Shaun Bruce on the art of building decks
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, both for you personally and in general?
There are so many different definitions of the role, so many people who are “creative directors” but actually do different things. Basically, across all those differences, it will involve managing some kind of team — writers, art directors, designers — to try and produce great creative work. You’re helping a team make something great.
I’m a freelancer, so my role varies quite a bit. I get hired to handle all types of different responsibilities. Sometimes I’m managing small teams and sometimes I’m actually very hands-on with the creative, doing art direction.
Theoretically, though, most creative director roles aren’t so hands-on with the actual creative. It’s usually about helping people manage their time, producing decks, and overseeing the big picture of a project. You carry the responsibility of that bigger picture thinking so your creatives don’t have to, so they can focus on creating.
I see creative leadership as mostly about identifying your team’s strengths, figuring out what each individual is especially good at, and simply making sure they’re doing more of that kind of work and less of any other kind. You want your team playing to their strengths.
What are some of the biggest challenges in producing great ideas and shepherding them through the creative process?
A lot of people will say that the difficulties really start when you’re having to sell ideas through to the client, or really any stage of the pitching process, which is certainly challenging. But I think the dirty secret is actually that coming up with a truly good idea is just really hard. Having good advertising ideas and creating campaigns is hard!
You think that as a creative director, you’ve probably been put in charge because you’re a talented creative, you have good ideas, you’re a great art director and writer, all these things. But when you become a creative director and you’re guiding others, you have to resist that urge to do the work for them or have the idea for them.
As a creative director, you have to get good at inception, essentially. You need to guide your creatives to the idea — if you just dictate to them, they won’t be so motivated or inspired. It can be tough to guide a team and not just open up a document yourself and start writing or designing the thing.
You also have to learn, as a creative director, to see the value in a range of ideas. You have to be able to tell the difference between an idea that has potential and one that doesn’t. Personally, I’ve always had a bit of anxiety around being decisive, but the thing is, there are no “right” answers in advertising. You just have to be confident enough to make a decision, stand behind it, and potentially pivot if it turns out to be a wrong decision.
When you’re tasked to guide people, you feel there's this pressure to be really smart all the time and always be blessing people with wisdom, but I don't think that's really it. I've worked with people who are insanely charismatic and brilliant in that way, and that's great for them, but for me, it's not quite like that. Most people aren't like that, and the people who aren't like that, but try to be, just end up coming off as terrible people. Nobody wants to work with them.
I know that in my career, when I've been managed, I don't respond well to negative motivation and negative feedback. I have found myself getting a chip on my shoulder and performing poorly under that kind of manager. Personally, I don't have a mean bone in my body, so I try to get people inspired and motivated to surpass expectations through positivity.
Tell me about the art of building a deck. How do you tend to approach the task?
This is something I think about all the time. You might think it comes down to visual design, which is certainly important, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s ultimately a fight to keep the deck succinct and give it a story with a clear set-up, middle, climax, and end. When you’re building a deck, you should always strive to have as little as possible on every slide.
I’ve learned over the course of my career that building decks is probably the core skill to this job. Sometimes it feels like 90% of what we do. You really have to learn to enjoy that or you’re not going to be happy.
Even the way your work ends up getting seen in your portfolio is essentially as a deck. It’s all the same, whether you’re pitching a project to a client or pitching yourself to a new company — your challenge is to shape this campaign, or yourself, into a cohesive story.
Personally, I don’t like presenting and the showmanship of it all. Public speaking has always been one of the biggest challenges for me. But what I've learned is if you can build a deck correctly, it will do a lot of the hard work for you as far as standing up and telling the story. You don't have to put on such a performance if the deck is really good. The best decks almost don’t even need someone to present them — whoever you give it to can just read through it and it’s so clear, so concise, that they just understand the idea.
It’s often the case that you present a deck to a client and get them to buy in, but they still need buy-in from other people internally. So it’s really important for the deck to be clear enough that they can just pass it to the next person and get them excited about it without needing to actually present it.
One last thing about decks. As creatives, our clients look at so many decks, and so many of those decks are terrible. They’re overstuffed, they don’t tell a clear story, they’re poorly designed, et cetera. So when you come to the table with a truly great deck, it can be very impressive and refreshing. When you're working on a deck you’ll probably ask yourself if you’re wasting your time noodling on whatever detail. And you never really know the answer, but it’s usually worth it to go that extra mile.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
I love nerding out over Photoshop. If you want to talk about the minutiae of the pen tool, I’m your guy. Photoshop is definitely number one. On a grander scale, though, it’s very important for longevity in this career to always be open to different ways of working and new tools. Everything is constantly changing, and I never want to be the guy to say, “Oh, I don’t do that,” or “Oh, I don’t know how to attach this file to an email,” whatever the equivalent of that is in the future. So it’s important to just be interested in the tools of the trade generally.
Second, as a plug for myself, I have a Notion directory where I keep all of my inspiration: sources for photography, commercial swipe, agency lists, everything. Notion is one of those new tools for me and I enjoy using it quite a bit. It’s not for everyone, but it tickles that part of my brain that likes to organize things.
Honestly, there’s no real third thing. This is a tough question because I don’t like to think there’s anything I truly can’t do my job without.
I will say I’ve been really excited about Midjourney and ChatGPT. I incorporate those two in my workflow almost every day, mostly for swipe. Midjourney is great for helping to find a vibe. Look closely at a Midjourney asset and it starts to fall apart, but it’s great for framing. I’ve been doing more experiential work recently, too, and it’s surprisingly good at giving ideas for spatial design.
I wouldn’t say I “couldn't do my job without” those AI tools, especially in advertising where everything is so proprietary, but they’ve been very helpful for pressure testing ideas recently.
What is a piece of advice somebody gave you years ago that has been foundational to the way you've approached this work and moved through your career?
I was lucky enough to have an internship for Luke Sullivan early on in my career. He wrote Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, and he was like a human version of his book, always dropping gems and sharing wisdom.
One thing he said that stuck with me for some reason is: good advertising only works slightly better than bad advertising. It’s sort of a sad thought, but it’s really helpful for keeping things in perspective. It’s a great reason to care about making things better.
Another one, something a professor of mine at University of Texas told me as I was preparing to graduate. He told me, it’s very important to prioritize creative opportunity over money for as much of your career as possible. Especially when you’re starting out, it’s paramount to set yourself up with the best creative challenges you can find. That will probably mean sacrifices in your work-life balance. It will probably mean financial sacrifices. But it will also help you find those things later on.
Wait as long as you can before you start taking jobs for money and title and prestige over creative challenge. I haven’t always taken that advice, but I can tell you that every mistake I’ve made in my career was because I’d been financially motivated. Every job I took for money was the wrong move.
Your salary and title is going to come based on all the work that you've done before. So as soon as you turn off the “good work” firehose and turn on the money hose instead, getting to the next step in your career is going to be that much more difficult. Don't go for the money. Go for the creative, learning opportunity.