IPSO: 4 Essential Steps for Successful Creative Directors

blogpic_3-10-16_squareCreative directors ply their skills in a wide array of fields and channels, with a myriad of tools and techniques at their disposal. But there are certain practices common to all.

For instance, one of the most important tools a CD can employ is a set of high-altitude reins.

There is a natural enthusiasm in most creative endeavors to jump into the weeds and begin “ideating.” It’s fun, after all. And of course, a good creative director knows that cultivating that process can be a fruitful experience.

There is certainly a time and place for brainstorms and in-the-weeds “noodling.”

However, without controls and guidance—and, yes, properly and appropriately applied restraint—much of that creative energy can be wasted on useless outcomes. That means money wasted, never a good thing.

Regardless of industry, sector or focus area, successful CDs usually share four big picture process points:

Identify, Plan, Solve, Observe (IPSO)

I’ll use examples from my own industry, direct response fundraising, but the four points apply across the broad range of marketing.


No creative process can be executed before an organization understands and articulates the challenge facing them at a fundamental level.

E.g ., “Our donors are not staying with us. They are making once-and-done gifts.”

This challenge statement sits at the highest altitude, high above the campaign itself.  The creative director’s job is to articulate that challenge in industry terms that his team will recognize, and make it a priority among all other factors in the campaign.

“Challenge: improve donor retention.”

That articulation has a place at the top of every project document, be it campaign calendar, creative brief, change order, production schedule, and so forth. More on why this is important in a moment.


The creative director, and other high-altitude stakeholders like senior media, analytics and client service folks, then must sit down and create a strategy to address the challenge.  Again, this is a high-altitude, and becomes the primary campaign objective.

“Strategy: obtain that statistically critical second gift.”

Note it is a specific description of what is to be accomplished, not how to do it. Again, this is a top-of-the document statement, along with the Challenge.


Once challenge and plan are in place and understood by all, the creative director can release the hounds, so to speak, and set his creative team loose on the problem. Any good CD knows, as a creative facilitator, that no idea is off limits UNLESS (and here are the reins at work) the idea does not solve for the plan.

So, in this case, no crazy idea is off the boards, as long as it is aimed at obtaining a second gift from a new donor.

Aside from the contribution he/she makes as a creative resource, the CD’s primary job in this phase to continually test potential solutions against the high altitude objective.


Once the brainstorming outputs have been properly vetted, culled and narrowed down to an ideal tactical solution, creative work begins. CDs traditionally have guided this process tactically, filtering words and pictures through personal and professional best practices.

But even more important, the CD must continually observe the creative output from the high altitude of Challenge and Strategy. This is why repeating them in the context of campaign documents—and conversations and direction—is so important.

Once in the weeds, it is easy for creative practitioners and campaign specialists to lose sight of the big picture, the specific challenge we face and the strategy that drives the tactics we are employing to solve for it.

Creative directors act not only as creative resources, providing guidance and fuel for the solution (the “creative” part of the title), but also as gyroscopes, keeping the solutions on course to meet high altitude challenge and translate strategy into reality (the “director” part of the title) at low altitude.

Identify, Plan, Solve, Observe.

IPSO is a handy acronym for successful creative direction, regardless of industry, sector or specialty. (Ipso facto!)


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