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Creative Ops

Translation’s Mina Mikhael champions craft and passion

September 20, 2023 · 11 min read

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.

Mina Mikhael is an award-winning Egyptian Creative Director based in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently Group Creative Director at Translation. View a selection of his work here.

What does it mean, in your experience, to be a creative director?

I see the role as having two very specific prongs. For one, we are very much front and center as service people for the client. We are at the service of our brands and clients, whatever their needs are. Outside of the account manager or someone like that, we’re the creative front-of-house, the people who say “let’s find a solution for you.”

It’s not on the client to bring those creative ideas, nor is it on us to have those solves at the ready, but it is on us to foster that partnership and build trust so that when the time comes, they know we’re the team for the job and respect us.

The second prong concerns creative internally: how do I make sure that the creatives I’m working with get to make the stuff they want to make? It’s extremely important for me that my creatives can come to me, tell me about something they’re excited to make, and trust me to find a way for them to make it.

I will do whatever I can to set them up to make that thing they’re passionate about. Maybe that’s giving them feedback or working with the strategy team to fit their idea into a brief we have, but however I do it, my job there is to take their idea and help it come to life.

If you’re working with me, this is your chance to actually make the thing you’ve always been wanting to make. This is where your little bucket list of ideas you’ve always wanted to execute finally gets a few lines crossed off. It’s my hope that anyone who works with me gets to say that.

I would hope this is how a lot of creative directors view the work. You’re serving the client, representing the agency and its services — but you’re also accountable to your creatives.

You come from an art direction background. Tell me about the transition from that more creative-focused role to your current role, which is less focused on creative and more about being an intermediary.

It’s funny you say that — as Group Creative Director at Translation, I spend a lot of my time trying to get creatives to make the jump from senior creative up to creative leader. There's a lot of hesitation. I do have teams that vehemently don't want to do it, who just want to do creative. But I get it.

Coming up as a creative, my biggest thing was I always wanted to make sure that I was clear in my communication. I spent every moment polishing my decks and the way that we introduced concepts to be sure that I was articulate and saying the exact right thing to get my intent across.

You can put in your 60 hours of work and have the greatest idea, but if you don't know how to effectively share it with someone, no one's going to buy it. It’ll never be more than an idea. I realized early on in my career that I may not be the one to come up with the best ideas, but, man, I could explain it and I could sell it. I just had those tools.

Understanding that ability was what made me want to make the jump into creative leadership. I thought, let me just help other creatives who, again, have way better ideas, way more creative thinking than I ever did. Let me make sure those incredible ideas make it across the finish line. There are so many brilliant ideas that never get made, and creatives sit on them and get sad about it. If I can help those people feel fulfilled, I’ll feel fulfilled.

That’s what the transition was about for me, making sure I can give every creative I work with a fighting chance to at the very least get their ideas out. Look, I really was a mediocre creative at best. The teams I work with now, the ideas they bring to me? Dude. In a million years, I could not have come up with these ideas. I love that I’m able to help them sell these ideas in, to make their dreams real.

How do you think about building creative teams — what do you look for in people and how do you set them up for success?

On one hand, I'm going to look at if this team has relevance and context in the subject. I lead the NBA team at Translation, for example. There’s a pretty regular cadence: starter season, Christmas, playoffs, finals, et cetera, and I need to be sure we’re bringing in fresh ideas every year. So when I’m managing our internal NBA team, it’s not a requirement that everyone is a big NBA fan. Sure, some of the team should have a strong working knowledge of the subject, but it’s not a must-have for every single person.

The other thing I’m looking at is, does this person know creative? Do they understand the value of craft, do they exhibit passion? I’d rather have a team that is super stoked, super passionate, and super excited about doing the work than anything else. 

If a team comes to me and they’re pumped about an idea, they’re going to pay way more attention and put way more heart and craft into it than they would otherwise. Maybe the initial idea isn't exactly what the client asked for, maybe it’s slightly off-mark in that respect, but I can work with them and steer their passion for that idea in the right direction.

So when I’m looking for a team to assign to a given project, it’s a mix of that subject matter knowledge and passion. But, again, it’s mostly important to have an excitable, pumped, happy team — they’ll be able to fill any project-specific knowledge gap. If the team isn’t really excited, they’re just going to go through the motions and nobody wins.

There are many creatives, too, who are extremely talented but like to be cynical or think it’s cool to not really give a crap. Sure, fine, but that attitude won’t take you through a six-to-twelve week burn of work. Only a passion for the work is going to do that.

At a certain level, especially in the agency world, any creative will have baseline ability. The average skill level is there. It’s the intangibles that make a difference. I think if you love something — a video game, a TV show, anything — you’ll talk about it ad nauseam to people who don’t care. Now how do you harness that for work? That’s the ability I’m looking for.

You’ve spent your career working in sports advertising. What are some of the joys and challenges particular to telling stories in and around sports?

The joy and the challenge are both that you're advertising for something that people already care about. For example, when I worked on Fox Sports for a couple of years we had to make an ad for Michigan versus Ohio State. It's a college football rivalry older than any other. People are going to watch that game no matter what. You simply do not need to tell people about that game. I remember going to Fox and Fox Sports and saying, “Look, we're going to do an ad for it” — they're like, “Why?” This is one of our biggest earners every year, people are going to watch it.”

So I said, “Sure, but you have an opportunity to tell them why they care. Yes, they have reasons to care already. But if you, as a brand, can show them that you get why they get it, you’re going to underline this moment and give it to them forever.”

The goal for me is to show that you, even and especially as a brand, understand why the fans care about sport. Lots of people don't really realize why they care about sport! Or they do, innately, but they’ve never had to articulate it, they can’t put it to words.

We did end up making that ad. It was a very specific story, based on a very specific insight. And people absolutely loved it — “wow, Fox Sports gets it.” And what does that mean for Fox Sports? There was a time when you had to think, with college football, about which channel you’d watch it on, which media accounts you’d follow on social. But with an ad like that, the choice becomes abundantly clear — Fox Sports suddenly has that deep legitimacy.

Another great example is the NBA Lane ad we did a couple of seasons ago. The challenge was huge — it’s the 75th anniversary of the league, we needed to do something ambitious. Our creatives, Johanna Martinez and Chanae Reed, said, “Let’s put 75 legendary players in the spot.” And of course that’s just crazy, but together with Steve Horn, my fellow GCD here at Translation, we found a way.

What made that spot so successful was that we didn’t just show Magic Johnson. We didn’t just show Larry Bird. You have to show that you understand why you like these guys. Maybe it looks simple on the surface, but there are so many tiny references that bring it to life.

I think I’ve stuck with sports because I find it so fascinating that we already have the audience’s attention. They’ll give you the first 5 seconds, but if you can prove to them that you really understand, if you can dig deep into your insights and show them that you get why they get it, there’s no bigger reward. The passion you can ignite is just incredible.

It helps that I’m a big sports guy. I know the stakes — I would be so mad if I saw an NBA 75th ad that sucked. I love this work.

What’s a sports campaign you really admire but didn’t make?

Oh, easy. It’s something Channel 4 in the UK made for the London Paralympics in 2012. Might be my favorite ad of all time — it still floors me to this day, I teach a class and show it every year. It’s the perfect mix of a great idea and flawless execution. The concept is Meet the Superhumans.

The Paralympics have suffered from stereotyping, people having misconceptions about who these athletes are and what they can do. The major one is that as a society, when we look at people with different abilities, we use words like disabled or handicapped. We’re taught to think they’re less-than, right?

What this campaign did is totally flip that social misconception — it’s all so perfectly distilled in that one line, Meet the Superhumans. It tells you that these aren’t just athletes that are differently abled — they’re athletes who are even stronger than the athletes society is used to. They’re competing in spite of missing an arm or a leg, in spite of not being able to see or hear or walk. The fact that they can have these things happen to them and still be absolutely elite athletes? Meet the Superhumans.

This ad is such a perfect case study on how words matter, how insight matters. The execution, again, is phenomenal, but it just goes to show how powerful strategic creative can be. They still run the same concept back every year, it’s that great.

It’s impossible to talk about sports creative without thinking about Nike. What’s one of your favorite campaigns they’ve put out?

Their Men’s World Cup 2010 ad, “Write the future.” I am highly influenced by that spot. You’ll see it in my work. Just the way that they broke scale, how they decided to give so many individual teams in the competition a story, how they pulled off featuring all these different players. It’s hyperbolic. And again, the message: sure, it’s easy to think about what happens if you lose, but what happens if you win?

That, for me, was a huge sports advertising moment because it was the first time in a long time I’d seen the formula change. It wasn’t just about sounding cool for the sake of being cool, or just making the athletes look hard. It got at something deeper, human, universal.

That campaign was also a reminder that ads are meant to be fun. It’s just entertainment. And that ad was a mini movie.

But we also have to talk about what Nike just did with the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Again, it’s Nike — you can feel the craft, the strength, the weight and importance of the storytelling. I also love that they didn’t have to harp on about putting all their money into the Women’s World Cup this cycle over last winter’s Men’s World Cup — they just did it.

The fact that they made so many ads, too — minute-long spots for all these different marquee athletes and teams from around the world. And they’re crafted really well. What I especially liked is each ad had its own very unique aesthetic and tone. But then they bring it all together with the ad where they guy wakes up from a coma. It once again showed me that you don’t have to stay in the box we tend to think within in sports advertising.

Nike basically said, cool, we’re going to break out of four boxes at the exact same time and see what happens. I love how well it came out, because you need leaders like that in this industry to push the boundary of what’s possible. It means my clients will then look at that work and say, “Damn, I didn’t know we could do that.” And I get to say, yes, we can. Sometimes it takes someone else pushing the envelope to free you up to push your own envelope. Believe me, we have the green light on some crazy work this year.

Is there some piece of advice somebody gave you years ago that has been formative to your career?

Someone once told me that people don't realize it, but they love craft. They may not know it, they may not even know what it's called, but the reason anyone will sit and watch a movie trailer for three minutes is because they're being told a story in a way that they haven't been able to see anywhere else.

That's people loving craft. And that's what our job is. Our job is to entertain people and use our tools to craft something exceptional. We're not artists. We're not special. We're not here to fall on our swords for ideas. We're here to entertain people. And don't ever let anyone believe that audiences don't appreciate craft, because they do that. They’re smart! Audiences know when they love something, even when they can’t articulate it.

This is something I have repeated a million times. I don’t remember where I heard and I hate that I can’t credit that person. It’s helped me get clients buy-in time and time again.

This is the ethos that has always driven me. Our job is to make people feel something good, whether bad, happy, or sad, and the tools at our disposal are creativity and craft.

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