What Makes a Successful Art Director?
Not everyone is cut out to be an art director. It takes a certain type of person to work their way up through the ranks from junior, to associate, and eventually up to a senior art director or a partner at an agency. The lavish life exemplified by Don Draper comes with the pressures that not many can handle. While everyone is different and there is no exception when it comes to art directors, there are a few essential traits that seem to be common despite the person or type of creative they are.
Ability to Communicate
It seems fairly obvious that a career stemming from many types of communication degrees would require a possession of exemplary communication skills. Despite this there are many bright-eyed college graduates walking into interviews with their resumes in hand not knowing the first thing about communicating with the people around them. It’s important to be able to learn, or at the very least adapt a sense of communication when talking and interacting with the people around you in your workplace.
As an art director you will be working with various people with a whole slew of different personality types. You probably will not like some of these people – in fact you might quite possibly loathe certain people. While everyone has the roles that they play, you might find certain characters too “much” to handle at points. It’s important to play nice! As a director you must possess the ability to steer the metaphorical creative ship in the right direction. Teamwork is a key element in making sure that goals get accomplished and deadlines are met.
The greatest ability that a leader can have is to inspire great work in others. If you’re shooting for the top of an agency you damn well better develop some excellent social skills and become a leader. You will be leading other creatives towards a single common goal, and if you do not have a stranglehold over controlling any of the madness, then nothing (and I mean absolutely nothing) will get done. If you are a director that hasn’t yet been able to develop the necessary leadership skills to move your team in the right direction then there will be an empty floor and a “now hiring” sign outside the agency come next spring.
Chances are you’re going to make a bad call or a bad decision. In all honesty you’re probably going to make a couple… you know what, you’ll probably make quite a few. Want to know a secret? Everyone does! The ability to continue going despite failing is what sets great art directors apart from averages ones. In a poor attempt to not come off as a walking cliché it’s still important to note that without there being any courageous actions taken by art directors then there would be no creativity in the industry. We’d probably still be watching video ads about a guy sitting at a desk talking about how much he likes how hard his Hoover sucks.
Talking about making bad calls or bad decisions – It’s going to be quite the experience for you to deal with a pissed off client for the first time. Not everyone will praise you as the divine shining light of creative advertising that you at one point imagined yourself in your head. Chances are you will have a bunch of people yelling in your ear about design, copy, and other things that keep you up at night, all while putting on a smile in front of a client who’s got steam coming out of their ears. You will be kicked down time and time again, and depending on how big your ego is, it will be bruised, badly. You have to be able to roll with the punches and develop some thick skin.
There is a lot you don’t know. By the time you retire there will be even more that you don’t know than when you started. That’s fine. The important thing is to want to learn about the things that you, right now, don’t know the first thing about. The industry is always changing, and there are so many different elements that work together like a finely oiled machine. There are millions and millions of different parts working in harmony in an attempt to make everything go smoothly. That’s your agency. You have to learn how those parts work and how to keep that machine running. In any degree of the term respect, it will never be given – especially if you’re at a large hot-shot concrete high-rise in Midtown. You will learn every little single there is to learn until your brain cannot hold any more knowledge without something falling out the other ear. You will also hear advice from practically every type of mentor figure that you’ll meet, and everything they say will clash with what other mentors will say. Take it all with a grain of salt and apply what you feel works best for you.
This one might seem a little obvious for someone in the creative industry, but you really have got to be on you’re A-game. I’m talking every single neuron in your brain firing off, and your body vibrating from every single idea you’ve got flowing out of you pores. Most of these ideas are probably going to be awful, but if you’re coming up with directions from projects or campaigns all the time, good ones will start popping up eventually. It’s hard to be able to flex or strengthen your imagination skills, but I’m sure there’s an internet entrepreneur selling a course to improve your imagination online for the low price of ten-installments of $49.99. If you buy that course, or think about buying that course, being an art director might not be for you.
Focus up chump! You’re entire career is based off of aiming for the big picture. If you lose your focus even just a little bit then it all goes to hell. You know the campaign that you and your team have been working on for the past month? The one with the coffee-fueled all-nighters, working weekends and overtime, missing birthday parties – that one. You lose focus and the entire picture falls apart. Every detail must be thoroughly thought about, and you must ensure that the project is heading in the right direction.
This applies mostly to the bright-eyed college graduates with the untapped energy and hopefulness that will eventually wither away. If your hope is to get a nice comfy job with great benefits, pay, and time off – you chose the wrong career. For the first couple years at least. The perks and pay will come, and they might come a lot quicker if you’re good at your job, and are hired at an agency that is willing to take creative risks. Think of your portfolio as the golden ticket to get into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The agency is that chocolate factory and you are the one kid that really liked chocolate and eventually got stuck in that chocolate pump, tube thing. Your portfolio will show the agency your true colors when it comes to the creative work that you have already accomplished. While it isn’t the only thing that will make someone hire you, having a good body of work is an important first step.
Finally there’s experience. If you are fresh out of you institution of higher-education you will have none of this. You may think you have some, but you don’t. While you were still trying to think of real-world applications for Pythagorean’s Theorem there were people with their heads down working from sun-up to sun-down. Those people have experience. But at some point, they were just like you. Experience is the only thing on this list that can’t be cheated. There are no shortcuts for experience. You can have every single thing on this list, but unless you’ve truly experienced what it’s like to be an art director, with all the ups and downs, you haven’t gotten the faintest clue about what you really need to be the creative that you want to be. Will you ever be ready? Probably not, but no one else ever was, and you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.