The responsibilities and job description of an in-house Creative Director (CD), along with the in-house agency itself, are rapidly evolving. Research for our 2021 In-House Creative Industry Report shows that in-house agency workloads are growing in terms of volume and urgency. So are the types and complexity of projects they’re assigned. 

And the number of in-house agencies is growing as well. In a pre-COVID survey of client-side marketers by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), 78% of their members reported having in-house agencies, up from 42% a decade before.

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In-House Agencies’ Bigger Scope Means Skilled Creative Directors are In Demand

Today’s in-house creative agencies far surpass their old persona as the clients’ go-to for “fast and cheap” work. While still leading the pack in terms of efficiency and cost effectiveness, in-house agencies now partner with clients to provide more strategic and creative direction than ever before, covering a spectrum that includes everything from content marketing to digital media, video production to AR/VR, creative strategy, and many other capabilities. Creative Directors are also being tapped to provide input on creative projects occurring outside of the in-house agency by partnering with external agencies as consultants representing their companies.

What does it take to lead and manage all those in-house disciplines? And specialized teams? The ever-tighter deadlines? The budgetary concerns? The staffing issues? The client relationships? And, of course, the creative output? The answer: An outstanding in-house creative director. 

The In-House Creative Director Job Description

The Creative Director is the heartbeat of an in-house agency, and their spirited leadership is absolutely critical to the success of the organization. What are the responsibilities and duties of today’s in-house creative directors? While the role can vary from organization to organization, here’s a general overview of what an in-house Creative Director job description typically looks like:

In-house Creative Directors provide creative leadership including copy and design direction to the in-house agency. This position is responsible for connecting the creative approach to the business strategy. Working with creative teams, the creative director guides the concept creation and sets the creative direction. The creative director is responsible for supporting his or her peers in the account services and operations teams in managing senior client relationships, creating workflow efficiencies, managing budgets, developing creative guidelines and providing full-service support to clients. The creative director must be able to convincingly present creative concepts to all parties. This person must exhibit outstanding creative judgment and guide the creative services team in achieving the highest possible standards appropriate for all materials regardless of medium through hands-on coaching and mentoring. The creative director obtains a working knowledge of clients’ business challenges and leads innovative and conceptual solutions to address those challenges, getting personally involved on high profile and complex creative challenges.

What’s Involved In Leading An In-House Creative Team?

At times, leading a creative team can feel like a cross between a rugby scrum and herding kittens. Excellent leadership skills are essential for in-house Creative Directors. The CD must stay very involved in moving projects forward and wrangling people to keep them on track and on schedule. But it’s important to strike a balance between keeping the work on point and making the team feel creatively challenged and growing, career-wise. 

Seeing people thrive on the guidance and opportunity they’ve been given is extremely rewarding. That’s why the best Creative Directors hire very talented people and then let them take smart risks and do great work. 

Throughout every assignment, every project, every briefing and review, effective communication is key. CDs should have the ability to clearly explain the “why” behind the work, and be willing to objectively assess and improve their team’s output. 

What Experience, Education and Personal Traits Should An In-House Creative Director Have? 

Creative Directors come from all backgrounds, with degrees in art, graphic design, marketing, communications, film or journalism. Most in-house work involves image- or graphics-based work, but CDs need a solid understanding of design and copy principles and best practices. 

That being said, education alone can’t outweigh the value of creativity, practical experience, leadership acumen and a diverse skill set. Below are some of the other equally important soft skills and personal attributes of a successful creative director. 

  • Creative spark
  • Experience working in the field for several years 
  • Knowledge and appreciation of what looks good and reads well
  • Intimate grasp of design, copy, and web best practice guidelines 
  • Strong understanding of brand development and multichannel marketing concepts
  • Steady focus on getting the work done, on time and looking great
  • Being an energizing creative who’s also talented at managing
  • Ability to stay unflappable when pressures climb
  • Team mentality—it’s we, not me 
  • Excellent active listening skills
  • Outstanding communication abilities
  • Ability to comfortably navigate troubled waters between the clients and staff
  • Fun attitude and sense of humor—you can’t take the job too seriously

One habit an in-house Creative Director should not have is a reluctance to share recognition; a big head and ego can be a big showstopper. Also not needed is a refusal to be flexible—it can’t always be your way.

How Has The Role of In-House Creative Director Changed Over The Last Five Years? 

In the past, in-house agencies bore the perception that they weren’t strategic enough, didn’t “deliver the goods” as well as an external agency, and couldn’t come up with the big ideas. 

Those notions have been put to rest. In-house creative agencies have come into their own, and continue to adapt and change in remarkable ways. As deadlines have become shorter and expectations higher, clients are more open to partnering with in-house agencies. 

As a result, the role of the Creative Director has grown dramatically in terms of respect, responsibility and corporate stature. And not just within the company. Throughout the creative industry, in-house creative director positions are now seen as career destinations—offering opportunities to flex one’s ingenuity and transform powerful ideas into standout communications. 

Their enthusiasm is contagious, luring other talent in house and into seats on the creative teams. Under the creative director’s leadership, in-house agencies are expanding their capabilities to produce work that rivals the output of external agencies. All it takes is one visit to an industry awards show to see that the creative coming out of in-house agencies has improved by leaps and bounds.

All under the capable leadership of today’s in-house Creative Director. 

How Do In-House Creative Directors Interact With Clients? 

The ways creative directors interface and collaborate with clients vary by project and by company. However, for Tier 1 projects, larger initiatives and work for new business opportunities, Creative Directors always participate in the creative process—with both clients and the team—generally from concept to completion. 

Strong communications skills are critical and Creative Directors and their team members may share comments and track progress with the client via project management tools like Workfront.  

Most of the time, if the work is below Tier 3, little if any CD involvement is needed, as others on the team would assume the oversight responsibility. 

When interacting with clients, it’s a good idea for in-house Creative Directors to use a less formal approach than an external vendor would. The client should feel that the in-house connection is a more collaborative partnership of peers versus a traditional client-agency relationship.

In terms of presenting work, it’s not sustainable to have the in-house Creative Director lead every meeting with clients. Instead, the CD can use these occasions as opportunities to coach team members on their presentation skills. Having team members present their own work, and doing that well, makes them more invested in their projects and leads to better quality.

What Are The Biggest Challenges Of In-House Creative Directors? 

With work volumes climbing and deadlines getting tighter, insufficient staffing can be a real dilemma for Creative Directors trying to keep all of their team’s projects on track. Resourcing is especially difficult now due to a shortage of available talent. And projects can’t be delayed for weeks and months for talent to be identified, hired and onboarded.  

To manage the work as effectively as possible, CDs need to draw from a ready reservoir of qualified job candidates with the right skills for the right jobs—such as the network of pre-screened digital, creative, marketing and proposal development talent maintained by Cella. Being able to rely on a constant supply of top resources is a pivotal aspect of doing exceptional work, efficiently.

Do In-House Creative Directors Have Responsibilities Not Directly Related To Creative Development? 

Definitely. Running a creative studio is not all fun and art. There are time sheets to do (yes, even by CDs). Cost estimates to develop. Working with project managers to determine pricing for work outside of the retainer. Projecting schedule crunches and calling in freelancers. 

There are also opportunities for CDs to elevate their positioning in their companies by supporting clients as a liaison in their partnerships with external agencies and other creative services vendors or supporting greater corporate strategic initiatives.

These are all part of the business mechanics that keep productivity and profits flowing.

How Do In-House Creative Directors Keep Their Teams Inspired? 

Motivating creative team members to give their best is a hot topic, judging by the many how-to articles, books, blogs and videos produced each year on the subject. Remember that every project is an opportunity to do something amazing, but not every project is amazing. A sell sheet is not the same as an award-winning portfolio piece, but both have value and team members should be recognized for bringing it all to life. It’s a CD’s job to keep their team inspired and reminded of all the remarkable work they’re producing—and its importance to the company’s bottom line and overall objectives. 

People want to work in an environment where employees are learning, growing and thriving. Keeping team members enthusiastic about their career is vitally important to Creative Directors. In fact, one of the biggest frustrations many CDs have is the lack of time they have to do mentoring. 

This is where providing team members opportunities to attend classes and workshops comes into play. Even posting articles and hosting internal get-togethers (virtual or live) can be helpful. 
Events as small as brief lunch-and-learn trainings can give talent exposure to other internal projects they may not have seen. Acknowledging teams for the good work they did last week and are doing now, can be very motivating and compelling. 

How Cella Can Help You

You may be an employer in need of fresh creative direction to lead your in-house agency into an exciting evolution. Or you might be just beginning to build an in-house creative operation. Or you could be a gifted creative professional who’s ready to turn your leadership aspirations into reality. Whatever your circumstance, Cella can support your success through professional development, resources, consultation, managed services and more. Together, we can put passion to work.

Searching for a standout in-house Creative Director to be embedded within your team? Learn more about Cella’s Managed In-House Agencies service now!

Special thanks for their insights in producing this blog post to Cella in-house agency experts Donna Ambriano, Creative Director MCS, Merck, and Steven Reepmeyer, Creative Director, Creative Studio at Fresenius Medical Care North America.