The role of a creative director is, according to Susan Credle, more akin to a therapist than anything else. In her career, which spans 24 years at BBDO New York and three years at Leo Burnett Chicago (where she moved in 2009 to take up the reins as the CCO of Leo Burnett USA), Credle has developed a leadership style that emphasises dialogue rather than judgement. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her for a therapy session-cum-interview to talk about nurturing creativity, the demands that social media places on brands and the importance of protecting your voice.
LBB> Since moving to Leo Burnett in Chicago, how have you found the agency culture?
SC> We’ve made a fundamental shift – it was already happening before I arrived but we have recommitted being about product. It sounds so simple but just saying that the product defines who we are as an agency has changed the kind of people we look for and how they’re promoted. Of course the business needs to be healthy, of course the client needs to feel like they have a great relationship, but if we don’t create a great product we quickly become a commodity business.
Globally we judge our work through something we call the ‘humankind scale’. It’s really helped me. I’ve always judged work, at least the work I do, with my gut. But having a lens through which we can all identify the kind of work that really builds brands is very important.
The scale goes like this: one is destructive, two is confusing, three is invisible, four is ‘I’m not quite sure what this brand stands for’, five is ‘I get what this is trying to do’, six is ‘an intelligent idea’, seven is ‘an intelligent idea, well-crafted’, eight is ‘changes the way people feel’, nine is ‘change the way people behave’ and ten is ‘changes the world’. We asked our agency in Chicago to do our own internal Superbowl poll. It’s kind of fun. During the Superbowl we look at what everyone is saying about the Superbowl spots on Leo Burnett social media sites and we rank them. It mimics the USA Today poll but it’s done through the lens of human kind. Two years ago the ‘Imported From Detroit’ Chrysler piece came 44th or 45th on the USA Today Poll, at the very bottom. On the Leo Burnett Poll it was number one, because we were looking for brands that change the world. All of a sudden that work had reclaimed Detroit as car city. It was meaningful.
LBB> It seems that the whole industry is changing how it judges work. Even a couple of years ago you would get lots of brands saying that they were trying to live up to these goals, saying that they were ‘trying to change the world’ but now it seems they’re really having to ‘walk the walk’. What was the tipping point?
SC> I think that social media has absolutely made brands more transparent. Before, it was almost like Hollywood – you built the front and propped it up with two-by-fours at the back. That wouldn’t happen every time but there was a lot of ‘prop-it-up-and-just-say-it’. Today one of the great things that has come out of social media is that companies have to act authentically.
It’s a shame that it took social media to do that. It used to take small towns. A company had to behave well in a small town because the community would tell on them if they didn’t and they’d be ostracised. In a weird way social media has made the world a small town.
LBB> So despite all of the technological changes that are happening at such a rapid pace, human behaviour is still human behaviour?
SC> On our best days we’re still trying to find principled ways of living. It’s really curious to me because I am a little worried about the ethics of our country. There has always been unethical and immoral behaviour but - and maybe this is because of the time and the place that I grew up in - your honour and your ethics were more valuable than any amount of money you had in a bank account. Somehow over the last 30 years it doesn’t seem to be as important and I’m shocked. I don’t know where that desire to be principled went. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be fuddy-duddy and old fashioned and precious, it just means doing what you think is right.
I think human beings are forgiving. I think we want people to succeed and we want brands to succeed – unless they’re so horrible that we’re like ‘never again’.
LBB> Do you find social media a useful tool for creatives when it comes to monitoring and understanding a brand and how they need to relate with consumers?
SC> I think it will become the new focus group. In fact, I’m sure we will see the demise of the focus group. I was watching CBS with Gayle King and she was chatting with Stephanie Clippert of the New York Times. They were looking at Facebook groups and Gayle King said “it’s really your focus group isn’t it?” The fact is that we’re the last people to realise that… I go to the Facebook page if I want help understanding a brand.
I’m also wary of social media. Can you imagine if, 30 years ago, we had reacted to every person who sent a letter to a company…? You have to be careful about letting one or two loud people de-rail a campaign. The Allstate Mayhem campaign I worked on came close to dying when it was launched because there was one guy in Florida who was using the internet to broadcast the fact he just did not like it. Fortunately the client said “this is not a mass uprising, let’s make some adjustments and see”. Thank goodness because a different client would have just shut it down.
LBB> And that one loud voice is just what happens in focus groups too?
SC> Exactly – that’s why I’ve never liked them. The people who make a difference for brands do things that do make you uncomfortable. Work that bothers you a little bit is more powerful – if it’s got a little grit to it. We did a film for Mean Stinks and someone said to me that one of the scenes was very difficult to watch. I watched the film and it did the same thing to me. There’s a shot where a fireman is hosing down a teenage girl and she’s getting slammed with water. All the high school kids are laughing and cheering because she was a bully and she’s getting her comeuppance. But there are three kids in the audience who are disgusted because the others just don’t get it. They’re to her what she did to them. Somebody wanted that removed, but even though it was an uncomfortable moment, it provoked discussion. Isn’t that more powerful than going “oh I don’t like that, let’s not do it”. That’s an industry flaw. And I fall for it too.
LBB> Could you talk me through the Mean Stinks anti-bullying campaign for Secret?
SC> I remember seeing the 1970s campaign ‘Strong enough for a man, made for a woman’ when I was about 14. It was before the equal rights amendment had been past and I remember watching this piece of advertising and thinking ‘someone is saying that I’m equal’. In a weird way it got under my skin. So for me, Secret has always been about pushing women to stand up.
When I started working on the brand, we were looking for something that could help Secret get that voice back. There is a woman at Leo Burnett who is really passionate about anti-bullying campaigning and she wanted to do something with Secret. We just couldn’t figure out how to get it done. I said, “I think the problem is that you want them to pick this up as a charity case and hide behind it. We’re in a different generation, brands are allowed to be a part of causes and they’re applauded for that, so let’s be bold about it”.
I wrote the line ‘Mean Stinks’ and another creative came up with the line ‘do something nice behind someone’s back’ and we did two print ads, some insertions, a couple of banners and a little Facebook initiative. That’s how it launched - it was very small but it was like a tree growing in Brooklyn. It had such might that it refused to die.
We did that a year and a half ago and we’ve just launched a new campaign this Fall, ‘Gang Up for Good’. It’s an extension of ‘Say something nice behind someone’s back’ because the girls told us through the Facebook page that they wanted to get involved but wanted a way of doing it together with others. Throughout the year the girls who sign up will be educated on what bullying is and they’ll be shown things they need to do to earn points and to prove that they ‘ganged up for good’.
LBB> Are there any brands that you’re particularly fond of on a personal level?
SC> I like a lot of the brands that I work on because I know a lot about them. I know where their heart is. I’m a big fan of brands like Method because of what they stand for. I like what Vitamin Water did when they first came out. I know a lot of other people have copied it since – but I just thought the idea of naming a drink after how you felt and your emotional needs was brilliant. And I have to say Puma’s ‘Social Athlete’ is something that really brought me back into the brand.
LBB> When you went to the University of North Carolina, you trained as a journalist and I wonder how that has influenced your career in advertising?
SC> I had to take journalism classes at university and it really taught me to be respectful of your voice when it goes public. We do have a really public voice and I’m not sure that we take the time to realise that. I do think we’ve got a responsibility.
It doesn’t mean that everything has to be about a cause but even if you’re working on the craft, do not put junk out there. It’s a case of putting out a beautiful photograph versus a shit photograph.
In architecture you can build a building that works from a functional standpoint but the world would be horrible if people just built buildings that work. Not only can they create something that functions, they can actually help evolve how human beings behave. There’s a great film called My Architect about the architect Louis Kahn. It’s made by his son. He’s in Bangladesh and he’s interviewing these two men who work in the parliament building that his father designed. He asked them if they liked the building and they said “this building gave us democracy”. When he asked them what they meant, they said that when they saw how beautiful it was and saw that someone had taken the time to build something like that, it meant that they were worthy of more than they’d thought they were worth.
We don’t always realise the effect of what we put out there. For example I think Benetton doing the ‘Unhate’ work is powerful stuff that is on brand for them, but it’s also provocative and could even help the world.
LBB> How do you support and nurture young creative in your agency and get the best out of them?
SC> I try to respect the fact that in some ways they know more than I do. I think it’s important to let them tell me what they’re interested in, and then for me to use my experience to help their new creativity get further, faster.
Someone asked me that question today – how do you creative direct? For me the creative director is better if they realise that they’re really much more of a therapist and that they’re trying to motivate someone to get the best out of them. I run a very open door policy; I don’t like to be intimidating. We try to engage in conversations, I don’t sit in judgement of work. Rightly or wrongly that’s my style. I give them my opinion and they have to go away and think about what I’ve said – if you think I’m wrong , tell me I’m wrong. I don’t have a magic answer to every creative problem.
I also try to create a world that lets you know you’re going to fail sometimes. If you try really hard and you’re talented and you fail, you’re so close to being brilliant.
The hardest part about the message ‘don’t be afraid to fail’ is that I can’t really say that – it was the fear of letting my bosses down that made me better. It was the thought that somebody had spent a hell of a lot of money for me to show up on a shoot and make something, so it better be damned good. I watched every moment on set. I was a pain in the ass. I do think that fear of failing makes you work a lot harder, but when you fail, don’t use that as a defining moment, don’t let it make you think that you’re no good.
LBB> What do you do to feed your creativity?
SC> It’s a question I struggle with. From the moment I step into the office to the moment I leave at night there’s hardly time to eat. I don’t know if everyone is like this but in between managing the company, doing the external things for the industry and looking after the brands… I think that even a genius couldn’t be brilliant constantly throughout the day. It’s a problem with upper management, especially if you’re still involved in the creative process. I’ve heard that a lot of creatives at this level just leave that to the other creatives. Having that opportunity to sit alone and watch people and think about things is something I don’t do enough.
I’m going to be curious to see the effects of having too many emails and too many devices interrupting us constantly. If you think about it, creatives used to sit with no distractions. I remember sitting in offices with my partner for four hours, throwing balls around, talking about philosophy, talking about politics and then suddenly you’d go “hey, do you know what would be cool..?”
I can’t tell if the internet is helping us or hurting us. It definitely helps the school of thought that says steal but make sure nobody knows your sources. These people are looking for inspiration and then adapting it or re-applying it. I was never that style of creative. I need the space for my synapses to start piecing different parts of life together.
LBB> How do you get clients to appreciate that a good idea takes time and effort?
SC> It’s curious because a lot of times marketers from a branding stand point have had it easy over the last 30 years. They were given such strong brands. All the brands I know were all creative before I got into the business. They already had that creative feeling and a strong sense of where they fit in society and the role that they play. I just wonder how many of those have we created or are we creating if we are starting from scratch? We’re still riding the wave of brands. There’s going to be a generation who didn’t grow up at a time when these were really great brands and we’re going to have to figure out how to wake their brands up again.