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Creative Ops

Jean Park on solving business problems with creative-forward solutions

January 17, 2023 · 8 min read

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

Jean Park is a seasoned creative executive with over 15 years experience working in corporate design. She specializes in merging design priorities with financial strategies to solve multi-faceted business problems. Coming out of a career in corporate fashion design, she now focuses on consulting work with solo entrepreneurs.

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

How did you become a creative director?

I started my career as an apparel designer, in fashion design, which is a very specific skill set. Once I started looking at eventually jumping companies, or just doing  something else, I knew I had to branch out. There are very few companies, especially in California — compared to New York — that focus on fashion design. 

The main reason why I left corporate fashion was probably because I’m a bit of a hippie. Let me back up: I went to Parsons and I always wanted to do corporate design. I love solving problems. Even when I was in art school, I saw a difference between art and design. Art asks questions, whereas design solves problems, and I was a problem-solver. 

What I really liked about working in corporate spaces was working with all these different teams to solve different problems. There's business-oriented people, there's data people. Creativity is not just visual, it’s also how do we all find a compromise that works for everyone in a business scenario? 

I loved corporate design, but it’s now common knowledge that mass-produced, corporate clothing is horrible for the environment. It's just the worst thing. That’s where the hippie bit comes in, I just decided I couldn’t do mass fashion anymore. But I wasn't really sure what to do next.

Having worked for years in corporate fashion, I’d saved a bit of money, so I was thankfully able to just quit and explore. I ended up working with a clothing startup that needed help with email designs. It started there. My favorite part of designing was always storytelling, so even though I was initially just designing emails, I was quickly helping them with all sorts of work. 

Startups are scrappy, the teams are small. The minute they figure out you can do this and that, you're just pulled in. Oh, you can do email marketing? Ohk, you can do ads. You can sit in meetings with our ad buyers because you get data and you can transition data into ads. You can write copy. I became a Swiss army knife. After that, I spent some time as a creative director for a software startup.

Right now, I do creative direction, small business coaching, and consulting for solopreneurs. I work with single-person businesses. They'll have freelancers, but rarely other full-timers. It's mostly female, just one woman doing the thing, bringing me in to help solve problems. 

When you start your own business, you get so zoomed in on it that you need that extra, external person to take a big-picture look at what you’re doing. Small businesses will often hire freelancers to help with a little bit of production here and there, but no one's really your partner, able to say, “Hey, you're telling me you have this vision, but I see you executing this and I don't know if it's gonna serve you well financially.”

For a lot of these solopreneurs, nobody's asking “why,” and I’m the person who comes in and asks those hard, or simply un-asked questions. I also help them pull together and distill their story. That’s a major aspect of what I do as a creative director: I connect the dots and cut the fluff for people, to improve and define their story.

What's the hardest part of shipping good creative?

First, and this is very pragmatic, is just convincing the client that it will make money. The second thing is convincing them to invest that money. In other words, success is reliant on resourcing correctly at the start. That said, sometimes it’s the opposite! I’ve had clients where I have to tell them to stop spending money. Like, I know you want to wheat paste all over New York, but maybe you should start with a Facebook ad.

My job is fundamentally to create something that resonates, usually to a broad audience. As an example, the finance app I worked for. It was a totally new space for me, so I had a bit of imposter syndrome. I made this deck, pitching the approach I thought we should take. 

The company helps people with their credit, so my pitch was basically: there's so much shame and fear about credit scores; I think we can break that stigma and let people know they have control over this number, that this number doesn't define them. It's something that can evolve and change.

As a team, we went deep discussing the concept, and we all agreed it resonated on a deep level, and would resonate with our audience. Of course, the next step is, “I need money to execute this campaign.” Even with everyone in agreement on this being the right messaging and campaign, convincing someone that a new effort will make money and getting them to finance it is hard. There’s always a risk.

It's an insane amount of production work just to change your messaging now. There are so many channels, so many formats, so many assets to generate and edit and change. Especially now, companies often get into the “if it's not broke, don't fix it” mindset. But people get bored if you don’t refresh the story, with so many other companies and outlets competing for a limited amount of attention.

Honestly, my job these days often isn’t even creative direction, so to speak. It can often be about helping prioritize, figuring out how to execute…all the operational stuff that happens before and after the creative work.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received, in terms of how you approach creative direction work?

Someone told me this when I was considering starting my own clothing line. They framed it as advice for running a small business: learn very quickly what you love to do and what you don’t love to do. Know that you don't have to do everything. 

I actually just gave this advice to one of my clients who has a clothing line. I asked, what are you doing for 40 hours a week? Two or three days a week, she was just spending time doing shipping. She was getting so many orders. I told her: you don’t have to do that unless you actually love doing it. You can hire somebody for $16, $20 per hour to take care of that. You could be using that time to work as a freelance print designer for anywhere between $65 to $100 dollars an hour.

When you have a small business, you're literally paying yourself. You have to be intentional about what you choose to do versus what you delegate if you want to grow and actually make money.

This same client had made an ordering error, and we realized she was essentially numbers-dyslexic. I told her, “I’m expensive, but just pay me to do your inventory and ordering, and I’ll put together an ordering structure and plan for you. Then you can just pay someone an affordable rate to execute inventory moving forward, once we have the plan.”

Just learn what you love to do, learn what you're good at, and don't be afraid to spend money outsourcing the stuff you either don’t want to do or aren’t good at.

I'm a consultant, I'm a freelancer, but I usually ask my clients for a budget for freelancers having them hire directly. My clients are often overstretched to the point of chaos, and don’t have time to deal with more people under them. But I have people that I trust to handle most outsourced jobs, so I help my clients with that. 

How do you know if the way you set up a creative team is working — how have you set your teams up for success?

The short answer is it comes with experience, it’s something you just get a sense for after being part of many teams and learning what toxic versus productive team dynamics look like in practice.

One of the reasons why this transition from in-house to consultant was really easy for me is because I am an amazing team player. I'm an amazing manager. I manage both up and down very well, and I communicate very well. So when something's not working, you talk to people right away and you figure out a different process. It's very personal. 

In terms of setting up the team, when I'm working with my clients, I always joke, “you don't want to pay me to do that.” Back to the outsourcing idea — it’s my job to know the current climate of what you should be paying people for particular types of work. 

With freelancers, you can’t always perfectly predict how they’ll perform. Ideally, you have people you’ve worked with before and can trust. But regardless, when you work with freelancers, based on their performance, you need to make decisions. If they’re underperforming, you have to decide and talk to them: “Either you need to choose to grow, to explain and show you your mistakes and show you what you're not catching, or I can find someone more skilled, and that's on me.” 

I take a lot of ownership on whether a process is working or not. As a creative director, as a skilled team builder, when something's not working, it's on me. I choose the software, I choose the process, I assemble the team, so I have to figure out what's not working and fix it. That’s what creative directing comes down to — you’re accountable for the quality of the work, even if it’s not you hands-on creating it.

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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