For decades, top creative leaders often seemed measured both by the scope of their work and the size of their personalities. Their combination of swagger, tenacious vision and hands-on leadership styles ensured their fingerprints were on each campaign and their bios were replete with industry honors.
But the 2010s were a new kind of decade, one that required a new kind of leader in the face of a rapidly changing industry and society. As the ad agency world finally confronted its caustic and toxic legacy of patriarchy, and faced harder questions than ever about the value and shape of creativity, those new to the industry—or struggling within it—sought a champion who would put the needs of the many over the egos of the view.
And they found it in Colleen DeCourcy.
Whether she knew it or not at the time, DeCourcy was well on her way to becoming a steadying voice of reason in an industry that needed a more inclusive conscience. As part of a sea of change which brought in waves of equity to advertising and humanity to a vocation in desperate need of it—DeCourcy, co-president of Wieden + Kennedy, emerged as one of advertising’s most inspirational, respected and influential figures.
And DeCourcy has always done it her way, in a style that puts others in the spotlight, highlighting the good that talent can achieve for brands and themselves. Whether revealing her own, sometimes painful experiences, or quietly working behind the scenes, she uses empathy as one of her most powerful tools. Her influence has not only shifted minds but has had a significant impact on Wieden + Kennedy, winner of Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year two years running and Global Agency of the Year in 2017.
In talking to several people at various points in her career, it’s clear that through her dedication, fearlessness and genuine authenticity, that DeCourcy deserves the distinction of being named Adweek’s Creative Leader of the Decade.
From seeker to builder
DeCourcy was a seeker early in her career in Toronto. A writer by trade, her first job in the advertising industry was in 1986 as a receptionist at a small agency Saffer Cravit & Freedman. That foot in the door would lead her to Margaret Cioffi, the agency’s chief creative officer, who DeCourcy found to be a force of nature and inspiring through her work and attitude.
From there, an eclectic, but formative part of her story unfolded. DeCourcy went into the world of broadcast media at CBC TV/Variety to get more hands-on experience. She then worked with a concert promoter, expanding her own range of experiences with acts as varied as the opera Aida, Madonna, The Rolling Stones and more.
DeCourcy gave birth to her daughter in 1994, and started at a small agency Spafax (which later became part of WPP), where she was promoted to creative director and sent to London. The agency’s specialty was branded content for airlines, and her journalism and TV experience was put to good use. At the time, the internet was nascent, yet to fully exert its influence on society, where DeCourcy started to gain well-placed momentum.
DeCourcy returned to her native Canada and landed at digital shop Organic in Toronto in 2000 as vp and chief creative officer. The agency was bought by Omnicom in 2003 and folded into BBDO. DeCourcy was on the move again, assigned to Detroit to revive the office’s fortunes with its Chrysler client.
In Motor City, she developed innovative ways to understand and connect with consumers, leading the agency’s experience design group through non-traditional campaigns for major clients like Daimler-Chrysler, including the Dodge Charger “Unleash Your Freak” and Jeep’s “The Mudds” initiatives. The latter was a groundbreaking 2005 campaign that incorporated webisodes, geocaching, sweepstakes and virtual tours to promote the Jeep Commander.
DeCourcy also hired set designers from the Detroit Opera Theater Co. to build “persona rooms,” located in Organic’s Detroit offices and inhabited by typical Chrysler customers to help the automaker’s marketing teams and agency partners better understand and empathize with consumers.
It was evident quickly that DeCourcy was cut from a different mold and was willing to experiment with unique ways for brands to break through.
“When she got there, it was a breath of fresh air,” said Renae Heuer, director of engagement management when DeCourcy arrived, and now Huge’s managing director for Detroit and Chicago. “We had a talented team, but she leveled up what we were doing and had a way with clients that helped them see what was possible.”
“It was a grueling job at a difficult time,” added Andrew Robertson, president and CEO at BBDO. “There are plenty of people in the world who are brilliant when everything’s going well, but when things get bad, the number of people on that list gets shorter, and Colleen is one of them. She powers her way through and, on top of that, has a great way with people.”
A bold leap into the unknown
After a little over a year as chief experience officer at JWT in New York, DeCourcy’s story and path changed dramatically at TBWA as chief digital officer starting in 2007. At the time, digital continued to gather pace, and there was tension between the traditional and a new breed of agencies.
“Every digital agency was pointing the finger at traditional networks saying that we were dinosaurs,” recalled Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, then CCO at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles during DeCourcy’s time. “Colleen was welcomed with open arms, and we thought, ‘wow, she’s going to be our savior.’”
“In our first meeting, we thought that we were in the presence of something bigger than us,” added Kristi Van DenBosch, U.S. president at Oliver agency, who was running TBWA’s Tequila office in Los Angeles. “And, by the way, this was a room full of Chiat\Day people with no unhealthy egos at the time. Everyone thought she was special from the very beginning.”
From the jump, DeCourcy made it clear that digitizing the agency’s work was not only a must but could still have limitless creative possibilities, even in the face of massive changes happening in the agency world. The groundwork she laid for branded content and real-time social ideas wasn’t happening anywhere else in the industry and resulted in new ideas for Pepsi, Nissan and Adidas.
“In retrospect, it was a little early to draw a battle line between traditional and digital,” said DeCourcy. “No one realized that technology wasn’t done changing, but I did see it as the first seismic shakedown of traditional advertising.”
According to Schwartz, DeCourcy brought in new people who “contributed to the overall good of the company.” But most importantly, according to Schwartz, she started breaking down all kinds of barriers.
“Let’s start with the obvious: she is a woman. That was new,” he said. “But I recall a keynote speech to all of the creative directors. It wasn’t the typical macho creative director presentation. She had just come off of judging an awards show and was exhausted—and showed vulnerability, which was also different. But throughout the talk, she built up a ton of strength and had the room fully inspired … that we could do great things on this thing called the internet. She was disruptive at a company known for disruption.”
Grateful for her time there, especially working directly with Lee Clow, DeCourcy found that what was most beneficial for her was the importance of individual talent in a team context, and how agencies can stand or fall based on chemistry and culture. While she commended TBWA for how they ran their business, DeCourcy sensed it was time to throw it all out to adopt a beginner’s mentality.
“There seemed to be a bureaucracy that held you back from trying different things. What could you do if you had no muscle memory?” pondered DeCourcy. “I wanted to create that kind of leadership and step out to create an environment where that tug of war wasn’t happening.”
DeCourcy left TBWA and started Socialistic in 2011. As she puts it, the agency was a collection of “fun mongrels, odd people who were odd shapes.” There were journalists writing in the nascent content marketing space for brands like GE, Red Bull, Fast Company and others. There were coders. The agency was unpacking what programmatic advertising meant in terms of targeting. Social was also a huge part of the agency, as evidenced by its name and remit.
“I felt like it was a major space for creativity and had a feeling that social media would blow up,” said DeCourcy.
DeCourcy was taking another big leap, but one of the most dramatic moments was disrupting the conversation about diversity, inclusion and equality in the industry.
In 2012, DeCourcy lent a story to Digiday’s anonymous “Confessions of a Female Ad Exec.” But, instead of her words being printed in full, a crucial passage noting sexually-explicit banter was initially edited out. Three months after its publication, she felt it was essential to not only include the crude language but to name herself as the piece’s author.
What was also telling is that she acknowledged her own path, being “one of the boys” and understanding that it was time to not just talk a good game about diversity, inclusion and equality, but to put her leadership on full display without fear.
“I remember the messages of support from women, gay men and women, people of color,” recalled DeCourcy. “There was a mix of people who stood up and said that they felt the same way.”
Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Movement, took notice of her bravery and invited her to speak at one of the organization’s earlier conferences in San Francisco.
“No one was giving her a stage,” said Gordon. “But this was a significant moment in her career because it put her out there. She met other female creative leaders, and it was the right time and context for her almost to relaunch herself.”
According to DeCourcy, women of her generation formed “muscles, adjusting ourselves and our personalities. And the way we came to work was to fit with the power that existed. I think this is an unavoidable generational transition that we’re in right now. But the good news is that leaders are being held accountable, and it’s not radical to talk about how workplaces aren’t set up for people who are considered different.”
DeCourcy is on the board of Time’s Up and helped found the advertising arm of the organization to address the continuing issue of harassment in the industry. She’s also a board member of The Wing and makes a point to praise and throw her support behind work being done by other organizations dedicated to creating a more equitable and fair trade, such as the 3% Movement and Adcolor.
According to Adcolor’s founder, Tiffany R. Warren, who also serves as Omnicom’s svp, chief diversity officer, DeCourcy is hitting her stride at just the right time.
“She grabbed the baton from [the industry’s female] forebearers who were very lonely at the top, trying to manifest their careers and destiny in a man’s world,” she said. “Colleen created a new blueprint for people to follow.”
What makes that pathway so formidable, according to Warren, is that DeCourcy is playing the long game and is more than merely one voice in the chorus.
“I’ve learned that presence doesn’t equal power,” she said. “If you’re present and have no power, you stand in the way and are a distraction. If you have the power to disrupt and change policy and the way work is done, then you are a catalyst and a change agent. Colleen thinks not only about people currently in the business, but those who have yet to enter.”
Finally finding a home
To DeCourcy, building the future felt right at Socialistic, and her newly-established high-profile could propel her to even greater heights. Plenty of people were paying attention but, unbeknownst to her, one of advertising’s most influential figures, Dan Wieden, was watching closely.
In April 2012, Wieden’s global head of talent, Melanie Meyers, set up a lunch for DeCourcy to meet with Wieden and Dave Luhr, then the agency’s COO. Set under the premise that the duo simply wanted to talk to her about how to retain talent, DeCourcy didn’t know that succession planning was being discussed. She also feared that she didn’t exactly make the best of first impressions.
“I rode my motorcycle over from the office in Brooklyn and was late,” DeCourcy recalled. “I took my helmet off and thought about now being disruptive I was, looking at this man (Wieden) that I had waited my whole life to meet.”
“We could see that the industry and the business we’re in was dramatically changing. And, if I’m honest, it scared us,” said Luhr. “We had a lot of talent that understood where the business is today, but we needed senior creative talent that knew where the business was going to be tomorrow.”
The three kept the conversation casual, talking about talent, culture, creating agencies and independence. DeCourcy didn’t hold back, was frank, and shot from the hip about what she thought was wrong with the way big agencies were running and why she started her own thing.
“I left the meeting thinking ‘wow, do I ever love that guy,’ and ‘Dave was pretty smart, too,’” said DeCourcy. “I also thought that it was my lucky lunch of the year, and I would probably never see them again.”
“When we met Colleen, fairly instantly, we felt like that she was one of us … She’s ‘a crazy’ and could fit into this agency and help it evolve,” admitted Luhr.
After some time, DeCourcy was asked to come to Portland to meet others at the agency.
“I was about halfway through the process before I actually realized what was going on,” recalled DeCourcy.
Even after she joined the agency, she assumed that she was brought in to be a “plus-one” to longtime, storied creative leadership. But she soon realized that Wieden had brought her in to disrupt an already outstanding agency, yet one that hasn’t had the most successful track record in bringing in outsiders.
“It’s not a place that has a great history of absorbing transplanted organs, and then thriving,” noted Robertson. “I think what’s happened—and all due credit to her—is that it wasn’t just an organ transplant, but a heart transplant. Not only has it been successful, but the body is healthier than it was.”
What was crucial was for DeCourcy to get the backing, and seniority, to come in and change the agency.
“Change comes from the top, and we wanted to make sure that she felt protected in that role,” said Luhr, who now serves as the agency’s chairman. “She pushed all of us to no longer be nervous about the future, but to jump right in and put our arms around it.”
But, for DeCourcy’s part, walking away from what she started at Socialistic—stopping a career defined by a great degree of independent wanderlust—was filled with challenges.
“It was a tough thing for me to do as someone so independent, cocksure and stubborn, to come out of my own place and go into Wieden + Kennedy, work hard to figure it out, and let the waters just take me along,” she said.
“I like that Colleen has found her home,” added Luhr. “Colleen doesn’t like to find home. She likes to drift and experiment. I love that she has found her home in Wieden + Kennedy and that we have found Colleen. That makes me happy.”
For all of the work, creative excellence and colorful history, DeCourcy still has what she calls “conflicted feelings about leadership.” But it seems as though that, despite this, she is hitting a new level of understanding about the influence that she exerts within and outside of W+K’s walls.
On the one hand, she continues to look forward and extolls the virtues of the agency’s focus on building the fortunes of brands in the new economy. But DeCourcy’s superpower may be the light that emanates from her leadership as a powerful attractant.
“She has a different way of leading, and in a way that I love,” said Laura Jordan-Bambach, co-founder and CCO of Mr. President in London. “She brings people in close, looks after them, is non-hierarchal and incredibly humble.”
Even among clients, her leadership cascades through some of the world’s largest and most prominent brands, like Facebook, an account that she leads with Susan Hoffman, W+K’s global creative director and creative chairman.
“Colleen is a modern-day Frank Capra,” said Facebook CMO Antonio Lucio of the comparison to the great Italian director. “She brings humanity to her work and likes to approach all subjects with nuance and compassion. She believes in people and that behind us all there is goodness waiting to be unfolded. Her work is always hopeful and appeals to the best in us all.”
To some, it feels as though DeCourcy has arrived. But, for those who know her well, it feels as though she’s just getting started.
“I never sensed a lack of strength when I first got to know her almost 12 years ago,” said Nancy Hill, former 4A’s CEO and founder of consultancy The Agency Sherpa. “There’s something inside of her that keeps growing stronger. I hear people quite often express a belief that we don’t have any icons left in our industry, but she’s right up there, in my opinion.”
Hill also notes that DeCourcy doesn’t necessarily fit into the more traditional mold of what a “creative” was in the past.
“She’s great at recognizing ideas and getting them to a place where they become part of the culture, and I think creative leadership is figuring that out with the right people in the room at the right time to get it done,” she added.
It’s almost heresy to think that it’s time to slow down or rest on any laurels. There’s still work to be done in making advertising a more humane, safe and rewarding place for all. It’s also a time to be brave, lead the industry by example and take a few well-reasoned risks in the new economy.
DeCourcy thrives in brackish waters where a constant churn of talent, clients and issues is de rigeur. But instead of leading from the front, she swims along with everyone, ensuring that they reach the shore safely.
“[At Adcolor two years ago], she said that ‘if one of us is not free, all of us are not free,’” said Warren. “That was one of the most powerful statements I’ve heard on a stage. Colleen doesn’t want the accolades, she doesn’t want the attention, but I hope she knows, in her heart of hearts, how much she’s changed people’s lives through her leadership.”