Right now more than 345,000 people are listed on LinkedIn as a “creative director.” Like many executive-level positions, “creative director” is a title that spans industries and institutions. There are creative directors at aesthetics-oriented brands like Glossier, Goop, and Chanel, but also at Harvard Business School, Microsoft, and the White House. The position is so ubiquitous that it’s been turned into an Oprah “You get a car!” meme, in which she makes everyone in her audience a creative director.
*Meanwhile in New York*— Eric Hu (@_EricHu) December 22, 2016
YOURE A CREATIVE DIRECTOR!
YOURE A CREATIVE DIRECTOR!
YOURE ALL CREATIVE DIRECTORS!! pic.twitter.com/BYwEqFmOEd
While I don’t claim to understand a job I haven’t done, the role of creative director is distinct in its vagueness; its end goal is hazy at best. To wit: I couldn’t walk into a veterinarian’s office, pull on a pair of latex gloves, and get to work, but I understand that they’re medical professionals who treat animals. A creative director… directs creatively?
To begin this extensive investigation into what a creative director is, I first texted my mom to ask what she thinks such people do. “I have no solid grounding in what the heck a creative director is, but if I put it in a context, say, with a publication or something similar, I would guess it is the person who is in charge of new ideas for how to better do whatever the business does,” she texted back.
I posed the same question to a friend who’s a grad student in cognitive neuroscience. “A creative director oversees the general artistic direction of a brand or company,” she wrote. I asked her for specifics on what a creative director might do day-to-day. “My guess is they go to a lot of meetings and direct people in product development, marketing, etc. to make sure everyone has a shared vision of the direction things should be moving in.”
My mom and my friend were onto something: “Creative director” is indeed a broad job title. Generally speaking, creative directors are people who make high-level creative decisions for brands and institutions, and shepherd those ideas forward into tangible things like logos, events, products, and advertisements. Sometimes they’re doing the actual design work, but often that falls to art directors and copywriters, or an outside agency, the work of which a creative director oversees. Creative directors are managers, not genius-artists working in sleek glass silos.
A creative director… directs creatively?
“In any industry, creative directors develop the identity of a brand and establish its creative directives,” said Mariella Everett, the membership director of NeueHouse, a workspace-slash-community for creatives and entrepreneurs. “They’re developing an overall vision: creating a visual language, tone, key messaging.”
For a brand to succeed in a crowded category like fashion or tech today, its marketing and communications need to be potent on every level, not just when it comes to logos and big ad campaigns. As such, the work of a creative director has expanded, Everett told me, which means that almost everyone at NeueHouse performs the role to some degree, even if it’s not explicitly in their title. But this is one reason why it’s so hard to pin down a definition of the job: If everyone is a creative director, does the job even exist?
As the content economy has exploded and outlets for professional self-promotion have multiplied, even those of us whose work doesn’t edge into creative-director territory can lay some bizarre claim to the title. (“If everything is content, then everything can be creative directed,” a friend Gchatted me sagely when I pinged her to discuss my early research.) And some people seem to be doing just that: A few users of the application-only dating app Raya told me that they’ve noticed an unusual number of perhaps dubiously employed “creative directors” on it.
“It seems like most of the ‘Creative Directors’ you find on Raya don't have jobs,” Todd Plummer, a 28-year-old writer, wrote to me. “Almost all of them are surprisingly young (like, mid- or early-twenties). So I'm hesitant of anyone that has a ‘director’ title that doesn't seem to have been in the workforce long enough to have earned it.
“Seeing someone with a ‘Creative Director’ or ‘Casting Director’ title who seems to still be quite green in their career makes me skeptical about what other aspects of their lives have been embellished,” Plummer added.
To complicate matters further, we’ve also witnessed the rise of celebrity creative directors, the fruits of whose efforts vary. Between 2013 and 2014 Alicia Keys was the creative director of BlackBerry, at the end of which, according to The Verge, “the company thanked Keys for her service, without going into detail about what exactly she had done during her tenure” (Keys came under fire during her stint at BlackBerry for being caught using an iPhone ).
If you’re a famous person who has already starred in ad campaigns, getting more hands-on with a brand might seem like a natural career step, or simply a way to keep things interesting while earning a ton of money. When Puma anointed Rihanna the creative director of its women’s collections in 2014, the athletic company told The New York Times that she wanted to be more than the face of the brand. A Puma rep didn’t respond to my requests for comment on the singer’s creative directorship, but her stewardship was said to be worth more than $1 million, according to the New York Daily News.
remember when blackberry named alicia keys as a 'creative director'? One of u brands need to holla at me with a fluff position like that— Desus Nice (@desusnice) June 2, 2015
Celebrities’ desire to be more than models or spokespeople was a sentiment echoed by the Campari-owned Wild Turkey bourbon brand, which in 2016 signed a multi-year creative director contract with Matthew McConaughey (the same year Swizz Beatz became Bacardi’s “global chief creative for culture,” incidentally).
“Campari had been through a journey of rebuilding every aspect of the Wild Turkey brand, and at that time we felt there was an opportunity to have someone tell the story of that brand,” Melanie Batchelor, the vice president of marketing for Campari America, told me. “Matthew’s name came up immediately. We felt he was a great fit, so we arranged to have an initial conversation. He said, ‘I’m interested, but I’m not interested in just being the face of the brand.’”
For Campari, which acquired Wild Turkey in 2009 and then set about “premium-izing” the brand, a more involved celebrity sponsorship actually makes some sense, since it was already investing heavily in its rebrand. To date, McConaughey has directed and starred in campaigns for Wild Turkey and collaborated with the brand on a new bourbon called “Wild Turkey Longbranch” which, according to Fortune, is “filtered with Texas mesquite and oak charcoals.”
Adweek’s AgencySpy vertical reported that Wild Turkey paid McConaughey $4 million for his services, a number that Batchelor declined to confirm to me, saying that it was “purely speculation.”
I expected the creative directors I interviewed for this story to be at least a little offended by my bald ignorance about what they do, but they weren’t. They were cognizant of the fact that the position varies widely across sectors and between companies, and that it’s not easily defined.
“We all want to know what it is!” laughed Lauren Caris Cohan, a co-founder and the head of creative at bra startup Cuup.
Andy Ogden, the creative director of The Future Project, a New York-based nonprofit, and The Future Company, its for-profit subsidiary, described his job title as “squishy, because creativity is so squishy.” Stephanie Lavaggi, who works under Cohan as Cuup’s art director and said that she’s aiming to eventually become a creative director, said that the job has “a lot of gray area.”
Cohan started her career as an assistant stylist at the clothing brand Free People and worked her way up to become its artistic director, overseeing advertising, catalog and e-commerce shoots, and video. On her personal website, she now identifies herself as a “filmmaker, photographer, and creative director.” That’s the kind of work she’s been doing at Cuup, which launched in November.
“‘How do we bring a more emotional quotient to a product that historically been pushed in a sexy way?’ That was the foundation of the thought process to then start building the brand identity,” said Cohan, adding that Cuup is also trying to rethink the size-exclusivity of the traditional bra market.
For Cohan, the work of building Cuup’s brand identity involved pulling images for inspiration, developing a strategy with the head of marketing for the overall messaging and storytelling, and putting that together in a visual way that was digestible for both customers and potential investors and brand partners.
Celebrities can earn millions as creative directors, and mortals don’t do so bad, either — salaries reportedly start in the low six figures.
More concretely, Cohan oversaw the design of Cuup’s product, photographed its first campaign herself, and directed its early commercials.
At Davines, an Italian hair-care brand sold in salons and high-end beauty stores, there are two creative directors. The company has a global creative director based in Italy who creates the concepts behind its products and leads packaging design. Jorge Blanco, the brand’s creative director of North America, then figures out how to optimize the brand’s overall messaging for the U.S. and Canada.
“The products come to us, and we could either just sell them or we could try to imbue the brand with a deeper cultural resonance within our market, which is what I try to do,” said Blanco.
This might sound abstract, but when broken down is easier to understand. Blanco and his team have planned educational events with stylists, developed a cookbook (since the Davines “Essential” line is meant to be the hair equivalent of farm-to-table food), collaborated with Caffe Vita on a coffee roast, and released Spotify playlists featuring Cat Power’s “Manhattan” and a cover of “Harvest Moon” by the band Sunflower Bean (“so people can be inside our mental playlist, to make them feel closer to our brand experience”).
Even at a nonprofit like The Future Project, which partners with high schools and holds community-based training sessions to help students complete projects around their extracurricular interests and “build the life and world they imagine,” the role of a creative director involves developing a “brand voice” and visual identity. A lot of Ogden’s work, especially early on, centered on designing fundraising materials like decks and videos.
“Very often creative is focused on telling our story and convincing people that they should invest in us,” Ogden said. (Full disclosure, he was introduced to me by a friend who’s a vice president at The Future Project.)
The role of a creative director sometimes involves developing a “brand voice” and a visual identity for a company or product.
Stewart McDonald, one of many creative directors at the Michigan-based creative marketing agency Jackson Dawson, sees himself as “a facilitator of the creative.” He acts as a conduit between corporate clients — many of them automakers like Ford and Lincoln — and the agency’s copywriters and art directors. His team develops everything from taglines to augmented and virtual reality applications that show off a product’s features.
This image of the creative director as a conductor between a client and a team of writers, photographers, and graphic designers is one that comes up a lot. They constantly have to be working on multiple levels, thinking about the big picture while figuring out how to break that vision down into deliverables like social-media strategies, photo shoots, and product packaging. They have to know what’s going on in the news and pop culture but remain independent thinkers. And they have to be really good at managing a team of creatives, putting their ego aside in favor of giving others the space to develop their ideas.
People tend to underestimate what creative directors do, said Lavaggi. They latch onto the idea that the job is purely about idea-generating, rather than one that combines managing, constant pivoting, and problem solving. These false impressions of the job make being a creative director seem like a dream gig for anyone with an inventive streak, especially when you consider how much it can pay. Cohan says that creative director salaries in the fashion and advertising world generally start at $150,000 a year. Associate creative directors at an agency might begin around $100,000, McDonald says, with compensation for more experienced creative directors pushing toward $250,000.
Reflecting back on the beginning of my investigation, I wonder if my confusion about what a creative director does was tinged with the uncharitable suspicion that they don’t do anything at all — or if they were, that it can’t be very hard — because if they were doing important work, I would surely have known about it. Now that I’ve arrived at some imperfect definition of the job, I’m struck by two distinct conclusions: that creative director can be a very challenging role, and that I still don’t totally get what the heck “brand storytelling” means.