The ultimate guide to creative design agency roles
What do Alicia Keys and John Galliano have in common? The similarities are not immediately apparent, but both have worked as Creative Directors. This example highlights the widening disparity between job titles and our understanding of what a role actually entails. A further case in point is Will.i.am’s post as “Director of Innovation” at Intel. The floodgates of ambiguity have not only been unlocked: they are standing wide open.
Job titles nowadays seem to be running an uphill marathon for the fanciest, most elaborate-sounding profession imaginable – bringing the style and substance cliché to mind. In a society where there is no glass ceiling on creative professions, Firedog endeavours to give you clearly-detailed, relatable job roles typically found in a creative design agency. Furthermore, we outline the personality traits which complement these jobs to help you gauge the right fit. You might be an obsessive highlighter and spreadsheet enthusiast, or maybe you’re more of an abstract thinker who never writes anything down? Do you feed off the latest media trends, or does anything tech-related raise your pulse? Discover which role suits you.
The Smooth Talker: The Account Director
Essentially the link between the creative team and the client, an Account Director usually liaises between the client (often on a daily basis) and other creative design agency staff to coordinate campaigns and ensure that the work produced matches the client’s brief. This person will generally be in charge of the operations side of the accounts team, which involves a lot of work concerning finances, company planning and organisation.
The AD will despair without trusty companion, Microsoft Excel. Colour-coordinated highlighting, strategically-placed post-it notes and endless list-writing will be second nature to this person. Highly organised and efficient with excellent interpersonal skills, the Account Director’s worst nightmare is a missed deadline. An Account person’s modification to Homo sapiens would be additional arms to juggle all of the tasks that get thrown their way.
“Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business.” – PT Barnum
Firedog’s Account Director, Hannah, says: “In short, I spend half of my time planning and managing projects, the other half of my day is spent with my head in multi-coloured spreadsheets.”
The Juggler: The Account Manager
The Account Manager will manage and liaise with clients, but their accounts will ultimately be overseen by the Account Director. Taking it back to school, an Accounts person would be that annoyingly efficient student who consistently hands their homework in on time whilst still managing to participate in a plethora of extra-curricular activities. Firedog Account Manager Lucian is the perfect example, as he concedes he was indeed Head Boy at school.
For Lucian, “the sense of achievement upon seeing the final result of a project is the best part of my job. Working with the creative team throughout the project is also rewarding, especially when I’m able to add some ideas into the mix.” Disheartening, however, is when a client tries to be a designer. “When a client tries to take over and reduces the value of the work you’re producing, it makes you feel like a delivery agency. Clients can become fixated on one aspect of the project without acknowledging the bigger picture: this can be an Account Manager’s biggest challenge.”
The Difficult One: The Creative Director
“Make it simple. Make it significant.”
Don Draper, Mad Men
The Don Draper of Mad Men and John Galliano of the real world, this is the role everyone wants to know about. Ultimately responsible for the quality of the final creative work and guiding a team of employees, it takes years of experience to become a Creative Director. While the Creative Director may seem prone to making rash decisions, he/she equally demonstrates the value in following your intuition.
For Cliff, Managing Director of Firedog, the Creative Director is “a very manipulative individual who often has a single vision: this usually makes him or her most difficult person in the agency. This is not necessarily negative, though – it often means that the Creative Director is extremely well respected.” Design Director Lee posits a good CD as being “incredibly inspiring” – a Creative Director instantly pinpoints the crux of a problem and can understand different perspectives. Cliff adds: “A Creative Director should be partly unhinged. This will be the person susceptible to making a young designer cry.” Galliano is indeed a fitting example, as he states: “I believe in discipline, so I’m not the right person to cry about weakness and things like this, but maybe I’m not human.”
So, what other qualities are needed to become a successful Creative Director?
You’ll probably be a bit controversial. Take Quentin Tarantino and Karl Lagerfeld, for example. Perhaps the most prolific Creative Director of his generation, Tarantino’s interview with Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murphy in early 2013 embodies this sense of being a bit of a rule-breaker. When probed on the question of deriving pleasure from watching violence, Tarantino flies off the handle, exclaiming “I’m not your slave and you’re not my master. You can’t make me dance to your tune. I’m not a monkey … I’m shutting your butt down!” Creative Director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, also alludes to this sense of contentiousness, as he states: “A sense of humour and a little lack of respect: that’s what you need to make a legend survive.”
A Creative Director will also be incredibly interested in the world around him/her. Creative Director of Coca-Cola, Guy Duncan, cites the most important characteristic as “ensuring you have a life outside of the work-place that’s infused with creative content and innovation.” Furthermore, this person will be extremely driven, continually seeking something more. After turning Mulberry’s sales on its head during her six year stint, Creative Director of Mulberry, Emma Hill, admits she “likes a challenge”. Lagerfeld also acknowledges this as he eloquently describes himself as “a kind of fashion nymphomaniac who never gets an orgasm.” Creative Director of Help Remedies, Nathan Frank, states that this is a person who “should want to transform the world in some way.” The Creative Director thrives off a relentless thirst to reinvent the way we perceive the world, then.
He/she is also extremely tenacious, a quality that is evident in ex-Creative Director for Gucci, Tom Ford. When first starting out, Ford called up sportswear designer Cathy Hardwick every day for a month. When she finally agreed to give him a meeting, Ford arrived merely two minutes later, having been calling from the lobby. During the interview, Hardwick asked him who his favourite designers were, and Ford answered “Armani and Chanel.” Months later, Hardwick asked why he said this, to which Ford replied: “You were wearing Armani.” This ability to think on your feet and grasp every opportunity highlights key qualities found in a Creative Director.
“We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them.” Steve Jobs
The Perfectionist: The Design Director
The Design Director oversees the design of branding and advertising for a client in a creative design agency, ensuring that this adheres to the client’s requirements and the image they wish to promote for their company or product. Artistic integrity versus time constraints can be one of the biggest challenges for a Design Director, as he/she can sometimes find gearing creativity towards deadlines frustrating.
“Design is a word that’s come to mean so much that it’s also a word that’s come to mean nothing.” Jonathan Ive
For Firedog Design Director Lee, “the best aspect of being a design director is watching the reaction in clients’ faces when presenting concepts for a new brand. A ‘eureka’ moment is created as they realise the potential of the work and the impact it can achieve. The sense of achievement you feel seeing the final result of all your hard work and the recognition this receives in effectively transforming a client’s business is also highly fulfilling.” The worst part of the job? “Working with a stubborn or unappreciative client who doesn’t listen to our professional advice and ends up derailing a project to a level whereby no one in the design team has any pride in the finished result – even if the client does! The job then becomes focused on motivating and inspiring the team to ensure the end result is still the best that can be achieved under the circumstances.”
The Pencil Priest: The Designer:
Senior Vice President of Design at Apple Inc, Jonathan Ive notes the ambiguity of the word “designer”, due to its increasing popularity. A designer’s role indeed covers a wide spectrum of tasks. At Firedog, our designers generally work on projects that range from logo design to digital front end design.
, it’s precisely the variety of different disciplines involved in creative design that he most enjoys about the job. “I’ll never be working on one project at a time; every week is different to the next. My work might vary from a set brief with fixed client requirements, to a more lenient project where I can experiment with different styles.”
“The big incentive when coming to Firedog every morning is the studio atmosphere. We work hard but maintain a sense of perspective, always listening to a range of music that inspires creativity.”
What bugs Ale as a designer? “The inconsistency across Adobe Creative Suite software. Adobe inDesign and Adobe Photoshop both have a tool called the “Pen Tool”… this tool performs differently depending on which software you use. THIS IS REALLY ANNOYING – THEY SHOULD BEHAVE THE SAME WAY ACROSS BOTH SOFTWARE SYSTEMS!
Personality fit? A designer is often obsessive to the extent of being obsessive compulsive: a millimetre or two out of place is just not good enough. Managing Director of Firedog, Cliff recalls a designer he once worked with: “This guy would put everything from his desk into a cupboard at the end of every day because he couldn’t bear to see a remotely cluttered desk.” Cliff also describes a designer as being “like a sponge. A designer absorbs everything around them – they’ll be the person who notices when two paving stones aren’t properly aligned. Designers can be introverted people who like to stay in their own bubble. This is the evolution from designer to Creative Director – the latter will be much more extroverted and very comfortable around people.”
The Visualiser: The Art Director:
“Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.” – Leo Burnett
While the designer puts pen to paper, the Art Director is responsible for the visual output of advertisements and oversees all creative work. These people are generally found in ad agencies and usually work under the supervision of a Creative Director. As they are likely to work on several projects at once, an Art Director will be someone who enjoys variety and is a good multi-tasker. Another notable trait is that this person will generally be very style and trend aware.
The Art Director and the Copywriter work extremely closely together on campaigns. For this reason, they will not only be close; they will be like a married couple. So strong is the bond between the two that they will even move agencies together. Considered to be the pioneer of modern advertising, Art Director Helmut Krone created the hugely successful 60s Volkswagen Beetle “think small” campaign with copywriter Julian Koenig.
The Pixel Pusher: The UI/UX Designer:
Usually found in digital agencies, a User Experience Designer determines user experience across multiple platforms and devices. This person will be driven by finding out how and why people use products. The UI/UX Designer will design the site under input from the Head of Digital on best practice and the Creative or Design Director regarding layout and design.
Head of Digital at Firedog, Sam describes a UI/UX Designer as “someone who will leave no stone unturned – they will continually scrutinise every procedure and learn from each outcome. This person is a problem solver who repeatedly draws on past experience to conquer issues. The thinking process behind this role is formulaic and based on tried-and-tested methods.” Sam adds that a UI/UX Designer will generally be quite an introverted type of person.
The Lover of Linguistics: The Copywriter:
Do you agonise over the subtle differences between two adjectives, deliberating over which to use? Generating the words, slogans and audio scripts for an advertising campaign, copywriters are highly creative and have a way with words. Writer Salman Rushdie came up with the “Irresistibubble” slogan for Aero that’s still used today and Dorothy L. Sayers was partially responsible for The Mustard Club, one of the most popular ad campaigns of all time. Other famous copywriters that became authors include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Don DeLillo. In creative design and digital agencies, Copywriters are usually employed on a freelance basis.
Copywriter for Firedog, Sarah says: “If you’re a ‘glass half full’ personality type, being a copywriter is the perfect job. Why? Because it’s our job to communicate the benefits of a brand or product – and seeing benefits is an instinctive trait for optimists. I love getting to grips with a brand’s unique voice, and figuring out how to speak in an authentic way that honours that voice. I enjoy how varied the work is – from inspiring high concept nuggets, to long copy that keeps its audience engaged for the full read.”
“The only negative aspect to my job is when the integrity of the work gets compromised. When an edit results in copy that doesn’t scan well or is otherwise flawed, I freely admit to getting a bit precious about it! Of course, I’d never let a client know I’m feeling this way – instead I’ll push back with a rationale and recommendation. Ultimately, it’s their call.”
“In the years that I’ve been copywriting, the craft has evolved significantly. These days, it’s not just about talking to people. It’s about creating conversations and dialogues – often in real time. I’m inspired by that progression, and excited to see how my job will develop in the future.”
The Story Teller: The Photographer:
This person is a stickler for attention to detail and will take care to ensure the chosen image is telling the right story. In smaller agencies, a photographer will be brought in as and when necessary. Most positions are in fact freelance, but larger agencies may have a set position. In whichever role,
“Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does.” SH Britt
Photographer for Firedog, Simon gives us an insight into the best and worst parts of his job: “I love pretty much everything about my job; firstly because I get to do my hobby for a living. Each day varies, so you are kept fresh and engaged with what you are doing – this prevents you from going into autopilot mode at work. Another perk is that I get to meet a lot of different people in many places, occasionally overseas. As for irritations….While there aren’t many for me, the British weather, a quiet mobile phone or an empty diary can be frustrating. I have dropped a lens before and seen it smash into pieces on a shoot, which was pretty irritating. All in all, though, being a photographer is an excellent job.”
The Socialiser: The Public Relations/ Marketing Executive:
This person can work both promoting and publicising the creative design agency itself, or for the agency’s clients. The role involves building, maintaining and managing the clients’ reputations or that of the agency using a wide platform of social media. A PR/Marketing person’s day is very varied; tasks often involve writing and editing in-house material and liaising with colleagues, as well as organising events to win new business.
As PR and Marketing Executive for Firedog, Hannah’s favourite part of the role is “all the writing that’s involved. It’s great to put something onto a social media channel and monitor through Google Analytics the topics that people react to, and those that are less successful. The difficulty with this role is that you often have to create your own time limits and be very self-disciplined, as you’re not necessarily given strict deadlines. You have to be organised and know how to manage your time very well.”
The Mother Hen: The Office Manager:
The Office Manager ensures the smooth running of the studio, which involves organising and supervising all administrative activities.
“Creative without strategy is called ‘art’. Creative with strategy is called ‘advertising’.” – Jeff I. Richards
For Firedog Office Manager, Cara, a big advantage with this role is the regular hours it enables. “You don’t take the job home or worry about it out of hours; it’s a stable job that allows some variety without being too stressful. I also enjoy the nurturing part of the role – it’s nice to know that doing simple things can make a difference to everyone’s experience of the work place. I also like having an overview of what’s happening at a management level.” And the worst bits? “Admin can be dull – there’s a lot of answering emails and carrying out relatively mundane tasks. The job isn’t particularly creative and if you’re looking to make a lot of money, working as an Office Manager isn’t for you!”
The Planner: The Brand Strategist
Usually found in larger branding agencies, a Brand Strategist’s aim is to ensure a consistent and effective brand message, which is researched through close analysis of market data trends. The Brand Strategist will liaise with clients to understand the values of the brand, identify problems and find a solution. This person will usually be extremely disciplined, highly autonomous, and often very academic.
They will often be quite good with people as they will be responsible for undertaking a good deal of research. Examples include managing brand workshops or one to one interviews with senior client stakeholders. As these sessions can become quite passionate and heated, the Brand Strategist often needs to be calm, mature and diplomatic.
Writing will also come quite naturally to this role; their core output is an extensive strategic framework of brand recommendations.
Managing Director of Firedog, Cliff, describes the Brand Strategist as being “the antithesis” of the Creative Director. “While the MD or CD might do something on a whim and follow their instincts, the Brand Strategist enjoys the methodical process of planning, testing and improving something”.
The Digital Junkie: The Head of Digital
Responsible for all digital output, the Head of Digital must have in-depth knowledge of interactive digital marketing, outside of media planning and buying.
Head of Digital at Firedog, Sam votes the most satisfying part of the job as “vastly improving a user’s experience online. This can be measured against KPIs, so we know whether our work has achieved what we were aiming to do.” The most frustrating element? “Clients not trusting your expertise can sometimes feel like a personal insult, when really it’s because they don’t want to let go of their brand as they know it.” The Head of Digital will develop a close relationship with the client for this very reason; the stronger the trust, the more successful the result.
The Logical Thinker: The Digital Strategist
The Digital Strategist figures out how the goals of a website lead through to the design; this person can clearly approach a project stripping away any design element. Essentially, the Digital Strategist comes up with the idea, the Designer facilitates it, and the Developer makes it happen. In the wireframing stage, the Strategist will decide the content of each web page and form a hierarchy from the most to the least important element. The role will also involve interrogating websites and seeing how they can be improved, which may comprise of analysing the user exit rates from a site.
“ ‘Different’ and ‘new’ is relatively easy. Doing something that’s genuinely better is very hard.” – Jonathan Ive
Personality type? The Digital Strategist will be a logical thinker whose strengths lie in problem solving. Sam says: “There will be an egotistical element to this person because the satisfaction when feeling he/she has provided the best solution to the problem is the key motivator in the Digital Strategist’s role.”
The Engineer: The Lead Developer:
The Lead Developer heads up the team of developers, making sure that everyone is adhering to the software quality standards agreed by the team. This person ensures that the features developed by the team are produced to the highest possible quality in the fastest possible time. A good developer will be someone who can anticipate problems before they occur. Sam describes this person as “very anal.” A hater of sloppy work and cutting corners, a Lead Developer will take time to find the source of every problem and develop effective solutions.
The Lead Developer will therefore be someone who pays a lot of attention to detail, as the smallest fault can lead to big problems.
The Maker: The Web Developer:
The Web Developer is responsible for bringing the design to life and coding it to operate and interact as planned. This person can also be involved with the maintenance and update of an existing site, designed by the Head of Digital or Design Director.
Firedog’s Web Developer, Ammar, says “writing code and building sites is the best part of my job.” What frustrates him the most? “Internet Explorer”. Front End Web Developer, Matt, agrees: “That is so true – Internet Explorer makes everything so unnecessarily difficult. I’d say the most frustrating part of this job is when something doesn’t work. When you think something will take around an hour and it’s actually triple that, it’s pretty frustrating! On the upside, though, it’s creating something from scratch and seeing the end result that makes this job so rewarding. I’m currently building our new “Work With Firedog” page and it’s exciting to see the progress made every day.
Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. – Steve Jobs
So, what type of person do you need to be for this role? Matt says: “You need to be logical and calm. A problem should be stimulating, rather than a reason to stress out. Finding a solution to a problem will be approached as an interesting challenge for this person. You also need to be content with spending time on your own, as in this job it’s very often just you and the screen for company!”
And last but not least, there’s the role that cements all of the others together…
The Boss: The Managing Director:
The boss of an agency, this person essentially looks after everyone – and the business. Bigger agencies often find Managing Directors and Creative Directors on the same pecking order. This isn’t a role you train for but more something you fall into, so having no official expertise can be intimidating. As the MD ensures all business goals and objectives are reached, the biggest part of the role can mean working in a spreadsheet world.
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Despite all the glamour attached with this title, MD of Firedog, Cliff says, “the job of a Managing Director can actually be quite lonely; you spend a lot of time working on your own. Self-discipline has to be very high – you could just sit on a golf course all day pretending to be working. This autonomy can be both daunting and liberating, though, as this role is very well-suited to people who have a problem with authority.”