The Creative Department of an Advertising Agency
What Makes Up a Creative Department, and Who Are the Key Players?
Although every department is essential in an advertising agency, the creative department is the one that defines it. If an advertising agency has a product, it is creative work. And that is done by the talented people who work in the creative department.
Everything from print ads and direct mail, to broadcast ads, websites, social media, and guerrilla campaigns are conceived here. Without the creative department, there is no agency. In fact, many people consider the creative department to be the engine of the machine, although, without the other departments to support it, there would be no work anyway.
Although it varies a little from agency to agency, the creative department is generally made up of similar roles who perform similar duties.
If the creative buck stops with anyone, it's the creative directors (CD). It is their job to ensure that the work the teams are doing is on brief and of a certain quality. Creative directors also decide which teams will work on which projects, the time needed to solve it, and will often be there to present the work to the client, alongside the team that devised the campaign.
When the occasion arises, CDs may have to help with a problem, or even solve it if no other creative person can. It's for this reason that the CD is often called the "last line of defense" in the creative department.
With a background as a copywriter or an art director, and sometimes a designer or account executive, the creative director steers the work, and if successful, is instrumental in making the agency a financial and critical success. Creative directors like David Abbott, Bill Bernbach, Lee Clow, and Alex Bogusky shaped their agencies in this way.
Some agencies have several levels of creative director, starting with the associate creative director, creative director, senior creative director, and finally, executive creative director.
There are many levels of copywriter in an ad agency, depending on its size, client base, and the types of projects in which it specializes. For example, an agency that focuses on direct marketing and web content will have more writers on staff than an agency focused on packaging and point of sale.
Copywriters usually work in conjunction with art directors or designers, a workflow devised by Bill Bernbach of Doyle Dane Bernbach in the late 1950s. That model is becoming less popular these days, as agencies staff up or down with freelancers based on workload.
At the low end of the rung is the junior copywriter. After a year or so, that position changes to copywriter, then senior copywriter, and then associate creative director. Junior writers work on the low-level projects, and are coached by more senior staff until they find their footing.
Copywriters work on anything from the smallest online ads and banners to full-blown integrated campaigns. And they are not just the creatives who come up with the words—copywriters are usually strategic, creative thinkers, proposing as many visual ideas as art directors and designers.
Just like copywriters, there are art director levels within agencies that range from junior to senior and finally to the art director role. An art director works alongside copywriters and designers to craft a campaign, and is as much of a creative thinker as the writer. Although art directors have the word "art" in the title, drawing skills are not required. This is a job of creative problem solving —execution can be handled by other people.
When the art director takes on a project, he or she will work hand-in-hand with the creative director to establish the look and feel of the campaign. Most art directors have excellent computer and design skills, but that is not always necessary. If the agency has a team of top designers, art directors can direct them to implement their vision.
There are many types of designers, including those proficient in graphic design, web design, and even product design. However, most agencies have graphic designers on staff to assist the art directors and copywriters with campaign materials, and also to work on jobs that require pure design without the need for a concept team.
Designers are valued members of the team, as they can take ideas to the next level and give the finished work a polish that the creative team could not add. In smaller agencies, designers may not be on staff, but are hired as freelancers as required, or will work at a design studio whose services are requested from time to time.
Working alongside the designers and art directors are the web developers. With so much emphasis being placed on digital, it is a role that has become invaluable to most agencies. Some digital agencies employ a whole team of developers, while others have just a couple of staff to assist on digital portions of the campaign.
Web developers' job is to help design the online experience, code it, modify it, and sometimes maintain it. They should have excellent user experience (UX) skills, and be proficient in clear navigation and user-friendly platforms.
Production artists have the sometimes thankless task of preparing campaigns for print. This job includes setting the files up for the printing press, creating versions of one ad for multiple publications and media, and also creating updates to existing campaigns.
Although it's not a job that requires a lot of critical thinking, it does require great attention to detail and a studious disposition.
Some agencies, especially those that do a lot of TV and outdoor advertising, have a sketch artist or "wrister" on staff. This is someone who can quickly and skillfully sketch storyboards for TV shoots, or for image campaigns.
In the past, sketch artists worked with pencils and markers, but these days it's just as quick, and easier in many respects, to use a tablet, as digital sketches can be altered and colorized many different times based on client feedback.