The Role of a Creative Director, Circa 2023

⏩⏩ TL;DR: Modern creative leaders deliver extraordinary value inside agencies and marketers through specific, measurable, and inspiring effort. Unlike AI-generative tech, an effective and valued CD is proactive.

Tim Brunelle
9 min readFeb 2, 2023

Does the world of business and creativity need Creative Directors any more? After all, we use machine learning and algorithms to tell us which advertising creative performs best across digital platforms. And now we’re in the nascent era of AI-generative creative. Is leadership of creative endeavors at risk?

And maybe the role has earned its demise? I mean, come on: Bewitched, Bosom Buddies, Picture Perfect, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Crazy People, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Putney Swope, Kate & Leopold, thirtysomethibng… It’s pretty easy to spot the Stereotypical Creative Director: 1) Bossy and Superior, 2) Doesn’t Necessarily “Create” but Does Micromanage, 3) Has to Save the Day.

It’s not like the role requires certification. Let’s be candid: You can become a Creative Director if you want to. For example, I got a degree in Jazz, and six years later received business cards with the title Creative Director. A while back, I met someone who decided, “I’ve been managing clients at this firm for over a decade, so now I’m a Creative Director.” Their business card changed, too, and this individual did not have a creative portfolio. One of my new Minneapolis College of Art and Design students is pretty sure they’re going to become a Creative Director. I have no doubt this will occur. I had a marketing client once ask me how one becomes a Creative Director, “other than being really confident.”

Of course, the issue isn’t how you get there. The critical question is:

Can you add extraordinary value?

And “value” is highly subjective. This is why technology can play against the stereotype and attempt to usurp the title.

Let’s back up a little. The CD career progression is typically a path from focusing in a specific skill for some time, adding increasing client or opportunity exposure, demonstrating ability, and possibly managerial responsibilities. (Unless you’ve got outstanding chutzpah, see above.) Your marketability, i.e. your flight risk given your reputation, is also huge factor influencing when an agency might elevate your role to CD. Simplifying greatly, and with zero nuance, the journey might be:

Intern or Junior [Title] — typically < one year

Copywriter, Art Director or Designer — Tenure in role = Mix of talent, reputation, business needs, marketplace

Senior Copywriter, Art Director or Designer — Ibid; also a stalling title within a firm to keep you happy and to define culture and hierarchy

Associate Creative Director — A sort of purgatory/training ground, mostly to assess managerial capability

Creative Director — Hooray, you’ve arrived (read on below)

Group and/or Executive Creative Director — Wherein you tend to focus on the “Director” part (more below)

Chief Creative Officer — Even more focus on the “Chief” and “Officer” components

What’s worth noting in the progression above is the shift once the word “Director” is applied. You’re moving from what is technically an independent contributor role living in The Fog shipping ideas, into a managerial position. What are the chances anyone formally trained you how to manage others?

Adding extraordinary value seems easier as a pure contributor. You stop sleeping. You worship at the alter of culture-changing creativity. Maybe you engage in all the stereotypical creative person hijinx to maintain the stereotype. But mostly you come up with better and more effective ideas and get rewarded for repeating the cycle. You also get jaded and tired, but it’s huge fun and I miss that part of the business. One thing you are not doing as an independent contributor is assessing a team’s productivity, conducting performance reviews, dealing with agency management, or spending hours with clients. The focus is simpler, so the ability for outsiders to assess and attribute value is easier.

How can a manager of creativity prove they are adding extraordinary value? What distinct function does a CD serve in Advertising, circa 2023?


I’ve always felt a CD faced two directions almost simultaneously: Client Facing + Agency Facing. And I feel the best resource allocation is 50/50. But you’re going to encounter a lot of people who disagree. An agency dominated by account management will not be eager for its CDs to spend 50% of billable hours interacting with clients. Some clients aren’t keen on allocating so much time or attention with their agency CDs. Some CDs prefer to focus 99% within the agency. It really boils down to personalities, size of the overall business (at both the client and agency), and the shared culture. There are no right or wrong distributions. But I’ll make the argument for a CD allocating, and a client agreeing it’s meaningful to have focus split 50% client facing and 50% agency facing.


For my money, this is the epitome of creative leadership. There’s a reason so many people will publicly admit, “Oh, I’m not creative,” especially inside organizations which appear to prize “left brain” characteristics. Also, Marketing still suffers from Dilbert’s imprint. Working in collaboration, a Creative Director can strengthen an organization’s abilities to see business issues from different (i.e. possibly more actionable, effective, profitable) perspectives. A CD working alongside marketing leaders can help improve the odds in two categories:


Business Drivers — i.e. Is this a problem Advertising/Design/Interaction/Social can actually, reliably, distinctly solve? And what might that outcome look like, and would we prefer it? A CD can help marketers quickly examine creative consequences of potential strategic direction.

Competitive Analysis — The Barbarian Group used to say, “(A brand’s) competition is the Internet.” A CD can help a marketer evaluate competition of all types through the lens of expression/craft and cultural impact, which can help identify advantageous opportunity.

Industry Posture — Two thoughts. 1) Over the past decade, evaluators like the IPA have been adjusting the efficacy of branding. A CD can partner with marketing leaders to clarify how attribution and measurement might be woven into creativity and execution, to help all parties more keenly evaluate what works, and what doesn’t. And then help share those results to elevate marketing’s value across an industry. 2) A CD can partner with marketing leaders to assess the creative aspirations and intent of competitors, and help the team carve out more distinct and effective positioning.


Combined Culture — (Pro Tip: There is one.) Ideas are only as good as the team which enables them. Alas, BBDO’s “Ideas are Scary” metaphor for GE is kind of a documentary? A CD can collaborate with marketers to demystify the business of ideas, especially the process and rigor of evaluating them, and strengthen a collective culture which knows how to ask for, assess and celebrate business-driving creativity more efficiently.

Decision Making — If you haven’t been taught how to make creative decisions, the process can be daunting. It can appear too personal. It can be too emotional. Yet, this is the key distinction of extraordinary value: The ability to make the right call. Good news, this skill can be taught to anyone. A valued CD can bring marketers at any level into the methodology of creative decision making, and embolden more effective decisions.

Curiosity Strengthening — We are born curious, then often get that ability trained out of us. If taking an hour on Wednesday to try out ChatGPT seems frivolous, you have curiosity muscles that require strengthening. A CD recognizes the business value of focused curiosity, and can help marketing organizations re-gain those strengths to improve innovation, productivity and profitability.



Standards Setting — The ability to clarify and sustain, “We are aiming…[here] because of [x] ideal” enables everyone, not just creatives, to embrace and empower an effective, less frustrating creative journey. Subjectivity is the enemy here. You might also state, “We’re the kind of agency that does [x] quality of work because we believe [y] ideal helps our clients achieve [z] goal.” Creative Directors have opinions. Turn those into standards and stick with them, and life will improve for all.

Decision Criteria — Again, subjectivity is the realm of weak creative leadership. Consistency of decision-making across clients and time matters. It is absolutely a good use of a CD’s time to think about and publicly claim their approach to making creative decisions. This can be trained. It can be evangelized. It is necessary work that helps a CD deliver extraordinary value for their agency and its clients.

Project Management — It goes without saying? It’s not an idea if it can’t get produced. What distinguishes a CD from an independent contributor is both an ability and responsibility to see the full supply chain of ideas across a full book of business, and help make it more effective and efficient. An agency might have project managers. Fantastic! But they aren’t the solution merely because they exist. CDs adding extraordinary value contribute useful advice to improve process.


Agency Morale — I’ll mangle the quote: “When you hire an agency, you are hiring a circus of humans. Don’t forget that.” The circus bit is entirely the point. A design/advertising/digital/social agency is not a law or engineering firm. Its culture is everything, and the day-to-day morale matters. (Ok, in fairness, of course culture matters inside law and engineering firms.) CDs have a responsibility to help clarify and claim the DNA of agency morale. How does it work at its best? I’m not suggesting CDs are mere cheerleaders or coaches. They are both, and more, in partnership with other leaders to harness distinct, valuable morale.

Talent Recruiting — See above. If morale is optimal, standards and decision-making criteria clear and energizing, you’ll have a line of great talent waiting. And! If you can be equally as clear about the casting spec — what kind of people work best here — then hiring and onboarding will be easier and less costly.

Curiosity Strengthening — Also see above. Curiosity is the muscle everyone should be strengthening and discussing inside an agency. CDs are in a potent position to demonstrate how, to show the value of, and celebrate achievements in this realm.

External Validation — “Ads is Art,” as Mark Fenske put it. And Art is communal and inherently comparative. X is like Y. Z is more fresh and relevant than A. Recognizing how and why an agency defines itself within the sector of all agencies matters. A CD understands and helps agency leadership clarify distinction amongst competition. The obvious route here are award shows. But so is PR. When your business is elevating brands in the minds of humans, it matters if you can do the same for yourself.


Manage Up — What motivates them and how is your work helping them achieve their goals? Also, not just the level directly above you, but all the way up the food chain. If you’re inside a holding co, you can easily read what goals Mark Read, John Wren, Nigel Vaz, Philippe Krakowsky, Hiroshi Igarashi, and Yannick Bolloré aspire to.

Collaborate Across — Are we rowing together? This is everything. Your mates at your level. Being able to recognize their personal goals, fears, joys, motivations — and find common ground — is critical to success. A wise CD gets to know their partners to reduce friction, to speed up shorthand, and enable extraordinary contribution.

Nurture Down — A CD is nothing without talent to support and grow. A huge reason you’re a CD is hopefully because someone saw your potential to inspire, guide, and nurture idea people towards extraordinary results.


At this moment, I don’t see how AI-generative tech is replacing any of the skills described above. Supporting and enabling them? Absolutely. If a business seeks extraordinary value and return on investment in creativity, a Creative Director is your best bet. For now.

The key distinction is proactivity. AI-generative tech is not generating itself. It is not curious, it is not reading the room and sensing body language, it is not researching competitive trends or discerning relevant cultural movements. Creative Directors who deliver extraordinary value are doing all of those things and more.

If you’ve read this far and want more, consider subscribing to my newsletter, which is focused on curiosity, courage and creativity. Right now I’m writing about the fifth iteration of the Future of Advertising course I’m teaching at MCAD. Each of the 15 sessions is documented with a Before, During and After post.



Tim Brunelle

I'm a creative enterprise leader, teacher, and entrepreneur living in Minneapolis.