A Question Every Creative Director Should be Asking

Creative Director sounds like a pretty schmancy title. And when you consider that Taylor Swift, Usain Bolt, Alicia Keys and I have similar business cards, it’s easy to see why people might assume it’s all glitz and catered sandwiches.

But if you’re not a CD like Justin Timberlake you may find yourself running into tight timelines, tight budgets and the competing pressure to approve, defend, revise and sell-all while having a strong point of view.

So here’s one suggestion on how to remove some of that pressure, improve the work and strengthen your team along the way. Just ask:

“Which idea do you think is best?”

That’s it. Just that one little question when they’re sharing work. Ask the team, “which idea do you think is best?” And wait for an answer. They know what feels right. They’ve gotten intimate with the brief. They’ve searched far and wide and come to you with a range of thinking. See what they say.

Ideally, they’ll have a feel for what’s getting there, even if it hasn’t gotten there yet.

Again, timelines add stress. But a moment of reflection in the safety of a creative sharing session (I hate the term “review,” and “presentation” sounds a bit overblown) can allow teams to recapture their objectivity and back it with some heart.

This question can be daunting. But answering it honestly can accomplish a lot.

First of all, it gives the illusion of time. When sharing sessions can be over-the-shoulder (not necessarily ideal), asking “which idea do you think is best” can take someone out of the rush of the moment and encourage brief but meaningful thought. Weird how that works.

And if nothing else, you can ask “which idea do you think is best” while your A.D.D. focuses back in on the task at hand.

But this little question is more than a stall tactic. It shows that you care. Because asking the question means you’re going to listen to the answer.

They may love an idea that you dismissed because it wasn’t brought to life in all its Photoshop-with-stock-images glory. But in the minds of your team, it has tremendous upside. You should hear what they’re thinking, and consider it before opening your trap.

Then, there’s the business of articulating what makes an idea great. How can we expect teams to grow and stand up in front of a client to explain an idea if we don’t let them practice in front of the mirror? Or in front of a forgiving audience like, say, a creative director?

That’s important stuff. Even if you disagree with their choice, if they can explain why they like it, you might be able to help make it work harder, better and more simply. And isn’t that the most important part of Lady Gaga’s and your job title?

Our job isn’t to hand pearls of wisdom down to our underlings to execute and then raise our fists to the sky when they just don’t get it. Our job is to foster great thinking and surprise ourselves and our clients with unexpected solutions that set them apart. And how can you do that if you don’t ask the most basic of questions?

By asking “which idea do you think is best,” you’re not asking which idea is the most out-there. Nor are you asking which one do you think the client will like the most. Or which one do you think will please me. You’re asking how it pays off the brief and how it rewards the audience.

And while you have no obligation to approve that idea or direction, at the very least, you can harness the enthusiasm for that idea and reinvest it in another. Or you can urge the team to pursue the idea at a slightly different angle.

There’s a lot to be said for having heart for an idea. Clients can feel it. And ultimately the audience will, especially when the team (along with you) is dead-set on making it come to life.

And between you, me and the open floor plan, being receptive to new thinking is contagious.

I don’t pretend to be the most lauded or ideal CD myself. I’m lucky. I’ve had creative directors who did this to great effect and little fanfare. And it stood out. It helped me separate myself from the last idea I came up with on my way into the room. And it let me know that there’s always time to make an idea better.

Even for Jessica Alba, this doesn’t cover all the responsibilities of a creative director. It’s just a question.