Anna Keizer
November 22, 2021

How to Become a Creative Director: Ultimate Guide

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Imagine your name on a placard with the title of creative director under it. Has a pretty nice ring to it, right? 

We think so, too.

How to become a creative director does not have to be a guessing game that only a lucky few unravel. Once you know the expectations of success for this role, you can determine if becoming an advertising creative director, creative director in the film industry, or another type of creative lead role is right for you. 

Let’s dive in.

What is a creative director?

A creative director definition begins and ends with being the creative leader of a company.

While that sounds pretty glamorous – and it can be! – being a leader entails far more than just dreaming up or signing off on creative ideas for clients. 

A creative director is someone who can be the person both staff and clients look to for their creative vision…

A creative director can also be the person who ensures that the not-so-glamorous parts of the gig like economic security and employee morale are looked after for a holistically healthy and successful company.

In what industries do we see creative director jobs?

One of the more interesting aspects about a creative director career path is that creative director skills are wildly applicable to multiple fields.

Though the creative director meaning might change slightly from field to field and job to job, you can find this position in all of the following industries: 

  • Advertising
  • Architecture
  • Entertainment 
  • Fashion
  • Marketing
  • Nonprofit
  • Photography
  • Publishing
  • Anywhere where there’s a need for art and design!

The need for a creative director skill set is always in demand. So no matter what your passion is – TV, cars, furniture, board games – you will likely find positions available that require a creative director.

What does a creative director do?

Okay, we’ve dipped our toes into the creative director meaning and general job description.

But let’s talk nitty gritty. How to get into creative directing means exactly what when it comes to daily responsibilities and tasks?

Day to day and week to week, you can expect an advertising creative director, creative director in the film industry, or any other type of creative director to carry out the following: 

  • Meet with clients
  • Oversee client projects
  • Lead creative sessions on projects
  • Might be involved in creative call or bidding process 
  • Delegate staff responsibilities for projects
  • Collaborate with client and determine project budgets
  • Might oversee general staff needs (hiring of key roles, promotions, etc.)
  • Ideate on and make overall creative decisions for project/campaign

As you can see, creative director skills are many and varied, which means that what do creative directors do encompasses far more than just the creative demands of the job.

What is the difference between a creative and art director?

Before we go any further down the rabbit hole of how to become a creative director, we want to make an important distinction between creative direction vs. art direction. 

It’s easy to get confused between the two. But when looking at the differences between art direction vs. creative direction, the easiest way to distinguish them is to think of the former as the execution of a creative project and the latter as the ideation of it.

While both are highly creative jobs, the creative director definition leans heavily into the “big idea” territory. That person will lead the discussions about a project, critique the suggestions of their colleagues and staff, and ultimately decide what direction the team will go.

From there, the art director will get to work as the person put in charge of making that creative vision come to life (along with a slew of other people---line producers, agency producers, coordinators, etc.).  

That being said, creative director skills can definitely overlap with those of an art director – and in some cases, they’re one in the same.

Especially when it’s a boutique business like a startup advertising agency or something of the like---the financial resources may simply not be there to hire for both positions. As a result, the person hired becomes a hybrid of creative director and art director. 

For someone aiming specifically to be an advertising creative director one day, it can be a lot of work, but it can also prove a wise career move to quickly gain experience and grow that creative director skill set.

How to become a creative director

Becoming a creative director doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a considerable amount of time and energy. But there are a few things to consider as you rise in the ranks. 

Do I need a specific education?

We wish we could say that becoming a creative director is as easy as getting a creative director degree. But the truth is, that there is no such thing as a creative director degree or major.

Instead, think of it this way… What did the creative directors you know major in? 

The good news is that while there isn’t a creative director degree per se, there are plenty of majors that aspiring creative directors can pursue, including:

  • Advertising/Marketing
  • Architecture 
  • Art/Art history
  • Communications
  • Creative writing
  • Fashion
  • Film/TV
  • Graphic design
  • Photography

The role largely boils down to a person with a master command of art and design, as well as someone who can communicate well with and manage others. 

In many regards, any artistic study is, in essence, a “creative director major,” because it’s laying the necessary foundation for you to become a creative lead in a particular arena. 

For example, if you want to be a creative director in the film industry, study film! If you want to be a creative director for a fashion label---you guessed it, study fashion.

You get the picture. 

A bachelor’s degree is often enough in terms of the education required in pursuing a creative director for film or another artistic outlet.

But…additional schooling could still be a smart idea.. In addition to having a strong, artistic sensibility, part of being a creative director is knowing how to run a business. And that means understanding money.

For this reason, some people build on their creative director skill set by going to business school after completing their undergraduate studies. Or, maybe they double major to get that ideal “creative director degree.” 

In some cases, how to get into creative directing means having a solid background in multiple artistic studies such as photography and art history. As a result, some aspiring creative directors will double major in two different yet complementary artistic fields.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to what that person’s central creative interest is. Because most of the time, someone who becomes a creative director didn’t necessarily know they would become a creative director at all.  They just did what they loved, and after years of experience, they naturally landed in that role. 

And speaking of experience...

What hard skills do I need?

Whether someone is going to school to learn more about marketing, film, or fashion, there are specific creative director skills that they will need to learn along the way, often referred to as hard skills.

Hard skills are quantifiable. They can be tested and accounted for. 

1. Master your artistic field

One key hard skill is that solid foundation of artistic knowledge we’ve talked about that’s presumably learned in school but honed through experience. 

This type of knowledge cannot be “winged.” Sure, there’s a learning curve to all careers, but in the instance of a creative director, other people are expecting that person to be the leader of their creative endeavors, and that means knowing their specific artistic medium inside and out. 

2. Improve your business acumen

What do creative directors do besides master the arts? 

They run businesses. 

And businesses need to make money.

How to get into creative directing demands some level of competence with accounting, finance, sales, and maybe even international business.

Business know-how may not sound as fun as talking about the Renaissance masters or French New Wave cinema – but you will need it to successfully run a business.

What soft skills do I need?

Just as important but perhaps more challenging to define, are the soft skills needed to become a creative director.

Soft skills are much more difficult to objectively determine. It’s more like people can just tell if you have them or, you know, if you don’t. 

1. Know what leadership looks like

It’s easy to act like a leader when clients keep coming to you for work and are always happy with what you give them.

But true leadership means taking responsibility and maintaining morale when you’re going through those inevitable rough patches. Those times when  clients are few and far between, or the ones you do have seem frustrated or downright unsatisfied with your results.

Some might daydream about how to get into creative directing, thinking that it’s a glamorous position where you are looked up to and revered. But make no mistake… This job is so revered precisely because it’s not easy. 

You might have to deal with difficult clients, vendors, or even employees. But as the leader in  your industry, it’s your job to not just stay the course but be able to constantly evaluate what must be done to protect the wellbeing of those around you to get the project across the finish line.

2. Communication

A creative director is very much the nexus of the company they lead or industry they work in. In any discussion about how to become a creative director, the importance of communication cannot be overlooked. Because everyone is going to be coming to you for… well… everything.

The role largely revolves around talking with people… clients, potential clients, employees, freelancers, vendors, and so on. 

Great communication goes hand in hand with great leadership.

Remember, when running a project -- be it a commercial shoot, or a new campaign, many of your collaborators --- agency producers, production companies, and others, might be looking to you for the answers when it comes to the creative. Knowing how best to communicate with them to deliver the best results directly affects your success. 

Build a portfolio

If you’re at the stage in your career where you can apply to a creative director job posting, amazing And while you might be the perfect candidate, no one is going to take your word for it without a little proof. 

Seems obvious. But you might work in the entertainment industry and are used to getting jobs off of referrals or your network. But if you’re not working day in and day out with the same crew---agency producers, production company heads, etc., you’ll need to exemplify your experience in a portfolio. For creative directors, we say portfolio rather than just a resume, because the expectations are higher- it’s a senior role. You’ll need to show samples of what you’ve done. 

If you’re not quite there yet, it’s okay. Start building a portfolio at any point in your career, in fact, preferably early on. 

Before you become a creative director, you’re likely going to be a copywriter or designer or photographer. Or, maybe you’re on a set as an art PA. Whatever the role, we all have to start somewhere.And it’s during these years when you should start compiling samples of your work. 

And if possible and relevant, include any pertinent case studies or white papers that explain how your specific contributions led to a successful client campaign. The most important components of how to build a creative director portfolio is the relevance of your work to the job at hand and how your prior experiences were successful.

Even if you’re good in a room, interview well, or have great connections in your particular industry – you still have to have proof of your success. Because no matter the industry, this position will be integral to the success of the campaign or project you’re delivering.

Knowing how to build a creative director portfolio that clearly demonstrates your skill and competence is fundamental for actually getting a job as one.

What does a creative director job description look like? (examples below!)

If you’re curious about how to get into creative directing, there’s no easier way to quickly decipher what qualifications companies are looking for than by researching job descriptions.

How to be a creative director to some extent will depend on the particulars of the company.

For instance, an international fashion house will be looking for different qualities in a creative director than a regional magazine. But on the whole, what remains the same is the need for visionary and creative leadership skills with a dash of business know-how. 

A snapshot of what you might find in a creative director job description can be found below.

Creative director's responsibilities will vary depending on industry. See original here.

It focuses on the main job requirements we’ve mentioned so far, such as leadership and communication skill sets, which makes it a job description applicable to creative director positions across multiple fields.

This creative director job description leans more heavily into the needs specific to a particular field.

In the case of this example however, the makeup and beauty space, the description is much more tailored to that industry.

Just like with any other job, it’s important that your specific expertise and experience lines up with what that company is looking for in a creative director.

That being said… You also miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so if you’re eager to join a particular company, consider throwing your name into the mix anyway! If you get to the interview stage, then you can make the argument for why you’re the best candidate for the job even if your portfolio and resume may not reflect it on paper.

What is a typical creative director salary?

And now what everyone really wants to know – exactly how much does someone make as a creative director?

You might hate us for the answer, but the truth is that it depends. 

In general, you can expect to earn anywhere from just under $90,000 to over $170,000 with a median annual salary of $126,000.

But salary does depend on a few things.

1. Location, location, location

A major city like New York or Los Angeles will generally come with higher salaries (to offset that higher cost of living!) in comparison to smaller towns. 

2. Scope of the work

This can go both ways. You might join a startup that needs you to wear multiple hats, but it’s a startup, so you might not be raking in the big bucks for a while. In contrast, a bigger, more established company might have more defined roles for each employee, as well as the resources to pay more. 

3. Experience

If you’re new to the creative director game, a company might take a chance on you with the caveat that they won’t pay you as much as a seasoned veteran. But if you actually are that seasoned veteran, odds are you will be compensated to reflect those years of experience.

Wrapping up

Becoming a creative director depends on the industry, your background in that industry, and your ability to prove you are the person who can best lead the company’s creative vision while keeping it on firm financial ground.

In most cases, it’s a career that is years or perhaps even decades in the making as you build that wealth of knowledge and experience. But with persistent, creative passion and determination, it can be a wildly fulfilling role. For more on what creative directors have to manage and balance throughout their careers, check out our next post from producer and ABID President Danny Rosenbloom on shrinking commercial budgets and putting creative back in the driver’s seat.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.

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About the Author

Anna Keizer

Anna Keizer originally hails from the Chicagoland area. After receiving her B.A. in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago, she moved to California and finished her M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University. She has also graduated from UCLA’s Writing for Television Professional Program and is currently in post-production on the short She Had It Coming, which she wrote and is executive producing.

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