Mike Ruiz on the human relationships at the core of creative work
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.
How do you define the creative director role?
It’s different at every company. It certainly shifts between an agency, to in-house, to a startup, to running your own shop. The term itself has morphed, it used to be more clearly defined. For the most part, the creative director role was confined to agencies. Now that it’s so much easier to do your own thing, to just find your niche and build something without being part of an agency, there’s more variance in the role.
But for me personally? My focus as a creative director is on brand storytelling. In the day-to-day, it’s working with clients to tell their stories. Most recently, I was at Meta, which is of course a huge organization, so there were many different internal clients, and — just like at an agency — we’d get projects by request.
In my time as a creative director, whether at Meta or in any previous role, I’ve always focused on finding ways to bring a brand to life.
As someone who has worked in both models, what are some of the crucial differences between internal and “regular” agencies?
I don't think one is better than the other. It depends fully on you as a creative. What is it that you're looking for?
On the agency side, one thing I really appreciate is that your playing field is so open. You’re not anchored to one type of brand. You have multiple clients, so you’re always shifting your focus to speak in different voices.
On the in-house side, I’ve really enjoyed being directly connected to the people asking for work. In agencies, there’s a process for communicating between agency and client, and that process is great, but there are inevitably divides between the creative and account services and the client.
In-house, you can just hit up whoever you’re doing a project for on Slack or whatever chat and ask them a question. It’s really direct. “Hey, we have a revision that’s ready to go, can you look at it before we roll it out?” And they’ve approved it within 20 minutes. That ease of communication is nice.
Another plus of working in-house is you have a sense you’re all working for the same team and from one perspective. At Meta, for instance, the person who requested whatever project is also within the company. So they know the brand, they know what they’re looking for, and I would also know how to find the right way to express that, because there’s this established tone of voice.
Working on the agency side, you have to almost become an instant expert in your client’s field, which can be quite fun but is also a lot of work. There’s usually more strict timelines, too, whereas in-house timelines can be both more predictable and flexible. Like, Christmas happens every year, so you know you're going to eventually have to prep things for Christmas. Whereas in an agency, clients will come in and need a big project delivered in four weeks. And you have to learn the brand, the audience, all this work before you can even start on the creative.
You spent time as both a designer and a copywriter before becoming a creative director. Usually CDs have a background in only one of those two areas. What advantages did that give you?
I went to school for design and started off as an art director. When I started getting into the agency world, I worked my way up as an art director, but the place was really small and everyone was expected to pull double duty. And at some point my boss said, “We can either look for a new art director or you can become our copywriter.”
Alright, fine, I needed a job. So I transitioned to copywriting and that worked out great for a really long time. Having that hybrid background has made me a different type of creative director. Everything I do starts visually. If there’s a spot I need to do, I’ll start with the treatment before the script. If it’s print, I always consider the design before the words. It all has to be synchronous.
Having a hybrid background really gives you that eye and that mindset to be more flexible. Just make sure, again, that everything has that flow and works together. I've worked with a lot of people who are very much like, “I'm a copywriter. I don't use Photoshop.”
And then I've worked with art directors who just have no consideration for copy. They're so just tunnel-focused on the visual and the composition.
Again, there's no wrong approach to any of this. At the end of the day, work gets out the door, and if you do your job right, it's great. But I think nowadays, especially because the tools have become so available, people can be hybrid creatives and follow their talents more than follow a discipline.
What do you look for when you're hiring people and how do you set them up for success as individuals and as a team?
You’re looking for what people can bring to the table outside of just the boilerplate skills. I like to use the NBA as an analogy. By that time you’re a player on an NBA team, you know how to play basketball. You can dribble, you can shoot. So by the time you’re on a creative team, you know how to use Photoshop, you know how to write a headline. These are fundamentals.
The things you want to look for when you’re bringing people onto your team are the things that take them from bench player to Steph Curry. Maybe they’re already there, maybe you’re going to help take them there, but you need to find that thing, that talent they can really double down on. What is it they can do to make a bigger impact than just knocking out the work? You look for the additional talents on top of the basic skill sets. And then, of course, personality and culture are huge.
Here’s what I mean by “culture fit.” You’re not looking for someone who just slots in and is the same flavor as the rest of the team. You’re looking for people who will impact the culture of the team and move it forward. You want people who are additive to the environment, not people who just mesh or dilute it.
Especially if you're an agency with a specific focus, like a digital agency or a brand agency, you want people that have that outside experience that they can bring into the equation. That’s how you push the work beyond the status quo.
How do you shepherd ideas that you really believe in through all the processes and stakeholders to actually get them made? What’s your key?
The most important things are empathy and awareness. So much of the creative process is just about basic human relationships. You take a lot of how you function in the real world and bring it to the brainstorming table. Starting off with an initial creative brief, sometimes the client will come to you asking for something that may not be what they're actually looking for. There’s so much happening behind the scenes, right? Everyone has someone above them that’s asking for something.
When you’re brought a project request, it’s usually a distillation of information the person has received from somewhere else, and they’ve processed it into an ask that they think will meet the challenge they’ve been given. It's up to you as the creative lead to figure out how to distill that request into what really needs to be communicated and how. It’s all a bit convoluted, but it’s ultimately about understanding motivation and personalities.
I will give credit — I've worked with a lot of clients who are razor sharp, who have a great eye and a great perspective and a great mind for communication, who know exactly what they want to do. And they’re often spot-on.
I hate when creatives come to the table and are dismissive of the creative brief or the client’s request. These people know what they’re talking about! You need to really listen, pay attention, and be empathetic to that request. I’ve seen conceptually and visually amazing work fall flat because it just didn’t answer the core ask.
It’s good to shoot for the moon and sell your bold ideas, but you just have to be considerate of what people want and are looking for. There’s always a way to meet the client’s objectives while maintaining your creative integrity. Give a little, get a little. It comes with experience.
What’s a piece of advice someone once gave you that’s really stuck with you through your career?
One really good one that stuck with me when I was younger came from my creative director at the time. This was how he approached things and taught us to approach things: you have to keep in mind that this is not your work.
You make it, you build it, you craft it. Definitely put yourself into it. But at the end of the day, you're doing something someone has requested and is paying you for. You can be the director, you can be the maker and the craftsman, but you're not the owner.
This is something that takes years to get comfortable with. I've even worked with older creatives who still are very much of that me-versus-them approach to their work. And that only works when you're just utterly amazing. If you’re not amazing, people just think you’re a dick. You'll still keep getting work, but people may not be super enthusiastic to work with you. It's reflective and comes across in your interactions with the client.
That bad attitude comes across in the work, too. Again, one of the things that can be super disappointing is when a client has bought your idea and you've gone through full production and at the end of it, they're not happy. And it’s your fault, they feel they've been strong-armed into doing something that they weren't 100% on board with, or they felt like their feedback wasn’t heard in the process.
It’s a shame. Your job is to help people bring what's kicking around in their heads out into the real world. So you should do everything you can to help them make that. And that comes with meeting requests. Yes, make suggestions. Show alternatives. But at the end of the day, just be solution-oriented.