Lessons in creative direction from Gaudi

Why stepping back and empowering your team can lead to better creative work.

The career path from creative to creative director is stupid. 

We expect someone who has spent years coming up with ideas, making pretty things and writing puns to naturally be able to inspire and lead as a manager.  

I used to think that others thrived in this transition, gifted with some creative director gene. But now that I’m helping some of my associate creative directors transition into the role, I’m convinced that our industry just doesn’t prepare people for it. 

If there is a creative director gene, I certainly wasn’t born with it.

In the transition from making work to overseeing it, I was totally lost. I didn’t know how to articulate what I wanted from the team, so I micro-managed. I ended up getting frustrated, and finally just did it myself. Worst. Creative. Direction. Ever.

When I looked for resources—a book, a blog, someone to tell me what to do—I came up empty handed. So I spiraled, questioning my profession, my skills, my life choices.

Fast forward a bit, and I was on a tour of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I tuned in just in time to hear the tour guide mention how the artist who designed the stained glass windows did so long after Gaudi, the architect, had died.

This rocked me. I had been taught that creative control was sacred. That obsessing over every detail was the only way to make something truly great. But Gaudi came up with the best idea of his life knowing he would die before it was completed.

It hit me like a ton of bricks that Gaudi may have been the best creative director of all time. 

He came up with the structure, provided the most epic briefing in history (“who needs paintings, paint the walls with light”), and then handed the reins to people he trusted. He didn’t nitpick or hover. He found talented people he trusted and let go. And damn, did it work!

Still, the control freak in me was genuinely surprised when I discovered this could apply to my job in advertising. Providing a structure and trusting my teams to deliver was not just an extremely functional model, but it freed up my time while allowing my team to grow. 

Giving my teams the freedom to create led to better work than I would have thought of by myself.

Maybe Gaudi was born with the creative director gene. But I like to think that the current state of Sagrada Familia is different from what he imagined. And if he could see it now, he’d still be a bit surprised to find that it’s better.

Brynna Aylward is creative director at indie ad agency GUT

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