“Creative ops is the glue for all creative work”
Mara Isip started her career as a designer. After a few years and roles focused on that work, she found she had a talent for leadership, and moved on to become a Creative Director, the role she now holds at Zocdoc.
We recently had a conversation with Mara about what the job entails, with a special focus on the idea of creative operations, a complex category of work. Creative ops looks different at every organization, depending on many factors — for example, the size of the organization, the size of the creative team, and the type of content produced.
Below, learn how Mara thinks about the skills necessary to be a creative director, the difference between a creative director and a creative ops manager, and how creative ops might develop over the next decade.
In your words, what does a creative director do?
A creative director provides guidance, support, and vision for a creative team. We also manage partnerships and enable our team members to do their best work.
It’s our job to continually push the creative work, elevate the work, and make sure that the department and organization stay forward-thinking. It’s often more meetings than hands-on design work. It’s people management — guidance around making decisions and prioritizing.
To be a creative director, you have to be as interested in advocating, building partnerships, and getting buy-in as you are interested in the creative work itself.
What does creative operations, or creative ops, mean to you?
Creative ops is the glue for all of the creative work. It’s making sure we're operating on appropriate timelines, prioritizing well, and thinking of the future appropriately. It’s about maintaining strong relationships across the organization.
Creative ops has always been a huge part of what allows me to function really well within my job. It’s what keeps me sane and really keeps the department going.
How long have you been aware of creative ops?
We had it at my very first job, at Converse. This was over a decade ago. I worked for them a few years after they got acquired by Nike, so I have a feeling that’s why it was already ingrained in the organization. Also at West Elm, the job I had shortly after that, we had people running creative ops.
So I think it’s existed for a while in larger organizations that had robust creative departments — dedicated design, digital, photo, print or packaging departments, for example. Especially when these organizations have a big brand presence. In the smaller companies, people have become, more and more, accustomed to the importance of creative ops.
When do you think the shift to prioritizing creative ops happened for the smaller companies?
I would say creative ops comes in when the work and team starts to scale. When you're having more meetings across the organization, when it becomes unrealistic for individuals to simultaneously monitor and track their projects appropriately without any additional support. It's someone who is strategizing more, but still equally involved in the creative work itself. So it’s less of a specific industry-trend shift and more about a necessary point of scale for any given company.
How do you think creative ops has changed since you started your career?
It has become more about strategizing and equally focused on relationship building. It's a pretty pivotal role in an organization, because you are the voice of the creative team — in the way that an account director works. As work scales, as teams grow, that's when it comes into play. In the digital age where we really need to churn work out quickly, and there’s so many channels or departments requesting work — social media, the website, emails, performance, product, etc — we have to have someone who's keeping the creative team seen and making sure everything's moving forward.
What software tools do you use to do creative ops work? Which ones are essential to you?
It changes company-to-company. I’ve used Monday and Jira for project management at different places. Google Docs. I’ve used Slack a lot for routing, though I'm not sure how sustainable that is after a while. I’ve used Figma a lot, for collaborative reviews, especially when a team is all remote. Frontify. Google Drive, which isn’t great for project tracking on its own.
What's your ideal tool for approving assets and giving feedback?
Slack is very easy when everyone's on Slack, across an organization. It's somewhat easy to find things in Slack, but I think it also promotes backchanneling at times. One-off, siloed conversations can be harmful to projects because not everyone is looped in on the feedback or the context of a project.
On the other hand, if you're routing with Jira, then everyone's getting blasted with notifications and it becomes overwhelming. It’s about finding the right balance of the two.
Again, what’s tough about Slack is you're not directly connected to what the brief was or what the timeline was, or, how many other comments were associated with this project. All of that history is important — it should be in one centralized place.
What’s the overlap between what a Creative Director does and what a Creative Ops Manager does?
Projects initiate with a creative ops person. Once a project is ready to begin, they're fielding all the briefs and making sure the right information is there. Then, it's assigned an appropriate timeline, and a check is done to ensure that the project ties to an important business goal. During this process, they’re keeping me, the Creative Director, informed and engaged.
The creative ops person is also making sure everyone's working toward the timeline, that the proper people are reviewing the work, and in the proper order, to get approval. That means setting up meetings. Alongside a Creative Director, they're making sure that a project keeps moving in the right direction — which is to say, towards the company goals. They’re also ensuring assets are delivered properly, and in a timely manner.
The evolution to Creative Ops from Project Manager roles took place because Creative Ops Managers aren’t just tactical in the way that Project Managers may be. They're strategic, and also audit processes, identify potential improvements, and note ways in which a team could be a little bit faster, more buttoned up, and avoid any potential blockers. So there's a lot of analysis that has to go into each project in order to make sure future work is better.
Where do you see the future of creative operations as a field heading over the next 5 to 10 years? How will it evolve?
If anything, it’s going to multiply. There are many more types of creative departments than there were a decade ago, and companies are using a wider variety of creative mediums and tools.
Creative ops typically sits within brand design and copy departments. But people in this role frequently manage colleagues on other teams, indirectly – for example, people on the social media or brand marketing team. This indirect management relationship can work in the short-term, as a stopgap, but is not ideal in the long-term; the role requires deeper knowledge and nuance than most centralized roles allow for.
In a perfect world, there would be a dedicated creative ops person in each of the teams I mentioned, at every company – from social media, to a video department, and beyond. It's a vital role, and it's probably not going to be as centralized in the future, as companies increasingly embrace a broader set of opportunities for creative work to help drive the business forward.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.