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Creative Ops

Chewy’s Josh Reese on letting creative drive brand strategy

April 19, 2023 · 5 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 do you do?

My job as a CD is to turn business priorities into clear, compelling communication that benefits the business, but is for consumers. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s complex. From a hands-on perspective, each project is very different depending on what you’re working on.

When you’re starting out as a young creative, you usually have to do a fair amount of business as usual work — the stuff that keeps the lights on. As a creative director, I always try to offer my team something more than that. Early on, I worked at a couple places that lacked real creative leadership, where we were more “people who knew photoshop”  than creatives, just doing what marketing needed us to do. What motivates me is a desire to have creative drive the conversation.

Sure, marketing and the larger business want us to do such-and-such thing, but why? Can it be better? Can it be more interesting? Will it be compelling to your neighbor? I seek to ask those questions and ultimately create something greater than the sum of its parts, that transcends a checklist brief. Too often, “creative” is seen as just getting the project complete, mushing it with production. As a creative director in my current role, I aim to show why they need to be more separate. 

Why would a company take a creative-driven versus a creative services approach?

Putting creative higher up in the conversation takes a particular strength and type of leadership on the creative team and the marketing org — a recognition of what’s possible through brand and creative. It’s also a level of organizational maturity. There are multiple phases of a marketing organization, starting with a simple need to get the work done and get it out the door. That’s creative services. 

A creative-services-based organization hits a plateau in terms of what it can do with creative. Yeah, you make a production system, you figure out how to make the message consistent,, make it look on brand, and then get it out on time. But that’s not the point!

I think a company takes a creative-driven approach when the response to what they’re putting out dims and their story gets stale. It’s about recognizing a need to actually be thoughtful and strategic, to make communication that’s actually relevant and insightful to the audience. From my experience, that’s when a company should start utilizing an internal creative agency model.

What does it take to set up a really effective, successful creative team, on any given project?

It’s a broad question — there are so many aspects to take into account. You’re always starting with your internal people — what’s their bandwidth, how have their projects gone recently? If they’ve done a project that went sideways or was frustrating for them, can you give them something that’s going to be more personally exciting? It’s really important to me that I give my team opportunities to excel and exercise their passions.

In terms of building a team with new hires, you have to start with the ask. Why do you need a new hire, what needs are you trying to fulfill? If you’re trying to hire a writer, and you need someone who can turn out great headlines as well as great email copy, that may not be the same person. Those are two different skills. So you have to find the “why” behind that, you need to fundamentally understand what the need is, what the projects they’ll be working on are, and what your hiring budget is. 

Personality-wise, when hiring, I’d rather have somebody that’s motivated, interested, and aware of the industry than someone who maybe is skilled but lacks those traits. If you’re not motivated, you’re probably not going to be motivated to get any better. Unskilled and motivated is better than skilled and unmotivated.

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

Number one is just getting away from work. Taking a walk before or after work, exercising — you need to be able to get away to do your job well. I feel that when I’m always focused on work and can’t stop thinking about it is actually not when I’m doing my best work; you need balance.

Number two is the Adobe Creative Suite. In terms of a tool I actually use to do work, that’s just crucial. InDesign is my favorite, if I had to pick one, because as a creative trying to convince people to buy in on projects, I build a lot of decks. 

Decks themselves are essential. That’s how I translate my thinking to other people. When you have a lot of information, you need to plan it out, present it step by step to bring people around to some big creative idea. It’s just about making your words visible, tangible. It can be fun, it can be emotionally-driven — in terms of getting an idea across, it's the sweet spot between just talking through an idea and putting together a full video. 

Number three is one-on-ones with my team members. Most of my team is in Florida and I’m in Boston, so we don’t see each other in person much. I need to have relationships with the people I work with, I want to know about their lives. Teamwork is easier when you know and care about each other.

What's the best piece of advice you’ve ever received in relation to your career?

There are plenty. You could ask me tomorrow and I’d have a different answer.

One that’s always stuck with me: “if you’re not doing the work for yourself, who cares?” If you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter if you sell it. Make yourself happy before you make other people happy. This approach has guided my career choices, countless presentations, so much of my work. It’s really about growth and motivation — if you’re not growing and doing something for yourself, then it’s just a job.

What’s a piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out in this career?

There's no right answer in this work. There are usually  multiple choices , but none of them is ‘right or ‘correct’. It’s not math, so don’t get down on yourself if your idea or direction isn’t selected. That goes for creative presentations, too. Nobody in the room knows if it's right or wrong — those are often just decisions determined by hierarchy. Just because you’re not on top doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means someone else is more senior than you.

To be clear, there are good ideas and not so good ones; there are direct ideas; there are emotional ideas; but there is no such thing as a ‘right’ idea. Don't get hung up on being right, it'll just get you frustrated if you’re wrong-by-hierarchy all the time. That’s no way to feel.

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