160over90’s Mila Golubov keeps an open-door policy
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 the most basic sense, a creative director is someone that's done enough stuff to be able to help others do it better.
When you become a creative director, you go from being a solo contributor to being a guide for other people — in the work, yes, but just as importantly, in their career. You start thinking about how to grow your team, your department, what you can do for them so they produce the best work they can.
You’re a GCD at 160over90. Tell me more about what it means to move into that kind of role from a CD role.
As opposed to the time you spent as a creative director, you’re doing less and less creative work. Instead, you’re spending time with operations teams, strategy teams, and leadership teams. You have to represent and progress your department.
In many cases, you become almost an account person. You become the go-to for certain client relationships. My career has seen me evolve from creative, to hybrid creative-strategist-accounts, to learning every discipline in the agency. I have to be able to have in-depth conversations about anything across the business. It’s about working different muscles.
All that said, I am one of those people who likes to stay really close to the creative work and the teams doing it. I would not want to be in this industry if I was purely doing management work. Luckily, 160over90 is a place where I can do that. We’re not a huge, overly hierarchical agency, so I do still get to be involved in the creative work, but my primary worries are the health and status of the creative department.
I like to say that if it paid well enough, most creatives would stay at the ACD level forever. It’s a sweet spot. At that point in your career, you’re starting to do some management, but you still get to decide what the work is, you’re still directly influencing it. You’ve also moved up from the individual creative level, so you’re starting to see more and more of your ideas living in big forums. You might be winning awards.
There’s plenty to learn once you go up that ladder to the CD and then GCD level. It’s gratifying managing people, helping them grow and become the best versions of themselves.
How do you think about mentorship, as a creative leader?
No matter your level, you should never be inaccessible. People at any level of the business should be able to talk to you and poke holes in what you’re doing.
No matter how much experience you have, you’re never right every time with everything you do. I might not be right about what a kid is doing on TikTok. You have to realize that expertise can come from everywhere and that mentorship doesn’t just work one way. You have to try to teach more than craft: how people can present themselves in meetings, how to navigate other departments, how to navigate client relationships.
My best mentors actually came from outside the creative department. I was mentored by strategists and account people. They taught me many of the skills that actually helped me move up the ranks, because they understood the other parts of the business. Every level you grow, you need to do that, to look outside of your purview.
The main thing with mentorship is having an open door, being there for people, treating them like humans. They may work under you in an organizational hierarchy, but they don’t work for you. It can be tricky to navigate in practice, but it’s quite simple.
What do you see as the main challenges of getting really good creative out into the world?
Oh, my god, there's so many. It’s a miracle every time you pull something off. Time and money are the core challenges in the modern advertising world, of course.
The budgets aren’t what they used to be. The time you’re given comes in shorter and shorter windows. I don’t think these are barriers, exactly, but that people just have to adapt and become more flexible. You have to become a better partner to your client and preempt what they want. Dig deeper into the client’s ask versus just answering it.
It does take more work, more time, and better relationship building to get to that level of client trust. If you haven’t earned their trust, it’s going to be tough. There are a few agencies out there with a reputation that preempts that trust, agencies people come to for that wild kind of work. But for the rest of us, you really have to earn a client’s trust to push the work into braver places. And you earn that trust by doing the basic work really well.
Clients tend to have smaller budgets these days. They’re unsure of what to do in this post-pandemic world, in this recession-maybe-not-recession environment. You have to hold their hands, help them to be brave. That used to happen much quicker.
Another thing to remember: clients want to be renowned within their own organization. They want to get that next promotion, to speak on a panel about that great thing they accomplished with you. But they also have to hit the next earnings report. It’s up to you to help them with the small stuff that will make their bosses impressed by them, so that when you ask them for a bigger budget, they can ask those same bosses and get it.
Sometimes, as creatives, we think it’s us versus them. “They don’t believe in our ideas, they don’t want to do good work.” Clients absolutely want to do good work. They just have their own barriers. How can we eliminate those for them?
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
Coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. I try to stay caffeinated at all times. I have young children, so I wake up at five in the morning — coffee is big.
Outside stimulus. Some advertising people are all about annuals, and they end up doing things that other advertising people are doing. Leaning into that “what are the other agencies doing” mindset produces repetitive work. You should be reading books, reading articles, watching movies, going to museums.
Everything you’re consuming gets into the work, and being conscious of that, being interested in things outside of this industry, is how you make work that doesn’t feel like advertising. I don’t think people like work that feels like advertising anymore. I don’t think it’s fun to do work that feels so “ad-y” anymore. I either want to make stuff that feels like art, or a movie, or I want to make something that’s just funny on TikTok. Those are the things people actually watch.
Third, good people. The hours are long, the work is hard, there’s a lot of frustration, and people have to look out for each other. You need empathy and kindness. If you surround yourself with good people, then all that other stuff doesn’t matter.
Can you talk more about making work that doesn’t feel “ad-y?”
I taught at Miami Ad School, a few small courses, and I realized they weren't teaching writers to write. They were showing them ads and saying “here’s how you make ads.” But they weren’t teaching the craft of writing. So much of the advertising we love, we love because it doesn’t feel like advertising — it feels like poetry, or film, or music.
Great advertising is great because the people who wrote it have voices. Sometimes the uniformity of these schools makes writers lose their voices, it teaches them to try and sound like someone else. That’s when this work gets boring. That’s not something you should want to do. You should seek to make work that feels like it came from you.
You’re a playwright — what's been the relationship for you between playwriting and working in advertising?
Essentially, all writing is writing. You write a play; you write a film; you write an ad. It’s still about conversations, building a story, creating an arc. You use all the same tools.
The interesting thing is that we’ve been doing experiential work here at the agency, which I didn’t do too much in previous roles. So much of the thinking around that work is the same as in theater. You’re staging things. You’re thinking about that moment people walk into a room, how you transport them through that experience from beginning to end.
Experiential marketing is like Off-Broadway theater, just with a budget, which is something you don’t often get in Off-Broadway theater.
Talk to me about applying “yes, and” principles from the theater world into your advertising work.
I don’t like when people come into a meeting talking about problems without offering solutions. It stops a meeting dead. If you set a good example of how to take the feedback people give you and turn it into an opportunity, you create an environment where everyone really feels like collaborators.
If someone from another department tells you, “okay, this is wrong, I think you should do it this way,” you have to uncover what’s underneath that feedback. What are you trying to achieve? How does their specific context relate to that? Say yes to what they’re telling you. Pivot the conversation in that direction. All you have to do is explore what they’re saying.
People just want to feel heard, to feel like they added to the conversation. When you never tell people “no,” they don’t get that defeatist feeling that they’re not part of the team or that they’re not a valuable member of the team. This is true for clients, too.
I always strive to make clients feel important, feel part of the work. This goes back to what I said earlier, that clients are not enemies. They know what they need. We know how to get them there, but we should always listen to what they need.
Other departments, too, are not your enemy. We’re all serving the client. As creatives, we’re best suited to bring everyone where they need to go, and we have the most interesting ways to get there, but we need to help people out. Nobody is the expert in everything. Most ideas are built on other people’s ideas. Great artists steal.
Do you have any advice you’d give to someone just kicking off a career in creative?
Just be open to learning from everybody.
Yes, your work will get you places. Yes, if you’re naturally talented and hone your craft, you’ll have a leg up. But there’s so much more to the way you progress through a career than just craft. You gain that by being open to learning from everyone.
The era of the creative genius might be done, the bespoke individual, the name that everyone will follow. People realize that good things come from collaboration now. When you’re seen as someone who can work well with other people, when you view everyone as a teammate, you become really valuable to an agency.
My other advice is don’t just do advertising. People get really disillusioned and sad when their art or their film or their poetry doesn’t become an ad, doesn’t win the pitch. Clients have real problems to solve and your art won’t always solve them. That doesn’t mean you should stop making art and poetry, stop writing plays and making music.
You should always continue creating what you want to create. That’s what will keep you fulfilled. It’ll come into the work some times and other times it won’t. But as long as you create it for your own sake, you won’t get depressed when you don’t win that pitch.
Early on in my career, I was so attached to everything I did. I wanted every word I wrote to end up being used exactly how I wrote it. But at the end of the day, you realize, wait, the client needs to make sales, and the way I wrote it won’t sell.
Be passionate about yourself and something you’re doing. Don’t carve your entire identity around an industry and organizations that aren’t necessarily carving their identity around you.