member of the team can be on every single call or touch every part of the project, and this is how you solve for that. You establish what you’re fighting for.

As far as how you know if you’ve built a strong team and work environment, at the end of the day, there are analytics to measure success. But if everyone is miserable at the end of the project, you can tell if it was successful or not. That's probably more important than any specific metric.

What is something that you can't do your job without?

Coffee. It’s not even about the drink itself, it’s just the ritual, how it fits in my personal process. It’s a meditative way for me to start my day and get the creative juices flowing. It gets me out of bed and helps me start thinking in the morning.

The other side of coffee, as a ritual concept, is that when we all used to go into the office full-time, coffee is how we got out of the office. Those moments of “Hey, do you want to go grab a coffee?” with your creative partner or creative director are invaluable. It’s an informal way to get out of the office and re-energize yourself creatively. Even outside of the office environment, with a friend or a fellow freelancer, those little moments produce so much inspiration.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given regarding your career?

When I started as a creative, my creative director told me something that I always think about. The gist is that our work is not all-important — your family and taking time off to be with them is. Especially for a young person, starting out in any industry, you have to remember this. There's so much pressure when you're young to be working all night and not take time off, especially in advertising. 

People will say things like, “Oh we're not saving lives, it's not that important,” but at the end of the day that doesn't stop those same people from pushing your boundaries and pressuring you to work 90 hours a week. 

As creatives, we’re so precious and our work is so tied to our identities. It’s easy to think you need to be answering that late email and work all those weekends, that it’s allowing you to grow. Sure, if that’s what you want, do that. But you need to be firm about taking time off and spending it with your family — no one else can do that for you.

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