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Creative Ops

PUMA’s Sonya van Heyningen on the creative director’s duty to keep their team happy

March 08, 2023 · 5 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, and how did you come into the role?

There are so many different paths to the role. Some people come to it from visual merchandising, some people come to it from writing, others from design. I love the idea that you don't need to follow one path.

When I first went to school it was for fine art — I majored in painting with a minor in photography. It didn’t take long to figure out that while I liked the idea of using my creative brain in that way, it wasn’t really a path I wanted to go all the way down. So I pivoted to fashion school, ended up doing an internship at a magazine, and fell in love with graphic design.

At that point I knew I wanted to work in editorial at a magazine. In a fashion school program, the approach is very much “jack of all trades.” You do a little journalism, a little marketing, some oral communications courses. I took copyright law — you learn to look at things from all these different angles. I loved being able to use a little bit of each different part of my brain. Afterwards, I ended up working in editorial for years before moving to the agency world, and then ultimately in-house, where we function like an internal creative agency.

Now I oversee a broad scope, whether that's base level creative concepting or general process problem solving, or writing. At the end of the day, creative directing is problem solving. You become a problem solver more than a pure creative. I'm a business person nowadays, first and foremost. I just happen to solve business problems using a creative lens.

The higher you go, the less it becomes about the creative and the more it becomes about the strategy. There's always that touchpoint of creating something beautiful. But your main focus is: why are we creating something beautiful?

Where are the biggest opportunities for failure in the creative process?

It’s always a communication breakdown. When the teams don't talk to each other, when you're not actually talking to the marketing team or whoever requested the assets you’re working on. Technically I am part of the marketing team, but I’m referring to the folks coming up with the strategy before creative even gets a brief. 

Another difficulty is just getting the right team together for a project. Creative is a collaborative experience. As a creative director, it's hubristic to think that creative comes from you alone, that you're the driving force behind everything. It’s really important to nail down the photographer, the videographer, the prop stylist — every single person on set contributes to the final product in a meaningful way. And there’s so much talent out there, so nailing down exactly who should be on a given project is an art: you can be an amazing photographer, but you might not be right for that exact situation.

How do you set up an effective creative team and what are the signals that you’ve pulled it off?

There's a tendency to want to just replicate yourself a dozen times on a team, and that's not it. You're not going to get anywhere if you have the same person over and over again on a team. The most effective teams, I’ve found, for me are the ones where you just gauge what talents you’re going to need for a project, and then bring in people whose specific talents you really admire. It’s obvious, but you have to assemble a team of specialist experts.

A team assembled from people who are each really good at a specific thing, and are enabled to just focus on that specific thing, is a winning team. No toes get stepped on. Everyone can work in unison towards the same vision, supporting each other.

What’s the difference between creative directors and art directors?

It depends on the business, but the general difference is creative directors are more hands-off, and art directors are in the weeds creating. These aren’t universal truths, to be clear, and it’s more of a continuum.

Creative directors, in my personal experience, are more high-level. You’re looking at the dots on the map, zoomed out, whereas an art director is actually in the landscape the map depicts, dealing with what’s at hand.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in regard to your career?

The best piece of advice I ever got: We're not saving lives, we're selling clothes. Keep it in perspective.

As creatives, we invest our heart into what we're doing. Even those of us that say things like “I'm a business person, first and foremost,” your emotions can get caught up in the work. Your ideas will get shot down. Not everybody's going to be nice about it. From time to time, you will feel terrible. Deadlines are going to get missed, shoots are going to be stressful.

I'm sorry, but if you say you've gone through an entire shoot day and nothing has gone wrong, you either have not been paying attention or you’re lying. Something always goes wrong. It’s all about remembering, at the end of the day, that no one is going to die because this one prop didn’t make into the frame, or whatever happened on set. Own up to your mistakes, understand where you've made them, learn from them, but don't stress

Sonya walked us through how she preps for a shoot day.
Sonya walked us through how she preps for a shoot day.

The one piece of advice that I always give to people, and the way I try to work, is happy people make better products.

As a creative director, half of your job on set, if you've put the team together the right way, should just be responding to whatever is happening, as it happens. In other words, you should be leading. If you’ve prepped for a shoot well, your job on set as a creative director is to be a hype man and keep people smiling. The photos and the videos will turn out better when everyone is happy and laughing on set. Guaranteed.

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