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Ad Astra: Susan Credle and the Water Lilies



FCB global chair & global CCO talks to LBB’s Laura Swinton about the timelessness and timeliness of creativity as the network celebrates 150 years, competing with AI and why the advertising industry should be a little more Monet

Ad Astra: Susan Credle and the Water Lilies

“I’ve been trying to out-write the AI platforms. I love ‘em, they’re so much fun.”

Susan Credle has been spending a lot of time in the chaotic, paradoxical space between the timeliness and timelessness of creativity. She’s pitting herself against the generative artificial intelligence platforms in writing competitions, daring them to write fables about lovelorn iguanas and exploring what this convulsive tech can tell us about the uniquely human aspects of creativity as we stare into the future. But at the same time, as FCB's global chair and global chief creative officer, she’s also been preparing for FCB’s 150-year anniversary, rummaging around in the archives and excavating forgotten treasures that point us towards the abiding truths of creativity and marketing.

It’s a combination that’s bound to give a person a perspective on creativity that transcends time and space. And when that person is a magpie for all forms of art and has a deep appreciation for the spiritual aspects of what it means to be a creative person, that’s bound to take you to an interesting place.

In her own personal practice Susan sees creativity as a calling, describing it in terms that feel almost monastic and certainly timeless. Throughout our conversation, she hints at a view, shared by many artists across the ages, of creativity that flows through us from somewhere else. She picks up a copy of Rick Rubin’s new book, ‘The Creative Act: A Way of Being’, which she’s been dipping into daily. “He’s talking about artistry as almost spiritual and being one with the universe. And the more open you get, the bigger your aperture gets, the more that spiritual piece comes in.”

But don’t mistake that as a passive state of being - Susan might joke about coming across as ‘really hippie dippie’ but this creative road is one that is strewn with challenges and sacrifice, particularly in a society that doesn’t always value creativity.

“I think creativity, in general, is spiritual. I don’t think you’re born creative or not creative. I think we’re all born with creativity in us and some of us, you know, opt out. It’s uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s hard. It requires resilience. It requires dedication. It requires getting knocked down and getting up again. It requires vulnerability, rejection and the ability to take it. I think some people just go, ‘yeah, no thank you, that’s not for me’. The more I think about being creative, I think everybody’s invited to be creative and you decide whether you want to or not.”

But as hard as the process can be, the rewards are the discoveries that emerge as disparate ideas come together to present a truth. "I do think that's what a lot of creative is - having a centre that you're trying to support, but finding all sorts of disconnected ways that come together to tell me that centre. And it's so much fun when it happens, you know, it's like, you just feel the pieces clicking in. How do these two things suddenly work together?"

All of this forms an understanding that’s at the heart of Susan’s reputation as an empathetic leader. Putting your ideas out there is exposing - and more so when there’s a client involved. The adland catechism ‘you’re only as good as your last idea’ is something that Susan says “we have to knock the shit out of”. While she’s got no patience for people who flop through lack of care or effort, she urges her creative leaders to look at their batting average.

All of this speaks to Susan’s continual, pro-active and thoughtful engagement with what creativity means - which is refreshing in an industry that has a tendency to fling the word around to the point that it risks losing any currency. She drops frequent mentions of books and interviews she’s read, podcasts she’s listened to with creatives whose perspectives can be plucked out and folded in with her own.

For example, in her expeditions into FCB’s catacombs, Susan’s found a connection with a kindred spirit from ages past. Albert Lasker was, among other things, a creative and ‘salesman in print’ who became CEO and partner at the agency back when it was known as Lord & Thomas (in fact it was he who sold it to the eponymous Foote, Cone and Belding). And what Albert has really shown Susan is that everything old truly is new again - including the industry’s uncertain and evolving definitions.

“He went around asking people, ‘what is advertising? What is this thing we’re in?’” says Susan. “I think it’s fascinating - we’re still asking, ‘what is it?’”

There’s one story in particular that’s so shockingly modern that it could have easily been a case study for one of the award circuit’s increasingly convoluted new categories. When California orange growers were desperate to compete with those in Florida, Albert steered them away from trying to make some rational claim about better soil or climate, but instead created an emotional attachment. And so the Sunkist brand was born. “Well, 100 years later Sunkist is still a brand. That’s incredible. That’s timeless.”

But, says Susan, imagining herself in Lasker’s shoes and acting out his side of an imagined conversation with the client, “this is where the story gets even better.” A few years later, faced with orange overproduction, the growers had a new problem. They wanted Lasker to convince the public to eat an orange a day.

“He came back and said, ‘I can’t… but I can get them to use three a day,” says Susan, grinning in storyteller mode. “‘Well I’ve been experimenting and it takes three oranges to fill up a little juice glass. I guess we can create orange juice as a product and we’ll sell it as a drink in the morning - because you’re called Sunkist and the sun comes up in the morning. We’ll sell it as a way to start your day.’”

These days we’d call that behaviour change or product innovation or activation - and by creating a breakfast item found on menus around the world, we’d have a strong argument for ‘creative effectiveness’ or even ‘Titanium’. And it was all achieved with a print ad.

“We’re sitting here thinking we are the first to think that advertising might be a product innovation. It’s like, Lasker was doing that 100 years ago, FCB was doing that years ago. Again, you get a timely issue that he applied to a timeless brand. The timeless brand called Sunkist told him to put the timely idea into the world.”

Susan isn’t one for the viewpoint that media like TV spots, print and outdoor are ‘old hat’ (“First of all, you try writing a 30-second piece of film that makes you feel something, whether you laugh or cry or think or question - that’s an art, that’s hard to do.”), but does wonder if the easy business model of creative agencies being paid 15% of media buy made the industry focus on the expensive medium of TV to the point that we lost what the likes of Albert Lasker knew.

“Then the media just blew up and became fragmented and suddenly it was like, ‘oh my gosh, we have to get back to understanding what big marketing looks like, what grown up marketing looks like.”

Grown up marketing, by the way, doesn’t mean boring - Susan’s of the opinion that we’ve lost some of the fun of creativity within the industry. “There’s something about deciding that fun is frivolous, which I think actually translates to: creativity might be frivolous, it’s not important. We also say that creativity is so important, but I’m not sure we really value it.”

From Susan’s point of view, grown-up or ‘big’ marketing requires a vision and a commitment that can nurture a garden where ideas and executions can continually sprout and blossom, season after season. It’s that timeless-timeliness axis again.

“We throw around the word ‘platform’. I don’t think anybody knows what that means. A platform is a commitment to a vision that can last over decades. It’s not a campaign. A campaign is something in the moment that makes a platform relevant,” says Susan.

This isn’t a hypothetical for Susan. After all, it was she and her former creative partner Steve Rutter who came up with the M&M’s mascots back in the ‘90s when they were at BBDO New York. These little round oddballs are huge global icons who not only drive sales but are licensing behemoths - but that was only possible because of a belief and a commitment. The realisation that sitcoms tend to have six characters and there were six colours of M&M’s was a moment of alchemy (“some moments in time… I always believe that the universe is with you…”). All that remained was to convince the client at Mars, Paul Michaels, of how big the M&M-verse could become.

“His first comment was, ‘I don’t have enough money to develop two characters, much less six’. Steve and I said, ‘yeah… but over 10 years you might!” And lo and behold, now in 2023 Susan is still being asked to talk about her motley candy gang, years after she left BBDO.

She recalls an idea for P&G deodorant brand Secret that had been devised to reach tweens as they were yet to choose their brand. Mean Stinks is an anti-bullying platform that involved creating toolkits for school guidance counsellors. Susan believed in the potential of this to grow to a nationwide rite of passage, so much so she remembers flying to Cincinnati to implore the client. Recently at an event with Marc Pritchard, P&G’s CEO turned to her and told her that at the time, he hadn’t understood what she’d been trying to do all these years ago - an interaction she says was really meaningful and important to her.

It’s not just her own ideas - she recalls judging at an award show where a brilliant execution of the Dos Equis ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’ was written off by fellow jurors immediately for being the continuation of a platform rather than something entirely new and detached from what had gone before. 

“I think one of the things that I’ve had a hard time with in this industry is that I see ideas like that and I think, ‘how far could they go?’. Whereas I think most people are looking at ideas and what they are doing in the moment - like we just need an ad or a thing - and I have a vision to want to create something that, when you leave, it still lasts. I think that’s antithetical to what we think we do.”

An industry that frequently conflates novelty with creativity, could do well to look beyond the realm of advertising, to the arts. The great artists and writers have revisited the same themes and ideas, eking out every possible facet and iteration of the subjects and objects they’ve been drawn to.

“Someone like Monet paints and paints the same thing over and over again and they paint it until there’s nothing more to paint… I kind of feel that way about platforms. ‘We should be leaning into that platform over and over and over again until we’re exhausted, and I don’t know when that is’ versus ‘we paint one picture of water lilies’ and,” says Susan, adding in a sing-song voice, “‘done it!’”

“In our business, we should be more patient with the story we want to tell, and understand that every time we tell the story, it gets more interesting,” she continues. And as the comparison between great artists and great brand platforms meanders on, we joke about Jane Austen being told to ditch the relationships and social comedies for action thrillers.

“We wouldn’t know Jane Austen as a brand if she had been all over the place and not persistently going after that depth story in different ways.”

But as much as Susan believes in commitment regarding creative  output, when it comes to creative input it’s a completely different matter. “You know what, I'm a whore,” she laughs raucously. “Because with everything - architecture, music, fashion books - I'm all over the place.” 

There’s no one artist or writer she obsesses over - instead the art, music and literature she responds to tends to fluctuate according to what’s going on inside. “I pick things based on time, mood, what I’m hungry for. Art is almost like food. If I haven’t had something sweet for a while, I want something kind of silly. If I haven’t had to really tax myself, I want a lot of protein in what I’m reading.”

“To me, the music I listen to is the spirit I’m in,” she says. “They’re almost like day plans. Like, jazz in the morning freaks me out - but jazz at four o’clock is perfect. Brandy Carlyle in the morning works… well… she works all the time for me!”

However, that commitment can be seen in Susan’s own career choices. Following a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina, Susan headed to BBDO in New York in 1985 where she worked her way from self-described ‘bathroom break girl’ to ECD over the course of 24 years. Between 2009 and 2015 she was CCO at Leo Burnett USA before heading to FCB.

And within FCB that sense of continuity and long-termism has been adopted internally. The network has defined its own ‘brand bedrock’ that guides everything it does.

“The business is creative and creative is the business,” she says. “How do we get to that creativity? Through diversity, data and technology. Diversity, that just means more stories, more truths, more of these connections.”

Susan’s also been keen to reinforce that connection between business and creativity - around four or five years ago she says they started insisting that they did their best creativity for their biggest brands. And, as for non-profits, they won’t be doing one-off awards bait.

“I’m not against doing not-for-profit work, but we’ve asked everybody in the company that if we do that, you have to commit to it over time,” says Susan. She points to the work FCB has done for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society over the course of a decade - and that commitment has seen the organisation become the go-to place for Downs Syndrome communication.

Ultimately it’s about applying creativity so that it’s an economic multiplier. Take FCB New York’s  ‘Whopper Detour’, for example, which rewarded app users that were near a McDonald’s with a one-cent Whopper. Before the campaign, it cost Burger King $7 per app download to recruit users, and in the end it launched the app from number 686 to number one in the app store - and ended up making money for the brand.

At a time when technological, societal and cultural change feels like it’s reaching terminal velocity, it’s particularly important to incorporate technology and data into an agency’s creative practice. And a stable, long term platform creates a foundation that enables brands to be responsive to new opportunities. Data allows creatives to spot the opportunities more quickly - bringing timeliness into play (Susan asks pointedly, that if you’re going fishing in the ocean, are you choosing the boat with the fish finder or the boat without one). And technology opens up a greater breadth of possibilities. Case in point, FCB New York's Courtside campaign - when covid-19 kept fans from NBA matches, sponsor Michelob used tech to project spectators around the court to keep the competitive energy high.

“Technology is something we believe in too, there are just more ways to bring creativity to life. That’s just saying make sure your palette and the tools you’re using and exploring… don’t be afraid of it.” Indeed, as Susan’s been rolling up her sleeves and playing with generative AI. “AI is going to be a great creative partner. When I see what AI puts out, it reminds me of the first day of brainstorming,” she says, while reflecting that it’s not yet at a point where it can make the human connections. 

From her vantage point, reflecting on the timeliness and timelessness of creativity, one truth that has solidified is the absolute potency of creativity and its power to build over time. For marketers, the creative choice is always a thousand times less risky than playing it safe.

“I think it’s risky not to apply creativity to what you’re doing,” she explains, saying that her best client-side partners were absolutely wild, those who pushed her to be vulnerable and put the big ideas out there. “Think about fashion - if you’re going to a party you can wear a black dress and blend in and be safe. Or you can go: ‘You know, Billy Porter is my muse and I’m going to bring it.’ And it’s a little more scary. But then, people remember you, and it’s like, do you want to be remembered? Or do you want to blend? They’re both fine choices, but if you’re in marketing and branding, I don’t think you want to blend in. So the question is, are you a blender-inner? Because you should not have this job.”

But for those who don’t want to blend in it’s as simple - and as difficult - as committing and showing up to that timeless blank page,.

“Being an artist is a practice. Anybody can be it.  But you just have to be convinced to practise it.”

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FCB US, Mon, 20 Mar 2023 11:00:00 GMT