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What does 'Creative Director' really mean?


The title of Creative Director is an interesting and ambiguous one. It can often mean an entirely different thing from one person and their respective working environment to the next.

Speaking from my own perspective as Creative Director of Hothouse IWG for the last 10 years, we manufactured medium to high risk bespoke Builds and Installations for all sectors of the Advertising, Experiential & PR industries along with all other creative circles.

Prior to that Greg Lawrence and I democratically co-Directed everything for 15 years.

However, it reached a point in 2006 when we decided that for our already growing business to take the next step and take on the roles of Managing Director (Greg) and Creative Director (myself).

We would manage respective portions of the business autocratically, making day to day decisions on our own and driving the strategies forged for the business ourselves in our own personal way. We would sit and discuss the over-arching directions, objectives and targets and use the other as a sounding board. But fundamentally it represented a gear shift.

Bloody hell, we could make our own decisions and not run EVERYTHNG past each other?!!!

I remember thinking "What does Creative Director mean to me?" We'd both read hundreds of books on business and management over the years, and also had two Business Link Mentors, so my knee jerk reaction was to delve in to all sorts of reference by industry peers.

For me, I could see it was a marriage of bringing out the best in creativity of the Hothouse team and myself, through design and manufacture, and shaping our technical objectives and achievements against the requirements of the wider business.

Another substantial objective and motive as CD was to try and keep the Hothouse crew challenged on a regular basis; creatively and technically. We had a fantastic team. Everyone wanted to make a difference in the industry. A proper difference, not just to get their names on the big screen, but to be involved in projects that hadn't been done before, something that had a little more posterity in an otherwise throw-away industry.

Bread and butter projects grease the wheels and pay the bills. For this reason the inevitable simpler projects were given as inventive a spin as we could to keep things fresh. The team were also comforted that somewhere around the corner lurked the next big build that would challenge their very core.

Creatives (designers and technicians) are a sensitive and complicated animal. The scope of our work was the most varied of the industry, and although most crew specialised in one discipline as part of a multi-disciplined team, they would often need to use skills other than their first choice. To balance an intermittent use of their favoured skill, (sculpting for example) they relished developing and expanding their skill-sets by pushing themselves on the diversity of projects.

At Hothouse the role often required receiving an (open) brief, and working closely with the client to establish the key contributing factors of what we called the Golden Triangle - The Creative 360 - The Timeframe - The Budget.

We would then use our experience to interpret the brief and devise the best response to address the brief on multiple levels:

- The technical excellence

- A sound and realistic production schedule

- Budget guidelines, options and recommendations

- Client ROI, including Social Media & PR legacy (to offer a fully integrated response).

For me, what became very evident was that my key role was to manage RISK. We were trying to push the boundaries on every single project. Even the more run of the mill builds would have some ingenuity built in to them, more than anything to keep things fresh and 'alive' for us. We had, after all produced over 1000 projects and knew we could build anything. The challenge wasn't so much "Can we?" but "How do we?".

There is a responsibility to carefully shepherd the requirements of the brief:

- What does it set out to achieve? What are its key objectives?

- What is the key demographic? Is technology a key focus?

- How does it compliment/work in harmony with other ATL aspects of the campaign/ product launch?

- What has the client done previously? Does this want to progress from it in a way that reflects a distinct marketing trajectory, or does this want to make its own mark?

- How important is innovation to this brand? - Is the client risk averse, or can we push the boundaries?

- What is driving the campaign - the concept or the budget?

As we were in the business of making the kind of ideas that few others would contemplate, most clients were coming to us looking for innovation. This bears a heavy burden in terms of risk. Time is often tight. Even a 12 week build should have 16, and every day counts, so managing where the innovation is to play a role within the build is greatly affected and dictated to by the lead-times given.

For me, we always looked at a concept and worked out how to break it down in to constituent parts, establishing where we could build elements in traditional means to offer us low risk majority in the Production Schedule. These would then counter balance and amplify the parts that WERE high risk and significantly innovative. There must be a balance. Too much risk is not good for the soul or the heart rate, and it is irresponsible to the client.

It became quite a discipline of our design team to break down and fully understand the wider creative 360 of the brief so that we could see it from multiple angles.

As CD, it fell upon my conviction and experience to listen to the various opinions and suggestions of the team, to decide the best route forward apportioning budget to lower and high risk features. A Production Schedule would give respective R&D and testing time to justify and mitigate the risk.

An example are the Passionmeters for McDonalds (pictured above). We built two structures for The 2012 European Football Championships, one for each fanzone in Kiev and Warsaw.

The build was substantial in scope and size for the 10 week lead time, but the client wanted an edge to vie for a very competitive (although captive) market of football fans in the fanzones.

We designed and built two fluted marquee-style structures that you entered to demonstrate and record your 'passion' for your national team. The general construction was quite theatrical and straightforward externally simply to a) get it built on time and b) to meet practical requirements such as speed of installation, wind loadings and water tightness.

Whereas inside was state of the art technology - the interior was fitted with highly sensitive microphones and tremble switches to record decibel levels and tremors from screaming, shouting and jumping up and down. We translated this data real-time in to a circular floor to ceiling graphic equaliser wall and scoring system.

The Passionmeters were the biggest success of each fanzone and DID out-do their rival brands.

See the making of film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZLU5v_ADXs

Some clients are often going out on a limb to sign-off something ambitious. Having sat in on multi agency meetings with Marketing Directors of major brands it is quite clear the pressure they are under to hit targets.

There is a woefully high percentage of dull work being produced out there. Since the ’09 crash there has been a palpable sense of ‘heads on blocks’ and because innovative concepts are treated as higher risk it’s probably no surprise the big, ballsy ideas are tougher to give the greenlight.

I saw it as our duty to respect the risk and come back with a solid, risk managed but exciting proposal to responsibly encourage and build on the faith behind the project.

Having said that there are of course some projects that are defined by being bold, daring and high risk and that is what will give them the WOW factor. It's a rare alignment of moons when the agency has a fantastic idea, the client is willing and open to risk, they have the suitable budget and the lead-time is reasonable.

Then, together, some amazing things can happen.

At Beautiful Wonder our telescopes are trained on the sky, ever on the look-out for the next alignment of moons.


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