working

Colleen DeCourcy: The Way I See It

W+K global CCO Colleen DeCourcy talks to Shots about her creative path, women in our industry, and asks “why isn’t there a 60-year-old female Anthony Bourdain type on TV?” (She’s got ideas.)

+PDXOctober 2nd 2017

These are excerpts from a feature story on W+K global CCO Colleen DeCourcy that originally appeared on Shots.net. Read the original here.

“On the Origin of Species helped me understand human nature; the possibility we’re all changeable.”

When I was about 12 years old I was given a beautiful leather-bound special edition version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It became my Bible. Darwin gave me a new understanding of the world and of human nature. There was a direct connection I felt between that science and the possibility that we are changeable. That we don’t have to die the same as we’re born, that if I pushed myself into inhospitable environments and just stuck it out, I would adapt and grow. It defined my own evolution, which was as much about selfactualisation as it was about escape.

I’m sure I’ve had many nicknames. I was always the new kid. Was I a good student at school? Well, I was a popular student, but I couldn’t seem to focus academically. It said “average” on my graduating high school report card and that paralysed me for a little while. While I thought of myself as funny and quick and maybe even cool – my official record was posted as “average”. I never let that happen again. I studied English and journalism at university but left in 1985, just short of getting my degree. I wanted a writing job.

My first job was as a receptionist for an advertising agency called Saffer Cravit & Freedman in Toronto. There was a female chief creative officer there who really inspired me. Her name was Margaret Cioffi and I’ve never met a woman like her. She didn’t set out to please anyone. She had moods. She was demanding. She could be charming and then she would be abrupt. Her bedside manner was terrible, but her work was exceptional. She was more than “one of the guys”. The men feared her because she left them off balance. They didn’t know what she was, they just respected her.

I’m not sure why it’s harder for women to be perceived as creative superstars. I think it’s tied into humility, which is more often found in women than men. We don’t self-promote as much as men. We don’t posture well. Women are expected to place their own needs second. It’s not just conditioning, it’s part of our genetics. When a woman is pregnant, she places herself in a vulnerable position in order to deliver another life. I think it is a woman’s superpower, to deliver others. However, I also think it’s every person’s right to put themselves first.

In Confessions of a Female Ad Exec, I talked about being one of the guys. About how I smoked cigarettes and hung out in record stores instead of the fashion mall. That helped me see that there was more than the archetype of girlhood that was being served up to me. I could pick and choose from both sides to create an identity for myself. It’s not a straight line that separates male and female. I still care more about records than malls. It’s too bad that the era I grew up in attributed those things to genders. That’s what I wanted none of. [In Confessions of a Female Ad Exec DeCourcy described how she had to work hard to be accepted as a woman in advertising in her twenties and thirties:] “I didn’t sleep my way to the top. I smoked, drank, workaholic’d and off-colorjoked my way there. Talent and a good book weren’t enough. You had to have talent and be one of the boys.”] Now, I’m not “one of the boys” but I’m not “one of the girls” either. I do think I received less sexism because of being “in the club” but it came at a price. I had to disassociate my mind from my gender and I think it was a loss. I’m less of a guy than I used to be.

Ironically, I’m becoming more of a woman as I get older – a time when some can feel less feminine. The strength and calmness I feel now comes from that place, not the guy place in me.

I have seen so much progress in the five years since I wrote Confessions… It’s been a stunning shift to witness. It gives me optimism about the state of the world. I believe that both men and women will be better because of it.

When I was starting out in the industry there were some people who mentored me and others who fought me. They all made me better. Andrew Robertson at BBDO taught me about equal pay and I’ll always be indebted to him for that. [TBWA’s] Lee Clow thought I was smart and spent a lot of time championing my thinking, which I still endeavour to live up to. Mark Kingdon, at Organic, thought he spotted a leader and guided me to find my purpose in being one. Troy Young [former chief experience officer at Organic, now president of Hearst digital media] taught me defence. Dave Luhr [W+K president] taught me that half the job is stamina. The people working beside me and under me taught me the most. People who followed and believed and tried to deliver what I could see. Those people were my real mentors.

In the early days of my career I was questing, exciting, difficult, compelling, fast, too fast, way too fast, chaotic, relentless, never satisfied, full of impossible asks.

I had a lot of original ideas and that made me slightly arrogant. It was a fun time though. I liked to have fun and I created families out of my teams. I believed in us and the power of what we could do. I didn’t care about people’s experience, only their ideas, so I gave a lot of people chances they might not otherwise have gotten. It’s good to think about that. I need to remember that person a little more.

Since becoming a parent I have learnt about commitment, obligation and tenacity. Parenting teaches you about wins over time. It teaches you about removing your feelings from the situation. It teaches you about eternal vigilance. It teaches you self-control. I have learned that childhood is sticky and invasive and challenging and precious and the only thing you’ll want before you die is more time with your children.

In 1996, when my daughter was two, we relocated from Canada to the UK. The small agency I was working for, Spafax (which later became part of WPP), offered me a promotion to creative director in their London office. At the time Spafax specialised in branded content for airlines. My journalism skills and TV experience came in handy. It was weird but cool. I saw the world with that company. We were going all over the world with cameras and flight passes. It was an amazingly open environment. No one checked your work. Both praise and criticism were rare, but expectations were clear. I spent my raise on having a live-in nanny because I was a newly minted creative director and the hours were unpredictable. I worked almost around the clock Monday through to Friday so I could be home on weekends with my daughter. I think it was a gift to us – the time was hard won and so we used it well. Our time together always counted. It still does.

When I came to London I found art, creativity, curiosity, debate, colour, collaboration, intellectual pursuit, history, love and curry. I developed my palette and my taste. I found a bigger world and even though I eventually left London I never really went home to my smaller world again. At TBWA in New York [where she was chief digital officer] I was hired as “a symbol of change” and that’s a tough role for a creative person. I let myself get too tired. I took the inevitable push back too personally. I forgot what I was good at. I’m still proud of a lot from that time. The groundwork I laid for branded content and real-time social ideas wasn’t happening anywhere else in the industry and it’s still in use. That thinking delivered really new ideas for Pepsi and Nissan and adidas.

If I wasn’t in advertising and could be equally successful in another profession I would choose to be a foreign correspondent. I have this quasifantasy that I’ll eventually retire from Wieden+Kennedy and become the oldest living foreign correspondent at VICE News. Why isn’t there a 60-year-old female Anthony Bourdain-like character on TV? I have ideas. It’d be funny. It’s an under-served market. VICE should call me.

It was my hatred of commercials that steered me to wanting to work on them. However, the best piece of advertising work I’ve ever seen is Double Life for PlayStation from 1999, directed by Frank Budgen. It became a fetish item for me. I transferred it onto my new, 7lb, Apple PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard laptop and made people watch it. It came from TBWA\London. Copywriter: James Sinclair. Art director: Ed Morris. CD: Trevor Beattie. It was the reason I took the TBWA job when it came for me. Not Apple, not adidas, but PlayStation and that fucking crazy ad. In my first month on the job I was enlisted to try to defend the PlayStation account with TBWA\Chiat\ Day LA. Sadly, it wasn’t saveable.

So much has affected the ad industry since I began in the 90s. Everything from the disruption of TV, music, movies and newspapers, the development of major social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the rise in the power of consumers and the influence they have on brands. I’d say race and gender equity has impacted our business… or it’s starting to, finally. But, technology is still the thing that’s changing everything. I said in a 2014 interview that the industry had become a bit boring but I think at that time it was a case of a calm before the storm. Everyone was all about being smart; digital marketing had becoming pretty systematic and not about innovating with tech; ideas were 360° and placed everywhere they needed to be. It felt very orderly and bland and, quite frankly, not a lot stuck out. 2017 is proving to be a bit of a ball buster for this industry. I think it’s the year that we’ll see some of that order go away as marketers search for big, bold and explosive ideas that capture people’s imaginations.

The full-time employee model of pricing isn’t going to hold up anymore. It soon won’t take as many hands to get work out as it does right now. Technology enables an easier process for delivery. It’s always been the way of innovation. The printing press put the monks out of business, the camera put portrait painters out of business, iPhones took cameras out of business and Instagram took Kodak out of business. Progress is direct access to the means of getting to an end. A shortening of the distance from A to B. It’s happened to the music industry, it’s happening in Hollywood and it’s about to happen to advertising. The ideas matter just as much but the infrastructure isn’t as important. What does that mean to you and me? We need to start charging for our ideas, not the process it takes to make them. Clients need to help us change the model or we’re just going to keep hacking at costs in a way that harms all of us and the work, too.

Wieden+Kennedy has been a pioneer of using advertisers’ dollars to make a social statement – from Nike’s 1995 ad If You Let Me Play to this year’s Unlimited work to Secret’s support of women and transgender individuals [the Stress Tested for Women campaign]. We did it when we felt that it was authentic. Now it has become a style of advertising and I’m not sure that it is always appropriate.

In terms of brands/products I’ve not yet worked on that I would like to, I’d like to work on Tesla. Actually, I’d like to work with Elon Musk. I don’t care on what. I’m wildly interested in Tesla’s solar roof panels. I would also like to make something with Jeff Kling [CCO Fallon, Minneapolis]. My advice to a young person entering the advertising industry is to be as disruptive and different as possible. Even if you’re an absolute nut, if you have a real and singular voice, there will always be a spot for you..

I only have two ambitions: to be a good mother and to do things that matter in the world. I’m determined to be remembered as the person who reinvented Wieden+Kennedy and that thought makes me very happy. At the end of the day, what really matters is self-respect.

This story originally appeared on Shots.net.