Laura Harrington on fostering community with other creatives
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, in your experience?
As someone who came up in the UK and moved to the US, it means different things in each place. In the UK, you’re looking at more years of experience to get that title than in the US, for example.
In the UK, not everyone wants to be a creative director. You can happily be a senior creative for life, working on the best projects, still managing teams. And that’s basically what a creative director does here in the US. It seems like people escalate from junior to senior to creative director quite fast over here, without taking time in the middle. I’m talking particularly about New York, I haven’t lived anywhere else in the US.
As for me, I like to say I’m a conceptual creative and I like to participate in projects with a sustainable angle. I can happily go into a place as a senior, as an ACD, or as a creative director. It’s less about the title, especially experiencing systems on both sides of the pond — it’s more about the actual work and what I’ll be creating. I just want to work on cool stuff, at the end of the day.
What are some of the hardest parts of the creative process, anywhere between receiving a job and getting the thing out into the world?
As I’m currently freelancing, I find it hard when I don’t get to sell the work in and fulfill it all the way through. I relish the whole process — coming up with the ideas is my favorite part, and then the whole process of bringing them to life. I always loved being there from the start all the way through to the end, it’s very satisfying.
I don’t always get to follow an idea all the way through anymore. Depending on the agency and the budget, they might just bring me in for the ideas stage, selling it in. Once we’ve come up with an idea and sold it, maybe it gets handed over to a more junior creative. That’s the reality of advertising. Maybe the hardest part, to answer your question, is learning to trust other people to bring your initial vision to life. Part of that is making sure I really nail and lay out that vision so they can see it through properly.
Obviously, you can plan and document an idea thoroughly before a handoff, but things will get away from you. Briefs can change, clients can move on, they can change their mind or bring in very specific ideas they need brought to life. When you’re there for the whole process, you weather it. But freelancing, you just have to accept it’s not for you to worry about. There’s more freedom, but it’s a little bittersweet.
Tell me about what it was like coming to America, how that affected your career.
It’s quite complicated. First, my husband came over here. He’s also a creative director. I followed him over, but I had trouble getting a work visa at first. But being here on a non-working visa for a little while turned out to be a blessing.
At first, I was going a little insane. People would say, “oh, it must be wonderful having time off!” Not really. I like to be busy, I like doing creative work. It keeps me going. I was searching for something to occupy myself while I worked out the visa.
I started volunteering at the Whitney Museum, helping with their tours for the blind. That was such a fun experience. I would lead people around and describe the art to them, which in turn helped me to appreciate the art so much more — it was quite inspiring. Then I decided to take a sewing course because the visa process was dragging on and I was growing so bored. At the same time, I was talking to people at agencies, making connections for when I could start working again.
But I took a sewing course, I made some things, and a friend who owns a shop in Greenpoint asked me if I’d make a collection for her. Of course, this is when my visa finally came through and I could work again. But I had to see it through. I’d never sewed until I’d started taking that class a few months before and now I had a chance to make a proper collection. So I did it! And my staving-off-the-boredom hobby became a proper side hustle, a legitimate business.
How has starting your own business, that you handle every part of, affected how you think about the work you were doing before and the work that you're now doing afterwards?
It's actually impacted everything. Through starting up my own business, I not only became the client, but suddenly I’m having to work with people in all these new ways. It was a little terrifying at first. It was also extremely gratifying, because I was able to create exactly what I wanted to create.
Fly By Night is a sustainable business. Sustainability is something I’ve always cared about and sought to incorporate into my ideas as an agency creative, but it doesn’t always work out. At the start, I would go to all of these sustainability conferences and it was so nerdy and fun. And I can take that back to my work as a creative now — I love being able to inject some sort of sustainability into every brief that comes to me, and in new ways I wouldn’t have thought to before.
It’s easy to fall into greenwashing, but going through everything I’ve done with Fly By Night, I’ve learned all these ideas for briefs that could truly do some good in the world.
Another thing is I realized I’m a terrible businesswoman because I really don’t enjoy math. It’s a side of business I don’t like — I could never be an account person. They’re great at their jobs, and that’s amazing. It’s not for me.
What are three things you can't do your job without?
My mind. Really need that bad boy, right? Can’t do anything without it.
Second, the client. You literally can’t come up with these ideas unless there’s a client. Creatives can sometimes fall into thinking the client is an enemy, this evil fighting against you, telling you no — that’s not the case at all. The client wants the best work possible, that’s why they came to you. It’s amazing that they’re paying you to come up with these creative ideas. Trust them!
Everything we do is just problem-solving. It’s a reaction to something. It can be topical, but we need the client to give us something to react to, a problem to solve.
Last thing, the strength of a team in an agency. Whether that’s strategy, accounts, the juniors, your creative partner — everyone. You’ll log onto LinkedIn and see so much of, “me, me, me, I did this. I did that.” And that’s simply not true. There’s always like 50 to 100 people who’ve touched a project before it’s finished and gone out. Think of every single person that touched it — there’s usually a whole village behind any given project!
Maybe one person comes up with an idea, sure. That’s not even the case half the time, we come to ideas together. But so many hands facilitate a campaign’s making.
Tell me about mentorship, how you see the relationship between one generation of creatives and the next.
Back in London, I was part of this thing called the Young Creative Council.
So I went to Buckinghamshire University, which has one of the best advertising courses in the country. Through that, my creative partner and I, in our second year, were already doing placements. We’d travel up to London with our portfolios — literal paper portfolios, back then — and there would be a community of all these students who went to Bucks working at different agencies. They were juniors, seniors, all levels. And we just sought them out to get feedback on our portfolios.
I remember leaving a review crying because they’d told us, basically, to throw our portfolios in the bin. We essentially did that, redid the whole thing, and ended up getting hired at another place. So those people were right, our portfolios weren’t good enough.
After getting hired, this little community started around this agency. It was a really passionate group of people. Once we’d made it through and actually secured jobs, we wanted to facilitate that for the people coming after us. So we’d start throwing events.
We’d just figure out which bars were empty on which days and then ask them if we could bring in a crowd of ad students and creative industry people. We’d get sponsorship from somebody to pay for a load of drinks and that was it. Suddenly it turned into this big networking thing in London.
A big achievement for the YCC was the Placement Poverty Pledge. As a group, we got all these London ad agencies to sign up for it. What it said was that they wouldn’t use any more free advertising labor. They agreed to pay a specific weekly amount to placements. When I did my placements, you might get a train ticket to go to work, maybe a tiny bit of money. You were working on real briefs, real work, and getting compensated with little more than experience. It was so wrong, especially when clients were paying these agencies just silly amounts.
So I loved the Young Creative Council. It was very formative for me, and I imagine to many others as well. Eventually it was left to younger creatives to carry on. You start to age out a bit, but it keeps going. The generation you helped helps the next.
Is there any advice you would give to creatives at the beginning of their career?
I would just say have the most fun possible. Even at the start, if you’re just creating a portfolio out of speculative work, it’s incredibly important to have fun with it. You’ll never get a chance to create a student portfolio again, with all that freedom.
Next, pick an agency you really want to work at and be relentless in finding a way in. Look up the creatives who work there and pester them for portfolio critiques. Find someone there whose work you just love and ask them to be your mentor. Who knows, they might pass your portfolio along to a friend who’ll end up hiring you.
Lastly, don’t stay at an agency as an intern for too long, because they are effectively taking advantage of you. If, after a certain amount of time, you’ve asked if you’ll be getting hired, and they just say, “Maybe in the next year, we’re not too sure,” it’s time for you to leave.
Get into that first agency as an intern, sure. Get some great work under your belt. Make some connections. Make that cup of tea for someone. And then leave. Don’t let the promise of being hired in a year or two keep you going, because you’re worth more than that. There’s someone out there who will hire you now.