I’m so fortunate to be a creative person in this modern day. To be a creative person, now more than ever, means the flexibility to define yourself in ways that you couldn’t have done 10 years ago in the past. But just as the creative industry is beautiful in its flexibility, it is also very difficult to navigate.
An ‘Art Director’ at one company will have a completely different role as an ‘Art Director’ at another company.
At the start of my career, I graduated from Art Center College of Design with a B.S. in Environmental Design. I had purposely chosen this major because of its ambiguity. I loved that it was an intersection of interior design, architecture, and at its best — human psychology. I thought with this degree, it would allow me to do a variety of things that aren’t strictly rooted in any one thing. I found early on that this ambiguity would work both ways. When I started searching for jobs, I didn’t know where to start. Do I apply to architectural firms like most of my peers? Do I look into opportunities designing installation art for Burning Man?
Even after a few years into my career, I noticed that the more senior positions were even more blurred. One of the best examples I’ve experienced first hand was when I was being recruited by a competitor. Both my current and recruiting company were agencies, and they both specialized in Experiential Marketing. I was being scouted for the same title “Associate Creative Director”. I thought this is as accurate as it will get — I know my role now, it must be similar. It turned out I was completely wrong. At the first company, an Associate Creative Director leads a creative team and is the face of client relationships for everything creative. At this new company, an Associate Creative Director is the creative team and the account team handles all client relationships. I was no longer working with people collaboratively, and since that was my favorite part of my previous role, I quickly found myself unhappy. To avoid the same pitfalls, I found that 3 key players will help me paint a better idea of a role before I say ‘yes’ to any offer.
Your manager will define your experience.
At the time, my to-be manager was the one who was recruiting me. He had seen my work and wanted me on his team. He won me over with flattery and promise of creative freedom. I should have realized that he treated me more like a client to win rather than a talent to nurture. The distinction is key. He wanted to recruit me because I was from a competitor, not because he wanted to help me grow as a person. From that experience, I learned to look for indicators of how my to-be managers make decisions. Do they let the business come before the people or do they understand that good business is driven by good people? A manager is the one who has the ability to advocate or push reports down, so when I interview, this person can make or break my decision.
Someone already in your role.
I understand this is not always possible, but when it is, I feel like it is extremely helpful and often overlooked. The most ideal situation is to gauge what that person does in their daily routine. Do they feel supported? What are things that frustrate them in their role, and things they enjoy the most? If I had done this sooner I would have quickly known that the expectations were totally different.
Someone that inspires you.
I was interviewing for a job that seemed ‘just fine’. It fit my experience to the tee and was just challenging enough. I was deciding between this role and another, but there was one key differentiator: a fellow creative. When we chatted my first impression was, “Wow, this person is smart and I want to work with her.” That was a defining moment for me. I may be looking at other roles, but I wanted to work with her, so I said yes and turned down my other pursuit. She was a temporary creative stationed in San Francisco to set up a new team. But even knowing she would be gone in two weeks, the opportunity to work with her fueled me to stay. My philosophy is, if I have someone that inspires me within the company, it is always a good indicator to stay because it’s an opportunity to grow myself.
Lastly, what we can do now.
The ambiguity of the creative world also means finding opportunities that never existed before, which means finding the right match becomes more challenging. We will eventually find ourselves on the opposite side where we are in charge of hiring. Our current generation of creatives has the responsibility to turn the tides and be more specific. Instead of common phrases like “lead creative” what if we said, “create and pitch ad ideas to the marketing board”? Let’s give our candidates a transparent and explicit understanding of every role.
Just as it is important to define the role upfront, it is also my responsibility as a candidate to clarify and ask questions. Our advantage as creative people is our emotional resonance. The same emotional resonance, we use to turn an abstract idea into a tangible product, illustration, or graphic. I try to use that intuition to gage harder to answer questions like team dynamics or creative advocacy. Flexibility means we can make and shape our career but it also means we must know when these ‘ambiguous roles’ are starting to shape us.
Until there is more clarity, trust your intuition, find a manager who believes in you, and be that person who inspires others. Now, go get that creative gig!
Other interesting and related sources:
I found the creative career comparisons done by Adam Morgan especially interesting. There is solace in knowing that ‘climbing the ladder’ to Creative Director is not necessarily the only path for creatives to take.