Many graphic designers and ad copywriters have great expectations for their creative careers: To produce award-winning creative for their in-house advertising department or for their agency's most prestigious clients.
But other creatives have another ambition: To rise into advertising management. They may be driven by intellectual curiosity, a desire to lead, or just the potential to earn a higher salary. Whatever their motivations, advertising creatives who aspire to management face the steep challenges of moving into a starkly different professional discipline, even though the goal is still to create effective advertising campaigns.
"Some of the best creative talent I've ever witnessed made some of the worst managers in existence," says Larry Woodard, CEO of Vigilante Advertising in New York City. Why? While designers and writers are expert at developing their own vision, those in management must mediate between creatives and clients, justify ad spending with hard numbers, manage people and collaborate with other managers.
The quantitative skills don't always come easily to creative types. "Advertising management requires a very good understanding of the mechanics of consumer purchasing and the mathematics of using advertising dollars to generate sales and profit," says David Hennessey, a professor of marketing at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Start with a Company That Will Help You Grow
The first thing designers and writers need to know is that they'll never get into management if their companies want to keep creative in its own enclave.
Justo Nunez, owner of Leapfrog Marketing in Greensboro, NC, has blunt advice for creatives who are looking for a new employer: "Ask whether you'll be stuffed in a back room. At our firm, we include the creative people in meetings with clients, because we want to expose creatives to client thinking."
So when checking out a prospective employer, test attitudes toward creatives' involvement with clients and the folks in allied disciplines whose jobs you might eventually seek.
"Creatives are a little bit that club in the corner that doesn't have to talk to anybody," says Kevin Mann, an adjunct professor of advertising at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. "That can be destructive in the long run. If your aim is to get out there, you've got to talk to everyone."
So once you're in the right work environment, it's time to start learning on the job, whether the subject is account services, market research, advertising metrics, or media planning and buying.
Fill in Gaps with Training or Education
Although you can pick up a lot of know-how from colleagues, you may need professional training if you want to become a fully qualified advertising manager. "People who have a vision of moving up will often say, ‘I better go back to school and get an MBA,' or just take a number of courses, even at a community college," says Hennessey.
These days it's possible for creatives to obtain additional education without disrupting their careers. "The steep learning curve is in some ways getting easier, because learning is online," says Nunez. "The online material is getting better and better." Nunez recommends programs like Second Wind, which caters to advertising agency professionals.
Still, some qualifications for management, especially interpersonal skills, may depend more on temperament than formal education. "The biggest problem with beginning creative managers is that when they don't like what a creative produces, they don't know how to communicate how to make the work better," says Woodard.
Make a Reasonable Stretch
Once you've done the groundwork, you need to choose a realistic goal for that first position in management. For many, that means moving over to the account side of the business. "In our company, they would go from creative to client services," says Nunez.
For creatives, this may mean a change in mind-set from pitching their own ideas to mediating. "Account executives translate between the creatives and the client," says Mann, who is also creative director at Camp Design, a small ad firm.
In terms of specific positions, you might start as assistant account manager or account manager at an agency, says Hennessey. On the client side, working in a corporate marketing department, a former creative might be put in charge of media buying or advertising management for one product before being promoted to account manager or product manager.