Suz Keen, along with colleague Lyle Yetman, was promoted to executive creative director at McKinney, a previously unfilled role at the agency, earlier this July. Suz's main role is heading up and defining the creative vision for the agency's Los Angeles office.
Suz segued into advertising after majoring in mathematics, before becoming a web designer and coder - all experiences that inform the creative she is today. As too is a career stint in the sunny climes of Whybin\TBWA Sydney before a return to the United States, specifically New York, to join the likes of Translation, Interesting Development and Pereira O’Dell.
Keen to know more about what informs her work and her plans for McKinney, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Suz.
LBB> According to your bio, you believe “in following the fun and letting your life inform your work”. What are the main things informing your work right now?
Suz> Right this very hot moment, there are so many things informing my work. Vintage car culture, immigrant stories where people experience cross-cultural environments, Shea Serrano's latest book ‘Hip-Hop and Other Things’, exploring the many facets of LA and rediscovering the west coast, being outside, and flexing creative muscles and applying craft to adjacent industries. As long as I’m learning something and trying new things outside my comfort zone, I’m satisfied.
LBB> You were appointed ECD for McKinney back in July - how is the new role going so far? What were the main challenges and aims when you took that title?
Suz> It’s going well and I’m feeling tenacious. A challenge for me is self-preservation. It can feel, at times, like I’m never doing enough. There is always something to fix or improve upon. In this role, I’m more visible than ever but my natural state is to fly under the radar.
The aim is what it’s always been – set my team up for success. Articulate a vision. Find good client partners. Make impactful work. That’s how I’ve always viewed the job of a creative leader since I was an ACD.
LBB> Being an ECD must mean that your role is a bit more about managing and inspiring your creative teams. How are you finding that challenge and how are you going about that process?
Suz> This part isn’t as much of a challenge because growing talent and talking inspiration is how we work the work. It’s a language we speak every day as creative people. Sharing what lights us up is our love language. Pushing creatives to make work that only they can make, drawing on life experiences to tell human stories, talking about art, music, and books… these are my favourite kind of exchanges because I always learn something.
As far as setting a creative vision for the entire agency to live into, thankfully I’m not alone there. Lyle Yetman (ECD) is an inspiring partner and we get to co-navigate together.
LBB> The appointment of ECDs at McKinney was really driven by agency growth and new business. What has been spurring all of that positivity for the agency?
Suz> I think magic can happen when old-guard and fresh blood embrace progress together. A special blend of stability and risk. We approach problems together with an openness - it’s part of our culture. When we do this we can create new approaches together. This openness at McKinney has allowed us to trust each other even as we pioneer new territory for the agency. The foundation is there because we live our values. For me, it’s back to following the fun. I rely on levity every day, you can tell in the work when people had fun making it.
LBB> With that in mind, which pieces of recent work have you been particularly proud of and why?
Suz> The Foldables campaign for Samsung with Todrick Hall
and his team - WOW, what a banger. They did everything right from collaborative choices to craft. What a joy to experience that campaign. Scott Clark runs our Samsung business with a finesse I admire.
Another recent campaign I love is our Little Caesars ‘Fanceroni Pepperoni’ social activation. Naturally, we made an IG Galleroni with merch drops selling out in minutes.
LBB> You started as a maths major, then became a web designer and coder. How did you wind up in advertising?
Suz> So many of us had not-so-linear paths into this industry, right? The simple answer is, I had no idea what I was doing. Not a lot of hotties inviting me to parties in my math classes. Let’s just say my priorities were perhaps not as academic as they could have been at the time. When learning to code, I loved the front-end design more than anything and that’s when I hopped over to study visual communications. Out of school, I got a job as a digital art director without knowing what it meant or all the places a creative person can flex. All I knew was that I enjoyed web design and someone was paying me to do it.
Thankfully, some people saw potential in me, but it took me years to fully uncover the spectrum of where that kind of job could take me. A lot of failing forward as a digital evangelist at a time when I didn’t look the part and no one wanted what I was selling. I should mention this was pre-social media.
LBB> Does any of that pre-advertising experience help you in your job today? How?
Suz> God yes! What kind of human insights and stories can one tell without a big gnarly dose of living? Interesting people make interesting work. All the weird jobs, good bosses, bad bosses, friends outside the industry, travel, living outside the States, and letting lifestyle lead instead of work – all of this oftentimes made me feel like a late bloomer in this industry, but after a while, I learned to make it into my superpower. Listening, observing, fuck-ups, paying attention, being okay with being wrong – these qualities make me good at my job. I can’t say I would’ve cultivated those qualities in the same way if I had a linear path or had gone to ad school. Not that it was a choice… I didn’t know ad school was a thing!
LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?
Suz> Music inspired me the most growing up. There is nothing like the feeling of unlocking when a track or an album hits. My Dad had a rule that if we were mid-song when we got home we could not get out of the car. We had to sit there with the volume up, let the track play out and melt our faces off. Anything audio driven is the most powerful sensation to me.
LBB> Speaking of inspiring people - who in the industry inspired you?
Suz> I tend to take inspiration from outside the industry. But I have learned a whole hell of a lot from some interesting people.
I learned how to advocate for myself from Morgan McAlenney.
I learned how to tap into an irrational amount of confidence from Guto Araki.
I learned how to negotiate from Avish Gordhan.
Matty Burton and Dave Bowman showed me how to cultivate a creatively led culture to fuel growth.
I learned how to hone a creative vision through massive amounts of chaos from John Norman.
I learned how to be decisive early and often from Rob Lambrechts.
I learned when and how to peacock from Steve Stoute.
Paul Ciaozzo taught me you can’t work around problems - through is the only way.
Jonathan Cude has immediately shown me the trust and autonomy I aim to show others.
Sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to work for a woman. But I pay attention. Whether they realise it or not, I’ve gleaned a massive amount from Sheena Brady, Colleen DeCourcy, Shannon Washington, and Suzanne Lau.
LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay fresh? The pictures in your bio would suggest that food is somewhat of a hobby.
Suz> I mean yes, food is delicious and I like eating it. There’s not a lot I won’t do for a plate of dumplings. Film photography is a passion, especially medium-format. I enjoy the tactile mechanics. I made a commitment a couple years back to write a few pages, long-hand, every morning and that has served me well in a multitude of ways. I love the job of directing and one day will carve out more time and space to develop those skills. My partner and I restore and customise vintage cars. Building a lifestyle brand around that is his current focus and that’s been thrilling. Scuba diving. Backgammon. Those are my jams.