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  • May 26, 2011

But What I Really Want to Do is Direct

In my apprentice days, I worked for Marvin Honig, a Hall of Fame copywriter who created indelible commercials for Alka-Seltzer, Cracker Jack, Isle of Creative Direction Illustration and Volkswagen during the 1960s and 1970s, and who assumed creative leadership of Doyle Dane Bernbach upon legendary founder Bill Bernbach’s death. It was not one of those bloody successions that stain the pages of history and advertising. Bill chose Marvin to carry on in his place.

By the time I met Marvin, he and I were toiling at Campbell-Mithun-Esty. He had been brought in to radically upgrade the financially successful but talent-challenged agency’s creative product. I was there because it was the first job I could get in New York.

Marvin was gentle. He never told you how stale your ideas were or how disappointed he was in you for not working harder. He made you believe you were the future, not only of the place, but of the profession.

Besides his warmth, what I remember most is a piece of advice he gave me: “If you’re not a creative director by the time you’re 40, get out of the business.”

I worked for all kinds of creative directors before I became one. Most were tough and many were silent. Sal DeVito would give you an assignment in the morning. Then, you and your partner would spend the next ten hours sketching and writing, probably on park benches because there weren’t enough desks at the agency. As night fell, you would humbly and silently present your stack of sketches to the master.

Sal would flip through them, stone-faced, quickly discarding anything remotely resembling an idea he had seen before—and he’d seen everything. Once in a while, he might stop for an instant and ponder a particular layout. You wouldn’t dare move a muscle or betray your faint hope that the ad in question might perhaps be found worthy. We’d watch his eyes. There! Just there! Was that the briefest flicker of amusement or approval? Was he, if only for an instant, considering accepting your work?

Like sex for men, it was over in a moment. The ad would join its brothers in the reject pile.

After days of this, Sal might buy something. A buy was when he stopped leafing through your work like a housewife rejecting lettuces, let his hands linger on the ad for a second or two, and allowed a thin smile to flicker on his lips. Did I say housewife? It was more like working for a Clint Eastwood character. Wait, did I just second-guess my own metaphor? See, I’m still submitting my work to Sal and I’m still afraid of his judgment.

During the dot-com boom they were handing out creative director titles like crack, but I avoided getting one until 1999. Five months into the gig, I quit to start Happy Cog. I left because I wanted authority over the work, and I was the kind of guy who could only get that working for himself. Or so I thought.

Once you become a creative director, you realize that authority is an illusion. You’re a negotiator between the client’s taste, the designer’s ego, and the user’s need. You succeed when all three are satisfied.

I sometimes fantasize about becoming a Sal-DeVito-style creative director but my personality is more like Marvin Honig’s. A Jeffrey-Zeldman-style creative director is one who wins the right client, assembles the right team, offers the right initial insight or two, and then interferes as little as possible. I think of myself as a motive wind that gives the little sailboats a gentle first push.

The problem with the little sailboats is, if you later have one teeny suggestion to offer, they will likely say no and tell you why your idea is stupid. Then you go off and ponder. First, you figure out if they were right. They often were. Next, if they were wrong, you figure out whether it matters. If it’s about your ego, it doesn’t matter; if it’s about the work, it does.

That’s how I do things in my little zone, but each of our creative directors has their own style. No matter how you may approach creative direction, remember, it’s always about the user. It’s never about you. You are the thing it is the most not about. If you think being a creative director is about power, quit now, because this job will bum you out so much. To the rest of you, cheers!

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