Q&A with Mike Lichter on the art (and science) of creative direction

This week I sat down with Matt Hansen, who interviewed me about my philosophy on working as a creative director, common misunderstandings about the job, and the management advice that I try to bring to my work everyday.

Q: Many people are familiar roughly with what a creative director does, but not the intricacies of the position. Walk us through your responsibilities for a client and how you bring the Cardwell Beach philosophy of disciplined creativity to your projects.
A: I think my main responsibility is to make the best work I can for a client and make work that is really going to impact their business. Creativity is king, but creativity for creativity’s sake is for art and literature. Sometimes agencies lose sight of that. At CB, creativity is king so long as it is in aid of something larger than itself.

Q: What are some key skills creative directors should bring to the table to do their jobs effectively?
A: Besides the obvious stuff—like creativity—humility and perspective come to mind.
There’s something one of my mentors said many years ago that I have tried my damnedest to live by. He always emphasized “guiding the thinking.” That’s really what a creative director is supposed to do: My role is to recognize and nurture other people’s good ideas, not supplant them with my own. Sometimes you have to come up with ideas, but that shouldn’t be your default setting.
I’ve worked with incredibly talented managers and incredibly dismal managers. The ones who were really good were the ones who focused on the thinking. The ones who were really bad focused on the doing; they got bogged down in details, they micromanaged, and the more stuff they tried to control, the more chaotic things got.

Q: A large part of what a creative director does is manage a team. What are some best practices you’ve learned when managing a group of people?
A: I feel like there are three basic approaches a manager can take:

  1. You are here to help me so I succeed.
  2. You are here to help me so we succeed.
  3. I am here to help you so we succeed.

The first one is utilized by psychopaths and usually employs fear and manipulation to get results. The second one is used by your average manager who is probably a tad power hungry but who isn’t a complete maniac. The third approach embraces collaboration in the truest sense of the word.
Honestly, an argument can be made for each, but I believe the third approach is the right one. When people feel that you are invested in them and their success—that you respect them, their ideas, and their effort—they will give you their best, and then everybody wins. Plus, they will be kinder to your mistakes, which is important because you will make them.
Ultimately, it comes down to the age-old question: do we progress further, faster if we compete or if we collaborate? In my heart of hearts, I believe the latter bears more fruit.

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