Photographers, Stop Calling Yourself a Creative Director

I have noticed a huge trend of photographers calling themselves creative directors. On the social media app Clubhouse, there was a wave of creative directors. I hosted rooms to educate the photography community on what a creative director does and why calling yourself a creative director prematurely might hurt your growth. 

Why Is Everyone Suddenly a Creative Director?

I have my theory, but I'll assume there are a variety of reasons, the top one being there is no certification or licensing required to call yourself a creative director. You simply type the two words, and just like that, you are a creative director. The barrier to entry is incredibly low if any. 

The other reason is career migration. Photography is proving to be difficult for many, and they figure adding "creative director" might be an extra line item or a new avenue to explore. Factor in those two and a plethora of other reasons, and it's understandable why we have a tidal wave of creative directors.

If you were on Clubhouse during the last quarter of 2020, it was a sea of A&R executives or creative directors. Many of the people have since updated their bios, but this video is to show you what creative directors do and how you can start working towards a career as a creative director.

What Exactly Does a Creative Director Do?

On set, for a Puma spot

With the hot comment section of this website, I imagine this might divide the room, and that's fine. I believe that calling yourself a creative director prematurely will not only hurt your career but the job description in general.

Traditionally, creative directors enter the field in their 40's or 50's after years of on-set experience. Everyone will talk about that one person Beyonce plucked out of obscurity or the other 19-year-old. If Beyonce or Madonna plucked you out of a crowd, and you are the one-in-a-million example, please go ahead and stop reading now. If you fall in the 99% range, then keep reading.

It's common for a photographer to graduate to becoming a creative director for a brand or person. I'm an example of that. Record labels and startups call on me to help creatively direct their newest project because I've seen how the other side works. Even though I've been creatively guiding photo shoots for over a decade, I'm now getting into the official role of creative director. 

That means that I hire other photographers or directors. I bring on a glam team, digital artists, and oversee the general creative direction of a brand. I'm able to use my years of experience on sets with hundreds of projects and people. I'm able to utilize my experience working with a variety of budgets, art directors, actors, singers, models, makeup artists, hairstylists, DIT pros, producers, mood boards, editors, retouchers, etc.  

Calling Yourself a Creative Director Hurts You

I'm still learning, and I still have years left of learning. That's exactly why I'm a part-time creative director or on contract. If I called myself a creative director in my second year, then I'd be competing against people in their 15th year of experience. How am I possibly going to compete against that? I don't have a chance! 

When I submit to jobs as a creative director, they're expecting me to know everything that I listed. They're also expecting me to know everything and everyone in the industry. An entire brand is relying on me to help them navigate a huge project. 

Calling myself a photographer puts me up against other photographers. That's fair. Calling myself a creative director means I am the big boss on set. It means that I'm claiming enough knowledge to speak to every single person on set, to guide them, to guide my client (the brand), and to guide the overall vision for the project.

It's unfair to call yourself a creative director too early. It's unfair to the client who expects someone with vast experience to guide their project, and it's unfair to your own professional development. Give yourself the opportunity and grace to grow, to make mistakes, and to be judged fairly for it. You can and should aim at adding creative director to your career, but it's more than just a title. They contribute a lot to any brand. 

If you want more information, watch the video. It's going to empower you to keep working towards your goals while knowing what the industry asks of you. I'm the biggest fan of rule-breakers. Want to call yourself a creative director early on and start it before your 40's? Do what makes you happy, but understand how you'll be judged. This way, you can make smarter decisions and be ready for the puzzle ahead of you. I want you to win.

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7 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

To paraphrase:

I have my theory, but I'll assume there are a variety of reasons, the top one being there is no certification or licensing required to call yourself a PHOTOGRAPHER.

Let there be popcorn...

AND stop calling people 'CREATIVES' it's just annoying!

David T's picture

Depends on your legislation, in Germany you can't legally call yourself Photographer without jumping through some legal hoops and paying some legal mafia. You have to use "Photo Designer" etc.

Mike Ditz's picture

Since many people are freelance or self-employed they can call themselves whatever they want. Photographer, Creative Director and Producer are fancy job titles than can be self selected. Most don't have a office door that has their name and job title on it.

Executive producers and bank vice presidents are a dime a dozen. Creative director is a pretty cool title though :)

David T's picture

Yeah, at a bank a VP is basically what you call Project Manager in other industries.

Dan Howell's picture

Actually, in my experience few photographers become creative directors. More creative directors have become photographers. The working definition of creative director from what I have seen is that they oversee all aspects of a project from idea development, budgeting, hiring of creative specialists, execution and ultimately design and publication all keeping the ultimate client's needs and messaging on track.

What I have seen are some stylists taking on the title of creative director, but my suspicion is that this has developed from the practice of shooting editorial for overseas fashion magazines who accept submission and don't have the budget for sending in-house creatives to travel on location shoots here in the US.

Mike Ditz's picture

Great point Dan.

Kai Eiselein's picture

Every article I read seems to be aimed at commercial/“brand” photographers.
Is there anything for those of us shooting sports and/or news?
I really don’t have much interest in shooting shoes, clothing or pop stars.