How to Map Out Your Creative Career
Don’t just dream about your creative career path — plan it out.

You’re probably familiar with the typical career path for creative pros. You start off as an intern or production assistant, move on to honing your craft as a writer or designer, and then start calling the shots as a creative director. Adam Morgan’s here to challenge the notion that creative careers happen in a linear fashion — and that mastering your craft is all you need to do to progress.

In this episode of Real Creative Leadership, Adam offers a more modern take on creative career paths, and shares tools to help you plan your own creative leadership journey.

Watch this episode to learn:

  • 3 skills you need to master as a creative leader
  • How to chart a creative career path that’s right for you
  • What you can do now to prepare for your next career milestone
mentioned in this show:
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Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
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The Stoke Group
Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency

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Transcript

Adam Morgan:

Welcome to Real Creative Leadership, where you'll get real-world guidance on how to succeed as a creative leader, especially after you get a seat at the leadership table. Our hope is to create a new breed of leader, so that together we can make a bigger creative dent in business. I'm your host, Adam Morgan, executive creative director at Adobe. And this series is brought to you by The Stoke Group, a full-service digital marketing and content agency with offices in Salt Lake City, LA, San Francisco, Boston, and New York. And this is season two. We're so excited to bring you a new idea here. Last year, we just did a bunch of random topics throughout the season, but this year we have a new curriculum. Meaning, we've set up a system of learning and training that will go from topic to topic and really give you a broader, more comprehensive understanding of creative leadership.

Adam Morgan:

But to do that, we can't really go throughout the whole thing, it would take forever. So what we're going to do is we're going to follow that curriculum, but I'm just going to pick one topic per category and go through the list one at a time, and then go back and start again. So if you want to look at the whole curriculum, please go to realcreativeleadership.com, and check it out. We'll have a PDF there, where you can see the whole map of season two and beyond of all the topics we're going to cover, so that you can look forward to new episodes on specific topics that you're looking for.

Adam Morgan:

So it's early in the year, and today we're going to talk more about creative career planning. I don't know about you, but at the beginning of the year, I look at goals. I think back on the last year of how things have gone. And let's be honest, as a creative person, maybe you go through this as well, but I'm constantly questioning, “Am I making the right choice? Am I in the right place? Am I at the right company? Am I doing the right thing?” It's just that creative roller coaster of always questioning, I get it. Which is good, when coming up with big ideas, we're always questioning. But as far as careers go, it seems like a lot of us are always looking and wondering where's our path? What's coming next? How can I plan for it? What should I be doing? And this last fall at MAX, I introduced a new framework for creative careers, because frankly, the old framework was pretty dated. And there's still a lot of companies and a lot of us that are following that old framework.

Adam Morgan:

But this episode, so what I'm going to do is, that went by so fast, and we got a lot of comments from everyone at MAX and afterwards. But what I want to do is dig in a little bit deeper into this creative framework, into creative career paths, and really ask some deep questions and understand a little bit more about what you can look forward to. And more importantly, what I really want to talk on is timelines, like expectations, what you should be looking forward to and expecting. Because here's a couple of teaser questions that we want to answer in this episode. The first one is, how long should it take to become a creative director? There are so many of us in our careers and we just want to quickly jump up and be the CD and be in charge, but we don't understand the realistic timeline. So I'm going to talk a little bit about that, as well as, what are the biggest factors that it takes to get a promotion? So what is leadership looking for in you, when you're taking that next step in your creative career?

Adam Morgan:

All right, but first I want to show you this chart. So we're going to go through a little quick review, we're going to look at the chart and then I'll dig into some of the details. So I'm actually going to show you three charts. The first chart, if you look at it, is the traditional career path options. And this is what it was like for me, when I was back in the mid-nineties and having a career at an agency or in-house, of what I would come to expect. You started out as a production assistant. Then you became a designer where you were just finessing and finishing up projects. Finally, you graduated to an art director or you were the one kind of coming up with the ideas and directing the design. And from there, you went into management as associate creative director and finally creative director. And it was a very linear path, a very, very linear path.

Adam Morgan:

And then in about 2000, when I was at an agency before Adobe, I started to notice there was a new path forming, and that new path really took into consideration all the different skills that different people had. For example, there's a fundamental difference between a designer and an art director or production designer, or someone who really is actually deep into technical production, versus someone who's a conceptual art director. And the problem with the old path is, it pushed everyone down one straight path. You had to start out with production, and then move into design, and then move into art direction. Whereas we've noticed later about the turn of the year 2000, is that there really is a viable path for all those disciplines. So you could be a writer, a designer, art director, a production person, and really have a viable path from junior, to mid, to senior without having to jump back and forth.

Adam Morgan:

And why is that important? That was really important, because you didn't shove someone who was really good at technical skills into a role where they had to be a concept or come up with ideas and they weren't good at it, and vice versa. So, someone who is really good at ideas fast and quick, but maybe not a finesse designer. So that's where we came up with those new paths in 2000, where anyone could have a path up to management, and then management was the linear path. But here's where things have changed. And if you're looking now at the new career paths, modern creative career paths, they are so much more involved in creative careers, and it's not as linear at all.

Adam Morgan:

So first of all, you can come from wherever you are, agency, in house, freelance, it doesn't matter. All of these paths get into kind of what I would say, the core, a hard skill-building phase. Which is where you either started, whether you're a designer, or a writer, a UX designer, whatever it may be, you kind of start at as junior and you move to a mid and then to a senior. And you really, that's kind of your early path of learning hard skills, learning the craft. And you can pick whatever craft path you want, whether it's writing, or design, or UX, whatever. And eventually, that'll lead you to a decision. And that decision, it used to be just the linear path of I'm going to go up to a CD to ACD path, but today, we've found out that there are so many other paths.

Adam Morgan:

First of all, there's the individual expert path. And that's really, really important, because so many people don't want to become a manager. Like they're just not into that. And they don't like people management skills, but they still want to have a good career, make a lot of money, and have a viable path. And that's where there are so many more options for the individual path, where you can become an expert in your field without having to go down the management path. But there are others, too. There's still the management path there. You can still go from ACD up to CD, ECD, and beyond. And where that path has opened up new opportunities, is that it used to be that those would stop, all those opportunities would stop at CD, or ECD. or a chief creative officer.

Adam Morgan:

And now we're noticing that there are a lot of people branching off of that and using their creative skills and their creative leadership to move beyond just the creative path, into becoming CMOs, CEOs of companies, chief digital officers, whatever it may be. And really pushing companies beyond just creative, by taking creativity and taking it to the leadership table. And then finally, the third big path that I see a lot of people take is that independent path. And that independent path, it could be that you just say,
“Forget a big company. I'm going to go freelance,” or “I want to just become an author, or a speaker,” or maybe I want to still work with companies, but be independent, an independent contractor, but there are a lot of paths down that or options down that path as well.

Adam Morgan:

So those are the new career paths. Let's just talk about some of the big takeaways from what that means, why this is so important compared to what things were like back in the day, like in the mid-nineties, like I said, when I was starting my career. So the number one takeaway for many people who are starting in this career, or even who are further along, is that all creative paths can lead to a great career, right? You don't have to feel like you have to jump around and be everything to everybody. You can really see what you're good at, or what you care about, or what you're passionate about, and really find that path and follow it all the way. You don't have to feel like you have to be constrained into following a set path that someone else has taken. There are so many options.

Adam Morgan:

The second big takeaway is this, is that you don't have to go management to grow. That was the kind of truth of the old days is that if you wanted to keep going, grow your career, make more money, you had to become a manager. And I don't think that's true anymore. I mean, even at my company at Adobe, we have individual job codes that are higher than a management job code. Meaning that they can make more money and more salary, whatever it may be. It's a higher ranking job code than it is moving into ACD or CD. I mean, in a lot of tech companies, they have terms like, you can become a fellow, or you can become a senior individual “something,” and still have a very viable career and not have to worry about management, so that's a big takeaway. You don't have to go into management. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to about that, that feel like that's their only option. And they're not good at it and they don't want to do that, and that's totally fine. So don't feel like you're forced to take that path.

Adam Morgan:

Another big important takeaway from this is that there's still that independent path. I think today, people want a little more control over their careers, and the whole environment today, especially after COVID and 2000, has completely changed everything. There are so many more remote options and options where you can, whether you're going to the independent path or the individual expert path, or even a manager path, you can take more control over where you live and how you engage in what, how you're a part of a company or not. And so that's where that independent option has really opened up a lot. So there are a lot more people who are finding that they want to have a little more control, be independent, but it's more of the gig economy where you're jumping in with companies here and there as needed.

Adam Morgan:

And if you want to learn more about that, if you go back to episode 15 in Season 1, I interviewed a lot of really successful creative leaders at big companies, from leaders from Disney, to Cisco, to Google, to Apple. And I looked at their career paths and we talked through exactly what they had gone through. And I found that many, many, many of them, after they hit a certain level, many of them wanted to go back to freelance or independent something in this new gig economy. So it's a big viable option.

Adam Morgan:

And here's the last big takeaway I want to focus on, is that even though there are all these options, there's more independence, there's more remote work available. That doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get it wherever you want. So the big thing you have to look at is there are more remote options, but you have to look for the right fit, because you may not find all roles at every company. Meaning, for example, maybe there's a company where, let's take big categories, agencies versus in-house. I found that at agencies, I needed a lot more art directors on the staff in order to handle all the concepting, the big campaigns, the TV spots, all of that. Versus in-house, you need a lot more designers, more people who are just focused on digital art or digital web experiences. And there really is a difference between those two.

Adam Morgan:

Now we're going to talk more about that a little later on next episode, I'm going to have Joe Esposito from IBM. We're going to talk about the differences between an art director and a designer. And I'm sure, I'd love to hear all your comments on that as well, if you've had different experiences. But really think about, there are some companies that have some roles and others that have others, and maybe there's a company that needs a lot of production. And so a viable path, moving up a production path is really, really important. Maybe a big agency, or a retail company that does a lot of production work. And maybe there are others that don't require a lot of production work, or they just want to keep more creative directors and art directors in house and then farm out the production work to agencies. So that's an important factor.

Adam Morgan:

When you're looking at your career path, and looking at both where you're at right now, or where you want to go, or where you're looking, research those companies to find out what their model is like for their creative department, because that makes a big difference. If they have the jobs you want and you can graduate to, or let's say you're in a place and the stuff you want to do is not even available, then you have to look elsewhere or look for the companies where you can find that growth. So that's, really, really important. Look at all these career path options, but realize that you're not going to get everything at either your current company or any one particular company, and you may have to experiment or move around to find that perfect path. Now, if you're lucky and you can find all that growth, awesome. I know for most companies, you're going to find the management path to a certain extent, but not always. There may be some, where they farm that out to an agency. And so they don't really have creative directors on staff.

Adam Morgan:

So anyhow, that's really, really important. Compare the roles at different companies and make sure you find the right fit. All right, so that's some about paths. Now. I want to talk a little bit about expectations and timelines. So last fall, as part of real creative leadership, we went out and commissioned a research project, where we interviewed 300 creative leaders from around the country, and even just personal interviews with many as well. And we learned a lot, and here's some of the expectations after talking to all of them about everything from creative career paths, and how do you get promoted, and all those good things, we got some really, really good data.

Adam Morgan:

So the first one is, how long should it take to become a creative director? Let's say you're moving along that path, whether you're an art director, or a writer, UX person, whatever it is, and you want to go into that management path and you're young, and you're hungry, and you're ready for it, but what's a realistic expectation. So we surveyed, like I said, hundreds of creative leaders to ask how long it took them, how long it takes within their companies, what realistic expectations should be. And so I'm just going to tell you the data from this, just so you have that in your mind. So here it is. The average time it took to become a creative director was 14 years. 14 years. That's quite a bit. I think there are a lot of us who expect maybe I'll be a junior for a year or so, and then mid, or I'm senior after five years, and then I expect that I'm going to become a creative director. So realistically, 14 years was the average nationwide. So keep that in mind.

Adam Morgan:

And then building on top of that, let's say you're a creative director and you're like, “I want to become ECD or chief creative officer, how long does that take?” The average it took was nine more years from creative director to executive creative director. So that's 23 years. That's 23 years until you can become an ECD. That's a lot of time. Now, that's not to say that's what it's going to be for you. I don't know. I'm just saying those are the averages. So look at your career. You can tell if you're a rockstar that's just flying up to the top, or if you're just taking it nice and steady. However it is, I'm just giving you averages so that you can understand and set expectations of what it should be for you, or at least what you should expect. Either don't expect it too fast, or if it's taking too long, then you can reset expectations.

Adam Morgan:

Okay, so that's how long it takes to become a creative director. The next big question that a lot of people ask when we're looking at these career paths is, all right, what does it take for me to go from one step to the next step? And I'm going to break this up into two chunks that we got from our data from that research. The first is, let's say you're in your path of the craft phase, which is that going from junior, to mid, to senior. If you're in the craft phase, here are the three top skills that were important for you to move from one step up to the next step. And according to all these creative leaders, the number one skill that will get you promoted to that next step by a large margin, by the way, this was like a really large margin.

Adam Morgan:

And that one skill that will help you take that next step is strategic thinking. Whoa, which is interesting. It's not the craft, or how long you've been at the company, or who you know, and how many other people are there, or what your opportunities are. No, all those things were way down the list. It was strategic thinking, and that is so important. So what it takes to make, certainly it's almost like table six, you have to have the craft, figure out good design, good writing, good UX, good videography, whatever that may be. But moving up to that more senior position and getting promoted, it's creative, strategic thinking. Now there's a lot of different strategic thinking. That could be marketing strategy. It could be creative strategy. It could be finance strategy, whatever that may be. But it's really all about you thinking critically about projects, and work, and thinking of new opportunities and new ways to attack a problem.

Adam Morgan:

So strategic thinking was number one, number two was hard work. They really looked at the people who are really working hard and, what I like to call hustle, like the people who had hustle. Those who just sat back and expected it didn't get the promotion. And number three, this is also really, really interesting. The number three skill that they said people needed to get promoted was the ability to build relationships with stakeholders and clients, which is also very interesting. You would think, “Oh, I don't have to have that until I'm a creative director or beyond, in leadership.” Nope. In order to move up that chain, building relationships with clients and stakeholders was critical. And I can see it. It's because so much of the work, whether it goes well, poorly, selling all of those things really rally around that idea of having good relationships with people and being able to expose your ideas and sell them and help them understand it. So those are the things that it took to make the jump, kind of up to a senior role.

Adam Morgan:

Now, let me talk about the second half, like after you're going into management or whatever that may be. Once you're a creative leader, what were the skills that were really, really important in order to move up? And these ones are even more interesting. So the number one skill it takes, so this is important for, let's say you're already a creative director and you want to move up to ECD, or you're already an ECD, and you're just thinking what are the skills that are going to make a difference to the board of directors or the CEO where they get, they understand that there's more value coming from me as a creative leader?

Adam Morgan:

So here are the top three. Top one skill for a creative leader is the ability to create a vision for your company. That's awesome. That makes sense. The ability to go out and say, okay, where is it that we can push things creatively for this company, and how will that creativity impact the experiences that our customers have, and how will that impact the bottom line? Really understanding a vision, and not just, “Oh, I'm good at running a department, I'm good at the craft, I'm good at pumping out some videos or some good campaigns.” No, that's not it at all. It's almost like that same thing, strategic thought. Strategically, how are you going to take that department or that company and give vision so that everyone can rally behind it and know where to go?

Adam Morgan:

So that's number one. Number two, the next step was, and this is really shocking, an understanding of finance and budgets. Not even a creative skill, understanding of finance and budgets. In fact, let me tell you the third one, the third, most important for a creative leader to move up is an understanding of marketing strategy. So those are it, marketing strategy and finance, not creative skills at all, but as a creative leader, those are the things you need to understand and have a good control or skill in, in order to move up the leadership chain as like an ECD or even moving beyond. So really, really critical and really interesting understanding that data.

Adam Morgan:

So hopefully that helps, like timelines of how long it should take you to become a creative leader. And then number two, what does it take to move through the craft phase? And then through the leadership phase, what are the skills that are most important? So what does this mean to current leaders? What does this mean to you? Looking at this, let's say you're already a creative leader and how can this information help you?

Adam Morgan:

Well, first of all, understanding these career paths is very important to help your team grow. You'll have people coming to you all the time saying, “What's my next step?”, chomping at the bit. “What do I do? Where do I go?” And just having that visual and that guide and understanding all the options will really help you lead, mentor, guide, grow, help them get into the right path and find the right skillset that's perfect for them. So good leadership skills of managing and guiding and growing. Another big reason that this will help is also consistency. So clearly the fact that I'm pointing to old paths and things from the past, and here's the reality, that first path I showed you, that linear path from production artists, to designer, to art director, to creative director, that linear path, unfortunately, is still being used by so many companies and so many leaders.

Adam Morgan:

And so my big thing to creative leaders out there right now is, start using the new modern path. Don't use the old linear path, give all the options to your teams, give them to yourself, it's super important. And I didn't really feel like...we need consistency among agencies and brands like right now, just even titles are all over the place. You know, what really constitutes a good ECD versus just a regular creative director. You've got creative directors in title who aren't even really doing the role of a creative director and running teams and guiding accounts, or working with stakeholders. They're just more senior and they have that title.

Adam Morgan:

So really together as an industry, I think if we can take this grid, this path, and really proselytize it out to all these different agencies and companies and try and find some standards, I think that's a big part of creative leadership today. Help us find standards, help us establish, what are those paths? So there's more consistency, because I'm seeing so much more movement between agency and in-house brands, and all around the industry, especially with all this remote work and gig work. And we really need some consistency in titles, and in paths, because there's a big difference between being a creative director at a small little two firm company, versus a big enterprise that has 20,000 people.

Adam Morgan:

So that's step one as a creative leader, try and help make some consistency, at least with titles, at least with levels, and at least with options and paths so that people have a similar role they can jump from one company to another, and still keep growing their careers.

Adam Morgan:

All right. Number two. The next one that you can do as a creative leader right now is, train your team to be more strategic thinkers and to build relationships. If you want them to have growth, if you want them to have opportunities to be promoted, whether it's at your company or somewhere else, those are the skills we all need. Critical thinking, strategic thinking, the ability to not be a prima donna, but to establish great relationships with other people. That's what we need. So whatever you're planning this year for your team, go back and make some plans of, how can I give them some good strategic guidance and skill training? And then also, how can I help them build relationships better? How can I walk them through situations and show them, both through good examples and through skill building of how to do all that. So that's really, really important.

Adam Morgan:

And then for you, yourself, if you're a creative leader, what can you do? Look at this data that we got from this research and start saying, “Okay, on those top three things, do I have a good vision for a company? If not, I better make one. Do I understand finance really, really well? If not, I better learn it.” I don't know, take a university course somewhere, something on finance. And then number three, marketing strategy, same thing. Read books, learn, grow, do whatever you can to get a better understanding of marketing strategy and finance, so that you can actually move your career up to the next step as well.

Adam Morgan:

And then one last thing, and this is for everyone. Not just creative leaders, but even those who are starting out in their career paths, because this has come up a lot lately too, when people are asking me, “Okay, I'm ready for the next step,” and then they go out and to look for jobs and they're looking for that same role because they think, “Okay, if I'm an art director, I'm just going to go look for another art director opportunity, another company.” Or your resume reflects your current level. And here's what I'd say. Look to that next level and look for those jobs and make your resume and your portfolio reflect the next level you want, not your current level. Really important.

Adam Morgan:

So if you're going to go out there, make it look like you are already a possibility for that next step up. So that as companies are looking for you, or even your current company, they can see you and say, “Okay, that person is definitely a caliber of this level.” And show examples of that. Again, what are the things that it takes you to get promoted? You know, more strategic thinking, relationships, understanding finance, understanding marketing strategy. Express that in your portfolio. Express that in your resume, so that people can see you have those skills, and that's what you're thinking about. And instantly, they will put you in a higher category. So don't look for the same level. That's a bad mistake to just keep going to the same level and hope that there is just growth later. You have to look for that growth when you're making the move. So, keep that in mind.

Adam Morgan:

Well, I hope this was helpful. This is the end of Season 2 Episode 2. We were talking about career paths and timelines. And again, if you've missed something, you can always go back to realcreativeleadership.com, and look at the show notes. If I mentioned something, we'll also have images of these career paths. So if you want to go back and download a copy so that you can look at them and map out your career, that'll be awesome. Again, this show is always available at realcreativeleadership.com, or on YouTube. Just search for Real Creative Leadership. Or on any of your favorite podcast platforms, just look for Real Creative Leadership.

Adam Morgan:

My big ask if you enjoy this content is to help us keep it going by subscribing, sharing, giving a thumbs up, good ratings, or reviews, especially the last two. I really love some help with some good ratings and reviews, so we can get some more visibility with this show. And as always, if you want to find me, you can find me at adamwmorgan.com. And if you're looking for the Stoke group, or you need help scaling, or growing, or training, or anything you need with some good agency help, they are available at thestokegroup.com. Thanks for joining. I hope to talk with you next time and have a great time.

Adam Morgan:

Well, thank you for joining us at Real Creative Leadership. It's been a pleasure having you and we'll see you at the next episode.