Creative Lives — “Work harder and smarter than everyone else. Stay lucky. Be nice”: 4creative’s creative director Dan Watts
If you can find an emoji good enough to summarise having a “superfrickinawesome” job, creative director Dan Watts is the person to send it to. Tasked with creating head-turning work at Channel 4’s in-house agency, 4creative, his time is currently split between working on a range of exciting new projects including the UEFO Women’s Euro Championship and the hotly-anticipated revamp of the Great British Bake Off. (😮) A graduate of Tony Cullingham’s Watford Advertising course, Dan – and apparently, David Brent – claims that ideas can be found anywhere. But in reality, it’s the ideas that seem to find him, whether that’s in his sleep, or at mealtimes with the kids. We caught up with Dan as he guides us through the ins and outs of his Escher-esque working day.
Creative Director, 4creative (August 2016–present)
Creative Director at CHI & Partners (2015–2016)
Creative Director at Fallon London (2006–2015)
Copywriter at CDD London (2004–2006)
Copywriter at 180 Amsterdam (2003–2004)
Watford Creative Advertising Course, West Herts College (2001–2002)
Dan at work
How would you describe your job?
I am currently creative director at 4creative, overseeing the creative teams that come up with ideas for the Channel 4 brand and programmes. This could be for TV, online, print, or whatever media we think is going to turn heads. I would describe my job as superfrickinawesome. I get to work alongside people far more talented than me and make work that I get excited about. I can’t even find the right emoticon to express it.
What does a typical working day look like?
A typical working day looks a bit like an Escher painting. It’s all over the place and full of weird upside-downess, but it makes sense at the same time. I drop off the kids at 8am, cycle in for 9.30am and leave to put the bins out at home at around 6pm. My rituals are pretty much the same as any other creatives. I brush my teeth before coming in and then go on YouTube and Facebook in between meetings. My ideal working day would be coming up with a brilliant ten-out-of-ten idea. My typical working day is coming up with a solid six. Six and a half.
How did you land your current job?
The brilliant 4creative creative director Alice Tonge went on maternity leave and needed someone to help steer the ship for the year she was away (no pressure…Alice has won more awards than I’ve had hot dinners and I’ve had a lot of hot dinners). I was also looking to leave the last agency I was at, so we met and here I am. But generally my journey has seen hard work and a succession of jobs at different agencies over the years, making different types of work with different people. I think if you keep learning, pushing, moving and experimenting – with a bit of luck – things normally work out.
“I think if you keep learning, pushing, moving and experimenting – with a bit of luck – things normally work out.”
Where does the majority of your work take place?
I think it was David Brent that said “ideas are everywhere”. Or some advertising hack creative. Can’t remember. It might actually have been me. Sometimes you crack stuff at your desk, sometimes in a coffee shop, or, dare I say it…in a pub, the loo, asleep. You have to be in a room for meetings, though. So much of my time is spent in a room somewhere, but the rooms at Channel 4 are lovely and air conditioned so it’s fine.
How collaborative is your role?
You shouldn’t do this job if you don’t want to be work collaboratively. Throw ideas around. Give ideas away. Build on other people’s. Don’t get attached to stuff. As a CD I work closely with the teams to help and guide them when their ideas are at an embryonic stage before helping to push executions. Each Monday morning we all share each other’s work and try to build on what we have. Then I sit with Chris and John (4creative's ECDs) and start the process again. It’s great.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Working with great people who push me to make great work, yay! Timesheets and meetings, boo! For every Ying there’s a Yang.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Currently I am working on a new C4 brand campaign, the UEFA Women’s Euro and the Great British Bake Off. These three are the most exciting projects I’ve worked on for ages.
Dan at work
Dan at work
What skills are essential to your job?
Wanting to do it more than any other job in the world; being able to work hard (this will be fun if you have the latter); being good at being open minded.
Would you say your work allows for a good life-work balance?
I have always tried to keep a good life-work balance. A lot of ideas come up when you are chatting to your kids or cooking a meal or being drunk with your wife.
Do you run any self-initiated alongside your job?
Not as many as I probably should. I moan a lot on Facebook, does that count? Though I do try and do as many new things that are unrelated to work. Mid-life crisis type things; stand-up comedy and Taekwondo (not at the same time).
What tools do you use most for your work?
A sign pen and a layout pad. Closely followed by Microsoft Word. Old school.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
An adult. And I am one now. Success.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
The Watford ad course I did after studying was massively useful. You don’t need any qualifications to do it. Just good ideas and a good old-fashioned work ethic. I wouldn’t be here without Tony Cullingham and that course. I can’t recommended it enough, although it’s not the only way in. Chris and John, for example, had the best book around at the time and they did it just through book crits at agencies and learning off good people.
What were your first jobs?
I did work experience at a tiny agency that no longer exists. Then placements in bigger agencies, constantly working on my portfolio. I finally got a job over in Amsterdam at 180 with my then creative partner Rory after a year or so of trying.
“You shouldn’t do this job if you don’t want to be work collaboratively. Throw ideas around. Give ideas away. Build on other people’s. Don’t get attached to stuff.”
What in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Doing the Watford ad course. And leaving to go work in Amsterdam (almost overnight) even though I was dumping bricks at the thought of leaving the comfort of home to go live abroad at 23. But as my Mum said, “If it's not scary, it's not worth doing.” Thanks Mum.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Not really. Every project from big to small, good to bad helps you get better.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Being better at listening to people. Letting ideas go – killing your babies. Learn to forget it and move on if things don’t happen.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
Yes. It’s exactly what I thought it would be. Great fun.
What would you like to do next?
I literally don’t know. Whatever it is, it will be with a mixed bag of nice, fun, interesting, bonkers, different, mischievous people.
Could you do this job forever?
What, ‘forever’ forever? That’s a bit of Twilight Zone idea. Doing anything forever is a terrifying thought.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The natural progression for a creative [in advertising] would be: creative, to creative director (CD), to deputy creative director and then executive creative director. These are all very different jobs. Some people just want to make stuff and don’t want to become a CD. Some want to just be a CD and not make stuff. Some want to do both. You need to identify your strengths, work out what you want to do and then aim for that. But there’s no rush either – you have to enjoy what you do. There’s no ‘right’ answer when it comes to your career path. And lots of people just go “Screw it I’m going to start writing novels instead…see ya!”
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a creative director?
If you’re thinking of doing it as a career, do the Watford course if you can. (Say hi to Tony from me). From then on, work harder and smarter than everyone else. Learn from people better than you. Work for people better than you. Hire people better than you. Mix with people who are different to you. Stay lucky. Be nice.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on 4creative.