“Be critical, try to look for facts and buy a good office chair”: three art directors share advice

19 September 2016

In July, we asked three art directors how they arrived in their role, and what it takes to lead a creative team. Now, in association with fashion talent company Mastered, It’s Nice That explores the line between creativity and commercial success.

This summer, Mastered has been busy running Collaboration: Mastered, a free short course for image-makers who want to learn how to collaborate better. So far, nearly 30,000 people have participated in Collaboration: Mastered, and the project has resulted in over 4,500 pieces of work being published under the Instagram hashtag #cmxid.

Mastered is now set to launch the next stage of the course, this time in collaboration with Diageo-owned iconic Scottish whisky company Johnnie Walker. Having tested their collaboration skills, teams are now invited to apply what they’ve learnt during the course to a live commercial brief set by Johnnie Walker.

Leila Fataar, head of culture and entertainment at Diageo Europe tells us: “We are looking forward to seeing our brand reimagined by this new breed of creatives. A commercial brief today is much more than just static images, it’s about originality and experimentation in print, social and thumb-stopping digital content, but in a way that respects and reappraises our brand.”

But what does a successful commercial project look like, and how might it differ from a purely creative project? It’s Nice That quizzed three art directors with backgrounds ranging from advertising to graphic design to fashion about finding the elusive balance between creativity and commercial success.

First up is Alex Holder, ex-creative director at Mother turned executive creative director and partner at Anomaly. We also spoke to Patrick Waugh, currently design director at Wonderland magazine, head of brand creative and content at Topshop, runs his own creative studio BOYO and continues to work with clients such as Dior, Jonathan Saunders, Missoni, Nike and Fashion East. Finally, we asked Tereza Ruller, who, with her husband Vit, co-founded Amsterdam graphic design studio The Rodina. Their client list includes MTV, New York’s Tunica Gallery and Red Bull Music Academy.

Here’s what we learnt.

How to unpack a brief

A new brief can seem overwhelming, so Tereza and Vit have a ritual which helps them start the creative process: “Keep calm, read it carefully and check the client. Then we go to our favourite place for a cup of coffee! Walking there gives us space to think and discuss our first ideas. Coffee time is good for quick sketches.” For Alex, the most important element of starting a new brief is to not take work too seriously. “I try and listen to my gut about which bits I’m excited about. I also assess how much fun we can have. I’m a big believer that if it’s fun to make, build, shoot or write then chances are it will be fun to see, watch or experience.”


The Rodina: Circulation, poster for Glossary of the Media Landscape


The Rodina: Creepy Teepee 2016, festival teaser still


The Rodina: The Game is Rotten, Ventolin & RSS Boys album cover

On the differences between a commercial and creative project

“Basically there are no differences, we take all briefs seriously,” Tereza tells us. “When we decide to do commercial jobs, then we approach them personally, too.” However, as Alex points out: “With personal projects, there are no briefs, they are generally the ideas that have stuck in your head for long enough… But with commercial stuff there’s not just a brief, but a time frame, a budget and, the best bit, someone to make it all happen!”

For Patrick, the main point of difference is in communication: “A commercial brief often involves many rounds of conversation and sign off from the client. A personal project is just that: I work on my own and ultimately only have to answer to myself – I’m the only one who needs to feel happy about what I put out.”


Patrick Waugh: Wonderland


Patrick Waugh: BOYO Studio with The XX


Patrick Waugh: Wonderland X Sovereign

Commercial work can have its downsides

Sadly, no job is without its difficulties and art direction is no different. “I hate it when we’re spending time and energy producing things that no one will care about,” Alex admits. “A piece of backstage content to go on an Instagram feed that has no followers for instance.

Balance is key

“I am a huge believer in balance,” Patrick explains. “Sometimes I think about my brain in two halves: one side is commercial and the other is creative. I honestly love both equally, but if I ignore one side of my brain for too long it gets lazy, which is why it’s important to me to always have a even balance of commercial and personal projects moving at the same time.”

Working with clients can allow you to reach your creative potential

“I’m about to shoot something with 1000 extras,” Alex tells us. “I couldn’t make that happen on a personal project! I’ve stood in front of a 12-foot high sculpture made out of Henry Hoovers on a Brazilian beach. We once recreated the 1960 World Fair in Kiev, and I’ve got a picture of me with an Obama impersonator in just his underpants in The West Wing’s Oval Office set. Commercial projects allow you to work with awesome people in ridiculous places.”


Alex Holder: Make Them Pay


Alex Holder: Mills & Boon


Alex Holder: Hand Jobs

A final piece of advice

Patrick: “My advice for young art directors is always to take the time to listen to the client, and ultimately making sure the client is happy. If you are successful, the likelihood of being booked again with the client is much higher.”

Alex: “If you see any commercial stuff you like, get in touch with the people making it. Chances are, if you like their stuff they’ll probably appreciate the stuff you’re doing or trying to do.”

Tereza: “Be critical, try to look for facts, and buy a good office chair.”

Collaboration: Mastered is a free online short course by Mastered, the talent company for creatives in fashion. Featuring Nick Knight, Fabien Baron, and a host of other expert collaborators helping you create stunning visual communications. Follow the work using the hashtag #JWBlendersBatch and enrol in this online course for free by following the link below.

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