Art Director vs Creative Director: Which Role Do You Need to Hire?

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When recruiting into your marketing team, it’s crucial you have a clear understanding of what each role entails. Two positions that seem to be frequently confused are that of creative director and art director. Sure, they sound the same, but they’re not. They are entirely separate roles with contrasting job descriptions and core skills sets – what an art director does is different to a creative director, and vice versa.

So, when your marketing team needs one of them, how do you determine which is right for your business? Let’s take a deeper dive into both roles, and how they can work for your company.

In this art director vs creative director guide you will discover,

Creative director vs art director: what is the difference?

Acts as the overall strategic lead on a project or campaign
Primarily responsible for the creative elements in the project or campaign
Responsible for meeting clients to discuss the project or campaign
Takes on board the ‘vision’ of the project and makes it happen
Presents progress to clients
Has the lead on aspects of design, visuals, images, film
Manages the wider team involved in the project or campaign, recruiting new hires or freelancers if required
Works with and manages photographers, designers, writers

What is a creative director?

Ultimately, a creative director is likely to be one of the most senior figures in a marketing company or agency. Though every business can differ in terms of management structure, a creative director is probably always going to be one of the most experienced individuals in the company, with wide-reaching responsibilities and seniority.

He or she is likely to be an ‘ideas person’ through and through, adept at coming up with catchy slogans and inspired campaigns. Usually, it’s the creative director who has the overall responsibility for delivering large-scale campaigns and projects. They are the spearhead of all branding strategy, the overall strategic vision of a project or a campaign – ensuring that the chosen strategy and art design supports the client’s needs – and oversee everything being presented to the client.

What does a creative director do?

The creative director has the critical role of selling the ideas to the client and handles the execution and follow-through of those ideas. It’s their job to ‘blue-sky’ ideas, hone them into a campaign that can impress – working to whatever KPIs might be in place – and then pitch it to the client. A successful campaign might be worth millions of dollars to an agency, lead to further work with that client, and help to establish and promote the reputation of the business.

A creative director will think through the entirety of the assignment, from conception of the campaign to the development of it, and finally to the delivery of the finished project. Creative directors can serve as mentors for those working in their departments, unifying their teams and fostering a positive work environment. In short, the creative director is a leader. He or she leads the team in the task of successfully completing and implementing projects on behalf of the client.

What is an art director?

An art director typically works with a creative director on campaigns, though might not usually be considered as senior in the structure of the business. They may even report into the creative director. Art direction marries art and design to create a cohesive aesthetic and arouse a reaction from the consumer. An art director is focused solely on aesthetics. In simpler terms, it’s the art director’s job to make the creative director’s vision a reality.

What does an art director do?

While a creative director may request a bold font to exude strength, an art director will know the names of the fonts that will work, deliver a series of visuals with them in place and advise on the best approach to take. In truth, the art director is far more hands-on when it comes to a project or campaign, physically bringing it to life.

It may typically play out like this. Once a strategy is approved, the art director takes on the brief and implements the ideas set forth for the client. They sweat the smaller stuff that a creative director likely doesn’t have time for, such as color choices, fonts, kerning and spacing, and even creating the actual appearance of the finished product. Depending on the campaign, there might be more than one version of that.

There could be a management aspect of the role; art directors might oversee a team of other creatives – designers and writers – instead of a creative director, but they also certainly have the talent to jump in there and create themselves. They’re not afraid to do the work, if needed, and actually might still love that level of involvement. If the creative director is the manager of a baseball team, then the art director is the seasoned ballplayer who is now the third base coach.

Do I need a creative director or an art director?

This should be an easy question to answer.

First, think about what’s missing within your business. Is it an overall creative mastermind to come up with the big ideas, sell them into the client and keep the whole show moving along, or an artistic, creative talent to take these ideas and turn them into something beautiful and inspiring? If you know your business, you should have a very clear idea of where you need resource.

Depending on the size of your business, you may only need an art director. At smaller agencies and brands, it’s better to have someone who can jump in and get his or hands dirty if need be. At that level, an art director is typically someone who can fill the functions of both roles; they can come up with ideas for campaigns and projects, and work to deliver them. However, if you are a big-hitting agency with multiple large clients, you may need a creative director to manage the workload and guide clients in the right direction. There might also be an expectation, from clients, that your agency has a creative director in place.

Budget is a key consideration, too. A creative director commands a much higher salary, so if you’re recruiting, bear this in mind. According to Glassdoor1, average base pay for a creative director is $106,730 a year – as of January 2022 – while that of an art director is closer to $60,000. In the hierarchy of an agency, a creative director sits a tier above the art director.

You should make clear exactly what you’re looking for when you advertise the position. The two roles are different, so if the job description doesn’t reflect that in detail, you may be met with a swathe of unsuitable candidates. You may get existing art directors aspiring to move into a creative director position, but it’s less likely to see current creative directors prepared to step down into an art director role.

An important point, too – don’t expect that you’ll be able to outsource either of these positions and get the results you want. These are in-house roles. Whether you’re seeking a creative director to manage an entire department or company, or an art director to oversee the aesthetic direction of a project or marketing campaign, that person will need to be involved in all stages of the process. He or she needs to be present to provide guidance, criticism, motivation, and ideas.

Frequently asked questions about hiring an art director vs a creative director.

How do you become a creative director?

To become a creative director, you are likely to have gained a significant amount of experience within the marketing or advertising industry. You will probably need a Bachelor’s degree in a related field such as marketing, advertising, or graphic design and a strong portfolio of successful campaign management.

How do you become an art director?

To become an art director, you might have a degree in graphic design, fine art or illustration. Although it’s not such a senior role as a creative director, it’s still a lead position, so it’s expected that you’ll have experience working as a designer and senior designer.

What core skills do creative directors and art directors need?

Creative directors need to have strong management skills, confidence when presenting and pitching to clients, and excellent project management ability – balancing numerous tasks. A creative flair and vision is also a must.

Art directors must have all-round creative talent, and the skills to work with a plan and make it shine. They must be able to interpret a strategy and make it happen, sharing that with other team members.