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The interview process: A Creative Directors perspective

The hiring process can be impersonal with little feedback so what are Creative Director’s really thinking and looking for in an interview?

Over the years, I’ve sat across my desk and interviewed hundreds of designers and writers. This process is hard for the candidate because at the end of the process you either get the complete success of getting hired or the complete failure of being passed over without any feedback. I know this is frustrating, but it can also be a difficult process for the creative director who has to use the limited time of the interview to try to gain insights about who they are interviewing and get answers to a myriad of questions. So I thought I would shed some light on the process from a creative director’s perspective and go over the most common and frustrating mistakes I see time and time again from the creative talent I interview.

I know you can hold a pencil so tell me why you draw

After I was accepted to college I had classes with the professor who did my art school entrance portfolio review.  One day I asked him how he was able to go through all those portfolios with students at wildly different levels of experience and weed out the ones who he was going to recommend for acceptance. His answer was simple, but pretty genius.  He said that “I can teach anyone how to hold a pencil but I can’t teach them the mental process that goes into what they draw. I look for the thinking that goes into why and how they draw because that shows their real potential.” I use this same logic as the foundation for my interview process because if you are sitting in my office I have seen your work, liked it and want to look beyond the designs to hear how you think. I want to hear answers that have substance, that talk about the challenges you were solving for your client and how your solutions delivered on that challenge.  I want to see what drives you, inspires you, makes you unique and lets me know that you will do anything to be on my team because that is the standard I demand from everyone. I don’t want to hear a long-winded bullshit explanation where you try to work in every design buzz word you think I care about but in the end, you don’t say anything. I have been in advertising so whole life so I can smell bullshit from a mile off and I don’t need that on my team.

I place such a premium on this insight because it isn’t very hard to find someone who can create a great visual design but it is hard to find someone who can put thought, experience, and originality into the thinking behind that design.  So even if you have the best portfolio in the world but you can’t explain why you did what you did then there is a 98% chance I will pass on you as a member of my team.

Bring your resume and portfolio or go home

To me its obvious that if I was going to an interview I would bring my resume and portfolio with me. I would even bring multiple copies of my resume plus a hard copy and digital version of my portfolio just to be completely prepared. I have been completely astounded recently that I have had multiple candidates who were interviewing for everything from very junior to very senior positions on my team show up empty-handed. I don’t know they thought we would talk about – restaurants, the weather, or how there is no way in hell I would ever hire anyone that showed up completely unprepared?

So just in case, it isn’t obvious to everyone there are some reasons why this is such a problem for a creative director trying to run an interview. The biggest is that I am looking for people who are talented and independent thinkers I can rely on. If they can’t be prepared and if they don’t care about their brand enough to be even slightly prepared for such an important meeting then how much can I expect out of them in a day-to-day situation when the stakes are lower but I need them to be just as prepared?

Plus there is just also the reality that most creative directors face where I’ve been interviewing for up to 10 open positions at once. After a while all those resumes start to blur together and there is a pretty good chance that I don’t remember who you are because it has been a few weeks and 10,000 problems since I looked at your book for 10 minutes, saw something I liked and had the recruiter set-up the interview  This means that you need to realize that when I walk into the interview 10 minutes late because my fifth meeting in a row ran late there is a pretty good chance that I don’t remember much about you. It isn’t personal and I’m not brain-dead but I am busy so your resume and portfolio serve as a reminder to why you are here in the first place.

Do some research

If you want to work for me than I have to know that you want to be here. I will not hire someone who just wants a paycheck because the damage they do to the team through their lack of passion and investment just isn’t worth it. One of the biggest clues I look for to see how much they want the job is if the person has done any research on our company, our brands, our platforms and even how much do they know about me and the team. And I don’t just mean read the job description and spending 20 minutes breeding through our sites on the train ride to our offices. I mean do some homework so you can show up with something to say, some insights you want to share and some ideas of how you are going to make our work better. This is another way that I can see how you think, I can see how prepared you are and I can see how invested you will be in the team and our work. I demand that level of investment from everyone on the team because it is the only way we are going to be able to do great work. So if you haven’t taken the time to do this work then I’m not going to waste my time talking to you because you aren’t right for my team.

Tell the truth

Telling the truth once again seems like something that would be obvious during the interview process. However when you have seen as many portfolios as I have you quickly learn how often the work in someone’s portfolio isn’t what the client bought off on, they over inflate their role on a project or show you work that has been done by someone else. I have even had one guy show me designs that I created and tried to pass them off as his own. The problem here is that all of these problems make you skeptical and cautious of people whether you want to be or not. It is also just stupid because even in a city like NYC it is a small community and claiming someone else’s work as your own can ruin your reputation and burn bridges across the industry.

Again you have to remember that I can smell bullshit and I have done this for a long time so I know what goes into creative projects of all sizes for all kinds of clients.  This means that I can quickly tell if you are lying or over inflating your role when I hear you leaving out key details or process steps that I know had to happen if you had led the project you are describing. So just tell me the truth and if you just worked on the home page of the site then don’t tell me you the visionary behind the whole thing. There have been a lot of times when I have been willing to bet on someone who’s talent was more potential than reality because they haven’t been given the right opportunities. I was only willing to make that bet because the person was completely honest with me and I felt like I could trust them with their role on a project and they could talk to me about what they would have done if they were in charge. If you aren’t honest then it makes me question what else would lie about when you are on the team and what else would happen and I wouldn’t hear about until it was too late.

Ask some questions

One of the other things I always look for in a good interview is someone who asks me questions. If you sit there blankly the whole time and don’t have anything you want to ask then I assume that you don’t care about this job. I think that any job is a major life decision that directly affects my happiness so when I have been the person interviewed I have had a lot of questions to be sure it is going to be a good fit for both of us. It is also another way that I can see how someone thinks and that they can think in a way that will let them see problems before they happen. I really like hard questions during an interview about our process, our work or our team because it shows me you are thinking and you want to be a part of something great.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this helps you understand that during an interview a creative director is just trying to get insights into your thinking, preparation, honesty, and passion. Do whatever you can to help us see those qualities in you and understand that while our team is new to you that it is something I have spent years and thousands of hours building so I am going to take any addition to that team very seriously.

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Creative Director, Designer, Brand Builder, Speaker, Podcaster, Crazy One. As a designer, I have 20+ years experience creating the strategy, concepts, and designs for award-winning integrated global advertising campaigns, building multiple global Fortune 500 brands and creating innovative digital experiences. As a leader, I have 15+ years transforming agency and client-side teams using a mix of creativity, business strategy, process and political skill to create innovative, world-class work and cultures that change industries and companies. My clients have included American Airlines, W Hotels, Disney, Citi, ExxonMobil, Acura, Old Navy, Nationwide Insurance, Verizon, Subaru and many others. My work has received over 150 international awards, my app designs have been named as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Apps, Apple has featured my work in 9 keynotes, 4 TV commercials and more.

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