Job Description: Art Director

What does an art director at an advertising agency do today? What are their core skills? What qualifications are needed? Does it require natural talent, or can you be trained? We ask art directors from around the world.

Job Description: Art Director

Art Director: A Role With Vision

Because they have the word “art” in their title, one might imagine art directors to be somewhat bohemian types who spend their spare time flinging paint at canvases. In fact, an art director (AD) must have a certain rigour when it comes to applying their overall vision to the many aspects of a campaign.


The AD traditionally works in a tandem with a copywriter to conceive and create campaigns. In today’s digital world – when visuals are all-important – an AD arguably has even more influence on the effectiveness of a campaign. Their day could range from brainstorming, pitching and developing creative concepts with the team, to the hands-on work of creating materials; or at least briefing a team to do so.


So how does one become an art director? 

Clearly some kind of art or ad school education is a sound basis, but those we spoke to had varied experiences.

Marie Julie Gerbauld, now creative director at Publicis Brazil, told us: “Since I was a kid I always loved to write. My mom used to say I had ‘a writer`s name’. But when I started college, I only knew I wanted to work in advertising. To be honest, I had no idea if I was going to be a copywriter or an AD yet. After winning a student award and becoming an intern on a local agency, my passion for design and fashion kind of decided for me. Sorry, mom.”


Julien Saurin, senior art director at Rosapark in Paris, also says he discovered his ideal career “by chance”. “During my studies I had a professor who explained the different metiers of advertising, notably that of the AD, which appealed to me the most. He gave me some agency contacts and I did my first internship as a DA. The rest is history…”


Yehtin Chen, art director at Publicis Shanghai, says he set out to become an art director thanks to “childhood painting lessons” and an aesthetic interest in design and creativity.


Anne Lac, an AD and creative director at BBDO New York, says she was already art directing at elementary school, “long before I knew it was an actual profession”. She designed bookmarks to promote Reading Week, posters for school fundraisers, artwork for the city newspaper “and I couldn’t believe I actually got paid for doing something that was so much fun”.


After thinking she should do something “practical,” she ended up with an Engineering degree and got her first job designing body armour and military survival gear. This led to a second job designing user interfaces for financial websites. “Neither of which were exactly the career I’d envisioned for myself.”


A career crisis led her to Miami Ad School, which she left with an AD portfolio and “a newfound excitement about work that I had never felt before”. A decade later, she’s never looked back.


“As trite as this may be, you’ve got to do what you love. I’ve always loved the challenge of solving complex problems, and that’s what advertising is. You’re presented with a business problem from a client, and you’re responsible for coming up with a creative solution that addresses that problem. And when you come up with something smart that addresses the client ask, but that also manages to move people in some way – makes them laugh, makes them cry, makes them question their fundamental beliefs – that is just one of the most rewarding feelings ever.” 


Has digital changed the AD’s role? 

“Completely,” says Marie Julie Gerbauld. “A good art director now works with no lines, thinking how the message would work everywhere. Most of the campaigns today are born digital.”


Julien Saurin says: “The AD remains responsible for the overseeing visual approach of the idea, no matter what its form. The challenge is being able to adapt to new ways of doing things, in order to better direct the different talents who may be involved in the realization of an idea.”


Anne Lac has a similar view. “Our role is still basically the same: visual storytelling to solve business problems. It’s just the tools that we use keep changing along with the media. These days, we’re involved with design, social posts, experiential activities, in addition to advertising for traditional media. Though there’s a lot less of that. People are consuming media in all sorts of ways, and brands want to have a presence across these channels. Which means in addition to the 0:15 TV spot, we’re making a 0:06 here, pre-roll there, social posts, a Snapchat filter…We also used to have a little more time to craft the work. These days, the timelines are shorter, and we’re asked to produce a lot more ‘bits and pieces’.” 


Beyond the basic skills 

It stands to reason that you’ll need a basic design sense and a solid grasp of how to create what Anne calls “ad-like objects”: banners, print ads, mockups of social posts, airport kiosks and so on.


But, she adds, you’ll also need people skills. “I wish I had realized a little sooner in my career that so much of the success of this job depends on your ability to work well with others, especially in stressful situations. That means being able to communicate effectively.  Being resilient and able to bounce back quickly from a LOT of rejection is another essential skill.  Don’t be overly precious about ideas, because you can always come up with more. That being said, do stick to your guns when it comes to your vision – that’s art direction.”       


Yehtin Chen says: “In my opinion, the abilities to search and associate are the basic skills, as they will expand the vision that will help to build your art sense. Secondly, you need to be committed to creativity, as it will keep you passionate to explore more, study more, and sometimes to work more hours.”


Art work and hard work 

As usual, there are ways of raising your game when you’re a budding AD. Marie Julie suggests: “Pay attention to life. Look at what people do, wear, say. Oh, and don’t be afraid of playing with colours.”


Anne Lac refers once again to those important people skills. “Network like crazy, even after you’ve landed an agency job. Find advocates within your agency – walk around, talk to other teams and see what they're working on. Help out on different brands, just to see how it's done. Don’t ever think that an assignment or a client is ‘beneath you’ because every brief is a learning opportunity. Be a sponge and soak up every experience you can.”  


She also advises swotting up on your ad history. “Know what’s out there and what’s been done. By that I mean, watch classic old commercials – and  figure out what made them so great. Thumb through volumes of beautiful print ads and posters. Then get out and have all sorts of experiences outside of advertising. See a play, go to museums, listen to podcasts, read a lot of books. Spend less time on social media, and more time soaking in the real world. Inspiration can come from anywhere.”


Julien Saurin of Rosapark focuses on the practical: “Take the time to build a solid yet varied book, and meet plenty of creatives and creative directors in order to determine which agencies most correspond to what you want to do in your career.”


At Publicis Shanghai, Yehtin Chen advises: “Read and look as much as you can, and form the habits of thinking about creativity from the very beginning of your career. These will help you create richer and deeper works. Lastly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes.”


The perfect book

For students aiming to break into the industry as ADs, Anne offers invaluable advice about building a portfolio, or “book”.

“Think of it as your first chance to wow creative directors and potential employers with what you can do. So try to include a range of samples that show how your brain works. Maybe it’s a smart campaign for a hybrid car, or a beautifully art directed print ad for a laundry detergent. This is also a way to show your wildest, zaniest thinking. Just make sure it makes sense, more or less. Include stuff that shows off your unique skills. Maybe you've got an Instagram feed of artfully shot pigeons and you have a legion of followers. Or maybe you draw really interesting anime characters. Whatever skills you have, show them off in your portfolio. And make it uniquely you.”