Almost on a daily basis, I get asked, "what is it you do?"
It's not a real surprise. I've spent years trying to explain to my parents what it means to be an Art Director, and if they haven't figured it out yet, why would I expect that anyone else could figure it out. When I was asked to write about a day in the life of an AD, I thought it would be kinda fun…very shortly after sitting down to do the article, I realized how much of a challenge I had agreed to.
Let me start out by saying, I've been doing the AD gig for many years, at many different companies, and in many different industries - the one thing I've learned, is that no two positions are exactly alike. Just because many of us share the title of Art Director doesn't mean that our roles and day-to-day responsibilities resemble each other. So please, don't think I speak for every AD in the world….
That said, almost all of us share a few common elements - research, meetings, clients, creatives, approvals, & deadlines. These elements are the lifeblood of an AD position, and make up the bulk of our day-to-day tasks.
It should come as no surprise to anyone in the creative industry, but doing research is a significant aspect of an Art Directors job duties. Research can take on many forms depending upon the industry and specific role of the AD. For me, much of my time is spent doing research on:
- Talent - Big surprise right? I spend a lot of time reviewing portfolios of artists of many different mediums, graphic designers, fashion designers, Industrial designers, and photographers. Occasionally I'm digging into the portfolios of more specialized folks like UI/UX designers, motion graphic artists, and video editors. My research includes looking for new talent, staying aware of what is going on in the industry, and looking for new trends.
- Market - There is a lot more to AD than just working with talent. There's that whole "direction" portion of the job, and a very thorough understanding of the market trends and forces is imperative to ensuring that the AD is pointing the talent in the right direction. If I'm not tapped into my consumer base, I cannot be effective in my position - so I have to always be checking in with the market, and the consumer base that makes it up. In addition to just being aware, there is often a lot of testing that is involved. Very often we ask consumers what they want, and I actually get very different answers from when I TEST for what they want. This highlights the fact that just understanding your market is only half the battle - you also need to know the tools and resources available to help read that market.
- White Space - This is a fancy marketing term that just means understanding where there is a vacuum in your market. It could be that a need of the market isn't being met, a new technology might be used to disrupt the market and create a new need, a new trend is moving towards and underserved segment of the market, or any of a million other situations that can create a "white space" in the market. This type of research is not straight forward. It takes a lot of time and immersion into the market to be able to see the opportunities.
- Technology - This can be as simple as keeping up on the latest software, or researching new technologies to aid with productivity, manufacturing, fulfillment, research, or my favorite, technologies that are game changers and can disrupt the industry as we know it.
Meetings... that soul-sucking, time draining, and utterly non-creative event in the AD's day. I've worked at companies where it was not unusual to have 6 hours of meetings every day, and I've worked at companies where having 2 meetings in a week is grounds for a rebellion. There are times that meetings are useful, and I receive a lot of direction or useful information. There are times when a meeting is not only NOT useful, but is potentially damaging to productivity and creativity. The one thing about meetings though - try as you might, they are impossible to avoid. The trick is to learn how to run them effectively, and how to make them work for you as much as possible. For me, that has meant learning a few important skills:
- Goal setting. If I can walk into a meeting with a list of goals (especially ones that the company has deemed important) and show how I'm going to address those goals with my project, chances are much better that things will go in a productive direction.
- Know the king. If the king isn't in the room, then chances are, you're not going to get a final decision. In fact, what you'll probably get is a, "I've got to shop this to my boss". The second that happens, you've lost the ability to bring your next skill into play
- Own the show. I've seen a great idea go down in flames faster than you can guess, simply because the person pitching the project didn't have strong presentation skills. Knowing how to present, what to present, and why you need to present is the calling card for a great AD.
Too often, when I'm dealing with talent, they have the mistaken impression that I have any authority. I'm sure there are a few AD's out there in the world that have bosses that actually trust them to do their job, and bring their years of training to bear for the brand and company…but I've never had the opportunity to meet them. Instead, all the power and authority is held by folks that have zero training in the creative industry, feel they have the right and responsibility to make creative calls, and even feel justified to counter what the person they hired on matters of a creative nature. Whether we're talking about the CEO of a mega-corporation, or the owner of a mom & pop shop around the corner. Their belief that "orange" is the hot color of the year will outweigh your experience and knowledge in the industry every time…and then you get to try explain that to the talent, and still get a successful project out the door. In thirty years, I've only had a handful of clients look at me and say "I hired you for your expertise, so you use it and make my project successful!"
Yep, clients suck, but we wouldn't have a job without them. So the trick is to develop skills to try and mitigate the damage they can do to a project, build relationships with them that encourage trust, and document everything!
One of the best parts of an AD's job is working with creatives. Helping guide a project to a greater level. Finding strengths in an artist, and matching them up with a project that will harness their strengths and produce something wonderful. The skill comes into learning how to communicate with creatives such that you give them enough information to be successful, enough guidance and feedback to make meaningful decisions, and get the hell out of the way when they are on fire. If you want to be an AD because you'll have the power to make great art, then you are in for a rude awakening. A good art director isn't about making great art, they are about helping an artist dig in deep enough that they create art better than they thought they had in them. It's about removing roadblocks to creative breakthroughs. It's about letting an artist shine, and recognizing that the success of the project may have had something to do with your ability to help the artists be successful, but ultimately it is about the artist making amazing art…and you need to recognize that your ego has no place in the mix.
Approvals & Deadlines
These are two of the most difficult issues an AD has to deal with - they cause ulcers, migraines, and nightmares. They also inspire us to do some of our best work. Approvals can be the greatest challenge of any AD. If you remember above, when I talked about clients, this is the place where an AD really earns their money. There are AD's that are nothing more than secretaries - dictating the whims of the person with authority. There are also AD's that are willing to take a bullet for a project they believe in. Of course, there are a whole bunch in between those two extremes. The best AD's are the ones that understand that there are times when you need to stand your ground, and time when you need to step aside. The trick is to know when each is the proper approach. I still haven't figured it out….but I'm getting better at it. Deadlines are a mystical item. There is magic in a deadline…and great AD's know how to use the magic to their benefit. Push a deadline a day or two, and figure out how to still make your delivery date, and you might create an amazing opportunity. Pad your deadline by 2 weeks because you are working with an artist that is chronically late, and you might be seen as a hero because you deliver a project on time. Fight for a realistic deadline in the planning stages of a project, and you might be creating an opportunity for a success rather than a failure.
So, maybe this really wasn't a "day in the life of an AD", but perhaps it will afford a little insight. It might even give you the opportunity to identify ways that you can work with your AD better, and give both of you the opportunity to create something better than yourselves...Go Forth. C