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Creative Ops

Panther’s Sean Ferguson on why specialization beats generalization

September 15, 2023 · 7 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.

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

I would say less workhorse, more strategy, planning, and concepting. I always wanted to be a creative director ever since I was a kid. In school I was interested in design, but I went to the cybersecurity realm in a funny way — I broke into my school’s servers three times before I got threatened with expulsion. So I figured, okay, let’s take that energy and focus on the other thing I’m good at, which was design — with, of course, a pirated version of Photoshop.

Really, being a creative director means being able to craft something from the ground up, concretely, with your team, utilizing a variety of skill sets. That’s my day-to-day. I need to be on the ground with my team, so I usually divvy out the work and then come around to help everyone out. It’s brainstorm sessions, concepting, trying to sell ideas to the executive team.

Throughout my career, I’ve found that a lot of C-level folks don’t inherently understand the value of brand. It’s often been my job to sell that up. I’ll use examples from other companies to really underline it. Like, a company can crumble from a brand mishap, just look at Tropicana, they lost a ton of money after changing their packaging because people didn’t recognize it. 

Another important part of the job is protecting my team. So many people think, oh, I have a copy of Photoshop, therefore I know how to design, and therefore I know how to conceptualize. In reality, that’s just not true. It’s my job to advocate for my team and their talents.

How do you think about building a team, and what measures do you take to set that team, both on the group and the individual level, up for success?

So I look at my team as kind of like a house. Together, all these different components hold up the whole. For example, at Panther, my senior designer is a very strong illustrator. I lean on her for that if we need to diagram a SAS attack, or OAS, anything like that.

My freelancers are very strong in web design, I have another who is very strong in typography, layout, and conceptualization. I try to build my teams with people who are very strong in certain areas but can still support the whole team in other areas.

Growing up in the design industry, there was always this belief that you need to be everything. You need to be the web designer and the illustrator. You need to become a jack of all trades. I was guilty of this, I bought into it. But not being strong at any one thing in particular, I eventually had to make a conscious choice to focus. I chose brand and creative strategy — focusing on one thing, honing in, made me so much stronger. And so I like to build my teams out of people like that, who might be interested in a variety of areas but excel in a couple specific disciplines.

When you have teams made of people with really strong, specific skill sets, it’s so much easier to put out really high quality work quickly.

Are there challenges particular to creating and maintaining a brand in the cybersecurity industry, which has such high, particular stakes?

To put it bluntly, it’s about trying to be bold without being an asshole. A lot of what we do in this industry is about finding a way to be loud and different — to step away from the stuffy stigma. I’ve spoken with a lot of other creatives in cybersecurity, they’ve all talked about the same thing.

The dream is, let’s not strike fear into our customers or prospects — but at the same time, let’s not be the same as everyone else. A stock image with some text on top of it can’t cut it anymore. We’re trying to think outside the box, which is something I’m seeing in healthcare as well, which has traditionally had some of the same challenges. 

I think this is a trend with the upcoming generation. Healthcare, oil and gas, cybersecurity, they’re not traditionally attractive industries. But I think people are starting to come into these industries and say, okay, how can I change this direction? How can I pitch bold ideas and get buy-in from the C-suite? These are pretty stable industries, they sell things people always need. That actually gives you room, as a creative, to come in and make some noise.

What are three things that you can't do your job without?

Number one, Adobe. Obviously, they just have dominated the entire industry. It’s a generic answer, but it’s the truth.

Two, I'd say notetaking, whether with a journal or Evernote. There’s so many ideas going through my head, especially having ADHD — I just need to capture them.

I’ve tried both physical and digital note taking, and I think they’re both necessary for different reasons. Digital notes capture the thing for referencing, but don’t really solidify the thing in your brain. That’s what physical notes are for. Combining both lets me create a sort of mind palace.

Third is YouTube. It’s so much inspiration, with people like The Futur. There’s no one thing out there that teaches you to be a creative director, so I’ve learned so much from YouTube. New ways to brainstorm, new ways to motivate a team, new ways to sell ideas.

There’s one more thing — stock photography. It just saves so much time. Even if I’m not using an image externally, it helps me sell an idea to the C-suite. I can say, “Hey, it’s going to look like this, but not exactly.” Stock photography helps me bridge that right brain, left brain gap.

You said you wanted to become a creative director from a young age. What drew you to the role, even back then?

There was one guy: Stefan Sagmeister. My parents were always huge book people, so we used to go to Barnes and Noble all the time, and I ran across this book he’d released. I’d always go to the art and design section and flip through the big books there, but this one just hooked me. It made this line of work seem so grandiose and romantic. Specifically, a breakdown of some campaign he’d done. 

Maybe it was for Coca Cola — some big name brand. He went out in the desert and set up a camera, made this floating effect. And it blew my mind. Yeah, the image was cool. But really I realized, you get to travel, you get to come up with these ideas and orchestrate a group of people to make them real. You get to hire photographers, rent studios — this was back when you had to do that, before everything was digital.

That idea of making your ideas real, bringing them into the physical world, was so alluring to me. For the first time, I understood that you could be an artist, get paid for it, and your work would be seen by thousands, even millions of people.

It’s the magic of creating unreal ideas out of nothing. 

Is there a piece of advice somebody gave you years ago that’s been foundational to how you’ve moved through your career?

Know your worth. As creatives, we’re constantly criticizing ourselves. There’s so much imposter syndrome — I’ve experienced it, others I’ve talked to have as well. This applies equally to people working in-house as it does to freelancers.

If you’re in-house, you won’t move up the ranks unless you recognize your worth and advocate for it. As a freelancer, you’ll never make more money unless you recognize your worth, ask for higher rates, and stick by them. Look at your years of experience. Look at the work you’ve made. Recognize your worth. Every year that you're doing more, you're selling yourself short by not changing your prices. And at the same time, it has a psychological effect on you.

I saw a job posting for a VP of Brand at $77,000 per year. What? But somebody is going to take that because they don’t know their worth, or they’re willing to compromise on it. It’s tied up in things like Fiverr, too. In what I was saying about people believing they’re a designer just because they’ve opened up Photoshop a couple of times. There’s this illusion that creatives are a dime a dozen, that these skills aren’t deep. That’s just not true.

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