What Does A Creative Director Do Exactly? And Is Justin Timberlake Qualified?

Justin Timberlake is doing it. So is Alicia Keys. But what’s really involved in being a creative director? And do these celebrities have what it takes? Seasoned CDs discuss.

"Creative directors are the new rock stars," says Andrew Lincoln, creative director at agency CP+B.

Given that Justin Timberlake was recently named creative director for Bud Light Platinum and Alicia Keys signed on for a similar role at BlackBerry (not to mention past appointments such as Lady Gaga at Polaroid and at Intel), you might say that it’s the other way around: Rock stars are the new creative directors.

But how much of the day-to-day heavy lifting will the new brand of celebrity creative directors do? Is "creative director" really just another term for brand ambassador? Whether these heavily reported appointments are just a publicity ploy or a new path to innovation remains to be seen.

In the meantime, we asked a few top creative directors to tell us what it is they actually do—and whether they think these celebrities are qualified to carry the mantle.

Justin Timberlake - Bud Light Platinum

Co. Create: How would you describe what you do to someone outside of the industry, say, at a cocktail party?

Anthony Sperduti, co-creative director, Partners & Spade:
I’m responsible for the creative vision, the look, the feel, and the tone of a brand. It’s hard to direct creative endeavors by committee so the real purpose of a creative director is having a point of view and a singular vision that can be articulated well.

Nathan Frank, cofounder/creative director, Help Remedies:
Of course I am biased, but I think that the creative director is the most important person in the company. They establish and develop the company’s personality, perspective, and reason for being, using whatever means are at their disposal (packaging, displays, advertising, website, social media, so on). If a company has no creative direction, it shouldn’t exist.

Guy Duncan, global group creative director, Coca-Cola:
At Coca-Cola a creative director should have a bold and clear creative vision on his or her brands. Functionally, he or she is responsible for 4 key stages of content development (for me across the Coca-Cola stable of brands): briefing in the content, spotting a great idea and shaping the content, protecting the content within our system and navigating it towards production and activation in our global markets.
Within that I manage our roster of agencies on the brands, whilst being open to developing ideas from other distinct places:
- direct from creative partners (directors / photographers),
- co-creating with fans,
- and partnering with other creative industries.

Andrew Lincoln, creative director, Crispin Porter + Bogusky:
Basically, I work with art directors, copywriters, and developers and hope to inspire them to work as hard as they can to create the best work they can. I make sure that when we present work to the clients, we’re bringing them the best work.

Sometimes I’ll mention Don Draper and Mad Men when I try to explain what I do. Being a creative director is little bit like that minus all of the smoking and drinking and cheating.

Florian Bachleda, creative director, Fast Company:
One way to describe it is to compare a creative director to a conductor and composer. You’re writing the music, and then directing your team of different musicians to perform it, with your focus on the unified and finished sound. My understanding of one of the reasons you need conductors is that during a performance some musicians may not be able to hear the music being played from other musicians, so the conductor is there to keep time and set the tempo. Especially with larger companies, a creative director ensures that all of the visuals being produced are speaking with one aesthetic voice.

Rob Baird, creative director, Mother:
A creative director works with the client to steer the vision for a brand and makes sure the brand puts itself out there in the best way possible.

Co. Create: What do you do that’s not part of a typical "creative director" job description?

AS: I also take on the role of managing director. I sit down with the client before the work begins and figure out the scope of a project and usually I’ll negotiate. The creative person knows what is and isn’t possible. I know what our studio can accomplish. Being involved in this early part of the process has made our clients happier and it’s made the studio happier.

RB: What I’ve learned from my mentors is how much of creative direction is about team building and being able to work with a lot of different kinds of companies and people. You have to be able to be a team builder and a morale builder and to be able to keep everyone feeling that they are a part of something. It’s a lot easier to make tough decisions when everybody feels involved in the process.

AL:I do a lot of client relations. In a weird way, I’m like a politician. I have to be the decision maker. As creative director, you’re looked at as the leader of the agency when it comes to the client. You’re the person in charge. The buck stops here.

Co. Create: What’s a typical day like for you?

AS: A typical day could range from pulling photographs for a Target project to figure out what their fall fashion campaign will be. I might spend an hour or two trying to articulate their visual language through photography.

We’re also designing Warby Parker’s first stand-alone store in SoHo, so I might work with project managers and a contractor to oversee construction, choose paint finishes for shelves, veneer finishes for wood, and decide the flow of how we want the consumer to experience the store.

Sprinkled throughout the day I might help prep a television shoot and look at casting tapes. The rest of the time I’m in meetings or conference calls with clients and taking them through the work we’ve proposed. The days are eclectic.

RB: One of the reasons I’ve been at Mother for 8 years is that there is no such thing as a typical day. I could be helping to steer scriptwriting on a TV assignment or helping to shape the look and feel of a big campaign or it could be meeting with jazz musicians because we’re making a holiday album for Stella Artois beer or doing a project with a group or renowned architects to make an experiential space for a client.

AL: On a typical day, I’ll get in the office and review emails or meet with the creative team. We might work on a new product for Domino’s and the creative team will tell me what they’re thinking about as far as a cool idea for a campaign or a TV spot.

I travel a lot going to different shoots. Right now, I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan overseeing a TV shoot at the Domino’s factory. It’s fun. I get to eat all the pizza I want!

Co. Create: What are the most important characteristics to have as a creative director?

GD: Listening twice as much as talking.
Understanding the business realities we face.
Having a clear creative vision whilst remaining open to opportunities.
Maintaining a calm disposition.
Ensuring you have a life outside the workplace that is infused with creative content and innovation.

RB:As a creative director, you need to enjoy the energy that comes with helping others create their best work. Some people don’t like it when they make the switch from making stuff to helping others make stuff. To be a good creative director, you have to enjoy that process of helping push along ideas. You’re doing less making and a lot more steering and guiding.

NF: A creative director should have an agenda. They should want to transform the world in some way. And the brand or company that they work on should serve that agenda.

AL: You’ve got to be tough-skinned. You need to be open-minded to what your team is saying and what your client is saying. Being decisive and being able to make the hard decisions is important.

Having experience in a lot of different mediums—everything from design to film to digital and sound—helps. Being passionate about a lot of things is a good trait to have in a creative director.

FB: I actually think good creatives are a combination of contradictions, so it would be hard to settle on definitive characteristics. Many would be right for some places, and those same characteristics would be wrong for other places. So that’s why I’ll settle on a characteristic that’s not usually associated with creative directors, and that’s empathy. And if I were hiring a CD, I would definitely look for strong experience with time management.

Alicia Keys - Blackberry

Co. Create: What do you think of the celebrity creative director trend?

AS: I think it’s smart for large brands. If an agency creative director, an unknown person, tried to do something different with a large brand like Budweiser, it would be really hard to do something visionary.

Having a celebrity like Justin Timberlake who has great taste and mass appeal is a smart way to cut out a lot of red tape. Typically, a large agency dealing with a large brand would involve a series of creative compromises. Design by committee wouldn’t have the singular vision of a Justin Timberlake.

I really hope it’s not just a publicity stunt. And if a few of these celebrity creative director appointments are wildly successful, I bet we’ll see more of them.

RB: I genuinely like anything that makes better advertising and branding work. If these celebrities can harness their great creative talents into great work, awesome. Justin Timberlake has proven that he can create branded content.

I hope it’s not just a vanity play for the company because really, anything that makes for more exciting work is a good thing.

Co. Create: Could Justin Timberlake do your job?

AS: In terms of determining where a brand should go, Justin Timberlake could do it. Managing the day to day process and making sure it doesn’t fall off track might require more patience and tedium than Justin Timberlake would want to deal with. But I would imagine he would have a strong executional team around him to keep him in the loop.

RB: I don’t know if Justin Timberlake would want to do my job. In fact, I don’t actually think he could do my job. There is a pretty rarefied skill set that we develop over the years, but, of course, with time, he would learn.

AL: Justin Timberlake has experience in a wide range of areas, which is helpful. He’s gotten himself noticed and everyone loves him, so maybe he can do that for a brand as well.

FB: I don’t know the man, so I can’t say. But I sure know that I can’t sing or dance like him.

[Images: FuckingYoung!, Blackberry]

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  • Drew

    As we watch how this plays out, we have to pay attention to the types of companies that do this (are they soaring, challenging, or struggling?).

    I don't believe a celebrity CD is the key to innovation, but it could be a signifier of it...A company that is willing to take risks, trusting a vision that is most likely grounded in cultural factors and new-to-world ideas that are unquantifiable for marketers or sales, already has the spirit of innovation in it.

  • Helen Gammons

    This is a very relevant topic and one that you can broaden out to so many areas within the Creative Industries.  There's a fantastic event being held at Henley Business School on May 21st with myself Helen Gammons, Author Gordon Torr (who wrote the book 'Managing Creative People', Bernd Vogel who's work on energy in teams is amazing and a collective of 'Creatives' to see life from their perspective.  If you're in the UK at that time you should register and come.  The subject of 'Creativity' and how it manifests itself, how it can be nurtured or choked, the impact on a business short term and long term and why its so important in 2013 to really understand this area if as individuals, teams and companies we want to see creativity take centre stage in business.

  • Anon

    Let's be honest. Anyone who assumes the title (and that's all it is) of "Creative Director" is essentially an egomaniac who relishes having their vanity caressed.

    Whatever tasks are involved in CDing are actually managerial. And those tasks can pretty much be delegated. But calling yourself a Manager or Editor isn't as sexy, so we're flush with these self-appointed geniuses of delusion across industries these days.

    It's a BS title with BS "responsibilities."

    These companies aren't hiring Timberlake and Swizz Beatz for their education or business acumen. How is it not obviously a PR stunt in each case?

  • Bukola

    I found this conversation interesting. I also find it telling that none of these CD were women. It would have been nice to get a female point of view, not because women CD don't do the same thing, but because as a young, female creative it makes me wonder are there so few female CDs? No matter, I'll be the CD of my own company one day soon :) However, excellent points made and I loved Florian Bachleda's last reply.

  • Alexdobo1701

    Creative Directors are the least creative people I've ever met. They love the smell of their own poop.

  • Matthew Loop

    Let's hope Timberlake is more creative this time around than he was with Myspace. A couple bad business decisions left that social network dead for good.

  • Brent

    I was a creative director and worked for many long before achieving that position myself and the truth was, most didn't have a clue what they were doing. Either former art directors or copywriters, administration was not what they were good at. Good ones were smart enough to leave you alone. Showing up for the shoot and shmoozing with the client seemed to be in the job description, though I'm not sure that taking credit for somebody else's work was. 
    The best creative directors were the ones who, when you had a tough piece of creative, something challenging, clever, innovative even, would put the gloves on and duke it out on your behalf.

  • Aesthetica

    I can't think of anything less authentic for a brand than a celebrity that becomes creative director. A creative director that becomes a celebrity, now that's for real!

  • Scott Mollan

    I felt quite queazy reading this sychophantic celebrity cult dribble. Articles like this are more appropriate for TMZ. Calling pop stars creative directors is another nail in the coffin of this once proud job title and shameful need for stale old brands to be seen doing something 'real' in the age of celebrity. The only celebrity who comes to mind who would have any handle on the job is the guy who plays Don Draper in mad men and he's an actor. What he does isn't real. 

  • Rod Iron

     "Creative directors are the new rock stars,"

    Guk.   I think I just gagged.   What a d-bag comment.

  • Jean Manuel Guyader

    A creative director's job is to help creative teams to create and produce the best possible work, and sell it to the clients. The creative teams must be the stars, and if they shine, you shine, the agency shine and the client sell truck loads of goods. 

  • SteveP

    "Creative directors are the new rock stars," says Andrew Lincoln, creative director at agency CP+B

    Really?! Not the most objective source of information on the topic... Could just as easily be "accountants are the new rock stars," says Herbert Zimmerman, accountant at...

  • Guest

    This, in my opinion, is yet another example of the degradation creatives have been experiencing within large advertising agency structures. The fact these celebrities are labeled as Creative Directors should send shockwaves within our industry and could be seen as the canary in the coal mine. After all, shouldn't creativity be the main currency of what ad agents offer?Making the comparison between a celebrity and CD is just foolish and short-sighted. There was a time not so long ago, that Creative Directors who successfully managed the voice of brands we have come to love, had a voice at the boardroom table of America's top companies. Today, they simply do not. Weather their voice is muffled by internal agency struggles or doing what's right for the numbers and not necessarily for the brands they are entrusted to manage – CD's (at least the good ones) are on the endangered list when it comes to how we define their roles and responsibilities.  The result? Brands such as the ones aforementioned, are simply looking for value elsewhere beyond what large dinosaur agencies have to offer. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

  • Jono

    I think you're being to narrow in your definition of creativity. The celebrities mentioned here are most definitely very, very creative. They're essentially doing what we're trying to do: Create value for people, that sells products. They do it in a different way, yet more successful way (apparently). The day any ad agency CD sells millions and millions of products for a company, like Lady Gaga does for her record comapny, is the day they'll be invited back into the board room. Until then, stop whining over other people who are doing our jobs better than we do.

  • Arizu04

    It sounds like these creative directors are more narcissistic micro-managers to the creative process than anything else.  As part of a creative team I would hate to be led by one of these guys.