Mapping Out Your Creative Career: A Q&A with Joe Esposito
Guest Speaker

Joe Esposito

Content Director of Story at IBM

Joe Esposito, content director of story at IBM, is on a mission to win hearts and minds through emotive storytelling and engaging content. Before IBM, Joe worked as a creative director and copywriter at various NYC agencies on accounts like Chase Bank, Marriott, Mercedes-Benz and the Ad Council. He loves digging into research and strategy. He also loves to anthropomorphize storybook characters for his three girls at home with Italian and Cockney accents.

Take risks, stay hungry, and try everything: How to build a modern creative career

Creative career paths are more fluid than ever before, especially since the shift to remote work has broken down geographic constraints. In this episode of Real Creative Leadership, Adam chats with IBM creative director Joe Esposito, who shares advice on how to build the right creative career for you — including 4 tips to position yourself for a promotion.

Watch this episode to hear Joe answer questions like:

  • Has remote work changed everything for creative leadership?
  • What traits does it take to be ready for promotion?
  • If you had to redo your entire creative career, what would you do differently?
mentioned in this show:
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Adam Morgan
Executive Creative Director Adobe
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Digital Marketing and Full-Service Content Agency

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Transcript

Adam Morgan:

Thank you so much for joining us. This is Real Creative Leadership and we're so excited to have you with this episode. This is episode three on season two, and we are going to be talking about creative career paths, and we have our esteemed guest, Joe Esposito, who will be joining us here. And I'm going to pass it over to him for just a hot second to introduce himself, give a little background of who he is, where he comes from, and then we'll dig deep into this topic. So Joe, why don't you take it away and give us some context.

Joe Esposito:

Thanks Adam. Thank you so much for inviting me on the show. It's such a pleasure. So I'm a creative, I'm based out of New York City. I've been here for the past, about 20 years, from small boutique agencies to bigger creative powerhouses. I also took some time off. I did freelance, which was an amazing experience. I worked on everything, selling fast food to Mercedes-Benz to hospitality and technology. 

Joe Esposito:

So about three years ago, I had a friend that went...jumped to the brand side, and he had, he was talking about it, and I was very interested at the time, and it was for IBM. It was to launch their new content practice called IBM Originals. And what got me intrigued was, I'd always spent my career trying to sell up these big ideas through these agencies and through these holding companies and all these levels. And I thought, "You know what, what if I'm on the inside? And I can sell something up?" If I have that upper hand...What also attracted me to IBM, you would think IBM, it's a huge global company, that this content practice that they were standing up was like a scrappy startup. And it was only about 15 people at the time. So I came on board about three years ago, and it's been an amazing experience. One of our mantras is to make less matter more. And I just think, right now in our industries, we're competing for everyone's attention. So we really have...what we need to communicate to people, we need it to be something that they want to engage with.

Adam Morgan:

And I just want to dig in a little bit on this, because I went through a similar journey as you. I did 19 years of ad agency life, and then finally flipped over to a brand side and I'm here at Adobe, but I just see so much of this happening. And a long time ago, maybe in the mid 90s, late 90s, it was just like, you were either in one camp or the other, there was no jumping around. But today, I don't know if you see it as much as I do, but there are so many people who are moving from brand to agency and back and forth fluidly.

Adam Morgan:

Well, anyhow, let's dig in a little bit deeper. The topic we have for today is we're going to talk about creative career paths. If you listened to episode two, just before this, we went through all the different ways that you can take a creative career. And I think there are a lot of myths that we need to bust, and we're ready to go through and talk about because, like I said just a minute ago, there were these stories that we were told of like, "Oh, you can only do X, Y, or Z if you want a really good creative career. You can't go in-house or you have to go up the standard path."

Adam Morgan:

And, we may be referencing some of those graphs of...And we'll bring them up if we do, on at least the old career paths and then the more modern career paths. But really what I want to start out, let's just talk a little bit about these different types of paths, and maybe what I want to bring to the forefront here, Joe is, just some of your lived experience. What type of career paths did you see, or have you seen at agency versus at brands, and what are some of the differences there?

Joe Esposito:

So when I started out, I was a writer with a design background, and back then, I tried to sell myself as both. I'm this creative ninja, I can do both, but back then I was told, "Pick a lane." And so I soon paired up with an art director, and then it was that traditional path from a junior to a senior, to an ACD and onto a CD, very traditional, very linear, left to right. When I went on the brand side, a lot of my agency friends said this would be the kiss of death. I mean, your career is over. 

Joe Esposito:

But at the end of the day, we're problem solvers, we're idea generators, we're strategic thinkers. And those skills can really open a door across, to become a strategist or a producer or director or an editor, or...At IBM, we're really into design-thinking, and into coaching other people how to think creatively. Whether they're in a marketing aspect or a financial aspect. I think those skills that we learn as creatives can really open that door across the whole organization.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, I love where this is going. This is not even something we had planned to talk about, but yes. I mean, there was a recent great study by McKinsey on what a creative leader does for an organization. And it really is...Some of the main points are that they're constantly thinking of new things. They're always learning to adjust and to zig and zag and whatever it may be. And so I would say that's awesome for careers, whether you're going to jump from one to the next, to the next. If you're really great at multiple things, awesome. Picking a path or at least finding a core talent or a core skill set is totally fine. If you're going to learn, you don't want to dabble in so many things right from the start that you're just a master of nothing, right? So you want to at least find your core. But I think beyond that, you just keep building on it.

Adam Morgan:

As a creative mind you're always looking for new things and always trying new things, so again, yes, don't get locked into just thinking that you have to take a linear path. And once you're an X, you're always an X. It's fluid, and we need to stay fluid and understand that what you need to first do is look for, what do you care about? What are you looking for in personal goals? And then try and map that perfect journey to where you're trying to get to.

Joe Esposito:

What's so important is finding your own passion and that creativity, and where it can take you. And like you were saying, I think the possibilities are quite endless. I've seen so many of my coworkers go on and do amazing things, whether it was the person at the front desk who was answering the phone, who said, "Can I write a radio script?" And then broke into the role. Or a strategist that took a pay cut to be a producer. And then two years later is doing a Superbowl spot. I think it's just really, is going with your gut and just having the courage to take that next step. Just be true to yourself.

Adam Morgan:

Excellent. Although I would say, here's the cautionary note. We certainly want to say, "Be true to yourself, find the right path," but I also think there's this other discussion of, we don't want it to be so crazy and weird that it's chaotic. And I think there is partly a need in our industry to standardize a little bit more with some of a more consistent career path model. The problem that we have of it being the Wild West is that one agency versus another agency versus another brand and another brand, they all have different paths and different things. Like what constitutes a creative director versus an art director versus a designer versus all those things? And I think it's really important for us to at least establish some clear parameters. You can jump around all you want, but at least have some paths, right?

Adam Morgan:

So industry paths that we all agree on, I'm finding that's a big issue. Even internally with our company, we have an internal nomenclature of job codes of what levels and things are. And then we have complete inconsistency where someone who is a creative director at one job code versus a different job code, and in our minds it's like, "Let's just line it all up and make sure there's some consistency." So what are your thoughts on that? Have you seen inconsistencies throughout your career in terms of, from one company to another in how they're deeming, what one job is? Or it seems pretty consistent as far as what a creative director does versus an ECD versus an art director and all that?

Joe Esposito:

It seems pretty consistent. Recently, we did kind of a rebrand in some of our titles. And so while previously my role would be more of a creative director, my title is content director of story. So just trying to get away from the agency model of saying “writers” and “designers,” but so, I would be a content director of story. My art counterpart would be a content director of experience. So how do we get just beyond the traditional models? So that's great, but it also...How does that translate to other companies or agencies? So I think that's where I think having that standardized nomenclature does help and that's in building out your qualifications for the job. Or when you're hiring and what you're looking for, and those can come across, but I do agree that there needs to be some consistency across the board.

Adam Morgan:

Yeah, exactly. All right. So in light of that, certainly right now in the video, hopefully we are going to bring up for the audience, if you're watching this on video, at least a visual of what the modern career path should look like. I know it's a little tricky if you're listening to this on a podcast, but it goes through, and you can always go to realcreativeleadership.com and check out what we're talking about in terms of these career paths. But it's nice to know there is some consistency of, you've got to start somewhere, whether you're a junior designer or junior art director, junior production artist, whatever that may be, and move up to kind of a senior role. And then you have a lot of choices at that point. The old model was, you’ve just got to go right into management. That's the only way to grow your career.

Adam Morgan:

You got to be a leader and a manager. But as you found, there's some fallacies that some people, A, are either good at one skill and not another, and we're forcing them into other roles, or B, they don't want to be a manager and they just want to find a more individual path. And if you look at our new career paths, you can see there's totally an option for that. You could be an individual and be a senior writer, designer, whatever it may be, director, or you could go independent, like you had mentioned, and go freelance or do whatever you want, to building a company. And then there's always still that management path. So with that context, so hopefully people are either seeing or listening to that, I want to dig first at the beginning.

Adam Morgan:

You'll notice that there are separate paths for designers and art directors and production. And let me give you my experience, and I'd love to know what you've thought about this, Joe. Which is, the old model was, you started as a production person, then you moved to a designer and then you moved to art director and then creative director. And I have fought that because there've been so many people on my teams that are either really, really good at the technical skills and they're really good at production, or they're really, really good at conceptual skills and more of an art director, where they're coming up with TV ideas and broadcast, or the big campaign ideas. Or they're a designer, which in my mind has been traditionally someone who's really, really good at the design craft, but maybe not necessarily awesome at deep technical stuff or deep conceptual stuff.

Adam Morgan:

So to me, if we're looking at the difference between the designer and an art director, designers are more like the fine artists and they're great. They love leading and type and all those things, and they're bringing it together and it's really even tactile things that they want to feel and paper samples and stuff. And an art director is more of a high conceptual, big campaign thinker and maybe he's a decent designer, but really more of that conceptual person. At least that's how it was for me in most agencies. How about you? What's the difference for you between those different roles?

Joe Esposito:

To me, designers are expert in their craft of graphic design. Art directors in the ad world are very conceptual people. Maybe they went to a portfolio school and they learned about art direction and they took Photoshop and they took Illustrator. But a lot of that was to comp up an idea of a conceptual idea. They weren't really into the craft. I think as technology has grown and more people have access to it, polishing these ideas has become...I think the tools, especially that Adobe offers, they're up for everyone. So I feel like a lot of people now are stepping into those roles, but I don't think they've really mastered what the skill set behind it. 

Joe Esposito:

Learning Photoshop back in the day, you were dodging and burning photos. That's dark room terminology. Now, I feel like we've grown up and this new generation is growing up completely digital. They might not know how a camera works and how the aperture works, and they don't know the mechanics behind it. And they have never set type. I'm not saying you need to go back and do all those things, but you should have an understanding of why they were created, and the outcomes you can get from that. So I always tell teams to like, "Hey, put the computer down, take out the Moleskine, take out the notebook. Let's just comp something up. Let's draw it out." And then if it's a great idea, spend the hours polishing it. But don't spend hours comping up this amazing thing in Photoshop and it just lands with a big thud because the idea isn't there.

Adam Morgan:

Yeah, that's fun. Yeah, that makes me also think just about even the word “art director.” In movies, certainly it makes sense. It's creating the feeling or the mood board of what the movie is going to be about. But in marketing and advertising, it's really been an interesting, weird word. And I think there's a lot of confusion. Where people see the word “director,” and that sounds superficial. It sounds like “creative director.”

Joe Esposito:

Yeah.

Adam Morgan:

And they've been saying, "Oh, an art director is someone who is going to be on set, directing." And more and more, that role has just become the creative director to do all of that. Like, create the set, create the visual, create the whatever. And so, I almost just wonder if there's just...It's a dated term of “art director,” and we should just merge that in with designer, or have something else that's more like...Because we were talking about how designer, art director, is more of the craft and fine art design, versus an art director, who is more like the conceptual person, and an agency that works. And I'd say in my experience, when I worked in agency, I needed 75% more art directors, tons of them. And very few designers.

Adam Morgan:

But then on the brand side, it's like, "No, we have a lot of designers, and very few art directors," because you're not doing tons and tons of campaigns, right? There's just so much more to the list of content that you're creating. So, I don't know. I'm a little confused, but I wish we could get past that. Most art directors aren't director-level in a brand.

Joe Esposito:

Yeah.

Adam Morgan:

No chance. And it just creates confusion in terms of, "What level are they?" So maybe in brands, we just avoid “art director,” and it's just...You're a designer. After, a senior designer. And then if you go management, you go creative director, and you're directing things.

Joe Esposito:

I think writer and designer are where it's at. I remember I started.. And I told people, "I'm a copywriter." And they're like, "Oh." And they would come back with something like, "So, you're a lawyer? You copyright things? You trademark them?" And I was like, "No, I write concepts and work in advertising." And then for an art director, like you're saying like, "What are you really directing?" And I've always thought like, "Well, maybe you're not at the art director level. But as an art director, you are directing the photography, or the design, or the elements that are in the comp, or in the commercial. You're directing those individual pieces. But you're not a...like you said, a director of a-

Adam Morgan:

Yeah.

Joe Esposito:

...of people, or staff, or anything, so...

Adam Morgan:

Well, let's just see. I would love more comments from everyone else out there. Is this just an old vestige of something we need to fix? Should we just make creative directors the directors? And stop it with the art directors? And we're all just designers? I don't know. It's a good comment. It's a good thing that I'd love to hear from all of you out there, of what you're thinking. But it just seems like we just create more and more confusion, especially in titles, and someone feels like they need the art director title, because it feels fancier than a designer title. Whereas to me, a senior designer sometimes is...I mean, they may have more seniority, and more vision, more whatever, than just a simple art director. So, it just seems counter-intuitive to go up to a senior designer then back down to an art director, based on the old model.

Adam Morgan:

Well, let's move on to the next one. So the next topic, let's talk about...if you do choose...again, you don't always have to choose, but if you do choose to go into the management route, is that the choice for everyone? I guess the question is, can some people choose a different route? In your experience, can you still grow your career without having to become a creative director, without having to become an ACD, and just go into the individual expert path rather than the management path? Have you seen that work?

Joe Esposito:

The short answer is no, you can have a-

Adam Morgan:

Oh, yeah.

Joe Esposito:

...a great career, without ever jumping on the management track. If you ask my dad or mom, they'd have a different opinion. I will say this, I do think it's important to at least cross that path of a manager, even if it's at an ACD or a CD level. It's not that it's growing your career as much as it's going to help you grow as a person.

Adam Morgan:

That's fair.

Joe Esposito:

Managing and mentoring younger creators will help you learn invaluable skills, or you'll learn marketing, or sales and strategy skills that will be with you for a lifetime, and make you a more well-rounded creative. And I know that helped me. That said, when you look at the modern career path that you've outlined, there are so many options or paths to work as support. And I picture, basically, this heartbeat that goes up and down, as it goes across the path.

Joe Esposito:

Maybe you start off as a strategist, then you become a writer. And maybe work up to an ACD, and you go to freelance. And maybe you buy an old school bus, and travel, and work across the country, and you write a book on being a nomad creative, and you give a local TED Talk, who knows? Then you can go back and work at a social agency, and maybe go in-house, and become a CD. And then jump back to strategy, and on the brand side. I don't think it's this linear path. And I know that maybe I've jumped around too much between different professions, but I do think that you can actually have a greater career by having that heartbeat, not just a flat, linear line going across.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, that's awesome. I love that. In fact, last year, I interviewed a dozen different great leaders from a lot of huge brands, from Disney, and Google, and Oracle, and Apple, and Pixar, and just mapped out all of their career paths. And it was that heartbeat. I saw people who moved from freelance into the agency, back into brand, and so forth. And at different levels too. It's not like once you hit CD, you're a CD for golden forever. There are people who then move back into a senior role for some project or thing. Or like you said, take the bus tour around wherever place that you're interested in. But I love that. I think that's great. The illustration of this image is just...Those are just kind of common streets. Whether you follow that street or not, I think is up to you.

Adam Morgan:

But at least establishing, "Here are some paths." You're not going to necessarily jump from ACD to chief creative officer in two months. There are certainly some steps and some growth in between, that you'd need to figure out as you move along. Like you said, there's so many options out there. If you're into management, and I think it's good to try it. I learned a lot from it. Yeah.

Joe Esposito:

Yeah, yeah.

Adam Morgan:

Go for it, go down the path, give it a go for sure.

Joe Esposito:

I think as creatives in this industry, once you master these hard skills, I think there's definitely a role for being an expert, and to really focus in that area, if that's what you want to do. If you don't want to manage people, and take that track, there is tremendous value in having someone that knows their craft really well, and that can help and inspire others.

Adam Morgan:

Now, let’s move on to this next question of, has remote work changed everything for creative leadership? Or is it all still the same, and we're just in a different location? 

Joe Esposito:

I mean, we've broken down geographies, and time zones, and proven that we can manage teams, produce work, and have virtual shoots. I had one this summer. It was amazing. I think it's going to help those who are maybe in smaller markets be able to have a shot at a larger market, that are outside. Or an agency or a brand. And I personally can't wait to get back to the office. I hate the commute. I think it's like, all in, I'm two and a half hours a day. But what I do, I miss the energy, and I miss the in-person collaboration. But I have a lot of friends that right now, that unfortunately, due to the pandemic, lost their jobs, and they had been diving into freelance. All of a sudden, I feel like their horizons have opened up. It's something they wouldn't have left an agency job to pursue that. And now, they're getting different experiences. So, I think that independent path is...more and more, people are going to see that as a viable path.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, I couldn't agree more. You're right. It really has opened up the opportunities, and leveled the playing field for everyone, so that...Markets don't matter. I know in the past when it was like, "Oh, we got to hire someone." It's always just like, "Who do we have in market?" And, "Oh, I don't know if we dare go jump to this other market because of all the moving costs and all that kind of stuff." And if that's all gone...yeah, what an opportunity for not only hiring anyone in anywhere, it's like, yeah, you could jump to...whatever your dream path is, start going for it. And don't feel like you're being held back. You don't have to work for that small manufacturing company in the middle of your state, and that's because that's the only big employer in your city. You could totally move to anything you wanted.

Adam Morgan:

I think that's an amazing opportunity. If you could redo your path, what would you do? Would you change anything, or do you like where you've gone? Into all these...Because I'm sure you've learned a ton of great things from every experience you've had, right?

Joe Esposito:

I've met amazing people along the way. And there are a lot of things I wouldn't change, but the one thing I would change, I would have taken risks earlier in my career before I got married, before I had kids, and a mortgage. So when I first started out, I was working at an agency. I was a writer. I just wasn't being fulfilled with my assignments. So, I decided to go back to school at night. I took classes at Ad House in New York City at a school of visual arts, just for more creative stimulus. And in one of the classes, a teacher approached me after class, and he offered me a job. And the pay was $100 a day.

Adam Morgan:

Wow.

Joe Esposito:

And that was more than half of what I was making. And I said to him that I had to think about it. And he just looked at me, and turned around, and walked away. And it was like...It just felt like, oh, I was put on the spot. But I wonder, where would my career gone, if I would have said yes? If I would've taken that pay cut. I was single at the time. I didn't have all the responsibility. So I would say, take risks. Another thing, I look at my journey, and advice I'd give to maybe younger creatives is to...or older creatives, any creative, stay hungry, and always look for opportunities to learn more. Round out your talents. Read books. Just kind of explore. If you're in Paris, don't make a beeline for the Louvre, and to go see the Mona Lisa. Go check out the obscure museum of taxidermy and hunting. I mean, go find something different. Take a different path and just stay curious. Work for a small agency, maybe work for a big one, but I would take time to freelance. I would take time to just try to go out on your own, and see what that's like, and find the path that really suits you.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, that's fun. I'm probably the opposite. I'd be like, "If I were to redo my career, I would have taken more risks later in my career than early on." I feel like there's some good formative years. And you're right. Try it all. Try small. I tried small agency, big agency. Whatever it was, big accounts, small accounts, and freelance. It's all good stuff because it teaches you such different skills. 

Adam Morgan:

What does it take to get promoted and go to the next step? Whether you're a senior, a CD, an ECD, what are the things that people can try in terms of pushing something to move to their next career path?

Joe Esposito:

I think you and I also had a discussion earlier about this idea of going beyond the brief and to go beyond just the expected in the deliverable. Early in my career, I had a task. It was a simple banner ad. And my partner and I went back and we came up with an idea that led to a TV spot.

Joe Esposito:

So it's always pushing for more, and I would say it's also getting to understand the business side as well. I think as creatives, we're stuck with, "Oh, we just need to come up with a cool idea or do a cool spot or a cool print ad,” or something like that, and we're not realizing the business side of things or the strategy or the money side. 

Joe Esposito:

Being a creative leader is more than just bringing your creativity and your hard skills. It's having that creative vision. Someone gave me some great advice early on in my career and it's...There's the hot shops, the real creative shops, but it's not about where you work. It's who you're working for. And I think to me, it's kind of helped in my career of finding those creative leaders that I admire and how they manage, and how they stand up for good work, and to be almost as my mentor and as my North Star of where I want to take my career. So it's really putting stock in finding people that you can respect in the industry.

Joe Esposito:

I think being kind and being nice can go a long way in this industry. We don't need any jerks. We don't need any inflated egos. What I loved about going on brand side was, I got away from teams competing on every assignment. Right now, the team I work with now, we all work together. We want each other to succeed and we all build on each other. And I feel like in this industry, it can be very cutthroat. And I feel like it's a small industry. I mean, let's be nicer to each other. Let's be kind and let's be better people. I think the industry and the work will be better for it.

Adam Morgan:

Oh, those are some wise words. And I love just going back to that topic of beyond the brief. I think that right there is such a critical bit of information. So anyone who is trying to move up in their career, if you just do what you're supposed to do and do a great job at it, you're not moving up. You're just doing a good job at whatever you are, what your current position. And management is going to see you as, "Oh, great. They're doing an awesome job at their current position." So if you want to move up, you've got to go beyond the brief. You have to look for a vision. You have to look for new ideas. You have to look for ways of extending. Even within brands, it's like, "How can we do this storytelling a different way? How can we do this in a different medium? How can we do this with different partners?” Or whatever it may be.

Adam Morgan:

That is...that little something that goes off in someone's head and they just start looking for new things and aggressively climbing. Those are the signs to me that they're really trying to grow. That's what I'm going to look for. So go beyond the brief. That is a great place to end on. Make sure you do that and do it in a nice way. I love it.

Joe Esposito:

And when you're in that briefing session, ask questions, challenge the brief. You don't have to be a jerk about it, but just ask questions, poke holes. Like, that's where the learning and the sparks take place. If you are a creative that just accepts the brief and just goes off in your corner without bringing your own critical thinking, it's not going to go as far as it could if you were to just dive in and really question it and be passionate about it.

Adam Morgan:

No. That's awesome. Good advice. Well, thank you, Joe. This has been a fantastic discussion. I really appreciate you joining us on the show. We appreciate it. Now, as we're ending here, if anyone has any questions or comments, please join us on either realcreativeleadership.com and make some comments or on YouTube in the chat comments. Wherever...podcasts, wherever you're listening or watching this, we'd appreciate your involvement. We are so grateful for having Joe here today. Joe, how can people get a hold of you? Just on LinkedIn? Is that the best way to stay and follow you?

Joe Esposito:

Yeah, just hit me up on LinkedIn. Look forward to it. Thanks.

Adam Morgan:

Perfect. And as always, you can find us at realcreativeleadership.com. You can find me at adamwmorgan.com. The stokegroup.com is where you can get help from if you need to scale or get some more creative juices into your flow. They're awesome partners in making this happen. So all the different ways that you can reach us. And the big ask at the end here is just to get involved with us. We would really appreciate it. Go out there. Like. Thumbs up. Subscribe to whatever platform you're listening on or watching on. We would appreciate it. So thank you so much for listening. This has been all about career paths. And we will see you at the next episode. Thanks for joining.