Super Massive Fun’s Tim Canton on providing mentorship and inspiration
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 for you to be a creative director?
It's so different depending on where you work. I've worked at creative agencies for about 16 years, holding a variety of titles. I've held roles in the UX department to roles like Director of Brand Activations. I’ve handled everything from digital creative to live experiences.
Being able to touch on all these different types of work has given me a strong range of ability as a creative director. Of course, your focus changes from company to company, and you tend to chase certain types of work at different times in your career.
What is the purpose of a creative director, philosophically?
The biggest thing for me is to provide mentorship. Set your people up to thrive.
Provide inspiration. Keep the work exciting for your team, in other words, provide a vision.
Provide creative direction. I know, it’s in the title. What I mean is you need to actually guide and drive the ship.
How do you set up a team for success?
The first step is ensuring alignment and trust. Your number one priority when building a team should be making sure everyone is on the same page and feels like they have a voice. You need people to be comfortable before they can approach creative problems effectively. A creative team needs to be enabled to play in the sandbox, essentially. That’s how you get compelling results.
As a leader, it’s always important for me to figure out what makes all the people on my team tick, both inside and outside of work. Who are they as people? What are their interests? Figuring this out means you know who to assign to what projects — not just because people do better work on projects that align with their interests, but because you know what projects will help them grow in a certain way.
Once you have that baseline trust and alignment, the next thing to focus on is process. The only way to figure this out is trial and error — you have to figure out what works best for a particular team. Be intentional about trying different ways of working until you figure out a process that really works for your team. Even then, it’s not necessarily set in stone. Process sometimes has to change from project to project.
Can you talk about the importance of mentorship in the creative industry?
Every creative professional has an origin story. Who believed in you? Who gave you a chance to do what you love? How did you get opportunities to hone that skill, that passion, and get better?
I often talk about my own origin story. Out of college, I got hired at VMLY&R to work on the AMC Theatres account, which was an incredible overlap of my interests in film and creative. I was junior, so I was doing basic work like banners, but that first creative director giving me such a great opportunity was so important. He actually went on to be the VP of Creative at AMC Theatres, funny enough.
To have that person who believes in you, and when they're looking over your portfolio asks questions and shows genuine interest, makes a huge difference. Being able to go in and cut my teeth at a big agency for my first job, that meant the world to me. I was there for years and had several bosses that mentored me like that, as well as plenty of co-workers at the senior level. I'm still friends with many of them years later.
I wouldn’t be where I am in my career today without the opportunities and mentorship these people gave me at the start. Being given projects I was passionate about allowed my work to thrive and grow. Having senior co-workers teach me how to navigate the agency world gave me the tools I needed to succeed on this path.
What’s the best advice you’ve received regarding your career?
No idea is a bad idea. Get it out there. I'm constantly trying to create something I have in my head, that I have to get out into the world. Unless you get those creative ideas out, they can start to cloud your mind and create doubt or imposter syndrome. To prevent that, I've always tried to hold a “just do it” mindset. Get it out!
Someone once told me, when you’re in a meeting — especially a brainstorm session — you want to be a fountain of “bad ideas.” It’s about failing fast, ideating often, and then creating. Even if those ideas don't stick you may be able to use them somewhere else later. But if you just sit on an idea, you're not really creating anything. It's just a thought and it’s going to fizzle. Get your ideas out into the open and create them.
Some of my “bad ideas” have turned into passion projects and hobbies on the side, even side jobs. And I learned just as much from those things as I did my agency jobs. Panic Fest and Downright Creepy, respectively a film festival and entertainment blog I started, were originally “bad ideas” from a brainstorm. They would’ve never happened if I hadn’t brought them up and just tried them out.
To younger people aspiring to grow their careers in creative, I’d say this: just ideate. Come up with ideas, write them down, mess around with them, and see what you come up with. You’ll learn so much. Don’t be afraid and don’t get caught up in imposter syndrome.
It’s clearly important for you to have personal projects outside of your day job. Why is that so important?
So I have the film festival and entertainment blog, and both are genre-based. Horror. Plenty of people might not take these things seriously, but I’ve been doing this blog for over a decade. These projects have given me opportunities to be creative outside of my day jobs over the years.
With the blog, I’ve had to manage those writers in a slightly different way than I’ve managed visually creative people that I’ve worked with at agencies. Having to learn this different approach made me better at managing visual creatives . It also gave me an opportunity to explore writing. That's created opportunities to pitch streaming series ideas and write episode treatments, which I never would’ve had the chance to do at any of my day jobs over the years.
There are more examples, but the point is I've always been able to expand my skill sets by exploring creative projects outside of my day job. I think it makes for a more well-rounded life. It’s a holistic approach. I get to see all these aspects of different industries, but they all tie together. Creativity is the common thread — all these different experiences fuel my creativity.