Susan Hoffman: On (Not) Being a Boss and Facing Up to the Hard Conversations
“This is going to sound terrible, but I don’t want to be an ad whore; I want to be someone that really makes change.” Speaking at Kinsale Sharks last week, Wieden+Kennedy Portland's ECD (and the festival’s new Honorary Chair) Susan Hoffman called on agencies and brands to be braver and face up to and engage with difficult social issues. She had been sharing some of her favourite work from the agency’s 34-year history, including the poignant Nike spot from the mid ‘90s that revealed that champion golfer Tiger Woods was prevented from certain courses in the US because of the colour of his skin. Though the spot is 20 years old, the current spate of killings of black people in the States shows that little has progressed since then.
“I’m a little bit sad when I show the Tiger Woods spot,” she told the audience. “What’s going on in the States is so sad to me, that we’re still dealing with the same racial problems.”
Susan also detailed how one employee at the agency had felt so afraid for his life after the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, but also deeply unsettled at how his white colleagues seemed to be steadfastly ignoring the issue. It kicked off a 200-strong round robin email chain and led the agency to reflect on how it could create a safe space for its African American employees and help facilitate dialogue inside and outside its walls.
But while these conversations are happening within the agency, the industry generally and brands seemed to have retreated from these vital issues. The multi-lingual take on ‘America the Beautiful’, a Coca-Cola spot from 2014, was another that Susan singled out as a highlight and something that was still relevant and resonant.
“I think it’s time for us to start taking notice again. That ‘America’ Coca-Cola spot? My god, that’s the way the world should be. Why is that so freaking controversial for a brand?” she said.
Influencing, Not Selling
Speaking to LBB after her session, Susan said that she felt that brands should be making more of their positions as influencers. She noted that it was a theme she’d enjoyed from fellow Kinsale Sharks speaker, Mr President’s Laura Jordan Bambach.
“I also enjoyed her talk for really trying to find things that are really important,” she said. “Who wants to do another ad? And brands can have an influence, they don’t have to be selling all the time. They can be inspiring. And I think that Coke ad is an example of that: you don’t see people drinking and I’m sure that there are people at Coke that don’t like it. Because where’s the drinking spot? You don’t need it. All we’re saying is that this is a diverse country and they drink coke, that’s it.”
Breaking the Programming
And while part of the issue might be down to nervous or jittery brands, the industry also faces a problem in the formulaic curriculum taught to tomorrow’s marketers and creatives at schools and colleges.
“This is my theory: I think people have been going to school for the past five or six years and they’ve been taught ‘marketing’. I only say that because I sat in on a class when I was taking my son round college and I thought, ‘my GOD if this is what they’re teaching marketing people no wonder…’ It was all ‘sell, sell, sell’ and you think ‘fuck’.”
So the Wieden+Kennedy mantra of ‘Fail Hard’ is an anathema to those people emerging from the sausage factory of advertising education – and as such, the agency leadership accepts that it usually takes a few months for newcomers to shrug off their preconceptions.
“We have to break the programming. A lot of the kids will come in and think ‘this is advertising, it has to be a certain way’. I think it takes a while to break that down, to get them to understand that they should do something that they’re passionate about, something that is not an ad,” says Susan.
“So if we’re doing an ad for Nike about running, we make sure that we put runners on it so you get the insight and the depth. But a lot of people who come into Wieden’s, I’d say, aren’t any good for six months because we have to knock the ads out them.”
But while newbies come to the agency to open their eyes and minds and are really pushed beyond any standard definitions and approaches, Susan reckons the best way to do that is to give people some respect, freedom and inspiration. It’s fair to say that Susan does not subscribe to the dictatorship school of managing creatives.
“I kind of think people don’t need bosses. I think people need someone to inspire them. A five-year-old kid needs a parent. And when a kid’s 14 it sort of doesn’t want its parent. And I look at the boss in the same way,” she says. “The other thing I’ve learned over the years is that Wieden’s is about giving people their own voice. A boss doesn’t help that. That’s why I hate bosses… I hate bosses.”
One of Susan’s major frustrations is the lack of loyalty between brands and agencies. The trend for switching up agencies on a super-frequent basis is a dangerous move for brands as Susan argues that without loyalty, trust and a proper relationship, any kind of truly deep understanding of a brand will be hard to come by. And that, in turn, impacts on the work.
Great work is, by its nature, hard to achieve and requires that the agency understands the brand and that the agency AND client understands creativity. “It’s hard to do good advertising that’s meaningful, truthful, useful, but you can get there with any brand… you just have to dig harder.”