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Why One of Advertising's Iconic Creative Leaders Believes the Agency Model Will Survive

Susan Credle on reinvention, change and diversity

Susan Credle is one of the few women in the industry to rise to creative chief. Sam Kelly

When FCB announced last June that it was hiring Susan Credle as global chief creative officer, it marked the end of an era for Leo Burnett as well as a refresh of sorts for the IPG network.

In her 25 years with BBDO New York, Credle rose through the ranks to become executive creative director. From 2009 until leaving last year, she led Leo Burnett's creative department as U.S. chief creative officer. There, she drove some of the Publicis shop's biggest accounts, including Allstate and Procter & Gamble's Secret.

Eight months after announcing her departure, Leo Burnett has yet to replace Credle, one of the industry's most prominent creative chiefs and one of the few women to ascend to that role.

In her first interview since starting her new job, Credle opened up about what kind of culture she is working to create at FCB, and the industry's persistent diversity problem.

Adweek: What is it like to lead a global team after running North American creative for Leo Burnett?
Susan Credle: My last job was a good training ground because Leo Burnett Chicago was a 1,500-person office with lots of different creatives and accounts. I had to learn how to be an autonomous leader, set people up with a seed and get out of the way. It's a similar role at FCB. I'm here to inspire the global team, lift them up and establish a global culture that gives everybody a role and a mission.

How do you plan to build that culture?
The first thing is getting the mission right. There will be people who are inspired, and there will be people who say, "This is not for me." The shaved "B" at the bottom of the FCB logo is indicative of what we believe. This job of marketing and advertising is never finished, and we must always be evolving, whether it's our thinking on a brand or the way we figure out what we do as an agency.

What attributes would make someone an ideal FCB hire or partner?
I'm looking for long-distance runners. I want people who have big ideas and then execute them tactically in the moment … to build something bigger than an illustrative ad-type object. This requires a vision that's further out and goes beyond the brief of the day. We don't have to hire everyone, but we have to be open to partnering with different people [from outside the agency world]—20-30 years ago we partnered with brilliant directors. Why aren't we doing the same with product designers?

We just brought on [chief strategy officer] Deb Freeman, and I'm very interested in more collaboration between all the offices. It may be the case that we will make major creative hires in North America within the next few months.

What are some recent campaigns indicating the direction you want to go?
I hope you will see things from FCB that ladder up to bigger stories versus things that are tactical and interesting in the moment, but once the moment is over they're done.

The Nivea dolls were an incredibly interesting innovation—a way of creatively solving the problem of getting children to be still so their moms can take care of their skin. It's a new way of storytelling. A lot of people see a name like FCB and think "traditional," but at the end of the day a "traditional" agency puts the brand at the center of its thinking and looks around the world to ask, how do we make it relevant today?

         

Nivea and FCB Brazil created dolls that get sunburned to teach kids the importance of sunscreen.

Another piece I really liked was This Girl Can by FCB Inferno. Because of technology, we can forget that film is an incredibly powerful medium, and when we craft it well, it's intoxicating. We can't dismiss the traditional ways of telling stories, but we must create new ways without forgetting the old. Our work doesn't have to save the world, but you need to know why you're here and live hard into it.

How do you see the industry at large responding to clients like P&G and Unilever slashing their marketing budgets?
There's a lot of talk of project-based relationships...but I think that's going to sort itself out. We're going to see more clients saying, I need someone who understands my brand. It's a team play. If that erodes, we're going to see people have a really hard time doing their jobs because when you have lots of people competing for the attention of a client, things can get messy very fast.

What about the predicted death of the agency of record model and clients outsourcing production work?
We did it to ourselves; we started breaking up the agency in the '70s. An agency was a full offering of strategic thinking, media buying, creative development and production. Then the media left, the research left and the strategy left. Now, brand publishers like BuzzFeed look like a classic agency. But I believe that, if you're not letting your creative agency be part of production...you're missing out on 90 percent of what makes something brilliant.

Do you see FCB pursuing partnerships with companies like BuzzFeed?
We have always been open to alliances. But since I got into this business, my theory has been that I have the opportunity to create something just as interesting as anything else in the world, and I don't understand why all of a sudden we think [sponsored content] is an aha moment. We shouldn't just take up space. Every time we do something, we have to do it with purpose.

How can the ad industry make progress on the larger conversation about diversity?
I grew up in a homogenous South...then I moved to New York City where diversity takes on a whole new role. I'm also a woman, and it took me a long time to say, there are no women on the stage with me.

I thought [the idea of quotas] was stupid; I disagree now. I was on an activation jury this summer and met [Dentsu's] Swati Bhattacharya, who was fantastic. We never would have met if there hadn't been a conscious choice to put more women on that jury, and six months later we named her the chief creative officer of FCB Ulka. The more that agencies and media speak out about diverse people and putting them in the light, the more it will start becoming the truth. We have to stop thinking of diversity as "the right thing to do." It just makes the world more exciting. That's not affirmative action; that's paying it forward so things can happen more quickly.

We have a lot of work to do, but I think we're on the right path. People get cynical about it. I always hear things like, "Why don't you guys stop making fun of white males?" The only thing that makes me nervous is the backlash. [Sometimes] I think, maybe we shouldn't be pushing too hard, but you look at the numbers and they don't lie.

         

"This Girl Can" urged women to exercise.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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