A modern approach to creative department career paths.
Jeremy Palmer folds his arms and goes straight for the big question. “Ok, so what’s my next step?”
As a creative director, I’ve had this same conversation dozens and dozens and dozens of times. He wants an answer to one of the vaguer aspects of working in a creative department. He wants to know a concrete plan for his career path.
In many companies and ad agencies, this is often a mystery. You know that a junior designer is lower on the totem pole than a senior art director, but really what is the difference in skill sets and how do you progress up to a creative director.
There really hasn’t been an official owner’s manual on this topic so most companies wing it. And with the rise of new talent who expect to see instant results from their work, Jeremy’s question becomes more critical for retention.
Individuals will stay with a company as long as they feel like their career is growing. When I’ve interviewed new employees, one of the biggest reasons that they want to leave their old work is because there wasn’t any room for growth. No upward momentum. They hit the ceiling.
But often, after a realistic conversation on creative career paths, many can see that there is still more to learn. Let’s be honest, all of us think we are the best and have maxed out all there is to learn in our jobs. That’s why we seek new opportunities.
But the reality is that just because you are really good at some of your current skills, that doesn’t always qualify you for the next step. And what if there is still something to learn in our current roles. Or ways to improve our skills before we make the jump. Sometimes, these skills would open up new opportunities at our current job.
Jeremy sat quietly, waiting for an answer. So I turned to the conference room white board and began to draw out all the possible creative career paths for Jeremy. Then we discussed the skills needed for each step.
The old-school creative career path.
As I drew out the various career paths in the creative department, I pointed out how the structure has changed since I started my career in advertising in the mid 1990s.
I say old structure, but there are still many companies and agencies who are using this dated method. I’ve heard of senior art directors who can’t design a simple banner ad in Photoshop. Instead, they rely on a designer. I’ll explain more in a moment why this model should be updated. First, let’s review an example of a classic path for an art director.
Here’s how it worked. A new kid out of school would try to break in. They would maybe start in the mail room, or get lucky with an internship. The first few years would be a training ground as a production artist—doing basic production work such as flowing copy into templates or comping up brochures. It was all very repetitive. The grunt work. There wasn’t much opportunity to come up with big ideas or campaigns.
After a year or two, the production artist had a chance to become a designer. In this model, the designer was basically a skilled set of hands for the art director. They would be given a rough sketch from the art director and build a tight technical comp. Designers didn’t come up with ideas, but they executed with beautiful design.
Eventually, the designer would be talented enough (or hang around long enough) that they would finally get a chance to be an art director. Now they could be the one coming up with the big TV spot or print idea. They spent more time in idea generation and gave all the design work to their designers.
The next step was ACD. Usually this role went to the more lauded art directors. Those who had won more awards or who had the most talent at creating amazing campaigns. From there, continuing up the path was more a function of time and seniority to become a CD and eventually a group CD or ECD.
This whole path may sound logical. Put in your time and hard work. Learn new skills as you move up. Wait for opportunities and viola. One day you’re a creative director.
Certainly there are many benefits to this plan. But here’s where it fails—the fact that not all creative people grow in the same way. And the fact that movement from one step to the next was based on incorrect skill sets.
A MORE MODERN CAREER PATH.
If you’ve ever hired, managed, or trained creatives in marketing or advertising, you quickly see that there are different types of core skills. A designer is vastly different than an art director. And a production designer has completely different skill sets.
Far too often, the old model pushed people to jump into a different skill set and abandon their talent because that was the only way to grow. Let’s look at a more modern approach to creative career paths, and then I will explain how it works better.
I’ll explain the important differences in this approach with a few individual examples. Let’s start with Carl. He’s been working in the industry for ten years. He is really good at the technical aspects of design. He is a master at Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop—the guy everyone seeks when they have a technical question. His design comps are built perfectly, he is a master at tricky layout issues, and he is super organized.
But Carl isn’t an idea guy. He tries, but it’s a struggle. That said, he is invaluable to the team and the company. But here’s the problem. In the old model, he would have to make that transition from production designer up to an art director. But he doesn’t have art director skills and would be stuck in a mid-level position. He would feel trapped because his technical skills wouldn’t help him progress to a senior position, let alone ACD. Even if he stuck around long enough, we would have to move him to a title of art director just to pay him enough to keep him. And then he would feel inadequate to other creative people as they would compare him against other talented art directors. The old model would limit his path or force him to abandon his best skills to progress.
With the new model, Carl can follow the production designer path from junior to senior while being valued for his technical skills. As a senior production designer, he can get paid well for what he is good at (as much as a senior art director). We’ll discuss progress to the management track in a moment. For now, we see that the path for those who are technical with design have a path that values their skills. And when they are senior enough to expand into new skills, they can jump over to a different creative path without starting at the bottom.
What about someone who is really good at coming up with ideas, but not great at technical skills? That’s Jenny. She is a mid-level art director. Since she started, her temperament has been more about creating big ideas and working in any medium, including video and digital. She is fast and raw. What she lacks in classical design and technical skills, she makes up with out of the box thinking.
In the past, Jenny would have to slog through years as a production designer, doing a poor job at production and perhaps not ever getting a promotion to an art director because of it. Which is exactly the skill she is good at—idea generation. She would be frustrated as a designer, being the design hands for a senior art director, and feel like she could do that job better.
With our new approach, Jenny can start out as a junior art director, giving valuable ideas to the company or agency right from the start. She would certainly need a solid foundation of design and production to express her ideas, but her true value is in ideation. She can progress up the art director path based on her skills, but can do it as a mid-level art director and be paid appropriately.
Our final example is Rob. He studied at a classic design school and is very much into the fine art of design. He loves typography. He geeks out over paper textures and finishes. He thinks of ideas in terms of pure design values and balance. His technical skills are decent, and his ability to come up with big campaign ideas is pretty basic.
In the old model, he would be the ideal candidate as a designer. He would take the ideas of an art director and make them beautiful. But he would constantly feel trapped. Like Carl, his only path for growth would be turning into a classic art director. But he is more passionate about the artistic side rather than the campaigns. He would rather paint at night than read issues of the One Show.
Thanks to our new career paths, Rob has a progress plan. He can continue to provide his valuable skills as a designer all the way to a senior role, without having to be forced into another skill set where he may fail. As he progresses, someday he will be ready to make the jump to another path or up to management.
CREATIVE MANAGEMENT IS A DIFFERENT WORLD.
The beauty of this new approach is that creative leadership can come from any path, not just senior art directors or senior copywriters. In a previous role at an ad agency, I managed a half-dozen creative directors, all with different backgrounds. A few were writers, a few art directors. But one was a technical production designer and another a classic designer. They all excelled at their given path and finally made the move to management.
Let’s say you are a senior designer and you’re ready to take the step up to ACD. You’ve done amazing work as a designer. Your skills are mastered. You’re fast. Amazing design comes easily. Perhaps you feel like you have learned all you can and you should be an ACD.
Here’s the catch. The skills needed to be a good ACD or CD are not the same skills as a talented senior designer, art director, or writer. They are only one part of the job.
Early in your creative career, your writing and design skills are most important. It’s all about the craft. However, as you move into the position of associate creative director and beyond, people skills become essential. This includes your ability to manage people and budgets, to present to stakeholders and work through differences, to understand and recommend marketing strategies, to have a business sense of the bottom line, and to provide vision to others. I can’t understate the fact that you need to be well rounded in all these skills to progress.
In addition to these new soft skills, a creative director should be skilled at all the creative disciplines. You don’t have to be a master in all, but you need reasonable skills in all areas of design, writing, production, video, and digital. And I would recommend more than just knowing the process and the ability to recognize good work. You should develop your personal skills in all those areas.
That’s right. You writers need to be able to design in Photoshop and Illustrator. You designers should be able to craft a solid headline and copy. And all of us should have a good grasp of digital development, platforms, and social media. In today’s digital reality, we need all the expertise we can get. I know many senior creative people who can code in a few languages, others who can create great motion graphics videos in Adobe After Effects, and designers who are writing novels. If you want to become a creative director, start learning the craft from all angles.
Of course, being skilled in all areas shouldn’t wait until you are senior. As a young writer I learned the Adobe creative suite and basic design skills to help out my art director partner on projects. Being well rounded helps at all stages of your career path. Which is why the old model encouraged you to learn a variety of skills. In the new reality, you can progress on your main skills, but you can’t neglect the minor skills as well.
MOVING ALONG YOUR CAREER PATH.
Now that we have all these specialized career paths, the next question is how to progress from junior to senior along your path. Certainly as you move up, you take on more responsibility and work on bigger projects. But the decision of whether you are ready for the next step comes from several factors. This is where you need to consider some honest introspection. Often a young creative will feel entitled to move up to the next level, just because he or she has been doing a good job for a year. That’s not enough.
Here are a few example factors that help management see if you are ready to progress. Again, these are simply guidelines, not firm rules. You should do your best to show that you are ready and experienced in every way.
Demonstrate mastery of skills – Notice this says mastery, not simply being competent. You should be able to handle your job responsibilities independently, without guidance or support from a supervisor.
Already functioning at the next level – Before you jump up, you need a proven track record. You should already be functioning at the next level for some time so that management can see you are ready and capable. This goes beyond doing this for one or two projects.
Show a sense of determination – You must show that you really want it. Be aggressive, but not overbearing. Determination is not entitlement.
Ability to handle more responsibility – As you move to more senior positions, you need to show that you can handle the pressure. Crazy deadlines. Open communication. High-pressure meetings. You need to show that you can manage stress and still be a nice person. And that you can think under pressure.
Instilling confidence – At every stage of your career, you need to show that you have original thought. Not just with your projects, but also in meetings. Find ways to show that you understand more than just your job. Have vision on the big picture and understand your role of building confidence. Then do it successfully. Speak up in meetings. Share new ideas and ideas.
OWN YOUR PATH.
After an hour chat with Jeremy, we discussed a growth plan. He thought that being a brilliant designer was enough and that he should be an ACD. Now he realized that there is still so much more for him to learn before he makes the jump. Not only did he accept the fact that he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t upset. He was actually excited, now that he understood other ways that he can grow in his current job. He could experiment with motion graphics. He was going to read a few books on strategy. And he planned to work more on his writing skills. He may not be ready for a promotion, but he now has a plan and a path.
If you feel stuck or like you are up against an invisible ceiling because your creative director has the only management spot, I encourage you to reconsider where you are on your path. What other skills could you learn? How can you prove that you have what it takes? Often a bit of honest introspection will help you find plenty of paths for growth.
And more than once, after a career path discussion, some have realized that they may not want to jump to management or a different path once I explain all that’s required. Rather, they’re completely happy getting paid well for where they are.
As long as they still see a path for growth.
To get a copy of job descriptions for every creative career path listed in the graphic above, feel free to contact me. >