I want to be an Art Director – how do I get promoted?

Today’s question:

Once you get into the company, how do you grow further/get promoted to the higher position? I’m a production designer at an advertising agency. I’m willing to go above and beyond and eventually become an art director (I was studying for an art director but couldn’t find the entry-level job position). I’m just wondering how it usually happens so people get promoted to the higher level positions. I guess it depends on the agency but I’d love to hear the opinion of people who probably had this kind of experience.

If you want a promotion the best thing you can do is talk to your manager. You’re right that this will vary a little from agency to agency, but the first step has to be letting your boss know that you want to move to a different role. Some people (rather jaded by this industry) may tell you that promotions don’t happen, and the only way to move up will be to move to another company; that might be true. But you won’t know if you don’t ask. I do see people make the mistake of thinking that promotions, awards, and accolades are handed out as thanks and recognition for working hard, but that doesn’t happen often. Generally speaking, you have to ask for what you want.

I’ll also point out that the path to Art Director doesn’t usually start at Production Designer; the roles are fairly different, in that an AD is usually required to be very conceptual and a Production Designer is more executional (a Senior Production Designer can be a hugely valuable part of a team, especially in print). If you want to be an AD, you’ll have to show that you can come up with thoughtful concepts that audiences will connect with, and that represent the brands well while being interesting and different. This transition will be easier at more junior levels: if you become a Junior AD, you won’t be expected to show a history of doing this kind of work since you’re new to the role, and agencies are more likely willing to coach you. That doesn’t mean this kind of transition at a more senior level is impossible, but there’s a higher burden of proof on you to prove to a CD that you can fulfill the requirements of the role, and be the person that their agency and their clients need.

That said, you may find making this transition easier at a company where your Creative Director already knows your abilities and potential despite not having art direction work in your book (if that is the case); somebody who’s worked with you already may have a better sense of what kind of support you’ll need to transition, and be more willing to put together a plan to work with you. This could be harder at a place where you don’t have a relationship with the CD and you have to prove to them that you can do this work.

Finally, keep in mind that behind any promotion is a business decision. If a company promotes an employee to a higher level, there ultimately has to be a business justification for having another employee at that level, at paying a higher salary, and other things. So if you get a “no” when you ask about a promotion, it may be that your agency doesn’t need or can’t afford another Art Director right now. That’s another reason some will advise you to look for a job elsewhere, because the timing of their business need to hire an AD and your timing in looking for that job may line up better. Your manager could also tell you that they’ll likely be hiring a new AD in six months and you can talk again then, or maybe another AD will leave unexpectedly and you’ll be promoted to fill the gap. They may even have a different path they’d want to put you on before you reach the role of AD, to train you a bit. There’s no way to know from the outside, so talk to your boss and explain what your career goals are. They won’t know unless you tell them.

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