“It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to be in a job like this”: May Aboubakr on Creative Ops
May Aboubakr started off as a designer at the international creative agency Sid Lee. Over 12 years there, she grew and flourished through the org chart, spending time as an Account Director, and wrapping up her tenure as a Partner and Head of Creative Operations.
Today, May is the Vice President of Creative and Marketing Internal Operations at Chobani, the iconic yogurt brand. We spoke with May recently about how to become skilled at creative ops, the most important parts of the creative process, and what exactly the work of creative operations entails.
How do you define creative operations?
When I started in the creative world about 15 years ago, to my knowledge, creative operations didn't really exist as such. I was on the agency side. There was account management and functions like resource management, but it became clear that agencies need someone who's protecting the business, the brand, the agency, and the creatives.
You always have account people who are stuck between the client's needs and the agency team’s needs, but it wasn't clear — even to them — where their interests fell. Somebody has to be gathering and tracking all these connections, making sure the work is flowing smoothly and prioritized for both sides.
In my world at least, that’s where the creative operations niche started forming. We needed project management, creative resourcing, all these pieces to help the flow of our projects, and help our people talk to each other and maintain clarity on the work.
Now I see creative operations roles popping up more and more. Especially with the in-house agency model, which is what I do now at Chobani. The in-house creative team benefits from somebody that bridges the gap between the cross functional teams on the brand side, the business, and the creative team.
Basically, creative operations focuses on looking out for the creative team, while at the same time making sure the rest of the business is clear on what they need; what their business goals and priorities are in relation to their creative asks.
What you’re handling for the creative team are questions like: what support do they need, how do they need to be resourced, what are they missing in order to do their job better?
What you’re handling for the rest of the business are questions like what are the priorities? What are the briefs coming in? How do you prioritize them? How much should we be spending on each of these? What's the desired outcome? Are the briefs and objectives clear?
It's really the flow of everything from business needs through production and beyond. It’s about achieving clarity between the creative team and the rest of the organization.
At Air, we believe every company is a media company. Do you agree with that? What we mean is every team in an organization is working with content; there are more and more use cases for images and videos.
In my mind — and maybe this is an old school thing — when somebody says media, I go back to the media agencies that go out and buy the media, in a traditional sense. But that’s an outdated model now. Less and less companies operate like that, and it’s not how consumers behave — people spend their lives on social media. There’s a significant shift taking place in how we create to reach our audience because how they consume information has changed. It's no longer about traditional media.
So in that sense, I suppose any business has to be a media business.
What are the KPIs that drive your work as someone leading creative operations? How do you prove you’ve done your job well — what numbers drive that?
So that's where it's a bit different in my world versus a more sales or traditional business-driven role.
It’s a balance of soft skills and hard skills. You look at things like: how many projects did we do? How much time did we spend on each project? Were they on time? These are a few of my KPIs.
The other part in the creative space is how satisfied are your team dynamics? How driven is the team, how inspired is the team? Are they excited about the briefs and creative opportunities? That's where it's a bit of a soft KPI that you wouldn't put a number on, but it's incredibly important. A key part of the creative operations role is having a pulse on how the team is doing, mentally and emotionally.
What’s the most frustrating part of this work, of achieving those goals? What’s your most pressing challenge in creative ops work?
A few things.
One is maintaining clarity on our business goals and what our priorities are. We get briefs and work against those goals; clarity in the briefing stage is absolutely crucial, but sometimes, that can change along the way, and that’s where continued communication is key across the various teams involved.
The second part is timelines. It sounds basic, but it’s an eternal challenge. My team always says, we never feel like we have enough time. Creativity is not a math equation, so it's important that we allow the creative teams the time to work, and it’s difficult to predict when you’ll arrive at the idea that best achieves the relevant business goal.
The creative process is not something that can be put into a box. It's not like it takes exactly two weeks to come up with an idea. You could take a week, take a day, it could take a month. You can approximate the timeline, but it’s rarely spot-on.
Do you find there are tools out there that help solve these issues for you?
I don't think any of the tools out there at the moment capture the full process. There are just so many parts.
There are tools that cover parts of the process really well — the kickoff, or the pipeline, the resourcing, or the archiving — but nothing simply does it all from A to Z.
At the beginning of a brief, when we're about to start something, it’s all hands on deck, everybody's super focused, we're all committed to getting organized. At the end, it’s inevitably a bit messier.
Closing out of a project is a key step that’s often overlooked. When a project is delivered, we're so ready to move on. Making sure all the files are in the right place, making sure that it's easy to reference them later, all of that often sometimes happens too quickly. We realize only when we're looking for assets later that it wasn't done thoroughly.
My ideal tool would be something that automates these inevitable issues, taking the process from A to Z.
How do you run your creative requests process?
So we have a general brief to be filled out with key questions for the briefer that help guide the creative around the ask, but we also have more specific brief templates for recurring projects where we need more specific types of information in order to deliver more efficiently. For those cases, we have specific forms that we actually input through WorkFront.
Generally, we have a form that somebody will fill out, it will go into a queue and then we'll have a queue of everything that is coming in through that specific pipeline of work.
How did you gain the skills that make you a great Creative Ops leader?
A lot of it is learning on the job. I’ve also been blessed with great teams from different backgrounds and ranges of experience, who teach me a lot. It’s about listening and getting input from the people that do the work every day: their frustrations, their desires, and our collective interest to make things go more smoothly.
I used to think that my job was not a skill, not a talent — not in the way that a creative person on my team has these skills and talents.
But it is a talent, to be able to navigate, manage, and connect people. I'm a therapist, I'm a logistics person, I pivot based on the gap or need, I wear all these hats and you have to find the right balance of what’s needed and bring it all together.
It takes a lot of emotional intelligence to be in a job like this, it takes a lot of organizational skills, it takes a lot of sensibility, but it also takes grit and persistence, because this job is about getting the information from every relevant source in the process and organization to help us deliver the right thing.
Early in my career, my ears were always open. I was able to do my job more easily being in the office and overhearing conversations, picking up on details, offhand comments about project processes, that kind of thing. Being remote, that’s one of the big challenges — you miss so many of these casual conversations.
We’ve learnt to use our tools better, to recap and use team chats to keep people informed along the way. Our creative team is on Slack, while the rest of the organization is on Teams, so sometimes that means doubling up on the message but we know the value of that too.
A lot of it is connection and communication, and that is a skill, it is a talent to be able to communicate and and get information out of people, and get clarity on the information that's shared and, and poke holes and ask questions and then take from that what you need to get to the team motivated and inspired to do their best work!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.