Morgan Young on managing both creative ops and art direction at a startup
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
Morgan Young is an Art Director & Creative Producer with a background in photography. Based in New York City, she’s spent time at brands like Prose and Cometeer.
Below is our conversation with Morgan, edited for length and clarity.
How did you become a creative director and what does the role mean to you?
I’ve had an unorthodox path to this role. My creative work really started at Prose. I came in and fell into owning both production and art direction. That’s what happens at a startup — there are always more hats to wear than people to wear them, so you just end up wearing all the ones that fit. We did eventually bring a creative director on staff and I continued covering creative ops and creative production. My passion for creative work has always been rooted in photography, though. Currently I’m freelancing as a creative director, though I will eventually return to an in-house role.
Having held both titles, what are the differences between working as a creative director and as a creative ops manager?
Most creative ops people are truly more operational or come from a project manager background, whereas most creative directors come from a traditional creative background. The operational side was never something I really sought to do, but it was something that I had the capability to do. The nature of startups is constant change, which is how I ended up doing both roles — I was in the right place in a time of necessity.
A more traditional creative ops manager would be overseeing the bandwidth of designers and their time. Creative ops also includes working with a product team and figuring out when new products are launching, what does the timeline look like, who on the creative team has to jump in when to bring these projects to life? The role is very self-descriptive — you’re figuring out how the pieces fit together, what pieces you have available to you in the first place, everywhere each piece can fit, and so on.
How do you set up a team — staffing, resourcing, processes — to ensure they’ll be successful?
You need flexibility and diversity. This applies to the personalities on your team at a baseline level, of course, but also the skill sets within each person. She’s a designer, but does she have either the skill set or the interest that I can coach into running art direction for a photoshoot? Or as a photographer, is he able to take charge and bring a real vision to the table for this ad campaign?
We always had standups at Prose, especially moving into the pandemic, which was so helpful. We were meeting about three times per week as a team and we also did design reviews every week. It’s important to take that time to reflect on past projects and really just riff on the problems you’re facing on current projects.
It can be hard to “sell” creative strategies and ideas to other stakeholders in an organization. How have you dealt with those challenges?
Even people — stakeholders — who don't necessarily think they have an opinion on creative will realize they do at some point in the creation process. Whether it's in the planning stage or after the creative has been produced, those stakeholders will realize they do have an opinion. You better hope it’s in the planning stage.Specifically with photography, I’ve found you can end up with too many cooks in the kitchen, which is really tough if you’ve already spent the time and money to produce a shoot and then someone on the marketing team, just for example, says they don’t like the concept.
I had a good mentor at Prose who really got through to me the necessity of asking, “what is the business objective?” It’s such a simple question, but it allows you to plan a better outcome and sell that plan more effectively to the stakeholders.
After identifying the business objective, ask yourself, “who is looking at this?” I know that what I think is cool is cool, but that doesn't always matter. You are hired to bring some of your skill set and personal taste to the projects you're working on, but you also have to understand, who's the consumer? Where is this going to live? Is this just for this one project or can it be multifunctional and live in multiple places? Especially for smaller companies with tighter budgets, you always need to be thinking about evergreen content.
Is there a piece of advice that’s been important to your career — and is there a piece of advice you’d pass on to people earlier in their careers?
I would encourage people to be vocal about what it is they really want to do. Express your goals and needs to your managers and try to figure out your personal game plan for how you reach those goals. People will help you, but you have to make it happen yourself at the end of the day.
If you’re in-house, make time outside of work for freelance projects to build a stronger Rolodex and gain the type of experience you aren’t getting at your day job. When I was at Prose, I was constantly finding side projects to strengthen the range of my portfolio.
Even at your day job, make sure you’re working cross-functionally and building relationships with as many people as possible. Those people become resources for you today, broadening your knowledge base, but they’ll also be there for you later on, connecting you to future opportunities.
For smaller organizations, what are the actions creative leaders can take to really improve how they and their team operate?
Every creative team always wants more time, but you can't always get more time. What you can do is make the systems on your team as well-oiled as possible. You can set yourself up so, even if a need comes down the pipeline late, you won't fumble the ball because you have a clear and efficient process. Unfortunately, some of that only comes with time — particularly time working as part of a team. A team of creatives that’s worked together for even a year is almost alway better able to do this than team of creatives that’s constantly turning over.