The Creative Department of an Advertising Agency

What Makes Up a Creative Department, and Who Are The Key Players?

Creative Department
Creative Department. Getty Images

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 (and often live) in the creative department.

Everything from print ads and direct mail, to broadcast ads, websites 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.

Who Works In the Creative Department?

Although it varies a little from agency to agency, the creative department is generally made up of the same bunch of characters. Here are the key roles:
 

Creative Director(s)

If the creative buck stops with anyone, it's the creative director (CD). It is his or her job to ensure that the work the teams are doing is on brief and of a certain quality. The creative director also decides which teams will work on which projects, the time they need to solve it, and will often be there to present the work to the client, alongside the team who devised the campaign.

When the occasion arises, the CD 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.

Originally a copywriter or an art director (and sometimes a designer or account executive) the creative director will steer the work and, if successful, be instrumental in making the agency a financial and critical success. Creative directors like David Abbott, Bill Bernbach, Lee Clow and most recently, Alex Bogusky, shaped the agencies in this way.

Some agencies will have several levels of creative director, starting with the associate creative director, creative director, senior creative director, and finally, executive creative director. 
 

Copywriters

There are many levels of copywriter in an ad agency, depending on its size, client base, and the kinds of projects it works on. For example, an agency that focuses on direct marketing and web content will have more writers on staff than an agency that is focused on packaging and point of sale. The copywriter will usually work in conjunction with an art director or designer, something that was devised by Bill Bernbach of DDB back in the late 1950s. Sadly, 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/copy. Junior writers will work on the low-level projects, and will have to be 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 people who come up with the words.

Copywriters are usually very strategic, creative thinkers, coming up with as many visual ideas as art directors and designers. 
 

Art Directors

Just like copywriters, there are art director levels within agencies, ranging from junior, to senior, and finally the ACD/AD role. An art director works alongside the copywriter and designer to craft a campaign, and is as much of a creative thinker as the writer. It should be noted though that although an art director has 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. These days, most art directors have excellent Mac skills, but again, that is not always necessary.

If the agency has a team of top designers, the art director can direct them to create his or her vision. 


Designers
There are many types of designers, including those proficient in graphic design, web design, and even product design. However, most agencies will 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 very valued, 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 will be hired as freelancers as required, or will work at a design studio whose services are requested from time to time.
 

Web Developers

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 the agency over the last decade. Some digital agencies will have a whole team of developers, while others will have just a couple of staff to assist on the digital portions of the campaign. It is the web developers job to help design the online experience, code it, modify it, and sometimes maintain it. They should have excellent UX (user experience) skills, and be proficient in clear navigation and user-friendly platforms. 


Production Artists
The production artists have the (often) thankless task of taking campaigns and preparing them for print. This will include setting the files up for the printing press, creating versions of one ad for multiple publications, and also creating updates to existing campaigns. Although it's not a job that requires a lot of critical thinking, it does require a great attention to detail and a studious attitude.

 

Sketch/Storyboard Artists

Some agencies, especially those that do a lot of TV and outdoor advertising, will have a sketch artist or "wrister" on staff. This is someone that can quickly and skillfully sketch storyboards for TV shoots, or for image campaigns. In the past, the sketch artist worked with pencils and markers, but these days it's just as quick, and easier in many respects, to use something like a Wacom tablet. In that way, the digital sketches can be altered and colorized many different times, based on the feedback of the client.