I Wanna Be Creative

November 25, 2020

(Side Note: The headline of this post is obviously meant to be read to the tune of this classic banger.)

A Look Inside an Ad Agency’s Creative Department

Say ad agency, and the first image most people visualize is the creative department. “Mad Men” only added to the mystique, with images of Don Draper smoothly outlining an approach to sell a new product, surrounded by cigarette smoke and thoughtfully sipping a Scotch. There’s a reason the show didn’t focus on the accounting department.

Most of the industry-related posts we’ve made for The Abbi Agency’s website have been tutorials, providing you with guidance to the power of performance-driven public relations, smart use of digital reporting and data, how to conduct an effective digital media audits, the ins and outs of digital content, user interface, user experience and more. 

But when it came to a post about creative, we had to get, uh, more creative. We aren’t going to teach you how to use Photoshop, make a logo or design an amazing brochure. As you’ll learn below, that takes years of training and experience. Instead, we sat down with our creative team and asked them a few questions about the industry, working with clients – even their favorite color. 

And while the days of smoking and enjoying cocktails at work are mostly gone, the creative department still holds a lot of mystique, even if kombucha is the favored drink and hoodies have replaced fedoras.

Meet the Creative Team

Working with Clients

Thaison: Clients don’t really want your personal opinion. I think that’s the first thing I learned at the agency, to not be so connected to your work. That’s probably the hardest one.

Kami: I also wish clients would ask us why we did what we did. We are designers, and we’re not just thinking of the design but we’re also working within our parameters, and clients want to change or add way too much text but we have to remind them they don’t have that much room! 

Kaycee: You have to weigh the pros and cons of it. Yes, they pay us for our expertise, to make things look good, but sometimes the edits take away from the prettiness. It’s a balance.

Darius: Yeah, when you hire a designer, you’re not just hiring them to make it look pretty, you’re hiring them to critically think every in and out of your brand.

Kami: A tip for other designers or anyone going to school, Thaison brought this up, don’t fall in love with your work completely. Things are going to change, edits are going to come back and you will get irritated and sad and upset. That’s why you just don’t completely fall in love with your work. Be able to take that criticism and make a happy medium between you and the client, but just don’t fall in love with it.

Darius: Learn to take criticism.

Kaycee: I feel like a lot of clients want really high end stuff but they want it done cheap, so knowing your worth and what your time is worth is a big thing that people don’t really think of for designers. That’s a big part of it. And like Kami said, don’t fall in love with it, because they’re going to take it and make a million changes and so it’s actually, it’s sometimes really stressful. There’s a lot that goes into it that you don’t think about. 

Kami: You think it’s done and then it comes back and you’re like, fuck!

Kaycee: You have to wear a lot of hats when you’re a designer. You have to think about time as money. You have to be able to manage and track your time. You also need knowledge of other industries like printing and production and think critically about how the piece is going to be built and design it for that. 

Kami: A client might want something, but they don’t know what will be involved. Like they want an expensive business card, but they don’t understand how expensive the printing will be. They’ll say, “Hey, I want this brochure!” Cool, we could do a brochure 15 million ways, there’s an expensive brochure and there’s a cheap brochure. Same with design – we can go extensive with or it can be basic. It’s just having to meet the medium of keeping the client happy with the budget they have.

Kaycee: It’s a lot of critical thinking and problem solving for your client. 

Darius: You need to be able to create a brand so that a customer can see it and think, wow, I should care about this. Critically thinking and helping a client figure out why people should care about their brand – that’s a big one. It’s important for people to understand the public eye is everything to what they’re trying to provide.

Thaison: Going into this industry, creativity is important, but you do have to pull in that other side of your brain to learn the showmanship of it. That includes presenting work or selling work or hyping up work so clients love that work. Working with writers, that’s something I never thought I would be doing so closely. You’re really forced to understand time and money a little bit more too, down to the finest of levels, whether you’re a director or production or project manager or design, you always have to be cognizant of hours and money. Showing self value for what you do is probably one of the things I didn’t think I would have to do.

Darius: If I had to give one crucial piece of advice to new designers coming into the industry, it would be that if a client hires you, don’t think that they’re hiring you to just take a project and go. You should expect to thrive with collaboration, because that’s where the magic happens. If you don’t collaborate with the client, you’re going to provide something that will critically get 16 rounds of edits because it’s not what they were looking for in the first place.

Thaison: I think that’s the hardest thing. You’re trained as a designer that when you make something, the client gives you feedback, but there’s this ego in your brain that’s like, you have no idea what you’re talking about, please don’t do that. But if you can find a way to make that happen in your design elegantly, it usually makes it better. It’s really hard for me to say that but it usually does. And the client is really happy with it, and they say yes. It’s the holy trinity. That was the hardest thing for me to learn— not to look at feedback like “you don’t know what you’re talking about!” I think that’s the thing about creative, it’s so subjective because it’s like, oh, I like this color, whereas you’re not going to tell a PR person how to do a press release because it’s just way out of your wheelhouse. There’s a lot of that because design can come across as very surface level.

Kami: But there’s no wrong way in design.

Thaison: That’s the hard part of the job, I think.

Speaking of No Wrong Way: The Design Team’s Favorite Colors

Creative color Turquoise

Darius: Ironically, I matched with this girl on Hinge (a dating app) and the opening line she gave me was “What’s your favorite color?” I had to set my pompous designer answer aside and say “turquoise!” But skobeloff is the name of my favorite color. It’s kind of like a deep blue green.

Kami: I don’t know if I have a favorite color, I have a range of Tiffany blues, as everyone knows around my office desk, what do I always have? Tiffany blues! I even like when it goes more toward a green, to a Tiffany blue or a mint green. I’m in that blue area, I love it.

Creative Color - Teal
Creative color - Red

Kaycee: I’m sure you can tell behind me, everything is red and burgundy and that’s my favorite color, just reds and deep burgundys. But my house now, everything is turning to gray and my husband is like, now we just have this one red room.

Thaison: I’m not a color guy, I like gray, actually. It’s my favorite. 

Creative color - Grey

Darius: I feel like gray works well with most colors. I like gray too.

Thaison: I guess I would lean more toward the Kami and Darius range, in that greenish-bluish-aqua thing. Can’t get enough of that.

Kami: What’s Darius’ color called?

Darius: Skobeloff. Half of the reason why it’s my favorite color is because of the name. It sounds like it would be an ancient Nordic village or something.

Has COVID Killed The Business Card?

Kami: There’s nothing like a classic business card. I’m sure we will all say as designers, we love the paper and the design of it. But where I think it’s going is our phones, to be honest. Probably something like Snapchat where you take a QR code and it just sends you to their website. That’s what I’m guessing.

Darius: I agree with Kami. You know that American Psycho scene where they just discuss business cards and the kind of paper and stuff like that? I feel like if someone hands me a good quality, sturdy stock paper business card I’m like, oh yeah, you took time to represent your brand.

Kaycee: Yeah, especially as a designer, it’s almost a reflection of you and your work. It represents you with the design and the paper. It embodies your career, I guess.

Darius: My barber recently switched his barbershop location, and he needed to be able to give his clients something to be able to access him, to follow him to this new location. So he was like, do you want to design my business cards? I was like, hell yeah, dude! He said that he wasn’t going to be stingy, he wanted to go online and buy the highest quality cardstock there is. And this is like cardboard! I had fun with it and it turned out super well. He told me later on that every time he handed one to a client they were like, OK! I think that the feeling of a nice business card in your hand won’t change.

Thaison: I’ve seen a tetris game, a small module that you could play digital tetris on. It was white and black, like old school calculator screen on it. He was a developer guy, like a software engineer. It was so nerdy and so great.

Darius: I’ve seen one that was made out of recycled paper but it also had seeds in it, so if your business card fell in the dirt it would grow a plant. Who knows if it actually worked – I never planted it.

Creative As A Career Choice

Darius: When I started college I wanted to be a computer science engineer. That was the route I was pursuing, mainly financially, not because of desires. A year into the major I was like, oof, no. And then my parents were like, you’ve always been creative, I’m surprised you went the computer engineer route, so why don’t you focus on something that will make you happy?

Kaycee: I had a similar thing, when I started college I was going to school to be a radiology tech. I got to the point where I was about to get into the program, I had my phlebotomy license and everything, and I realized that healthcare was not for me. I passed out a few times and my mom said you’ve always been artistic, have you thought about this? I went to talk to my counselor to see what my options were and she introduced me to graphic design, and I switched the same day.

(Note: Kaycee let her license expire, and is not the TAA’s staff phlebotomist.)

Darius: In college, most of my art teachers frowned upon the graphic design career. Like, strongly. I graduated with a digital media degree, and each of my professors taught us how to critically think about how art functions in society and how to be a functioning artist. When it comes to working for an agency they always scoffed, they were like, that’s not an artist, that’s just a sellout. They would belittle it. But here I am now!

Thaison: It’s true, I run into people I went to my BFA program with and they’re like, what’re doing? And I’m like, I’m working at a marketing agency I sold my soul! They’re just like, oh man, but they also tell me that they’re struggling to get work. A lot of them went to get their MFAs, because that’s the distinguished thing, but they’re all in incredible debt and they’re like, I work for a college but I’m just not making much money. 

Kami: I always wanted to be an artist. I was like, I’m gonna go do art! And my mom was always saying, “You’re gonna starve, you should not be an artist!” and I said, I have a passion for art and I want to do it. It wasn’t until I got to high school that there was this class off campus doing printing, so I took a printing class which obviously included graphic design and the whole printing process— we did cards, we did silkscreening. It wasn’t until that class that I learned what graphic design was. I thought, this is perfect! I can design and I make money! I’ve kind of always known I wanted to be in here, in this industry.

Bryan: Ok, what music do you guys listen to? What’s the best music to work to?

Darius: It depends on the kind of work!

Kaycee: If it’s something that I have to really focus on I like to listen to songs that I don’t know the lyrics to so I’m not singing it in my head and thinking about anything other than what I’m working on because I find that really distracting.

Kami: I like house music, I don’t know what you would call that— Thaison, burning man music that’s just beats and sounds. Like deep house, I love that.

Thaison: Yeah, methodical stuff.

Darius: Yeah, if I’m doing production work that’s not so heavy on creative thinking then I’m ok listening to words in songs, like Nirvana or whatever is angry, hype up music. If I’m doing creative work, I’ve been listening to a lot of video game soundtrack music where it’s just kind of ambient melodies and stuff like that.

Bryan: What about you Thaison, what do you listen to?

Thaison: I listen to all sorts, I guess I listen to a lot of deep house, hip hop— old school hip hop I guess these youngsters would call it— what else…

Kami: Oldies throwbacks are always a good one.

Darius: RnB

Kami: Country!

Bryan: Wow, very eclectic.

Thaison: I know right. And Bryan, I don’t know if you know this, but when we all used to be together downstairs we would create playlists together, so we could create one and everyone could throw their songs on and we could be fair about listening to each other’s music.

Bryan: Do you guys have any of those playlists? I know that people are posting random ones in Slack, but if you have one of those old ones it would be good for us to include that.

Darius: I have all of them! I had to make a Spotify folder for them. My playlist list was endless and recently I finally did a deep clean of putting them in folder categories. The “Coworker Collaboration” folder has like, 50 playlists in there now.

(Though we haven’t been downstairs together in a while, here’s one we made to remember our downstairs days while deep in the midst of quarantine.)