No Stupid Questions: Advice for In-House Creative Directors from Ed Roberts

The extended deadline for the HOW In-House Design Awards is July 5. Don’t miss this opportunity to recognize your team’s work—because a boost of confidence really is in reach! All it takes is one entry.


If you’re an in-house creative director (or a soon-to-be CD), chances are you’ve had a question or two come to mind that you never got an answer to. Maybe the questions felt too personal to ask someone in the workplace. Maybe you didn’t know whom to ask. Maybe you weren’t sure at the time that you even wanted to know the answer.

Whatever the reason, HOW wants to help you get some answers now. So we asked writer, speaker and award-winning in-house creative lead Ed Roberts to answer some questions inspired by creatives who raised their hands during his (amazing!) HOW Design Live session last month.

Roberts—who’s worked on both the client and agency sides of the business for more than 20 years and is a leading expert at constructing high-performing corporate teams—also has some advice specifically for in-house designers, so be sure to share this with your team!

And if you have any other questions you’d like answered, send us a message.

advice for the in house creative director

Advice for the In House Creative Director: A Q+A with Ed Roberts

Q: I took on the role of creative director before I felt ready for it. Best advice?

A: Don’t panic! This is a common challenge on both the agency and client side of the business, but it appears to be slightly more pervasive in-house. Why? More client-side organizations are finally realizing the true value of design thinking and how solid creative strategy can positively impact their bottom line. As an individual contributor, your client collaborations and results have revealed qualities that leadership believes should be leveraged. As a result, many folks, like you, are being elevated to management positions before being properly trained.

My best advice would be to begin educating yourself. Take a deep dive into the strategic mission, vision and goals of your company. Let that inform you about the business and the direction leadership has chosen to take the organization. Then invite a well-respected department head within your company to meet you for coffee. Ask that person to share the secret to success he or she has discovered while working for the company. Ask them to share how they translate the business’ goals into performance objectives for their team. Assess their feedback and adopt those highlights that fit you best.

As you move through your journey as a leader, remember that the challenge many seasoned and newly promoted creative leaders face is less about acquiring a seat at the table, and has more to do with obtaining and maintaining the skills needed to keep that seat. The question that we each must ask is, how do we best leverage our opportunity to not only benefit our organization, but also our teams and ultimately our careers? Humbleness and continuous learning is key.

What’s the best way to manage a team that was with their previous creative director for a long time and is set in their ways?

Fire them all and start from scratch … no, I’m kidding! Honestly, you’ll need a good sense of humor because you are going to be compared (by your team and clients) to the previous creative director ad nauseam. I think the best way to begin managing an established team is finding out how each person likes to work both individually and collaboratively. Find out what they believe currently works well and what could be improved operationally within the department. Then ask each of them how you can help to enhance their careers through professional development. Take notes throughout this process and make immediate, manageable improvements based on each team member’s feedback. Give them each credit where credit is due by thanking them for their candid input and willingness to share their ideas. Repeat this process at least twice a year to gauge the professional health of the department and its contributors.

I took on the role of creative director knowing there’d be more work on the admin side—but there’s so much that I feel I’m acting as a project manager for my team. How can I minimize the amount of time I spend on admin duties?

Welcome to the club! I completely understand and connect with this feeling. The truth is you are no longer just an individual team contributor. You are the person responsible for managing both the processes and people that comprise your department. In addition, you are tasked with mentoring and encouraging creatives to produce stellar work within deadline and budget.

The buck now stops with you, and that is an awesome responsibility. But, if you are craving a little more time away from the more practical side of your managerial role, design opportunities for yourself that will feed your desire to be creative. Begin by delegating less critical project management opportunities to a teammate who has expressed interest in taking on more responsibility in leading a process. Use that time to mentor them through each project milestone.

You will find that helping to grow another person’s skills is just as satisfying creatively as producing a video or building a digital experience. Think of your skill in ideation as a tool that can be used to strengthen people.

Once you get comfortable delegating some of those project management duties, reserve several short-term projects for yourself to dive into each year to keep your creative edge sharp.

Any tip for successfully collaborating with other internal department heads?

Constant communication and being able to provide context to your team is everything. If you don’t have a person on your team that performs account management tasks, tag—you’re it. I believe the strategic power of the work produced by your team falls significantly when there is little contact with the client. Plus, this feeds the perception that you lead a group of order-takers. It’s important to establish regular face-to-face meetings to learn what your clients are trying to accomplish throughout the year.

Email exchanges are not enough. I suggest setting up recurring meetings where you discuss new assignments, the status of assigned work, and the results of projects implemented on behalf of your client through various channels. Look for opportunities to bring both departments together to brainstorm on how to solve a challenge or share work each group is focused on at the moment. This could begin to rightfully position your team as a strategic business partner.

If your client is hard to nail down, ask to be invited to their team update meetings and request that you provide a brief update on their agenda. If that doesn’t work, establish several lunch and learns throughout the year, inviting both clients and non-clients in an effort to educate them on your department, processes and project successes. Either way, any efforts to meet regularly with clients could be the sledgehammer needed to tear down the walls of a silo and improve your team’s value.

Click to continue to page 2


Your in-house design team doesn’t have to be the most experienced.
You don’t need a reputation as award-winners.
No one has to come from a traditional creative background.
So what does your team need to do? Wow us. It’s that simple.
And where does wowing us get you? Extensive coverage from HOW, a Big Ticket to HOW Design Live 2018 and a trophy to top it all off.

Enter the HOW In-House Design Awards by July 5!

COMMENT