Read our interview with the talented UP Creative Director Cordell Burke and learn his top takeaways about what it requires to become a great creative director.
What defines a creative director?
That’s a broad question, but I guess the thing I always say to people when they ask what others do in their jobs, particularly in advertising and marketing, is that the clue is actually in the job title. It sounds like a really obvious thing to say but it’s that simple.
If you are a creative director, you ‘direct creative’. But it’s important to say that you direct creative work in all of its forms and at all stages. Whether you’re ensuring the creative brief is the best it can be for the creative team at the outset through to when you're actually working on the project, you must always gently push the creative team and the overall agency team to produce the best ideas they can. Then, the Creative Director should help sell these ideas to the client ensuring that the work is executed in the best way possible to enable the client’s brand to stand out.
So in summary, I’d define a creative director’s role as working before, during and after each project to ensure that the brief is inspiring and we push the team to come up with and execute the best creative ideas for our clients.
What are the three latest trends in creative process and technology?
‘Trend questions’ are always awkward to answer actually because of the unpredictability of tech, constant evolution and the vast number of processes springing up out there.
I believe technology should be an enabler, so the first thing I’d say in terms of trends is that:
1. There’s an overall trend in our industry where people are becoming more agile and freer in how they work in terms of life and location. (UP's successful model of e-ployment and working in the cloud is a good example of this). Also, people have to respond really quickly to what's happening in the market. That’s one overall trend that will never go away and it’s been reinforced as social media remains central to everything that people do.
Also, thanks to COVID-19, agency team dynamics have changed. You have to pull things together and come up with lots of ideas, sift through those ideas really quickly and then get them out there as soon as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s just about speed. I believe someone once said we should ‘think slow, act fast’ so that you can still conceive the best ideas with whatever time you have available.
2. The second trend in process and technology has all to do with data and artificial intelligence. Both will continue to influence and dominate our lives in every single way possible. But I would say that this is a trend that has to be handled very carefully because the way you use people's information has to feel natural and people shouldn’t feel as if they are being exploited and overtly manipulated. Clearly, everyone should feel that their information is being used to benefit them as customers.
3. Thirdly, another ongoing trend is that the two-person art director-copywriter model will continue to decline. Arguably, that’s been going on for a long time mainly due to how the digital creative agencies have traditionally operated so it’s probably already dead to be honest. There are still people I work with who use the two-person model to come up with initial ideas. However, everyone, including consumers, are generating more and more content ideas and executions and with creative individuals collaborating with each other more and more, and earlier in the process, so the size of teams will continue to increase — agency or team costs permitting.
Having said that, as a creative director it’s important that you pull together all those ideas and make sure that the best idea is still produced for your clients.
If a client does not like your concept for a new campaign, how do you convince them it's the right fit for their brand?
Thankfully, we have the ‘brief’. So, what we have to do every time is to ensure that we have an agreed brief up front. If the agency and client have agreed on the brief and everyone thinks this is absolutely right, you can always refer back to that. It’s the common reference point for assessing any creative work you produce. It allows you to ensure the work can be done in a surprising or unexpected way then you can explain that the idea is on the brief even if it’s not what the client expected.
Recently, we were presenting creative ideas to a client and exactly that happened. We had to get them to look at the ideas through the customer's lens not theirs and that helped sell a braver solution.
Can you tell us about the most challenging project you’ve ever worked on? How did you handle it?
Back in the late 90s, my colleagues and I at the time worked on the launch of a car insurance company in British Columbia in Canada. It was an interesting project because there were few ways you could get personal car insurance by non-government means, so it was new and a real big deal at the time. We were hired because we had direct car insurance experience in the UK, which they believed could be useful in their market.
The reason this project was quite challenging was having to come up with work and an idea in an environment where our own international agency absolutely hated us. They made it really difficult for us even though we were supposed to be colleagues because they obviously felt they should be doing the work, not the Brits. However, we made sure we understood the market and were committed to producing something that was going to stand out against whatever was going before despite sitting in an initially unhelpful environment.
Thankfully, I knew one of the senior people in the States at that time and she helped us through the politics. In the end, we won everyone over and worked with some fantastic people from the agency. Also, timings were a nightmare. We went over there thinking we would only be there for 2 weeks but ended up being there almost 2 months.
Whilst dealing with the country's different nuances and also everything seemingly being pitched against us (including the weather!), we remained tenacious, won people over and launched a successful campaign.
Where do you get your inspiration to develop creative concepts and mood boards?
I think a lot of inspiration is sparked, in working terms, by an insightful brief. Ultimately, it depends on what the audience or your customers want out of what you are doing and also, what we want them to do or feel as a result of seeing that photograph or film.
What I tend to do, if I'm working on a particular project, is to cast the net wide, trying to tap into the latest films, photographers or styles that are out there and anything I like, I put on Pinterest. I love Pinterest and have been using it for years. Every time I see something, whether it’s personal or work, I just put it onto one of my boards. In terms of photography and film, it’s not just a mood board, it’s actually quite a nice way of curating and sorting inspirational things that I see when I'm out and about. Pinterest is a great personal resource but I think it’s important to just be aware of what's out there, constantly feeding the mind and creating mood boards in whatever medium you feel is appropriate for you.
[Check out Cordell's Pinterest Board]. Here's one of his pins:
What are your tips for 2021 to manage a creative team?
Obviously with continual improvements in technology certain things will change in terms of organising people but I personally don’t think there should be any great changes from how you manage a creative team from a human perspective.
1. In terms of managing a creative team, the first thing that shouldn’t change is making sure that your people are happy and have an entrepreneurial spirit. If they feel that way, then they’ll be motivated to produce their best and feel confident suggesting blue sky ideas for both your agency and its clients.
2. The second thing is making sure that everyone is focused on the quality of what they produce themselves. If they are, they will always want to make it better and that will be their starting point instead of ‘I can’t do this’. As a manager you have to ensure that your team are pushing themselves and keeping things going so they understand the quality and craft of what needs to be produced.
3. The third thing is making sure that the creative team feel curious and are constantly learning. It doesn't matter if they are learning from me as a creative director, from each other or from the outside world.
Ensuring that they’re stretching themselves is hugely important.
What is the process when managing a creative team?
When a brief comes into the creative department, you must always encourage your teams to produce some really nice creative solutions from it.
After this, you have to make sure you can feed in some ideas and inspiration to get them kickstarted and constantly motivated. It shouldn't be ‘my ideas’, they should just be kickstarters, pushing them in a number of initial directions.
Throughout the entire process, not only do you make sure that the team produces fantastic ideas but along the way, they should execute them in the best way possible, choosing the best photographers, illustrators and film directors available for the particular job.
What is your experience as a coach and mentor? Do you have any tips?
I’m lucky that I mentor a couple of creative directors and new entrants to the business. I’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s my way of giving back to this business that on the whole has been very good to me. My job as a mentor is to nurture, to inspire and to bring out the best in every individual using my years of experience. And thanks to that experience, there’s always something that’s in a similar space that I can use to get mentees into a better space.
For example, one creative director was having problems with his Executive Creative Director wondering why he felt he was not being appreciated, almost to the point of being bullied. I told him to go and sit down with his ECD and find out what the problem was. This led to them both creating common objectives for each other and start working through that.
Another creative director who (I’m currently mentoring) was someone about whom some previous colleagues of mine said, “Look, we think this guy is good and we’d like to put him into the creative director role. But how can we transition him into that space? You’ve been there and done it before so how can you help?” In this instance, I helped him develop his vision of what his creative department should look like and establish a creative manifesto for going forward.
Also, we made sure that he was aligned as much as possible to the overall vision of the agency so that we could eventually appraise what he has done. That seems to be working because from last year, I’m seeing results already and his department is beginning to produce some really good work. Also, he himself has said to me that I gave him the confidence to do some things that he thought were right but didn't have the courage to do.
In terms of mentoring students, I try to advise and help when I can either personally or via my work with the DMA UK (Data & Marketing Association). I’ve always found that around 95% don’t act on what they are asked to do but the 5% that do and put in the extra effort are the ones getting the jobs. I’m lucky I can see the potential in those students and I try to be some kind of sounding board most times.
Although, I’m usually pretty busy, I do my best to be as available as possible. After all, we all had to start somewhere.
Read more about Cordell Burke and the UP UK Team.
Need help with your creativity?
Contact UP UK if you need creative services in branding, design, advertising or marketing.