Every Tuesday night, a bunch of us would change into our uniforms, make sure someone was stopping for beer, pile into our cars and drive across town. It went on like this all summer. Women and men. Interns and agency veterans. Art directors and account executives. Nobody wanted to miss a softball game. And who could blame them. After getting emotionally pummeled by your biggest client, watching your ticket to Cannes slip into oblivion, and spending yet another night with cheap beer, shitty pizza and no clue what you were going to present in the morning, a couple of hours on a weed-choked baseball diamond seemed like nirvana. It did for everyone on that softball team. And it did for me. Or so I thought.
We all know about the creative directors from hell. And hell, let me tell you, can be anywhere. There be monsters in this business. Make no mistake: They will dress you down and beat you up. They will shame you and embarrass you. They will make you want to go home and kick your dog. And when you’re done, you will swear to yourself that someday, when you’re the creative director, things are going to be different. You’ll be kind to your creatives. You’ll nurture them. You’ll have their backs in meetings. You’ll stick up for their ideas. You’ll... be their friend. And your career will be dead on arrival.
As I quickly discovered on that baseball diamond, hanging out with the peeps might make you seem more human and—for a moment—it might make you seem like you’re on the same frequency as everyone else. But you’re not. Somewhere between fantasy and reality is a barrier, and no amount of elbow rubbing is going to change that. Because the fact is: you’re the creative director. And being everybody’s buddy, as well as everybody’s boss, is a recipe for disaster.
Reason 1: The agency just lost a huge piece of business. Much as you hate to let any of your people go, there’s no getting out of it this time. The problem is: You know that Jill just found out her boyfriend is cheating on her. Milo told you his kid is struggling to get off opioids. And Sally is a really sweet kid who brought a German chocolate cake in last month because, you know, your birthday. Letting a few creatives go can be hard enough no matter how compassionate you are. But when those creatives are your friends? Agonizing.
Reason 2: True story. Two A-list creatives decide to go out on their own. With two clients already signed on, they’re going to be flat-out busy right out of the box, so they bring a young project manager with them. The three of them went to college together. It’s going to be one big happy family—until the project manager thinks he ought to have an American Express corporate card and his own parking space, just like his two buddies, er, bosses. When the people who work for you see you as a friend, they see you as an equal. They’re not.
Reason 3: Yet another true story. Agency X finds out it’s on a bunch of short lists at Cannes. But Agency X isn’t Agency Deep Pockets, so it can only send a few creatives. The question everyone asks is: How did an associate creative director who had little to do with any of the potential Lion winners make the cut? Oh, that’s right. He’s friends with the creative director. That sucking sound you hear? That’s the agency’s morale going down the toilet.
Reason 4: Then there’s that wretched no-man’s-land called “Between-A-Rock-And-A-Hard-Place.” You know, like when it’s review time and you’ve got to sit there and pass judgment on your creatives. What ought to be a clear-headed, objective evaluation of somebody’s performance over the last year can turn uncomfortably sticky when that somebody also happens to be Sam, the art director you hang out with on the weekends. Maybe your friendship doesn’t influence you in the slightest. Good for you. But what if it does? What if Sam comes out smelling like a rose when she’s really just a petunia. It’s not fair to you. And it’s not fair to Sam or her career.
Nobody wants a bully for a creative director—but nobody should want a buddy either. It might not seem like it, but one is as bad as the other. ca