How to Become a Creative Director

Make all your hard work, time, and dedication pay off in the end

Creative director leading her team in a meeting.

 Getty Images / E+ / gremlin

It’s considered the pinnacle of a creative person’s career. Whether you start out as a junior copywriter, junior art director, or junior designer, the ultimate pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the creative director role. But it’s never handed to anyone on a silver platter, and it takes an incredible amount of hard work, time, and dedication to fill those shoes. Here's how you get there.

The Early Years

When you start our in your advertising career, most likely in the creative department (although some do it from very different avenues), you will be very green. You won’t know the ropes yet, and you’ll rely on almost everyone in the department to help you get the lay of the land.

If you’re a junior copywriter, you’ll be mentored by copywriters and associate creative directors with a copywriting background. The same goes for art director and designer roles. And although you may have some contact with the creative director, it will be limited in the beginning. You may get to show your ideas to the creative director, although don’t be surprised if your peers do this for the first few months (or even years).

This is not a slight on you, but more a process that saves time. Creative directors in large ad agencies have to oversee work on dozens of accounts and will rely on their direct reports to present overarching campaigns. This lack of contact with the creative director can often lead to a mixture of fear and anxiety when it comes time to present your work. With few exceptions (if you're reading this, you know who you are), creative directors came up through the ranks and remember what it was like to be a junior. They want you to do well, and although they may be blunt, they are always on your side. If you do well, the agency does well. 

Moving up the Ladder

As the years go by, you will gain more experience and require less supervision. You’ll lose the “junior” title. Whereas once, nine out of ten ideas would go in the trash, you will start getting most of your campaigns through the first few cuts. You’ll need less help with writing and art directing. You’ll attend shoots on your own. And you’ll be empowered to make decisions.

As you gain more success and begin to advance your career from agency to agency, you will build your confidence and start to develop your own personal creative style. Just as Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy had differing approaches, so too will you. Or you should if you want to carve your own creative path.

As you work in different agencies, and on different accounts, you will be given multiple opportunities to hone your skills and your approach to the work. While it’s important to ensure that your own personal style doesn’t overshadow the brand or product, you can bring something of yourself to every job. Just take a look at the work of Tom Carty and Walter Campbell for an example of that. They always made the client shine, but they did it in a way that was very much their own style.

Getting Close to the Top

After proving yourself for a few more years, you will eventually move into a senior role. It would be senior art director, senior copywriter, or senior designer. The level of experience needed to fill these roles varies vastly from country to country, and state to state. A senior in the Mid-West may only need for or five years under his or her belt. In the big cities, like New York, London or Paris, you may need double that amount of experience under your belt.

You will be given people to supervise and will take over whole projects and accounts. It’s not a great leap from this role to that of Associate Creative Director or ACD. You will still specialize in your chosen field, but will now have a whole team of people working under you. The Creative Director will trust you to make major decisions on these accounts, often without their approval. You will go to more and more client meetings and will have a fair amount of “non-creative” work to do. It is the point at which many creative people prefer to stay. It gives them the right balance of management duties and creative freedom. But after this point, things get very different.

Finally: You’re a Creative Director

“The buck stops here” comes with the job title. Now, in your role as creative director, you have to put aside a lot of your time that was spent being creative. It’s your job to direct others, not to push the work out yourself. That vision you have been honing for years will become very important to you. The years of experience dealing with people, interpreting briefs, and presenting to clients will take over. You are now steering the ship, and the junior creatives will look up to you as the person they most want to be.

It has all come full circle. It’s taken thousands and thousands of hours of hard work and dedication to get to this point. It’s up to you what kind of CD you want to be, but remember where you came from, and be better than the CDs you trained under. It may not seem possible, but if you strive to be better than the best, the industry will thrive.