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5 Minutes with… Lisa Bennett



Dell Technologies’ VP of global brand and head of Dell Blue talks to Laura Swinton about creativity that drives progress, knowing when to fight hard for a great idea and how working with students allowed her to see the industry through the eyes of a brave and open generation

5 Minutes with… Lisa Bennett

Lisa Bennett’s formative years in the advertising industry were spent in the hallowed halls of Leo Burnett Chicago, where the words of the agency’s illustrious late founder would resonate around the corridors. And looking at Lisa’s career to date, one particular Leo Burnett quote springs, unbidden, to mind: ‘Curiosity is the secret to creativity’. 

It’s evident that Lisa has been driven by a relentless curiosity and attraction to new challenges. At DDB West, it was the bringing together of traditional and digital in the heart of Silicon Valley. At her alma mater, the University of Texas, she jumped into the world of academia and found herself learning from gen z students, who opened her eyes to new possibilities. And now, at tech giant Dell Technologies, she has ventured somewhere completely new again - client-side. 

At Dell, Lisa heads up the in-house creative agency Dell Blue (an international group of around 200 people) while also overseeing global brand strategy. It’s an expansive role - and a mind-expanding experience as Lisa immerses herself in the culture and embraces Dell Technologies’ purpose to create technology that drives human progress.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Lisa to find out more.

LBB> How did you come to be working with Dell?

Lisa> Prior to joining Dell, I was at the University of Texas at Austin as executive director of ‘The Lab’ in the School of Advertising and PR. The Lab is a new programme that is home to ‘Integrated Communications Campaigns’, a capstone course for seniors and second-year master’s students. They brought me on board to build and manage The Lab which prepares students for careers in advertising, media and PR.

One of my responsibilities was to attract a diverse range of client sponsors to collaborate with students on real projects. I reached out to some of my friends who are CEOs and CMOs that I thought might be interested in sponsoring The Lab. In the first year, I managed to attract some great sponsors including Amazon, Molson Coors, e.l.f. Cosmetics, Marco’s Pizza and Dell Technologies. 

While working with Dell, I met Liz Matthews, SVP of global brand, creative and experiential marketing. I was really impressed with her and her team. After working with them on a project for The Lab, Liz approached me about joining her team in a new role that combined strategy and creative. The role included owning the brand essence, strategy, architecture, guidelines and governance as well as managing Dell Blue, their in-house creative agency. The opportunity provided a new challenge for me and combined two things I love – evolving a brand and growing an agency. To do what I love and have the opportunity to work with a great team at an amazing company born in my hometown of Austin, Texas was just too good to be true. 

LBB> How does what’s happening at Dell differ from what you left behind on the agency side?

Lisa> There are some significant differences between working in an advertising agency and a global company. I spent the first few months learning about our products and services and getting to know the various teams within marketing and the ones we partner with.

It’s been a huge learning curve for me. It’s a whole new challenge. I’ve led the creative charge on a number of global brands, but I’ve never been on the inside. Most agencies are focused on creating content, but when you work on the client side, you are focused on creating business impact. You get to know your products and services intimately and have even more of a vested interest in the success of every product launch, every campaign and every touchpoint that involves your brand.

I can’t speak for other companies, but Dell has an amazing history and culture. We are deeply committed to diversity, equity, and advocacy for one another. I strongly believe that, whether you are looking to work for an agency or a brand, the most important thing is to find a place that has a strong culture.

LBB> There are so many different ways of ‘doing’ in-house, and it seems to differ because every brand and business culture is different. So, what’s unique about Dell’s in-house set-up?

Lisa> One thing that makes us unique is our entrepreneurial spirit. This obviously stems from our founder, Michael Dell. Our people are incredibly passionate and always searching for a better solution. We have a healthy obsession with the possible. And because we have such strong relationships with people across different functions, we are able to dig deeper and come up with truly differentiated and innovative solutions. 

LBB> What did you learn from working with students at the University of Texas?

Lisa> My role was to help students gain a better understanding of how agencies operate. While I hope I helped them learn something about our industry, I was surprised at how much I learned from them. I really value my experience there as I had the opportunity to work with and mentor young people who were just about to embark on their professional careers. It was so energising to hear them talk about what they want for the future. Students approach every challenge with a fresh, unfiltered perspective because they’re not jaded. They’re brave. I’m excited to see what they’ll bring to this industry.

LBB> And thinking back to your own start in the industry, what drew you into the creative and advertising world to begin with?

Lisa> I’ve loved to write and draw for as long as I can remember. I was also into music and was on a music scholarship at the University of Texas. I quickly learned that I didn’t want to pursue a career in music. I took a course called ‘Introduction to Creative Advertising’ in my sophomore year and was invited to join the portfolio sequence, which is now called ‘Texas Creative’. I didn’t know anything about it but signed up when I heard it combined art and copy.

During the fall semester of my senior year, Leo Burnett attended the Texas Creative Portfolio Review and liked my work. I followed up with them and was incredibly persistent. My then-fiance (and now-husband) was planning to take a job in Chicago, so I told them, ‘I have to move to Chicago, so you need to hire me’’. I guess they remembered me -- either because I was ballsy or annoying – because they offered me a job. 

LBB> How did that early experience at Leo Burnett shape the creative and creative director you’d go on to be?

Lisa> I feel very fortunate to have worked for two incredible global agencies, Leo Burnett and DDB. At Leo Burnett, you could still feel the founder throughout the hallways. There was one Leo Burnett quote in particular that resonated with me: ‘When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won't come up with a handful of mud either.’

That quote has stuck with me my entire career. To this day, I encourage my team to take risks, to swing for the fences.

LBB> And then there’s Bill Bernbach at DDB, where you also spent a decade as chief creative officer of DDB West…

Lisa> Bernbach said: ‘The future, as always, belongs to the brave’. I continually push myself and my teams to be brave. To always find a way. A good creative leader champions even the smallest acts of bravery. Not just in the work we do, but in challenging the status quo. We should always be striving to create a better future and that takes guts.

LBB> Looking back over your career. What have been your creative highlights?

Lisa> One of the first global pitches I worked on was for Heinz Ketchup. Michael Conrad was Leo Burnett’s global chief creative officer when I was the creative director on McDonald’s Youth. The target audience on the pitch was teens so he asked me to be the creative lead. I was only 32 and had never led the creative lead on a pitch, much less, a global one. 

We had an amazing team, and the work was incredible. The campaign the team came up with was called ‘Talking Labels’. We took ‘tomato ketchup’ off the label and all that was left was the Heinz keystone. We filled the keystone with phrases that gave a personality to Heinz. Things like ‘One billion french fries can’t be wrong’ and ‘Meatloaf’s only hope’. It was a campaign that went well beyond advertising as we changed the label on the actual bottles. Leo Burnett won the global business and the client loved the pitch work so much, we pretty much produced it as is - including changing the labels on the bottles. That campaign went on to win a D&AD Black Pencil and was inducted into the Clio Awards Design Hall of Fame.

One of my favourite ideas we created at DDB was for the Clorox Company. It was called ‘The Reverse Graffiti Project’ and was created for the launch of Green Works, a plant-based cleaner. The team found a graffiti artist in London whose technique was called ‘clean tagging’ - power washing to remove dirt and leave an image. The idea was to create a larger-than-life demo that proved the product worked AND was eco-friendly. 

The production of the project was going to cost around 50k and we didn’t have enough in the budget to produce it. We had 450k allocated for the production of the TVC for the campaign, so I told our producer, “you now have 400k to do the TVC.”

The team came up with such an innovative idea and we all worked together to make it happen. One of our producers had the idea to get a city permit to clean the side of the Broadway tunnel rather than purchasing outdoor space. The creative team sourced reclaimed wood and cut stencils of plants in the creative director’s garage. We hired Doug Pray, the incredible documentarian behind Art & Copy, to shoot it. The project won multiple awards including a Gold Cannes Media Lion, Silver Outdoor Lion and Bronze Design Lion.

I love this idea because there were so many people doing what we talked about earlier - reaching for the stars, being brave, never saying never and finding a way to make it happen.’ 

LBB> How do you figure out when it’s worth pushing and taking the risk, not asking for permission, versus when a battle is not worth fighting?

Lisa> I always start from a strategic place. Does it make sense for the brand and is it true to our brand and what we believe? The Reverse Graffiti Project is a great example of that because Green Works are plant-based, eco-friendly products and a lot of people didn’t know that. We had to show that it was green and that it worked. 

When you’re pushing the boundaries and you’re thinking about new approaches, it can’t be just creative for creative’s sake. It must be done with intent. I tell my team to think about the product, and the essence of the brand, making sure that we remain true to that, and that we communicate it in a way that’s credible.

LBB> Looking around at the industry right now, what’s exciting you at the moment?

Lisa> One thing I’m excited about is thinking about how brands connect people in both the physical world and a virtual world. They’re not mutually exclusive and they’re starting to merge. We, as marketers, have to think about living in that hybrid world and what that means for our customers. We have the opportunity to connect with people in so many different ways. 

One of our brands at Dell Technologies is Alienware. The team is doing an amazing job of appealing to our audience’s desire to explore the new and unfamiliar. They’re really pushing the boundaries into new and exciting territory.

Dell Technologies’ purpose is: ‘We create technologies that drive human progress’. Our technologies enable people to do amazing things. That’s why we are constantly innovating - to create technology that moves people and our planet forward. What excites me most is working at a company that is committed to imagining and reimagining technology in an effort to create meaningful, positive change in the world.

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Dell Blue, Tue, 25 Oct 2022 13:19:00 GMT