Notes From An ACD

I make my living in the advertising career niche that dare not speak its name. I am an associate creative director. Which I know doesn’t tell you much about what I actually do. Does my title mean “supervisor of many, master of none”? Or “too old to be called copywriter”? Or “wanted a promotion, and all I got was this lousy job title”?

The position has its advantages. As a colleague of similar temperament put it, “I don’t want to be the first guy charging up the hill.” On the other hand, I resent Shoot magazine’s failure to acknowledge my existence in the list of job titles on its subscription card.

No matter the small (OK, not so small) indignities that come with the territory, my years as an acd have afforded me a unique vantage point. Whether I’m the one being managed, the bystander, the peacemaker, the substitute supervisor or the hapless messenger, I’ve worked with a number of creative directors on a number of accounts. And I want to believe that with experience comes wisdom. Here, for what it’s worth, is mine: five quick lessons for up-and-coming creative directors.

The law of exponentially rising frustration. By all means push your writers and art directors. Raise the bar. Fight complacency. Good isn’t good enough. Et cetera. But also keep this law in the back of your mind: At some point in the quest for perfection, you begin paying a rapidly soaring price in diminished morale. You may twiddle and tweak and wind up with an ad that is perhaps 97 percent perfect instead of 95 percent. But is that final 2 percent worth it? Is it worth the disproportionate counterproductive toll it takes on the enthusiasm and commitment of your team?

The alchemy fallacy. “All work submitted to me, I will touch and make better. Your bronze will become our gold.” Maybe that attitude is necessary for a creative director to survive and prosper. I hope not. Humility has its place. Your judgment is not infallible. Practice saying the following: “I’m not sure about this, but you may be right. Let’s go with it.” David Ogilvy’s words are still relevant: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” If the people you hire are not puny, don’t make them feel that way.

The do-it-yourself dilemma. In theory, relying on others to solve a crisis and save the day can help them grow. In theory, you stay in the background, coaching, adjusting, encouraging. In practice, the urge to jump in and mutter “Just give me the ball” is often irresistible. I don’t have much advice on this one because I usually fail the test. I usually grab the ball. Maybe that’s why I’m not a creative director.

The cherry-picking paradox. Steering high-visibility, high-reward projects to yourself is permissible so long as you also cherry-pick some lemons. I’ve worked for two creative directors who would on occasion spend the weekend handling the dregs. “Here, you work on this magazine spread. I’m busy writing the sales-convention speech.” This will do wonders. Smells like team spirit.

The masochism ploy. I sit with my issue of Creativity or Archive, reading the exhortations of the stars. Then I think glumly, “I have a family and a life outside advertising and a belief that working more than 45-50 hours a week is not healthy. So I must be a hack.” The 2001 Andy Awards poster showed some cool ads (Altoids, Volkswagen, Time) taped to urinals, with the line, “Let the judging begin.” Please, rein in the “Reach higher and higher! Work longer and longer!” thing. Just ask for better work. And (this bears repeating) resist the urge to grab and improve it yourself. State the problems you have with it, and then trust your team to solve them. Suggestions are helpful—at times, crucial—but so is faith in your crew.

One of my favorite cds once told me, “To get ahead in advertising, even if you don’t aspire to be a creative director, pretend that you do.” Alas, I am not following her advice. But I do hope that these suggestions contribute to happier, more satisfied creative departments everywhere.

David Tobin is an associate creative director at Rives Carlberg in Houston. His work has never been in CA, but his FormulaShell TV campaign did make the cover of Graphis 296. He can be reached at