Interview with Cristina Creager, Creative Director & Commercial Artist

Interview with Cristina Creager, Creative Director & Commercial Artist

Professional & Academic Perspectives of Commercial Art

Creative director for a $30 Million ad agency, The Campbell Group, Cristina's marketing skills have been tested by McDonald's, Southwestern Bell, National Geographic, the City of Baltimore, and Inter-Continental Hotels.

Cristina Creager grew up in a family of global nomads. As the daughter of a State Department official, Cristina's world view was shaped by her experiences in Nigeria, Brazil, Guatemala, Spain and the United States. Cristina's international experience has given her a natural inclination to see marketing problems from a broader perspective and is thus better able to suggest innovative solutions.

She is a recipient of multiple national and international awards for marketing effectiveness and creativity, including The One Show, The London International Awards, and The Addy's, to mention a few.

Cristina & The Campbell Group

At what age did you begin to consider a career in art and advertising?

My father is a fine artist, a painter to be exact. I grew up being dragged to museums and exposed to art. I wasn't sure I wanted to be a graphic artist until I entered college. I wasn't sure what the difference between a graphic artist and an art director was until I started working in an advertising agency. Today, when I interview people right out of school, I find many people still don't know the difference.

How did your career unfold?

I started in a small mom and pop shop, typesetting, laying out and creating ads (back in the days when computers didn't exist). I took a job at Needham Harper Steers as a graphic artist and was quickly promoted to art director. There, I teamed up with a very talented writer and soon we were winning awards. I was offered a job overseas, at Ogilvy in Venezuela and decided to take it. Two years later I was back in the states looking for the next opportunity. The opportunity presented itself as The Campbell Group in Baltimore needed a creative director. Their creative product was not competitive on a national level, and they needed someone to take it to the next level. Three years later, I purchased the company with two other partners.

How did you discover you had a creative talent for art and advertising?

I don't think there is a moment that you say to yourself, wow, I'm talented. You will know by the feedback you get on your work - if those you respect admire it, if the consumer connects with it. I think it's easier to find out that you are not talented.

What has been your keys to success?

As cliche as it sounds: hard work, and lack of fear. I meet many young graduates today, who feel entitled. They feel they've already paid their dues by going through school and now it's time to collect a pay check. But those we've hired who have succeeded have one strong quality in common aside from talent - a good work ethic.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

I can't say that I had any. I never had a mentor. In a sense those people who I studied most when I started out were the advertising giants of the 60s and 70s - Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy etc.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

The challenge. This is a business of peaks and valleys, there are times when you've created a campaign that has succeeded beyond your expectations and you are walking on cloud nine. Then, there are times when something you created was killed because of some irrational reason (and you've had a few of these in a row) - you feel like throwing in the towel. What I also enjoy is that you learn a little of everything because in advertising you work on so many diverse products.

Tell us about your business. What do you like most, least?

I assume you mean the company, not the advertising business. I always tell people, if you are in this business to make money then I think there are easier ways. You have to have a passion for it. What makes our company different from many advertising agencies is our culture and philosophy. We believe in advertising that speaks to the consumer not the client, because in the end, the client isn't buying the product.

What are the things your company does best?

We are a creative agency. Every department is challenged to be creative. We choose our clients carefully, making sure they share our culture. This has resulted in long and fruitful relationships.

The Actual Work

What do creative directors do?

Creative directors are like the conductors in an orchestra. We unify, support, advise, and strategize. We rarely create the work, but we help mold it and shape it.

What are some common myths about creative directors?

That this is a fun and glamorous business where we get to go on these great TV shoots in some exotic location for a client like Coke who has bottomless pockets. The truth is that only happens to 0.1% of the advertising market.

What advice can you give regarding creating & maintaining relationships with large corporate clients?

The most important thing I've learned over the years is to choose your battles. This is a business of opinions and tastes, so if a client objects to your advertising, find out why and then decide how it impacts the overall concept and strategy. If it's a color change or a larger logo, let it go. If it fundamentally changes the concept, mount a logical - not emotional - battle. The best clients are the ones who trust your opinion; they may not always agree, but at least you can have a debate. If you have a client that simply sees you as a vendor, the relationship is doomed from the start.

How has the popularity of the internet effected your business?

The shape of the internet has changed over the years. At first people thought it was a new media vehicle to advertise in. People logged on out of curiosity and to be entertained. Today, we are finding that it is more of an information source. People go to the net with a purpose: Get the information and get out. It's not an advertising medium. But it should always be part of a marketing plan. The competition of companies on the web, however, has taken advertising by storm. Every company wants to launch an IPO or have consumers remember their URL. As a result many agencies have increased their billings by riding on this wave.

Career Information & Advice

How is the job market for art professionals looking to work at an ad agency? What about freelancing?

The job market is excellent. It's never been better. But so is the caliber of talent coming out of some of these schools, so it's still very competitive. I wouldn't recommend freelancing right out of school. You have too much to learn, and you will never get the projects that will allow you to develop creatively.

What are the top 5 best things job candidates do that you see?

They are prepared. They have a list of questions to ask.
Energetic and enthusiastic about the interview.
They always send a thank you card.
If there is not position available then ask for an informative interview.
Dress professionally, but not formally (no suits).

What are the top 5 worst things job candidates do that you see?

Being argumentative in an interview when their work is being critiqued.
Not sending thank you cards after an interview.
Unprepared, don't know anything about the agency. This day and age you should be able to find out about a company before you interview, through the net.
Not persistent enough.
Resumes are not creative enough. If you can't market yourself how can you market a product.

Describe your ideal entry level job candidate.

Talent always comes first. But if you have talent with a lot of attitude, you won't get far. Any graduate should come out of school and be eager to learn. Be willing to do anything, nothing should be beneath you. Work hard, dedication and perseverance are very important. Be self motivated, always look for opportunities and jump on them, don't wait to be asked. I recently interviewed a young man, in his sophomore year, who wanted an internship. I can be very hard to reach, but this young man was so persistent he finally got me on the phone. I interviewed him, and even though we normally don't take interns, I was so impressed with his professional demeanor at such a young age that I told him I would see what I could work out. A week later, I had three messages from him on my machine; my assumption was that he wanted to know if I would give him an internship - I was wrong, he was trying to reach me to let me know he had accepted another position. He's going to succeed.

What are skills that really help all artists succeed regardless of their specialty?

Computer skills. A must in today's world, particularly as a graphic designer, illustrator, photographer or art director. Also the ability to write; it's surprising how many people can't write.

What are the best ways to find a job in advertising?

You must have a portfolio. Most Advertising schools will have a portfolio review day at graduation where companies are invited to scout for talent. If you don't have that opportunity, then create a "mini-book" (a small version of your portfolio) and send it out to the agencies you admire most. Be persistent. The AAAA (American Association of Advertising Agencies), The Art Directors Club, the One Club have resources for students.

Education Information & Advice

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in art, in advertising?

Choose your school carefully. Your career could depend on it. Very few schools have advertising programs. Many will have graphic design or fine arts programs, but if you are serious about advertising those programs will do you no good - they are simply different disciplines. You have to learn to think strategically. The caliber of students coming out of some of these schools is excellent and you have to be up to those standards. A good way to gauge whether you are is to subscribe to a magazine called CMYK. It's a magazine that shows nothing but student work and comes out quarterly. The most important thing to have when you graduate is a portfolio. Without it, you can't even get an interview.

What is your degree in?

Back in my day, there were no advertising programs. So, I graduated in Communication Arts.

What did you like and dislike about your art related education?

It wasn't relevant to the real world. I see that still happening. If I were starting over again, I would get my BA in liberal arts, or English and in graduate school, I would specialize in Advertising. Don't specialize too soon.

If someone has the art talent already, should they go to art school and why?

Even if you have talent you may need to learn the skills. Art school is fine for illustrators, photographers and those who want to pursue fine arts, but not for advertising. Fine arts has very little to do with advertising. Yes, you have to be creative in advertising, but it's a very different discipline.

What are the 5 best schools in the USA for the students wishing to break into the specialty advertising?

Top of my list is VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). They have an excellent masters program in Advertising and not just in the creative discipline (art directors and writers) but also in the account side and planning side. Miami Ad School, in Miami Beach. The portfolio school in Atlanta. Also an excellent school, but it's not a masters program. University of Texas in Austin has an undergraduate program. University of Colorado, also undergraduate program. The School of Visual Arts in New York. The University of Delaware.

When is a career art school best and when is a college degree in art the best?

I'm not a big fan of art schools for advertising. Unless you are planning to go into photography or illustration I wouldn't recommend it. My brother attended one and came out after 4 years with very little usable knowledge. You need a well rounded education to fall back on throughout your life, and art schools are too narrowly focused. I believe you should spend the first years with the basics: English, math, science, etc. Start specializing in your last two years, and wait until your masters to really focus.

Industry Trends

What are some trends that you see in the world of advertising that might help prospective students who are looking to get into ad firms when they graduate?

Visual solutions to strategic problems. There is a new kind of poverty in the 21st century and it's called TIME. The word "Multi-Task" has become part of our daily vocabulary. The consumer doesn't have time to read anymore, and when they do, I assure you they are not reading your ad. Consequently, an ad with a visual solution and a single minded message is more likely to be absorbed then an ad with a headline and a few paragraphs of copy.

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