From Traditional to Digital – the Modern Creative Director | BitchWhoCodes | Stacey Mulcahy - a Microsoft Technical Evangelist

From Traditional to Digital – the Modern Creative Director

When it comes to vast land of agencies, there is this definite dividing line between traditional and digital. For the past 10 years or so, each side has started to embrace the other more openly, yet the line still very much remains despite being blurred.

Warning: this post is going to contain lots of generalizations, stereotypes, badly accounted history by yours truly, and probably a bunch of other things not worth mentioning. I gave this post in the form of a talk at CreateTech almost a month ago with many, many more animated gifs, and sadly, someone got hung up on the initial setup, rather than the overall message. My bad I suppose, but poking fun at things is how I like to engage people to help get across a more meaningful message.

Before I start in about what things I’d imagine a creative director would need to be successful in the digital space, I’m going to do a quick account of how digital agencies came to be to set the backdrop. Feel free to skim to the creative director bit if this bores the hell out of you.

I Blame Mad Men

When I think of a traditional agency, I think of a long elevator ride in a tall, tall building. The sweet, sweet smell of rich mahogany boardrooms is pervasive, suits are the uniform along with properly shined shoes, and every office has its stash of brown liquor.


I think of the term “boys club” and immediately hate myself for it and realize that what I have imagined is just a slight, albeit twisted version of Mad Men. I should know better and I do: I have worked for both digital and traditional agencies in a variety of roles. Still, I can’t help reverting to the generalization / stereotype. Even the names of traditional agencies reinforce this perception as I am never sure if I am playing a game on hidden camera called “Ad agency or Law Firm” : BBDO, JWT, Ogilvy & Mather, Saatchi & Saatchi.

The names themselves often suggest the inherent values in a traditional agency: the rise of the creative genius, the individual over the team. Historically, the power couple in this environment has been the copywriter & the art director ( or artist ). Together this pair could do anything, you just needed the perfect concept framed by the perfect slogan and the audience was yours for the taking.

Traditional agencies live in much different realm than that of digital agencies – the one shot world. They have a single opportunity for the perfect delivery. Broadcast and print are finished once they are released into the wild, there is no tweaking, no fixing, no polishing. Both can be insanely expensive. Months and months of planning needs to happen, with planners in an agency focusing on the year ahead, if not more. Significant last minute changes could have serious ramifications. Lose a client, in a traditional agency, and often, the entire team on the account would be fired.

Advertising gone Digital

Digital Agencies, for most, evoke youth and vibrancy because frankly, they haven’t been around that long and for most of us, we have worked within them while they have grown up. In contrast to many of the traditional agencies, digital agencies embrace a more modern working environment – the quirkier the better. Screw ergonomics! Screw productivity! Does our new collaborative open space that doesn’t allow anyone to talk on the phone without annoying the absolute shit out of their co-workers look inviting? Does the space look fun? People imagine that our work environments have kegerators (has been known to happen), foosball tables (also somewhat true) even have some slides in the building (what?).


Now, let us ask ourselves: how the hell are those two guys managing to discuss the latest creative brief with what looks like Alanis Morrisette shrieking her way down the slide in skinny jeans?

Even the names of some digital agencies sound like someone gave an 8 year old boy a case of fun dip and then scheduled a brainstorm during laser tag to conjure the most esoteric non-traditional names : Droga5, my alma mater Big Spaceship, Stink Digital, Fantasy Interactive.

crazy-kid-birthday-gifIt’s hard to decipher the individual in these names, any one genius or multiple geniuses whose mark of success is to be added to the company name roster. The focus is put on the team in these types of environments, more about people than one person.

The designer and developer pair emerged as the new power coupling in the digital space. If you had at least a designer and a developer, you could create an interactive piece. It might not be the most thoughtful, it might not be scalable, the copy might suck, but the ability to make lies in this pairing including conception and execution.

Digital agencies were playing in a more forgiving sandbox. Make a mistake, and it often could be fixed. It was a fast paced environment: digital was often still considered an after thought at this point, so the budgets and timelines also reflected that. Overnighters were common, last minute requests accepted and the hills and valleys of a project based industry where long peaks of extreme busyness followed by undemanding periods of lag time became the standard . Employee contracts started to reflect this project ebb and flow, with clauses that ultimately warned the employee that overtime was not to just be expected, but to be embraced. Rarely would someone be paid overtime in a digital agency – not then, surely it rarely happens now. It is the nature of project work, something other industries experience as well.

Embracing Digital

For years, traditional agencies realized that the mediums in which they could reach their audience was changing. They needed to “embrace digital” and sometimes people still utter that phrase, painfully illustrating just how far behind they still are. Unable, maybe even resistant, to build digital teams internally, traditional agencies often used digital agencies as an extension to their team, allowing them to say that they could do “everything in house”, or that they understood digital. Digital agencies became the production houses for many of these traditional agencies, just executing ideas that often failed to translate well to this new context in which they had to live.

To no one’s surprise, Digital Agencies didn’t want to be Traditional Agencies’ bitch anymore.


Digital agencies starting acquiring and building out internal capabilities to handle bigger accounts which would take them beyond thoughtless production work. Digital Agencies coveted the AOR relationship, and believed that in acquiring those, would be free from Traditional Agencies, changing that working dynamic entirely. SODA was born right about this time, the same time that these agencies were hiring strategists (not planners), copy writers, even account people. They were ramping up to be self-sufficient, and many found some decent success with AOR relationships, being the digital agency of record for big brands and taking their own slice of the pie.

Oh, shit.

tumblr_inline_misdgwRkSk1qz4rgpThen the internet got weird, and with that interactive got weirder.  Digital agencies were no longer just building micro-sites with a shelf life of 3 months for some campaign. Social networks were born. Technologies changed and evolved. The year of the mobile, the one everyone had been talking about, finally made its grand appearance at which moment people collectively shat their pants. They had to think further ahead, they had to plan, something that traditional agencies excelled at. Digital agencies had to grow up.

They could no longer be scrappy if they wanted to fight in the same ring. Agencies that had 15-20 people quickly doubled in size, sometimes tripled, adding in new disciplines, new structures, new processes, struggling to make this transition without losing what made them competitive and interesting in the first place: their ability to be nimble, scrappy even, and to just be balls out because they had nothing to lose. Company culture suffered, and companies spent more time talking about it than investing it it and the people. Their competitive advantage suffered as growth took over.

And so we come to this point. It is the point where the mediums inherently cross over and commercials contain hashtags. Where you can hug a vending machine for a soda or where a POS receipt can contain a recipe with a url. Where god forbid you actually scan a goddamn QR code on a subway billboard where there is ZERO access but of course you’ll save that link for later, where traditional and digital are finally and inherently and most importantly, unavoidably intertwined. It has been this way for awhile, but access has changed and now there is no avoiding it – no way you can argue against an army of devices, not from one of the many consoles in your living room, not from the fact that your entire family is on facebook and you had to change their access permissions accordingly.

All this, all the previous painful generalizations and half baked history to get to this: the concept of a person’s role, in particular the idea of what a Creative Director is, needs to change as well to adopt to an industry that started with only a few mediums, and now has a plethora.

The Word Creative

Full and open disclaimer: I don’t like the term creative. As Daniel Mall said, perhaps use the term creators.

Referring to someone as a creative or using it as an adjective is extremely polarizing. It is why I also don’t like the term “creative technologist”, although I do understand why it exists.It is just something I have never wanted to subscribe to. We can argue all day long over semantics. For me, I have as much desire to have that adjective tacked onto my title, as I do “female”. Calling a developer a “creative technologist” feels almost like you have given them a ticket to sit at the same table as everyone else, taking them out of second class from the kids table to the one where the adults sit.

Truth be told, many of these ‘creative technologists’, are self-taught developers. They have backgrounds in music, writing, fine art. Many fit that overarching definition of what a “creative” might be. Technologists create – they make, they just do via a different tool set and approach than someone else. Sorry, slight digression there.

Time for Change

With all this change, roles need to change. They are changing and more interestingly now, bleeding into another and blending,
where the discipline silo is slowly being destroyed not by generalists but by specialists who have embraced their skill periphery. Designers are learning code. Writers are figuring out how to make their own blog. Developers are writing. People are exploring other disciplines, not only out of interest, but out of need, if it doesn’t happen organically by just being a member and consumer of this digital age.

What is the Modern Creative Director?

Okay, finally this brings us back to the creative director. What is a creative director? Is it someone who is the mad creative genius, who comes up with all the good ideas or makes every other idea better? Is it someone who is the defender of the vision – regardless of who created it ? Who keeps everyone in line with the end goal? What the role means and how it is defined will change to the needs of the environment. It cannot be a single definition and you can’t escape that. But overall, I would imagine that a modern creative director – a person who is working in digital(because, really, no one at this point isn’t), would have the following skills/characteristics.

  1. Be Multilingual
  2. Be a Consumer / Maker
  3. Be Agnostic

Let me explain. Let’s just make the assumption that we have a creative director. They are doing what their job is defined as, which like I previously mentioned can change depending on the need. These are the things I’d like to see inherently – despite what the job may be, and most of these will come across as something you’d assume most people do or have inherently. Perhaps they do, but in my experience, that hasn’t always been the case, and in order to move ahead, pushing technology instead of using it, creative direction needs to become a practice that may be driven by design, but not defined entirely by it.

1. Be Multilingual

I don’t mean multiple languages. I am sure that is a huge plus on some accounts, but in terms of being multilingual here, I am referencing the various areas of which a creative director will have to work. They should be able to talk Business, Strategy, Design, Development. Note: I am not suggesting that a creative director needs to be a complete generalist. A good CD needs to understand that business goals of the client, they need to understand the brand at a deeper level. This could include pretty much anything about the brand: audience, demographics, release cycles, products, properties, distribution, revenue, etc. Yep, all the boring stuff. Once again, they don’t need to know it all. But not knowing poses a greater risk. Being able to understand some of these aspects can help define the strategy.

tumblr_miqw4ozenn1s07hqso1_500Normally, I’d want to say a creative director is someone who is strategic, because really we should all be invested in a project enough to inherently think strategically about it. But I’d settle for someone who can appreciate future thinking, who not only understands the importance of research and planning, but who can also help define what it should be and help define what might be needed. I want someone who knows what is immediately and quickly within reach but who can also foresee where a leap might take it.

In a digital agency, probably 80% (yes, a completely made up statistic, therefore it must be TRUE, it is on the internet after all!) of all creative directors are designers that moved up in the ranks. I’d say the other likely candidate would be a copywriter. Being able to talk about design – to communicate why something is working versus why something is not, is an integral skill for a creative director to have.

Many of us can talk about typography, appreciate white space, deliberate over the information architecture – but being able to communicate at a detailed level about the visual process is something that many designers even struggle with. A creative director needs to be able to talk about design – to guide and mentor by providing both stimulus and direction, as needed. Internal communication is just one aspect – a creative director needs to be able to also communicate that vision to a client, knowing when to push, seducing approval through conviction. Is a designer best to do this job? Perhaps, but not necessarily. As long as someone can talk to design, in the previously mentioned ways, they could do the job. This means it opens it up to copywriters, even these “creative technologists”, something that has started to happen.

di-JMPPYes, I do believe a creative director needs to be able to talk technology. Like all other disciplines here, all I’d want is a working knowledge. Having a working knowledge means that you have the ability to ask the right questions, and ideally, know when you don’t know. It is so much easier to have a discussion when you are speaking the same language, even if the dialect is different.


Many people would argue that ignorance is bliss and that not knowing about other fields means you are not limited by them. They would maintain that the only way to reach that beloved, infamous blue sky nirvana of creative thought is to not know or care about shit outside your peripheral. The problem is, all this stuff now is within your periphery, and some people’s response is to narrow their field of vision.

2. Be Agnostic

I’m not entirely sure agnostic is the right term here, but I’m going to use it. A creative director should aspire to be agnostic in both process and platform. As new technologies are adopted, processes need to change to leverage them.

2008-2009 or so was a year of immense change for web developers and web designers with the introduction of Responsive Design. Suddenly everyone was overwrought with the same question ”what is the best way to do this?”. It became quickly apparent that old processes would not suffice – that comping out each page in Photoshop, as would have happened previously, would become a scope nightmare.

Clients wanted the same level of interactivity and detail as created in the days of Flash, but also wanted the cost associated to developing for a plugin, which removes all the cross-browser work. Processes had to change, we couldn’t be adding work without adding to the bottom line, and teams started to embrace style tiles, atomic design and designing in the browser over the pixel precision of Photoshop.

Designing in the open is another process many people have been adopting to constantly share their work and progress with the public. True, not everyone can do this due to those things like, well, clients and NDAs. The sentiment behind the process, however, would be something I’d want a creative director to adopt – open sharing and collaboration as encouraged by such platforms as Behance, Dribble, Gitbhub, even Twitter.

Most importantly however, a good creative director would not only have to embrace these types of process changes, they would have to champion them.

When it comes to platform, I’d hope that most people have experience with other ecosystems outside the one they use personally – for desktop computing, mobile, even console. Yes, I’ll be the idealist. The principle behind this is that you don’t care about how you get to the end result, just that you get there. Delight is not attributed to technology, it is attributed to experience. It is the same thing I wish for most developers – to become a bit more agnostic so that the tool/platform isn’t elevated above the end product. This approach helps you avoid the law of the instrument:

Each ecosystem has its own pros and cons and each afford their own unique opportunity- knowledge that can only improve a project. I’d love to see creative directors, well everyone really, step out of their comfort zone and truly consider the demographics of their audience, and experience things as that demographic might, when it comes to ecosystems. Creating for a platform with no knowledge of it might be crazy, but it is something that happens all the time. Just the experience of getting out of your comfort zone, can help develop a greater appreciation for different approaches.

3. Be a Maker/Consumer

I want a modern creative director to be both a maker and a consumer. I want someone who understands the space because they live in it, they use it, they get frustrated by it or pleased when something works better than expected.

When it comes to making, I don’t care what it is. They can be photographer, a writer, a knitter, a whittler, a screen printer, a serial single serving tumblr maker – it does not matter. The act of making itself helps instill apathy – apathy for the user, the client, for the maker. The lessons you learn through making for yourself, regardless of the output, can be applied to so many other things. It helps develop creative problem solving.

Most importantly, I have said this before, and it is one of my personal mottos – Passion is infectious. If you work with someone who is really passionate about what they are doing, you can’t help but want to find that same kind of passion within yourself. A creative director is someone that I want to be inspired by. I want to feel like their passion is infectious, that the time, work, changes, feedback is all coming from a place where the only motivator is a passion and desire to make the output the best it can be.

Ok, so for my disclaimers.

Of course, I have used and abused all sorts of generalizations. If you got stuck on those, then you are missing the point. I am not suggesting that a creative director needs to know how to code. Learning a little bit of code, might not hurt mind you, but really if they learned how to be full fledged developers, there goes everyone else’s job security.

When it comes to the modern creative director, I am looking for someone who is a good communicator across disciplines, who is agnostic, and who is a maker & consumer.
I’m not looking for the crazy “idea person” – because as much as I don’t believe in generalists, I do believe that stepping outside your comfort zone can only push you forward. What makes this a modern creative director? Perhaps it is the need to embody digital: you can talk all you want to your audience, but nothing will get heard if you don’t know where to find them.

With the number of touch points (+1 for marketing lingo) and places to find your audience, context is much of a king as content.

Filed under: Ramblings — Stacey @ 8:56 pm

  • Michael Janiak

    Cool post. I actually think there are a fair amount of modern creative directors already in existence, it’s just that they are likely too engaged in their day-to-day work to care about the ego-driven trappings of their traditional counterparts.

  • Lea Ann Stundins

    I really liked your description of who we are. Makes great sense. I would even say that those 3 things were all important to being a good Creative Director in a non-traditional agency (think promotion agency, integrated marketing agency, experiential agency) before digital even existed. Those of us from that background just see digital, and all of it’s available iterations, as an additional set of tactics to choose from when talking to an audience.

  • Ken Hamm

    Really enjoyed this post.

  • Elena Tucci

    Great Post!

    • Stacey


  • Marc Syp

    Really interesting read. I’m an architectural designer turned coder/startup/product guy, a “creative technologist” that is going on a third interview for a Creative Director position at a digital agency. A lot of what you write rings true, and more importantly gives me confidence that I am not just a fish out of water… so thanks for that.

    A note: In section 3 here, I do wonder if you’ve selected the right word with “apathy”… the tone of the statement would suggest that you mean “sympathy”.

  • Loann L.

    Great read. Glad I found this!

  • Loann L.

    Great read. Glad I found this!

  • timdug

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