Peter Neils on investing in the projects that are important to you
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 the creative director role mean to you? How have you practiced it?
Whether you’re working with a brand, a company, or for an individual, it’s about bringing a message to life. There are infinite ways to show up in the world. You can be in people’s faces, hilarious, serious and emotional, clever and witty, stupid and unhinged. Everything is free game. And as a creative director, I think it’s important to ask yourself how you want people to feel when they see they work. What’s the ideal human reaction? That’s the job.
I came into advertising as a copywriter, but in the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an art director or a copywriter. Nine or ten years ago, when I was applying to what would be my first agency job at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, I submitted applications for both roles. Ultimately I got the copy job, but I used many of the same concepts, trying to show that I could understand visual thinking as well as copywriting. Seeing both sides as one is a critical skill for creative directors and I think that’s always been a strength of mine.
As a freelancer, you’re frequently changing context by going into new organizations. How do you manage that constant change?
Some agencies just need to slot you into their already-working machine as an interchangeable component of their engine. And that’s a fun version of freelancing.
That said, I like to think most agencies are interested in bringing new working styles and energy into their creative departments. The nature of agencies is to have a proprietary process but be open to anything and everything. They pride themselves on disruption and going against the grain. You can’t be that without embracing change and new ways of doing things.
One of the benefits I think freelance creatives bring to agencies is the variety of creative practices they’ve been exposed to. Any seasoned freelancer, not just me, will have cherrypicked all the processes and methods they’ve liked best throughout their career and be able to bring them into each new role.
I’ve worked with so many great creative leaders, art directors, designers, strategists, you name it. I try to bring my experience with me, sort of a “positive baggage.” I love that Bruce Lee quote, “Be water, my friend.” As a freelance creative, you have the ability to fit everywhere. That’s core to my philosophy as a freelance creative.
The most important thing, really, is that you can vibe with the people you’re working with. Truly. You were hired to come in and play this role for the client. So play nice, attach yourself to the team, help them come up with the best possible insights and creative, and have a great time doing it.
What are three practices or ways of thinking you’ve picked up from different people and agencies over the years?
At Crispin Porter + Bogusky, there was a mantra tattooed all over the walls: good enough sucks. It was old-school. Maybe Alex Bogusky said it? Either way, it stuck with me, and taught me how to push the work forward. In any typical creative session, the biggest obstacle is your best idea, and it’s your job to beat it. Every day, every deck, every idea is just another sacrifice to the gods of advertising. May they have mercy on your sweet soul.
Another place that rubbed off on me was R/GA. The ad world was all about innovation at the moment, and I worked a lot with Ben Williams there. The way we made decks and executed work for Nike clients taught me how to create and deliver world-class work.
My third one comes from a place I didn’t work, but that’s the beauty of it. Dan Wieden once said creative advertising is like jazz. And as a jazz major, that one hit home.
How have you seen the agency world change over the last decade, for better and for worse?
Ad agencies have changed a lot. They were clubhouses for misfits and crazy people at one point in time. But with the advent of influencers and creators, creatives don’t need agencies to find that solace anymore. They can just as easily find it online. Agencies have been deeply affected by the way the internet has evolved over the past decade.
Also, as TikTok has made consumers' attention spans shorter than they’ve ever been, we see agencies changing their model to focus on short-form content.
I love short-form content — I also love global campaigns with big-budget films. So I can’t say whether it’s changing for better or worse. It’s just evolving.
What is a piece of advice that you would give somebody starting a creative career today?
Invest in your own work. When I was younger, I didn’t invest in my own art enough. Creating something dope doesn’t necessarily take a ton of money and gear. Sometimes it’s just about rallying and inspiring people to get on board and help you out.
Whether it’s a film, a fashion label, a super-sized painting, performance art, whatever. Make your money in advertising, or anywhere, and if you can, spend some on your own creative projects. Feed your soul, feed your creativity. It’s empowering and inspiring to everyone around you.