Omid Amidi tells us how to take feedback without getting defensive
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?
Who knows anymore? Everyone is a creative director these days, using it as a third slash in the Instagram bio — model-photographer-creative director — essentially a clout signal.
In advertising, a creative director is a very specific thing. You’re a grower. You grow an idea, a campaign, business, your team, etc. And you can do that because you’re somebody whose creative acumen and output is at a high level. You’re also able to manage a client, understanding their business needs and solving them creatively. Your responsibility isn’t to be an artist, though that seems to be the public conception. It’s about solving business problems creatively. We’re here to make brands money, point blank.
The other important facet of the role is being a good mentor and inspiring the people around you who actually make the creative to see the validity in their own work, the beauty in their thinking. Earlier in my career, I wasn’t necessarily good at that. I was overly focused on dictating the creative — it has to be this way, no, it’s got to be like this, blah blah blah. Maybe I’ve just gotten softer as I’ve grown older and had a child, but I’m much better at that part now.
One of the greatest parts of being a creative director is getting people to see how awesome their thinking is. When you’re managing teams, pushing their creative level, helping them raise that bar…I rarely feel as accomplished as when I can see I’ve really helped the people on my team feel empowered.
What do you look for when you’re hiring people?
Some if it is just instinct, but I do have a bias for more diverse storytellers. I’m not looking at diversity for diversity’s sake — I mean that the best stories come from a place of conflict. Storytelling is our greatest weapon and great stories come from a place of trials and tribulations, different ways of understanding, different cultures. If you’ve been through some shit, you’ve probably got something to say, and can probably speak to the audience in a more honest way than if you haven’t.
The other thing I look for is a sense of confidence. We’re as much salespeople as we are creatives. When you go to a client with an idea, you’re asking them to take a risk. You’ve got a blank piece of paper and you have to pray to whatever deity you pray to that it’s gonna turn out to be a damn good idea. You like it, but can you make your boss like it? Your boss likes it, but can you make the client like it? Can you convince the client to give you potentially millions of dollars, whatever the budget is, to bring this idea into the world?
If you can’t sell that idea, if you can’t be confident in it yourself, how is the client ever going to believe in the validity of the idea, in the validity of you as the right person to solve their problem? You have to make them believe in and — more importantly — feel inspired by your creativity. Then they’ll come along for the ride and be willing to take a couple of the risks necessary to make the best creative work. It’s like Aladdin, when he asks Jasmine to trust him and jump on the magic carpet. Literally, that scene is our job. You need the charisma of Aladdin, is what I’m asking for when I’m hiring.
How do you get great ideas through from brainstorm to production without losing their spark?
That confidence is definitely a big part of it. Most of my career has been predicated on a sense of self-confidence, a little bit of ego, and it’s resulted in a bunch of highs and certainly some lows. It’s all part of the growth process. You do have a strategic responsibility to the client; every idea needs to be responsible at the core. You can’t just say, well, let’s go shoot this campaign out in space — you need to understand strategically what they’re trying to achieve and make sure your work is strong on that strategic level. The equation has to be rock-solid.
Confidence comes second after you’ve actually done your homework. You need to have studied the consumer, the business landscape, the products you’re selling, all these factors, to get to a level of true understanding. Then you come up with the idea and build this confident, bold, creative idea around that anchor. Without that, they’re going to see through your bullshit. You can’t just wax poetic and serve them all this rhetoric — that is not the job.
As long as you see the math, as long as you’ve got that strong, strategic foundation, you can have all the confidence and bluster to bring everyone along for the ride and take those risks with you. Without it, you’re dead in the water.
You’re a very international guy — Iranian, born in France, lived in Libya, Canada, started your career in Australia, and you live in New York. Does that give you an advantage as an agency creative?
100 percent. It’s one of my biggest superpowers, absolutely. And I had nothing to do with it. My parents just moved me around and I’ve been blessed by that. The way I was raised, the opportunities that were handed to me — it’s that diversity in storytelling I was talking about earlier. I had to be a chameleon my whole life, moving every two to three years, going to different schools in different countries.
I was in France, I was in Libya during the Gaddafi era, I moved to Canada when I was 10. On the first day of school, I showed up and everyone was talking about The Simpsons episode, ‘Who Shot Mr Burns?’ All the other kids were asking me who I thought did it — I had no idea what they were talking about. What’s my favorite hockey team? I’m like, what’s hockey?
I had to constantly reinvent myself and be a chameleon in the sense of understanding people, listening, picking up on context clues. I’m not the greatest listener, honestly, but it’s that ability to be modular in how I approach different scenarios and situations which translates to clients, briefs, and agencies. I’m able to find the right allies and people to support my voice.
I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve never been the easiest person to work with, and I’ve definitely slipped up quite a bit at times, but my ability to communicate with key people has given me a ton of rope and had a strong effect on my career. My time at Johannes Leonardo is a great example — Jan and Leo gave me so much leeway, and it could’ve easily been taken away, but because of my ability to connect with a range of people there on a human level, we built a bond and relationship that allowed me to grow as a creative. I’m incredibly indebted to them.
What are three things you can't do your job without?
The first one is definitely video games. That or basketball. I play a lot of Call of Duty, Halo, all the shooters. I used to play Halo 3 and Counter-Strike competitively when I was younger, back when it wasn’t cool. But now it’s the only thing I can do to disconnect, where my brain just shuts off and I’m not riddled with anxieties about things I need to do or if I'm an imposter. It’s also the only thing that allows me to be really competitive in short bursts of time, especially now I have a child.
At Johannes Leonardo, I won an award for “Most Likely to be Playing Video Games at Work.” I played video games at work and I wasn’t trying to hide it. I mean, I’d work crazy hours, so if I had a half hour gap, I’d play a couple rounds to disconnect. Then I’d be able to brainstorm all the more freely after.
The second thing is music. It’s a boring answer, but it’s true. I think and write to music. I know plenty of people can’t, but it helps me set the mood of what I’m trying to do.
The third thing is that I can't do my job without annuals. I mean other people doing great work in the industry and being recognized for it. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I got into advertising, but I just studied other people’s portfolios and annuals. I looked at what the best work out there was, and then tried to figure out how I could beat it or get on par with it.
I still obsess over all these annuals. One Show, the Clios, D&AD, all of them. I look at case studies, anything that helps me benchmark.
What's a piece of advice that somebody gave you earlier in your life that has influenced your career?
The best advice, the one that’s really stuck with me, is from Leo Premutico, the co-founder of Johannes Leonardo.
In the agency world, you’ll have these meetings where you’ve been working crazy hours to put your all into a presentation for your full team. Oftentimes, the first order of business is just to go in on what’s wrong with the work. And of course, when it’s you presenting, you want people to like it. It’s my ego, look at all this work, we just conjured it out of thin air in the last five days. It’s insane — look at this idea, or that one, it’s all so weird and different. And you want to tell me something is wrong with it? No, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Hell no!
At times like that, I’d flare up and get defensive. I’m still defensive, I value being defensive. But of course, I’d find a way to navigate it, listen, and be understanding.
I was at JL and we’d just gone through months and months of this pitch process for a big client. I presented to a small team of people — Jan and Leo, the head of accounts, a couple creatives, designers, and strategists. I was visibly defensive and angry and didn’t revert to my usual, “let’s talk about it and figure it out” mode. I went from defensive to offensive.
So, the advice. After that presentation, I sat down with Leo and I was venting. He told me, “the thing you gotta remember about feedback is that everyone who gives a piece of feedback thinks they’re making the idea or the work better. Nobody gives you a piece of feedback to sabotage your work.”
And he’s right. When someone gives you feedback, they’re trying to make the work better based on the information, experience, and expertise they’re privy to. They’re coming from their discipline as a strategist, account manager, client, whatever — they know different things than you. Their feedback is meant to make the work better in their eyes, for their needs and objectives.
Your job is to listen to that feedback, understand where it’s coming from, and dimensionalize it in the work or have an honest conversation about why it might hurt the creative idea. Honestly, some of the best work I’ve been a part of has gone from good to incredible from client feedback. They know things you don’t! A lot of the time, as the creative, by nature we think we’re gods — screw the client, screw their feedback, they don’t know any better. But that’s not true at all.