Paramount+’s Kieron Mullarkey on creative as “a business of opinion”
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, for you personally?
I started as a producer, but the end goal was always to become a creative director. My mentor at my first full-time job was a creative director and I just found what he did fascinating, so I tried to learn as much as I could from him. Once I had the opportunity to work for him directly, the path quickly became clear.
What it means to be a CD is to have a really intimate relationship with a brand, to cohesively understand that brand. It’s almost like raising a kid: the brand is your baby and you want to see it grow, thrive, and achieve. It’s your job — your privilege — to use the creative side of your brain every day towards that end.
I tried non-creative jobs and didn’t last very long. This was early in my career. I quickly realized there was no other option for me but to work a creative job, that nothing else would motivate me. As corny as it sounds, I’ve always been a dreamer and lived through my imagination. This role is where I’ve stayed because it allows me to use that creative part of my brain every day.
What has mentorship meant to you over the years, first as a mentee and now as a mentor and leader yourself?
I believe anyone who is successful in this career is so because they had some sort of mentor along the way. You need someone to guide you down the right path. Whatever career path you’re on, not just creative, you simply haven’t done it until you’ve done it. Somebody has to show you best practices and advocate for you — it’s difficult to get far without an advocate. Possible, but quite difficult.
Very early in my career, someone took a chance on me. I wasn’t in creative yet, I was in a very entry-level role in the television industry, and someone on the creative side saw this natural curiosity in me and took that chance. He opened the door for me and I just started bugging him with questions and ideas.
That mentor gave me the time of day, he truly had my best interests in heart, and he looked out for me. He talked about me positively in rooms I wasn’t in. I owe him quite a bit.
Having had such an important experience as a mentee early on, it’s important for me to pay it forward. That’s how you repay your mentors, really. Whether it’s my team, or someone I end up working with who isn’t on my team, I try to encourage and push them to take it as far as they can. I try to show people opportunities they may not have seen, avenues they may not have been considering that I think they’d thrive in.
I always advocate for people to abandon any fear of change, even if that means changing roles or companies. If you’re blocked, you have to find ways to look out for yourself, to make the most of your career, to avoid having those regrets years down the line.
Creative is a business of opinion. If you’re an accountant, the numbers are either right or wrong, at the end of the day. In creative, it’s all opinion, there’s no “right” idea. So I always push people to follow and develop their own opinions. It’s better for everyone in a team environment; you don’t want an echo chamber.
What’s the hardest part of shipping good creative — where do the breakdowns happen?
The key, beyond a solid brief, is asking all the right questions. Never assume anything. Look at things from every possible angle and don’t be afraid to just try out your ideas, crazy as they may feel.
Sometimes a successful campaign isn’t necessarily creatively satisfying, but it meets the criteria — it achieves the project goals. That’s the other side of it — you can’t always focus on being creative for the sake of being creative. Know what the project’s prime objective is and figure out different routes to get there.
Feedback can be tough. You can’t fall too much in love with your own work. You need to be able to take feedback and adjust your work based on it. I always tell the producers and designers on my team to be objective. Think like the audience. Think like the more business-minded people who may be the source of the project. Take a step back, and if it’s not abundantly clear what the creative is selling, you’ve failed and need to look at it another way.
What’s your approach to building and maintaining a great creative team?
The crucial thing is to establish and maintain a strong collaborative environment. You need people who prioritize collaboration. Yes, being a creative can at times be a solitary endeavor. If you're writing, you’re probably by yourself, and with remote work that extends to all creative work. You’re designing by yourself, you’re editing by yourself. People see that on the other end, for better or worse — you do need to bring other people into the process.
It’s all too easy to spend a long time working on something by yourself, with your personal blinders on, get really far down the road, and then show someone what you’ve made and they point out all these foundational flaws. Maybe if someone gave you feedback earlier on, you would’ve course-corrected and it would’ve ended up better. So it’s crucial to have that collaborative element baked into a team’s process.
Building teams, you need to have a variety of voices. You need to have different people that come from different places with different experiences and different strengths. Not everyone will have the same strengths and weaknesses; everyone should complement each other. That’s what I look for.
Again, this is a business of opinion. You want people with strong opinions who can still easily work in a team environment. That just means they’re not married to their idea, that they can see a different idea and adapt to it. The word for this is vibes. It’s cheesy, but that’s just what it is. Are we going to be able to get along and work together or not? It’s a matter of vibe. If you’re unable to have fun working together, you’re probably not going to produce good work.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
The ability to go take a break, whether it's to go for a walk and be in nature, or just walk the dog.
Comedy. When things get stressful, sometimes I just need to take a beat and laugh. I’m a big fan of comedy podcasts.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received regarding your career?
It’s an old gem: you meet the same people on your way up as you do on your way down. It’s a cautionary tale about how you treat people. Especially in Canada, the media industry is really small and chances are, you know someone, or someone you know knows someone, almost anywhere in the industry. The lesson is to be decent with people, to be honest.
One of my early mentors told me that. He ended up moving to the US and becoming a higher-up at a very large organization, in charge of their creative. He was such a grounded person that you’d never guess what he did for a living, the level at which he worked, if you just met him on that street. No black turtleneck, no complicated glasses. Just a regular guy, salt of the earth type of guy from Saskatchewan, that really knew his stuff.
This guy meant more to my career, early on, than pretty much anyone else to date. He lived that advice, too, in the way he advocated for me.
Treat people well and build strong relationships because that’s how you get gigs. Yeah, your resume matters, it shows what you’ve worked on, but people talk. It’s what I said earlier about vibes — basically, your reputation and vibe will precede you.
Of course, some of that attitude is maturity. You’re not the same person at 25 as you are at 54. You’ll make mistakes along the way. What matters is that you learn from them, try again, and come correct the next time.