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5 Minutes with… Suzanne Michaels

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Leo Burnett’s brand new EVP of Creative Innovation on being a ‘benevolent provocateur’ and the tension that still surrounds data-driven creativity

5 Minutes with… Suzanne Michaels
Even in the creative industries, it’s rare to find a job where you’re allowed, nay, encouraged to be a true and proper agitator. But Suzanne Michael’s new post is exactly that. As the EVP of Creative Innovation at Leo Burnett, she’s been tasked with nurturing the agency’s experimental side – or as she puts it, as being a ‘benevolent provocateur’. 

It’s telling that, when she first got into the advertising industry, she thought that production would be her thing. In the end, the call of the creative department was too strong to ignore, but the spirit of rolling one’s sleeves up and getting stuck in, making real change happen, is very much in evidence. 

Suzanne was ECD at The Abundancy, which was recently acquired by Leo Burnett, and before that she worked with the likes of BBDO, Critical Mass, Digitas, JWT and DDB. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her to find out about the exciting new role and to get Suzanne’s take on everything from creative leadership to the data debate.

LBB> What was it about the opportunity with Leo Burnett that spoke to you?

SM> Before joining Leo Burnett, I was working with Andrew Swinand at The Abundancy as ECD. A start-up environment is about ultimate ownership — having an instinct for action, constant experimentation and optimisation, and thriving in the ambiguity that goes hand-in-hand with that. The opportunity to cultivate that mindset in a legendary agency like Leo Burnett is huge.

LBB> What does ‘Creative Innovation’ mean to you?

SM> An intriguing creative idea is still the most important thing we can bring. But these days how it shows up in the world is limitless. Every business challenge is a unique problem that should have an equally unique set of solutions. So, to me, creative innovation is about being open to experimentation and embracing the two-way psychology of an interactive, people-led world.

LBB> You said that you hope to be a ‘benevolent provocateur’ for Leo Burnett – which sounds delightfully mischievous! How do you hope to do that and why is it important to you and the agency?

SM> Someone once told me, “You like finding the edges.” That’s very true. I love finding the friction in things – emotions, beliefs, perceived limits – because that’s where I think we are most alive. I believe there is power in vulnerability – in remaining curious instead of proclaiming expertise. 

Specifically, at Leo Burnett, I’ll be diving into the thick of the creative work, prying open windows of possibility, and enabling better collaboration between internal departments and with external teams (sister agencies, technology and media partners, etc.) to inspire more diverse ways of thinking.

LBB> This role puts you right in the middle of this maelstrom of continuous and rapid change and evolution – what’s the key to surfing that? Keeping ahead of new developments whilst not being drawn into every latest fad seems like a tricky balance to strike!

SM> How we live is changing quickly for sure, but that’s nothing new. I think about my great aunt who was born in the 1910s and lived for 95 years. Look at all she saw! Change happens at an exponential rate, and that curve just keeps climbing steeper. Two things are essential to keeping up: 1) stay curious, and 2) stay human. Watch how people actually live. Shiny things are fleeting; useful things hold value. It’s really that simple.

LBB> Data-driven creativity is more prominent than ever and an important element of your role. So far, a lot of the narrative that we’ve seen in the industry has been around the tension between those creatives that *get* data and those that think it’s killing creativity. Is that tension still there, or are you seeing a shift in attitude? Are more creatives buying in?

SM> Oh, that tension is definitely still there. You see it all the time in opinion pieces, comment sections, even in statements offered by traditional agency leaders. For me, it’s a bit perplexing when creative people are so closed-minded. I see data as another paint in our palette. And just like having paint doesn’t make a masterpiece, having data doesn’t define a creative idea; it’s all in what you do with it. 

It’s back to that friction I mentioned earlier… You can see math and art as totally opposing concepts, or you can hold those two ideas together and create something really interesting. A lot of creative people have always gotten that. 

LBB> For you, as a creative person, what’s been the most rewarding or interesting thing about getting more deeply involved in that area of the industry?

SM> I love that the landscape is constantly changing. There is so much freedom in that.  

LBB> As a creative leader, how do you like to work with your team to get the best from them?

SM> My favourite people to work with are those that I lovingly call the little weirdos. They’re the ones who don’t fit neatly into little labelled boxes. They’re constantly curious and have passions outside of advertising. If you’re a copywriter AND a musician, I will help you bring music into your words. When creative people feel the freedom to be fully themselves, they are so much more invested in what they’re making. At least I know I am.

LBB> What is the most exciting thing about the industry today? And the most frustrating?

SM> I love that advertisers are finally gaining some humility. Meaning that we are not in control; people are. And unless we create work that respects how people live – their habits and expectations – and truly provides value of some sort, they’ll skip right past us and choose something else.

I’d say the most frustrating thing is the lingering disparagement around ‘digital’ creativity. I don’t even know what ‘digital’ means anymore – it’s everything! It’s how we all live. And honestly, I wouldn’t even call it frustrating. I don’t give it that much energy. It’s just tiresome.

LBB> You studied English Language and Literature at university – is literature still something that you have time for in your busy life? What books have had the most profound impact on your view of the world?

SM> I was more into the language than the literature. I’m a word nerd. I love linguistics and etymology; poetry, and authors who write like poets. E. E. Cummings is my forever favourite. I have a well-worn anthology of his work that I love to read aloud. Talk about someone who can’t be put neatly into a box… 

LBB> How did you first get into the advertising industry? Was it a deliberate move or was it something that happened by accident?

SM> I thought I wanted to be in production when I first started out. I worked at a broadcast PR firm as a production assistant, then went over to JWT as a broadcast traffic manager. I just wanted a foot in the door. Then, as I like to say, the Internet happened. I was given a chance as a copywriter on their first all-digital account – Helene Curtis haircare – and never looked back. 

LBB> What advice do you wish you’d had when you were starting out?

SM> The advice I give to younger people now is to say yes to lots of things. Just try stuff! Also, importantly, be someone that people want to work with. 

LBB> Over the course of your career what have been your biggest challenges?

SM> Probably the most challenging situations are when you have clients who do a lot of talking and very little acting. Living in PowerPoint-land gets very frustrating.

LBB> … And proudest moments?

SM> My proudest moments are seeing people I love and respect succeed and soar. 

LBB> Outside of the office what do you get up to?

SM> I have a daughter in kindergarten. She’s my one and only, and life is fleeting, so I spend as much time as I can making sure I see her grow up. Beyond that, I love restaurants, theatre, music, art… Chicago has so much terrific culture to offer, and I try to keep up with what’s interesting and new.

LBB> What are your plans for 2017?

SM> Good question. Let’s see what happens. 
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Leo Burnett Chicago , Tue, 21 Feb 2017 15:37:16 GMT