Executive creative director at SS+K, part of M&C Saatchi Group, speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about why words have always been her “weapon of choice”, utilising political style strategies for clients, and being named after Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks
Words have always been Stevie Archer’s “weapon of choice”. Ever since childhood, when she grew up in a family of two older, extremely sarcastic brothers, words were a powerful tool in the everlasting battle of sibling one-upmanship.
Nowadays, words are still Stevie’s preferred ammo but, as executive creative director of SS+K, which is part of the M&C Saatchi Group, they are put to battle a little differently. In Stevie’s words, “SS+K is unlike any other ad agency” that she has ever been a part of, due to the fact that its founders don’t have legacy agency history, but instead have entered the advertising industry via the world of politics. That political knowhow informs the agency’s strategy for clients including Business Iceland, president Biden, WhatsApp Mount Sinai Health System, Girls Who Code, and a soon-to-be released cannabis cocktail brand.
LBB’s Addison Capper spoke with Stevie to find out more.
LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you? How did you feel about advertising?
Stevie> I grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Home of cigarettes and Krispy Kreme donuts. I was the youngest child with two older brothers, and my family is very sarcastic. We’re always trying to find a sharp, smart-aleck-y quip to one-up the other person. So words were always my weapon of choice and I learned early on that writing was the easiest way for me to communicate my thoughts clearly. My mom would help me write little stories on an old typewriter, and as I got older, I was the nerd who actually liked writing papers for class. I would challenge myself to sneak ridiculous, multisyllabic words in them just to see if teachers would notice.
As far as advertising, I didn’t know it was a job a person could have. My parents were both physical therapists. So I always assumed I would end up in a medical field of some sort. But like any kid who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I watched a lot of TV. My mom would tape the Disney movie specials off the TV on Sundays and the commercials would of course be recorded, too. I vividly remember a Burger King campaign in the middle of our ‘Babes in Toyland’ tape where people on a ski lift took big hunks out of a giant Whopper - I must have watched that damn commercial 300 times.
LBB> What was the most important moment in putting you on your career path?
Stevie> I first learned what a copywriter was as a freshman in college at UNC-Chapel Hill. I read the course listings for copywriting classes in the Journalism school and it was exactly what I was looking for: a way to use my words to express ideas without struggling to pay my bills for the rest of my adult life. It just clicked.
After that there were a lot of important moments along my journey.
I took my first copywriting class with Professor John Sweeney and he got me my first agency internship at McKinney.
After I graduated, my first art director partner, Vanessa Witter, personally convinced the ECD at Mullen to hire me even though I didn’t go to portfolio school. She helped me redo my entire book after my first interview so they would consider me. And she harassed them continuously until they gave in and let me work for them. If it weren’t for her going to bat for me, who knows what I’d be doing now.
LBB> You've been with SS+K since 2019 - how do you define the agency and what it does well within the US market?
Stevie> SS+K is unlike any other ad agency I have ever been part of. We specialise in helping clients navigate and create meaningful change. And the three founders didn’t come from the same legacy advertising agencies who approach problems in similar ways. They came from the world of politics.
So we combine political-style strategy with creativity to unravel complex problems and turn them into powerful breakthrough ideas.
We work for established brands who are in need of, or are facing tumultuous change, for upstart brands who are looking to change categories or industries, and for causes and organisations who are trying to create lasting change in the world.
In my time at SS+K, just a few of the clients we have created change for include Mount Sinai Health System, Girls Who Code, Business Iceland, NCAA, Microsoft, WhatsApp, president Biden, and a soon-to-be released cannabis cocktail brand.
And as part of M&C Saatchi Group, we’re able to partner with our global network of agencies who share the same creative drive, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit as we do. We often partner to combine skill sets, disciplines, and global reach. That has been a critical part of our success with clients like Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Business Iceland.
Recently, in the span of one day, I went from being on a zoom call with President Biden’s deputy chief of staff, directly into a meeting about the launch of a new cancer centre, then to brief a music composer in Iceland. So it’s never the same challenge from minute to minute.
But every change is a chance to create something great.
LBB> I've been really enjoying the work that you've been involved in for Business Iceland. What can you tell us about that relationship and the work that it's spurred?
Stevie> We have been working with Business Iceland since May of 2020. Iceland’s economy is heavily supported by tourism, and when travel ground to a halt they needed a partner who could not only help them navigate the sudden upheaval, but could also help them chart a path for the future of tourism. From day one, our relationship has been defined by collaboration. We pitched the account with our M&C Saatchi network partners Talk PR, and our Icelandic agency partners Peel. Both are involved in creative development and production every step of the way. And we bring our clients in early, to collaborate with us too.
As clients, Business Iceland is like the country. They are incredibly creative, funny, innovative, resilient, pragmatic and forward-thinking. When every other tourism brand during covid was making sentimental we’ll-be-there-for-you-type work, they knew they needed to offer the world something different. They approved the campaign we pitched, ‘Looks Like You Need Iceland’ and told us to start making it ASAP. Within weeks we had seven speakers in the seven regions of Iceland so everyone trapped at home could scream out their frustrations into their epic landscapes.
Since then, we have created a 22.7-metre long website filled with joyful Icelandic content to save the world from its daily 22.7-metre worth of doom scrolling. We’ve converted pandemic sweatpants into hiking boots to get travellers off of their couches and onto a volcano. And we’ve launched the Icelandverse — Iceland’s most successful effort to date — reminding everyone that the alternative to an all-virtual world is an actual one that exists right now.
We create amazing work together because we are fully aligned on a clear strategy: Iceland is the emotional antidote to what the world is craving. Everything we do is based in human emotional truth, and is built on a whole lot of trust.
LBB> Which other pieces of work from your time at SS+K have you been particularly proud of and why?
Stevie> We have tackled massive challenges since I joined SS+K in 2019. As an agency that was built to navigate change, we have never been more needed than during the midst of a global pandemic.
Which is why I’m proud to say that despite the enormous trials of covid, we helped unify Mount Sinai Health System under a new brand campaign, ‘We Find A Way’. We avoided the cliches of medical advertising by enlisting a Pulitzer-award-winning photographer to capture the real moments of innovation and perseverance that happen every day.
We helped LeBron James’s More Than a Vote organisation recruit 40,000 poll workers during the 2020 presidential election with a campaign that ran during the NBA playoffs.
And we created an $800 billion Mother’s Day Bouquet to help raise awareness about the economic value moms provide to us without getting paid.
LBB> I read somewhere that you love presenting (and you might be a trial lawyer if you weren't in advertising). Is a knack for presenting a trait that you think is important as an ad creative? Why?
Stevie> I think presenting is not just one of the most critical skills for creatives to have, it’s one of the most important skills for anyone to have. Because you cannot succeed if you cannot communicate what you are thinking well enough for someone else to want to go along with it.
So I think of presenting as creating mutual understanding: How do I explain as simply as possible why something as irrational as an idea makes perfect, rational sense? How can I create a straight line between the problem and the answer?
How can I pause to make sure my audience’s perspective is heard and incorporated?
How can I create an emotional connection out of a conversation?
If you can do that, you can do anything. The world is your oyster. And the toughest part then is resisting the urge to become a cult leader.
LBB> You are named after Stevie Nicks - which campaign from your career do you think Stevie would like the most and why?
Stevie> Ha. No idea.
But I feel like maybe she’d appreciate that I have had to forge a path and find a voice in a male-dominated industry like she did. She went into a lot of rooms with a lot of high-powered people in an industry that was pretty hostile to women and had to prove herself and her talent. She had to be twice as good to get noticed.
Also apparently she got her white-winged dove lyric from an item on a plane menu. I wrote my first commercial on a plane based on the safety announcement. It was certainly no Edge of Seventeen, but it got shortlisted at Cannes, so maybe she’d like that.
LBB> Do you have creative heroes? Who are they?
Stevie> It used to be that I would admire creators of great ad campaigns.
But as I’ve gotten older and (marginally) wiser, the people I admire are those who build systems and cultures that support creativity. One-off creativity is short lived. But if you can scale it, foster it and repeat it again and again, that’s how you make real change and impact.
Kristin Cavallo, CEO of Martin, is exemplary of that. When she called out CoinBase for their Super Bowl shenanigans, she made a statement in support of our entire creative industry. Our ideas are enormously valuable, critical to client’s success, and should never be taken for granted. It’s no surprise to me that under her and CCO Danny Robinson’s leadership they have been the top agency in the US for a few years running.
And God-is Rivera, global director of culture & community at Twitter, has helped create space for entire communities on Twitter to use their voices and amplify their ideas. She and her team put Black Twitter on the map for marketers and forced them to take notice of how Black voices drive and create culture. That’s pretty heroic.
LBB> What trends in the industry do you find yourself sounding off about the most and why?
Stevie> Oof so many opinions to choose from.
I think speed as a selling point for advertising agencies is a race to the bottom. Speed and agility happen as a result of a strong foundation and process that often takes time to build. You have to have total alignment, a hell of a lot of trust, and clarity about what you are trying to achieve to get an idea out into market quickly. You’ll notice that most of the successful real-time response ideas happened because of a long-term relationship with a client and an agency that knew their business inside and out.
The wildly successful Icelandverse campaign happened in 10 days because we have a really strong relationship with Business Iceland, and amazing partners at Peel and M&C Saatchi Talk who can move glaciers to make things happen. That did not happen overnight. It happened over two years of making great work together. And it happened because our client can move quickly and efficiently too.
The relationship, the collaboration, the strategic thinking and the creative craft is what we should be selling to clients. Everything else comes from that.
Also, please, for the love of god, can we stop with the NFT ideas?
LBB> Outside of work, what's inspiring you right now?
Stevie> I think the way Rihanna is completely resetting the image of maternity right now is incredible.
DuoLingo on TikTok is one of the few brands getting it right.
Jorts the Cat has somehow transitioned from a meme into a highly influential labour leader. Still not sure how that happened but it’s fascinating.
And I’m frequently blown away by how young people are changing the way we interact with the world. They set boundaries. They don’t stand for injustice. They talk openly about mental health. And they prioritise happiness. I mean who isn’t inspired by that?