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Creative Ops

Erin Smith on why mentorship is the core responsibility of a creative director

January 24, 2023 · 9 min read

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

Erin Smith is a creative director and writer with a deep belief in the power of storytelling. Her roots in theater brought her to copywriting and ultimately to creative direction. She’s spent time pushing the narrative forward for brands like Square and Salesforce, as well as agencies like H&L Partners.

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

What does it mean for you to be a creative director — how do you define the role?

The creative director role has changed significantly since I entered the advertising industry. When I started, the creative director was the person you took your ideas to, said yea or nay, presented them to the client, and then would refine with you. Now, I see the role as being responsible for empowering and training younger creatives to come into their own. Of course, you’re still dealing with the typical questions: what are the creative outputs? Why are we creating this or that? What's the strategy?

I really, really focus on the fact that I need to be a teacher and a mentor. Creative directing isn’t just about making your team great for the project at hand, it’s about training them to be great in their next job and their next job; it's such a small industry that my goal is to eventually end up working for one of my former employees. We need to continue building and growing this talent. If you're only interested in the output of the work at hand, you're doing a disservice to everyone involved.

What does it mean to grow from a copywriting background into a creative director role?

There's a big misconception that all copywriters do is write copy — that's more like 5% of what we do. I switched to tech a couple of years ago, which is especially design-first. People have said to me, “well, the designer can just write the copy” — no, that’s not what copywriting is. The difference is designers tend to be focused on making sure everything looks perfect, whereas the copywriter is responsible for making sure that the idea carries through

What I’m getting at is for a copywriter to become a creative director, you have to work hard to develop your strategic mind. Yes, you need to have a refined design perspective. But your focus is always on the idea, telling the story of a strategic idea.

When I transitioned from a copywriter role, into creative lead, then creative director, it was simply a practical matter. Our team was growing exponentially, so I fell into the role as a team-structure necessity, but I also became the strategic leader and strategic voice for much of what the company was doing as a whole. It was a natural step because I understood the brand as a whole. That's really what a copywriter needs to do: understand the whole umbrella of a brand and be able to ladder back to that in every single execution.

What's the most difficult part of shipping and completing good creative work? 

It’s always the stakeholders. Haha. Which is to say, a lack of adherence to a single decision maker. When everybody’s opinions have equal weight, you're designing by committee and diluting your message. Too many cooks spoil the broth, as the saying goes. You really need a single person who is empowered to make the final call before creative goes into production — not only to simply get the work shipped, but to ensure it both solves the business problem that initiated the project and is compelling on a creative level.

There's a high volume of creative out there, especially in the demand gen world, where, as I like to say, the brief is showing. I can see exactly what the KPIs are. I know exactly what you needed to ship, what you were told to ship. I hate being able to see that — I want to be taken on an emotional journey! 

There’s data out there that emotional resonance is what brings people to a brand, but oftentimes marketing teams push these checklist-type briefs on their creatives that preempt the possibility of achieving an emotional resonance. Sure, you need customers to know about these features and that benefit — but they're not going to come in the door if they don't like the brand.

You say it's important to have that one person who's accountable for the final decisions. Is that always the creative director?

It varies, but whomever it is should be in partnership with their creative director. In a traditional agency environment, it’s usually an ECD or CCO. On the client side it's a CMO.

As the creative team, in-house especially, you need to build trust with other teams and higher-ups through incremental change. Show them that you know what you’re doing, that you truly are experts. Oftentimes it's the product marketing manager making the final decisions, or the CMO. Often they’ll make a critical call without the creatives in the room, and I think it ultimately does a real disservice to their marketing.

How do you know, as a creative director, that the team you're overseeing is operating as best as it can? In other words, that your creative operations practice is working.

There's quite a few methods I like to use. Project retros may be my favorite. An amazing Program Manager I worked with introduced me to a really simple system. I ask everyone to fill in the blanks on two statements: I liked and I wish. For example: I like that this project was done on time, I wish we had had more bandwidth for it, etc. Then as a group we collaborate on filling in the last prompt, we will. For example, we will extend the next project's timeline so that we have that bandwidth. It’s a simple and clear method to exit a project with concrete examples and accountability that sets you up to execute better the next time. 

I also really love to solicit feedback from my partners, frequently. It’s generally productive to put a 30 minute meeting on a collaborator’s calendar and ask questions like, how is working with so-and-so? How did that meeting, that day, that project go? I always make all of my teams aware that I may do this so they don't feel blindsided. I also make it a practice to invite feedback. That makes my team more comfortable sharing feedback so it’s not a one-sided relationship.

Erin walked us through how she thinks about building a team for any given project.
Erin walked us through how she thinks about building a team for any given project.

One final thing is I make all of my creatives create and frequently add to a personal hype deck. Anytime they ship something, anytime they are really proud of something, anytime they build something they're proud of that didn't ship — put it in the hype deck! At the end of the year, you can go through it and say, “look at everything I did. Look at how cool all this stuff is. Look at this campaign that raised our brand affinity by six points.” It enables you to look at how you've grown, where you've been, and track towards your goals in the next year.

Are there software tools that are particularly important to your work as a creative director?

Google Suite for sure. That’s how I create and share documents. I need a DAM or cloud storage — some sort of repository. It kills me when I'm not given full access to look at the photos or graphic elements of whichever company I’m working at or with. I need to understand what we do, what we’ve done, how it all locks together. A well-run DAM or other creative operations platform is something I always look for.

Finally, and I hate to say it, because I used to really really hate this program: Figma. I was apprehensive when I first encountered it because we had to start using it with no training. Everyone was switching to Figma and there was a scramble on our side to figure out how to use it. I was taught old-school Adobe when it still came on individual CDs for each product.

When the change to Figma happened, my team was at full capacity. There wasn't any time to really learn it. But now that it’s been around for a while, and I’m used to it, I really enjoy it.

Many Air users leave their DAM for Air. What have you liked and disliked about DAMs you’ve used? 

The biggest thing is that, in agencies, on your first day you’re given the naming convention. It’s basically a key that helps you look up any project, any old asset, any draft. The agencies I’ve worked at were rigorous about this. Going into tech, it’s the Wild West — everybody names their assets in a different format. There's no real search capability, there's no real tracking.

Especially with Google Suite, everyone is responsible for their own structure. There isn't a templated structure that you're filling in and stuff gets lost all the time. When someone leaves the company, it's a nightmare — shoot, this person was working on that. We need that file back because we're going to do a refresh. How do we get it? Often, your IT or HR team deleted that employee’s drive. That item is lost to the ether. 

The biggest biggest pain point for me is really organization and searchability. You need to be able to go into whatever tool you’re using and find exactly what you’re looking for, quickly. If you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for, you need navigability, some structure or sense of how to explore your library.

What's a piece of advice that shapes how you operate as a creative director? What advice would you pass down to aspiring creative directors?

Anyone who's worked for me or with me knows this phrase very well: cut the fat. I go into every single document, every single deck, every single concept presentation, and approach it with those three words in mind: cut the fat. Can you say this in five words instead of six? For me, the joy of creative and what gets me excited about advertising is when it's that stupid, simple idea. 

Your goal should always be to cut whatever you’re working on down to the core, simple idea. Of course, getting to that simplicity is the whole craft.

For aspiring creative directors, I say this: protect your team from what they don’t need. From the politics, the noise, the stakeholder back-and-forth. As a creative director, your job is to empower your team to do their best creative work. Therefore, you have to take on a lot of the politics, the KPI conversations. It’s your job to get all the ducks in a row on the business side before you hand a project over to your creative team.

You don’t want your team overthinking everything because they’re worried about highlighting 15 different products in a 15-second spot, and that this product is a higher priority, and so on. Protect your team and shoulder the strategic role so that your team can do their best work. 

What’s your experience with creative operations teams and practices?

You can't live without creative ops. If you're in the agency world, maybe you haven't heard of creative ops. In the tech world, nothing gets done without the creative ops team. They’re who sets up your DAM, who chooses the DAM, who vets the DAM, who comes up with the naming convention for the DAM.

A creative ops team is essentially project managers making sure that the actual factory part of making creative is running smoothly. That's creative ops, and if you don't have people doing this for you at a point of scale, you will feel it. Deadlines get missed, assets go missing, or you didn't do a press check of this printed thing because no one told you you needed to,  and the colors are all wrong. Creative ops and creative strategy are what enable your creatives to deliver their best work.

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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