Want to make it as a creative director? Use SapientRazorfish CCO's 5 secrets to success

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In a market where creativity is a commodity, career opportunities lie in your ability to sell the dream and support your team.

In the five years since he joined Razorfish (now SapientRazorfish), Global Chief Creative Officer Daniel Bonner has traveled tirelessly to provide creative leadership for the agency.

He moved into the newly created global role in July 2012, a scant eight months after accepting a CCO position at Razorfish London. Bonner was already a seasoned creative leader after 15 years as CCO of AKQA UK.

Bonner called upon that perspective to offer some advice to aspiring creative directors and share his five pillars of success.

While Bonner has seen creative directors emerge from a variety of professional backgrounds, his own specialty was design. He says he realized early that emerging technology would soon beget a new breed of agency built on interactive media: "I worked in a design business creating annual reports and other printed documents," he says. "When I made their first screensaver, they didn't know what this witchcraft was!

"So while I came from more of a design and art-direction slant, I quickly had to learn how things worked and how to make things move." He was able to parlay his interest in new media into a role as creative director at AKQA UK by the age of 27. "That was pretty unheard of," he recalled, "but we grew quickly as the industry was growing quickly."

Whether they start as designers, copywriters, graphic artists, multimedia experts or other specialists, what is the Rubicon creatives must cross to become creative directors? According to Bonner, there are five roles a creative director must embrace:

  1. Craftsperson. "I think out of all those things, craft is the most important," Bonner says. "You still have to be a doer; you can't really coast on things you did years ago. I get pulled in a lot of directions, but as often as possible I want to be in on a pitch."

  2. Politician/negotiator. Next, the aspiring creative director needs to be able to work with other parts of the business to find out what they're seeking from a project and to build consensus behind it. "There has to be an element of allowing people to understand why the creative vision is right," Bonner says. "That means you have to understand other partners and parties—which means talking internally with other disciplines to create momentum for an idea. It's not enough just to want it; you need to know how to have it."

  3. Salesperson. "Definitely, part of being a creative director is being able to operate not just with creatives and the craft itself," Bonner says. "You need to be able to discuss and negotiate with clients as well as other departments. You have to strike a balance between being a craftsperson and a salesperson. You need to be able to extract emotion from your audience—after all, the work won't sell itself!

    "I think you can double, treble down on your own craft. But ultimately, you have to be a salesperson. If you want to move something forward, you're going to need to bring people with you."

  4. Leader. According to Bonner, the secret to growth as a creative director and beyond lies in a real passion for the success of the creatives on your team—and not just in the work they turn out. "You have to be truly interested in other people: their work, their money, their benefits.

    "You can't just be an inspirational leader focused on the craft. As professionals progress in their roles as creative directors, they talk as much about their team's careers as much as their own work."

  5. Catalyst for change. "To move a project from the ordinary to the extraordinary, you need to be able to quickly change direction," Bonner says. "You have to be a catalyst to change: Get people excited about a new path instead of dwelling on what could have been. The creative leader has to be as excited about the new path as he was about whatever came before."  

So how do you develop this range of attributes? They'll need to dig deep, but Bonner believes most craftspeople have the potential to succeed in this varied role. "I think most creative people have some of that DNA," he says. "They will not avoid having to lead or be a catalyst."

Nor does selling your team's creative work require bombast. "I have a lot of respect for those who are not great salespeople in the traditional sense—but as humble, as introvert as they may be, if they believe in what they do, they will find their own way to sell.

"You can't simply say, 'It's done, so it's awesome.' I have a belief that ideas are pretty easy for creative people, doing great visual design. In fact, it's a bit of a commodity, and the audience often has as many ideas as we have! The trick isn't having these great ideas—world is full of hard drives, sticky notes full of great ideas.

"The trick is being the catalyst who can help get that thing bought, not just dreamed. That's a real hard thing to get done.

So where do you go from here?
Like many CCOs, Bonner describes a traditional path for creative directors that entails leadership of increasingly large and complex teams. "The most regular path is going to be CD (localized in one city); to ECD (multiple offices or a region); to CCO across international borders," Bonner says. "The opportunity scales."

However, that's no longer the only ladder to climb, according to Bonner. "Now we're seeing divergence of opportunity depending on the creative's vocation." New job titles are springing up to reflect new specializations: "They may find themselves as a studio director, a head of innovation or an experience director—opportunities that simply didn't exist a few years ago. It's quite a complex landscape!"

Meanwhile, professionals are increasingly coming up through agencies and finding creative leadership positions with clients. "For instance, you've got creative within places like Google or other tech companies," Bonner says, "as client organizations are internalizing marketing services.

"Five years ago the idea of a creative director leaving and joining a client would have been unheard of. But now, it's fine to step out of that career path."

And what are the prospects for a creative who wants to become CEO of an agency? You'll probably have to blaze your own trail, Bonner suggests. "Off the top of my head, my experience tells me that creative leaders who become spearheads are usually founders, like [David] Droga or [John] Hegarty. I've seen it attempted in other situations and have to be retracted.

"Taking on the roles of CCO and CEO? Even to me, that sounds like a pretty big task! For most creatives, there are significant blind spots in leading business from a commercial and financial point of view.

"That said, it makes sense for the CCO to be part of the agency's cultural leadership—to be on the board and stand shoulder to shoulder with CEO and CFO.

"I think that for any business that trades in its creative leadership, the CCO role has to be part of the fabric, not just a department."