What it takes to be a great creative director


Artie Megibben is executive creative director of Agency Creative. His long advertising career has helped make such brands as Pace Picante Sauce and the Subaru Outback household words. We took a few minutes to pick his brain on what it takes to be a great creative director.

Q: How long have you been an advertising creative director?

A: Two rules in life: never ask a lady her age or a wrinkly creative director how long he has been in the advertising business. Let’s just say I’m well seasoned.

Q: What qualities should a great creative director possess?

A: A great creative director is empathetic. You need to be able to empathize with the end customer, their need states and pain points––whether you’re selling widgets or pantyhose. Empathy helps you effectively translate a brand’s attributes into tangible benefits that hit people where they live. You also need to understand the pain points of your creative department. You need to keep them motivated and not allow them to grow cynical. But the bottom line is this: a great creative director can never lower his standards. Never ever present work that is just okay. Good work is the enemy of great work. Great work is the end game. If you don’t totally love the work you’re creating, nobody else will. It’s that simple.

Q: Most creative directors start out as either copywriters or art directors. Which one were you?

A: I’m a bit of an omelette. I majored in graphic design at UNT and started out as an art director. However, I have always had a bent toward writing. I was fortunate enough to work with creative partners that were not territorial. It was often a Lennon-McCartney arrangement where I would come up with one idea, write the script and sketch out the storyboard––then the next idea might come solely from my partner. No matter who came up with the concept, we shared the credit. I even collaborated on radio commercials with my copywriters. I was a real nuisance.

Q: Today, you work primarily as a copywriter, is that correct?

A: Yes, these days I have a talented team of four or five art directors that I rely on to help me flesh out ideas to bring them to life. However, I still crank out the occasional logo design myself. I love being a hybrid. It’s just who I am.

Q: What do you think makes someone a great creative director?

A: Generally, people that excel as creative directors have a good sense of both art direction and copywriting. They know how to direct and inspire creative people in both disciplines. They are also either a fount of big ideas or they are someone who knows how to get the best thinking from their teams. Ideally, you are both. It also helps if you have a keen strategic mind. Otherwise the creative message won’t be well grounded.

Q: How much do you participate in formulating marketing strategy?

A: Quite a bit. I make myself available for most of our agency’s client immersions to help ferret out the key brand insight. I work hand-in-hand with the account team to craft the marketing USP. I am a very left-brained creative person, so I tend to think strategically.

Q: Is selling a client an edgy idea easy or hard?

A: Well, it depends on the client. Some clients are risk-adverse. Others are out to break the rules. Great clients push you to do your best work. Either way, it helps if the creative director can make it clear to their client that he/she understands the client’s industry, the market conditions and the target market’s need states.

Q: How do you keep your creative department sharp?

A: This is the thing that no creative director does as well as they should. What we have recently implemented is “Show & Tell Fridays.” We bring in pizza and everybody in the department shares something they have found online that’s amazing. Then we discuss how these discoveries can apply to the work we are doing that week. It’s a great way to keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

Q: You’ve done award-winning work on brands such as Pace Picante Sauce, American Airlines, Nationwide Insurance and Subaru. A lot of things certainly went right. Did anything ever go wrong?

A: (Laughs) Plenty. Like the time the film crew accidentally left a Boeing 767 out of gear. Or the time we watched our stunt man slam into a concrete pillar during an on-camera bungee jump gone bad. But my most memorable “holy moly” moment came when I was shooting the first Pace “New York City” commercial. The octogenarian actor who was playing cookie told me that he had done work for our agency when he was a young man. The president of the ad agency could not remember his name, the actor explained, so he would simply ask the talent agent for that “three-fingered bastard.” At which point he held up his meaty right hand that was undeniably missing the two middle fingers. We had awarded the lead role in a food commercial to a man with missing fingers. Note to self: check actors’ hands before you book them.

Q: What do you do to keep from getting stale?

A: It’s funny. I think that I was the most creatively stale in my forties. You are in that part of your life when you are raising kids, driving carpools, listening to the classic rock station…and your creativity can take a back seat. It really helped me when the digital revolution pulled the rug out from under the advertising business. Staying up with developments in the digital world is a full-time job. It keeps your blade sharp.

Q: Your agency has won quite a few industry awards this year. That has to feel good.

A: It is always gratifying to see how your creative accomplishments are being esteemed by your industry peers. But as seductive as creative awards can be, at the end of the day, if you’re not generating marketplace results for your clients, it doesn’t matter how many golds and silvers you have in the agency trophy case. Like the man said, it don’t mean a thing without that cash register ring.

Artie is executive creative director for Agency Creative. His full-time passion is giving brands their unique memorable voice. He and his co-conspirators would love to help your company stand out from the crowd. See more of his creative work.