(Miss this week’s The Leadership Brief? This interview below was delivered to the inbox of Leadership Brief subscribers on Sunday morning, Oct. 4; to receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)
“We’re at our best when we’re in the eye of the cultural storm,” says Colleen DeCourcy, co-president and chief creative officer of Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), the agency behind some of the most striking advertising of the past three decades, including Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. But storms take a toll. In recent months, Wieden+Kennedy has grappled with the morality of having Facebook for a client. The debate over creating the agency’s signature heart-tugging work on behalf of Facebook—which has been sharply criticized for spreading disinformation and faced a boycott this summer over its role in fomenting hate speech—comes as W+K is facing COVID-19-induced business pressures that forced it to cut its staff by 11% in July. DeCourcy, acknowledging some colleagues were “very upset” about the Facebook relationship, said she was hopeful that Facebook would “put things in place.” But, she adds, “I think that our patience will not be infinite.”
Despite these challenges, W+K continues to pick up new clients, including McDonald’s. Recent popular spots include a split-screen piece for Nike, which seamlessly blends pairs of sports scenes (a burly discus thrower’s twirl morphing into a ballerina twirling across a stage; Tiger Woods snapping his club on his knee after missing a putt, morphing into a batter snapping his bat on his knee after striking out.) The 90-second ad has received over 58 million views since being posted July 31. One advertising trade publication called it “maybe the best COVID spot yet.”
DeCourcy, 55, who rides motorcycles and has a tattoo on her left forearm that reads “Your faith needs to be greater than your fear,” joined TIME for a video conversation from her New York–area home. (The interview was briefly interrupted by FreshDirect delivering “1,700 pints of ice cream.”) She shared her views on keeping creativity fresh, the President’s mass-communication skills and the intense internal conversations about Facebook.
(This interview with Wieden+Kennedy co-president and chief creative officer Colleen DeCourcy has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Can you walk us through the evolution of ads during COVID? There was a supercut of the initial ads and a lot of snarky commentary about everyone using the same sad, plinky piano music. How many distinctive stages have there been?
There are three or four. The first one would have been “you’re not alone.” It is sometimes hard to remember now, but people were really scared. In the very beginning, we felt a call to remind people that we were all in it together, to bring some sort of hope to the moment. The second one would have been “proof of life.” At that point we went from the black screen, white letters, into something that was a lot of fun. The third one was “we shall overcome.” And I think the fourth one is “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Can you expand on the second one, “proof of life”?
Well, you know, proof of life, really when people were so embedded in their homes, and in that second stage where we were handing cameras to people and having them shoot their lives within their four walls. It was sort of like “This is what’s happening for me.” I think that was the phase that people related to the most. It’s like “Oh, that’s going on in my house.”
Do you have a signature approach, a house style?
It’s a pretty broad space for Wieden+Kennedy. I’ve always thought that Wieden+Kennedy is a set of values applied to an industry that’s kind of harmful when it works outside of a set of values. What you see in our work is a soul, a conscience, a sense of humor. Usually self-deprecation. An optimistic view of humanity and what it’s actually capable of. If you had to really pin down a house style, it’s that we’re champions of people.
For me, one of your iconic ads is the P&G spot about mothers of Olympic athletes.
I can’t disagree with you there! That spot is so beloved, it’s like your favorite family member. And that was a real stepping-out for us. We had a client that wasn’t the type of client we usually work with. We had them sponsoring an Olympics, and so naturally, their minds went to “P&G supports athletes.” We kept rolling it around, rolling it around. We just couldn’t make anything come out of it. Athletes weren’t better athletes because they used Bounty. Athletes were better athletes because their mothers dedicated their lives to doing two jobs. And P&G helped those mothers.
It feels like your work is moving from that emotional tugging at the heartstrings to a little more irreverent style, such as “Dilly-Dilly” for Bud Light and the “Smell Like a Man” campaign for Old Spice. It’s almost like you drove a stake through your own heart. Was that intentional?
<span style="font-weight: 400;">I think this is one of the great reckonings of our time.</span>In some ways it was. I will say we still do both. But there really were discussions. There was a moment after “Imported From Detroit” and “Halftime in America” [two somber Chrysler spots, one narrated by Clint Eastwood, that the agency produced for consecutive Super Bowls] where there was sort of a communal discussion amongst all the creative leaders at the agency, which was “Oh my God, we created a monster. I mean all these manifestos. If we have to do one more, we think we’ll die.”
Describe the evolution of your agency’s work.
It is sort of a pulling back from the grand loftier narratives and elevating the smaller human quirkier stories.
It’s also a very sharp tone difference, from emotional, almost sentimental, to—
Sassy. It’s a little smart-ass, it’s a bit of a wink. We try to always keep the self-deprecation in it because that optimism we feel about people does not have room for sarcasm or negativity. Again, when you’re doing mass communications, how do you keep talking like your granddad when the kids are buying the stuff at McDonald’s? So it behooves us to continue to change.
And that was a conscious slaying of the king?
Yeah, it was. When something is so successful, that’s when you need to break it down. That’s when businesses go bad, when you keep doing what got you famous. But you don’t really know, when it’s something like creativity, which are the load-bearing walls.
Can you just expand on that a little bit? That’s such an interesting notion, load-bearing wall.
I think a common mistake that a lot of companies make is if you’re successful, you start to codify the way you do things as being your culture. And what everyone always says is “Don’t break the culture.” And what that means in invisible ink underneath is “Stop telling us to do things differently.” By figuring out what the load-bearing walls are, what I mean is which things can you destroy and take apart without toppling the whole house?
So what core beliefs are keeping up the house?
One is this idea that through our work, we will be making some kind of difference. So I have never worked at a place before where when a brief came in, the first thing all the creatives did was go, “Hey big company, do you think that’s true?” Usually the kind of questions you get are “Well, what do you think they want to say? Well, how much money do they have to do it? Well, where do they want to shoot?” And the staff here is like “Do we want to work with them?” The ability for dissension and debate is a load-bearing wall.
I want to push back on that just a little bit because I do think your old-school body of work—the Nike, the P&G, the inspiring manifesto, whatever you would call it—does sort of have a message. But “Dilly Dilly”? I know it has sold a lot of beer, but there’s a mindless aspect to it.
[Laughs.] That is very much what the guys wanted to say with the work. We had in that period of time a lot of “millennials want” and a list of things millennials like. I can’t tell you how much every single client came to us with the same thing. And it was they [millennials] want purpose. They care about personal rights and personal politics. They want to do good in the world. And we went through a series of work with—like that first round of work was very much like “So how do we do that with a beer?” And we came out with the election spot with Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen, and they were taking on equal pay for women and gay rights and all this stuff. It didn’t move the product at all. What came out of that was that group of people saying, “Man, the truth is it’s beer. It’s fun. It’s mindless. It’s something you do with your friends.” And so you have little catchphrases, and you have the same joke you tell over and over. You can’t apply this lofty stuff to everything.
What is your analysis of Donald Trump, his ability to stay on brand and to command the moment? Strictly as a marketing professional, do you have to tip your hat to him?
I wouldn’t tip my hat because I think it’s not professional. What I would say is I look at him and there is an innate—it’s like that guy is plugged into these tremors. And he just feels them and he’ll say whatever has to be said to bring them to the fore. It’s almost like a shock machine. That kind of shock and awe is a portion of mass communications. But again, if we’re a set of values applied to mass communications, that is an absence of [Trails off.]
Who I do think are really amazing are the Lincoln Project’s [ads]. They are swift and I am very, very smitten.
</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">Don’t be a pleaser, be a solver. Don’t laugh if it’s not funny.</span><span style="font-family: -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont, 'Segoe UI', Roboto, Oxygen-Sans, Ubuntu, Cantarell, 'Helvetica Neue', sans-serif;">
Is there any client you would refuse to create advertising for? I ask because of your work for Facebook, which has become such a corrosive force in our democracy and our mental health.
I will tell you that it has certainly created a lot of hard conversations inside the agency. I’ll tell you the two reasons why for 2020, anyway, we were sticking it out. Where we chose to dig in with Facebook was Facebook Groups. In its early days during COVID, Facebook Groups did a lot of amazing things. So it was this way of using your actions, not talk. So that was one of the reasons that we helped. If we could make a push that says people have the power, and if we could show a way that was the right way to use Facebook while Facebook put things in place, hopefully, that we’re going to help stop the bad. And let’s face it, there are more people on Facebook than there are people in the Catholic Church. So how do you be in the zeitgeist without understanding that? But it’s a moment-by-moment decisionmaking process for us.
So there’s people internally that would prefer you did not have Facebook as an account? What is the explicit concern?
The concern was that we had civil rights leaders showing up at Facebook. And I run a company that cares so deeply and desperately about equity. And people finding their voice. And it was all happening at a time when because of COVID, our clients weren’t spending and the industry was contracting. It was truly one of those famous battles of the head and the heart. I think this is one of the great reckonings of our time.
If you were a betting person, do you think Facebook will be a client next year?
If I was a betting person? I wouldn’t put too many of my dollars on that space.
Switching gears, how do you lead a shop full of creatives?
It really is the flashlight. Creative people don’t check lists well, it’s not how they’re inspired. So what you do is you put light on the thing that we’re all moving toward. And you let them find through their own expression and creativity their way to that. But you make that a very crisp circle of light, and everyone has to get inside that circle.
What does your tattoo [“Your faith needs to be greater than your fear”] say about your leadership credo?
It’s just about if you let fear decide where you can go, you just have to throw yourself forward and believe. What is it Kurt Vonnegut said? “Jump off a cliff and grow your wings on the way down”? It represents the thing I know that I have to do to always be moving forward. It’s the role I’ve put for myself as a leader. In groups of people, I’m the one that says, ”Come on, what’s the worst that can happen?”
You’ve thrived in a male-dominated industry and faced down a lot of sexism on the way up. What advice do you give to young women?
Don’t be a pleaser, be a solver. Stick up for your ideas, what you think matters most. Don’t laugh if it’s not funny. Stuff like that.
I understand you just sold your beloved 2011 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle.
I sold it to a young woman in advertising so that she could experience the same freedom on it that I did.
Any ads that you remember from your childhood?
The Pillsbury Dough Boy! I was in love, in love, in love with that. I remember badgering and badgering and badgering my mother to bring home from the grocery store some Pillsbury biscuits. And she brought it in, and we were going to make them. And I took the thing and slapped it on the counter. And when the guy didn’t come out, I dissolved. I lost my will to live.
BUSINESS BOOK: Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.
AUTHOR: Michael Ondaatje.
APP: I am a Stitcher addict.
EXERCISE/STRESS-RELIEF ROUTINE: It’s kind of embarrassing to say this, but I’m not a big exerciser. But I am constantly moving all the furniture around in my house. I’m a chronic redecorator.