Whole Foods’ Will Chau Knows the Importance of Fostering a Creative Culture

'I'm trying to create a culture where the best idea wins, and I don't care where it comes from'

For Chau, there hasn't been one huge mistake, but rather, a lot of small ones—specifically, ones that illustrated how ego can get in the way.
Headshot of Doug Zanger

Will Chau’s career history has been a long trip up and down the West Coast, with stops at (mainly independent) agencies in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. From there, he pivoted to Austin, Texas, spending 13 years at famed agency GSD&M before becoming Whole Foods Market’s global director of creative and branding.

But it was his first gig at Kresser/Craig in Los Angeles that truly set the foundation for Chau’s thinking.

“My partner and I would show my first ecd, Dan Mountain, our work,” Chau recalled. “He would say, ‘This isn’t the kind of work that I do, but that’s why I hired you. I don’t get it, but I respect it.’”

Armed with that experience from that point forward, Chau believes that it impacts the way he perceives creativity in a team dynamic. “My job is not to influence the team in terms of my vision, but to take all of these different thoughts, styles and ideas to make the work more robust,” he explained.

Chau has worked on major brands like Alaska Airlines, BMW, Kia, Kohler and Southwest Airlines, among others, but his new role has proven to be the biggest test of his career, and he said his years in the agency world “set me up for this challenge.”

That’s because part of Chau’s success in fostering a creative culture at the brand, he believes, is based on those earlier agency days, where being scrappy paid dividends. His tenure at GSD&M, however, galvanized his understanding of what it takes to be a creative leader. “It also helped me think about how an agency or brand can be a community,” he explained.

Community plays a significant role for Chau, especially in his work at Austin Creative Department, an ad school he founded seven years ago. Graduates have landed at agencies like Deutsch and 72andSunny or gone directly to brands. In one case, a Nigerian student studied remotely and ended up with a design gig in his country. He also has dreams of continuing his career in the U.S.

“If he can get to that step and start his life and career here, no award on my shelf will ever top that,” said Chau.

Big Mistake

For Chau, there hasn’t been one huge mistake, but rather, a lot of small ones—specifically, ones that illustrated how ego can get in the way.

Lesson Learned

Early in his career, Chau observed others and noticed how ego can be a counterproductive force. The end result was a spirit of openness, collaboration and understanding that great ideas can come from every quarter of an organization. “I’m trying to create a culture where the best idea wins, and I don’t care where it comes from,” he said.

How He Got the Gig

Chau wasn’t necessarily looking for a new position while at GSD&M, as he was “really happy there,” he said. However, a former colleague of Chau’s mentioned the role to him. After looking at the job more closely, he saw how interesting and compelling the challenge could be. “When a role this big comes up, you have to take a look,” Chau said.

Pro Tip

Chau said the creative, advertising and marketing worlds move pretty fast—and it can be daunting at times. He noted that it’s important to take a step back and “try to have some perspective. Things are never as great or as terrible as you think they may be. And things always work out.”

This story first appeared in the March 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.