Do Assholes Make Better Creative Directors?

By Megan Findlay

September 27, 2017

Or, can a nice creative director also be a good one?


Image from McMillan's 2016 Illustration Award–winning "The Last Song"


Recently, I oversaw two designers as they developed concepts for a corporate rebrand. They’d bring me their work and I’d do what a good creative director ought to: say yes to this exploration and no to that one, provide feedback, and offer inspiration. An hour before our presentation, I showed the deck—containing both concepts—to our president, Rob Hyams.

Don’t show all these, he said. Show the best one.


But. But!


Both designers worked so hard!


Their work deserves visibility!


Wouldn’t cutting one of them now be sort of… mean?


Rob’s refrain remained constant throughout my protests: It’s not about who deserves what. It’s not about nice or mean. It’s about putting the best work forward. Always.


Now, months later, I’m still in knots over his decree. Hell, I’m in knots about a lot of things that affect my relatively new role in leadership. This knot? My youth. That one? My gender. Oh, and here’s a favourite: My gut, which I’m meant to trust as I surgically isolate “great” from “really, really good” day after day. And that’s where the last and gnarliest knot comes into play: my reluctance to be anything but nice.


I used to be a writer responsible for no one’s output but my own. Now that I’m a creative director, I feel like an impossible-to-please busybody, constantly peering over shoulders and expected to issue judgment unclouded by empathy. Oh, you spent all day/night/week on that logo/copy doc/layout? Sorry. It’s not working. Start again.


I find that very difficult. I don’t want to tell you to start again. I want to tell you that the client will love it. And by the way, nice shirt. Is that a new haircut? Feel like grabbing lunch?


But I also want to be good at my job. Better than good. I want to be one of the best. Does that mean giving up on “nice”? I examined my fellow creative directors at McMillan for an answer. Each is very good at what he does. And each is an unassailably nice guy. Boom, right?


But I wasn’t convinced. And I wasn’t alone.


At this year’s One Club Creative Leaders’ Retreat, I joined two dozen peers in a session called, “Do assholes make better creative directors?” Much debate followed. You can be assertive and nice, one audience member said. (How?) Another suggested that being nice isn’t always a nice thing to do. (Clever, but unsatisfying.) Judy John, creative savant from Leo Burnett, cut through the head scratching and said, “It’s not my job to make you happy. It’s my job to make an environment where you can do great work, and if that doesn’t make you happy, I can’t help you.” That sounded almost right. I mean, I get it—we’re here to create, not to sing around a campfire. But I didn’t like the sharp edge of “I can’t help you.” I don’t have the “I can’t help you” gene.


But I do have the gene for recognizing good advice when it’s offered. So on the day of our presentation I culled every concept but the best one. Then I explained my decision to the team. I expected hurt feelings and glowering looks and the distinct kchunk of my developing reputation dropping by a notch.


Now, months later, I still don’t have an unambiguous answer to my question about how to lead. What I have instead is the crater between all those expectations I carried with me into the room and what actually happened. Which was…nothing. The designers said, Oh really? Well, okay. That makes sense. Let’s do this.


Which was really them saying, we trust you.


That. That is the feeling I want to chase as a leader.


So perhaps I’ve got the question wrong. Instead of asking if and when to be nice, I ought to ask how to earn my team’s confidence —in scenarios where I can be who I’m inclined to be, and in others where I need to bring a little Judy John.


Oh, and those corporate clients? They bought the concept.


Which felt pretty nice.


Megan Findlay is a creative director at McMillan, an Ottawa-based creative agency.


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