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Creativity Squared: Mariana O’Kelly’s Basket of Ideas


Leo Burnett Chicago’s newly appointed EVP/ECD on how her Afrikaans upbringing informs her approach to problem solving, and why her creative process begins with an imaginary French wicker basket

Creativity Squared: Mariana O’Kelly’s Basket of Ideas

According to creativity researchers, there are four sides to creativity. Person (personality, habits, thoughts), product (the thing that results from creative activity), process (how you work), and press (environment factors, education and other external factors) all play a part. So, we figured, let’s follow the science to understand your art. Creativity Squared is a feature that aims to build a more well-rounded profile of creative people. 

Mariana O’Kelly is an awarded creative Leader with 27 years of industry experience. Recognised by the Gunn Report as one of the best performing ECDs in the world, she has won multiple Grands Prix at Cannes as well as over 70 globally recognised awards. 

Mariana recently joined Leo Burnett Chicago as executive vice president/executive creative director. She oversees a creative team of 25 and runs the entire Kellogg’s portfolio for Leo Burnett, a relationship that the agency first acquired in 1949. She joins Leo Burnett after a long, successful run at Ogilvy where she earned the ranking of number one ECD in South Africa and was known for hiring more female creatives than any other ECD in the WPP network. She joined Ogilvy Chicago family in 2019 as a global ECD running one of its largest pieces of business.

Get to know her approach to creativity in this edition of Creativity Squared.



I believe that creativity is not just an output, but a way of thinking.

I sometimes wonder if I would be more creative at home if being a creative wasn’t my job. I have moments of creative inspiration, and I’ll start a painting or enrol in a course to learn how to mix paint properly, and then work gets busy, and before I realise it, I haven’t touched my project in days or weeks and the energy and inspiration are gone. I hate that as I love to work on things that don’t require approval or creative direction – something just for the fun or experimentation of it. I have a vision of my future self as an old granny painting on the beach, with wind in my hair and shells at my feet and grandkids playing in the surf. So I tell myself, ‘one day.’

Course I took on matching colour in oil painting

Creative thinking goes a long way. I think that because of this, very few problems at home or in life can keep me down for long. I believe I can brainstorm myself out of any sticky situation by applying the same creative skills I would use in a project. In those situations, I think that there must be a solution and that I just need to look at the problem from a different angle. I have 15-year-old boys and we chat about this a lot. Being a teenager in America is tough. I have to apply creativity every day to help them (and us) get through high school.
Painting of my son


I love a great story and beautifully crafted words with sentences that create pictures in my mind that I have never seen before. I like to push writers to write copy such that if you were to Google it, you wouldn’t find it on Getty or a stock library. That is what great books do for me. They transport me to a place I’ve never been, living a life I’ve never imagined. Those are the stories I can’t put down. My thinking is that of why not apply that level of imagination and passion to the stories we get to tell for brands.

It’s all about emotion for me. I am in this job after so many years because the emotional connection is the one thing that can make me go from feeling super happy to crying with tears in 60 seconds. I love this level of impact. Great work hits me in my gut and stays with me. Sometimes it makes me jealous, and, at times, it makes me angry – work so great that it makes me hate the brilliant people who make it, because it makes me wish that I had that idea and made that awesome work.

Great creativity doesn’t have to be fancy. It needs to be confident in its opinion, view or expression. I once had a team that would close the door of my office when they reviewed work with me, and that signalled to me that they were still shy about their idea and not really loving it yet. Then one day they left the door open for a review and I told them the idea was approved without seeing it. I was right. It was an awesome script that ended up making history for the brand. 

I believe that every creative person has a creative director sitting in the pit of their stomach. They just need to learn how to listen to that voice. 


I am pretty curious, and I like to explore. My process usually starts by imagining that I’m carrying a big French wicker basket and while working with my team, I’m loading it with ‘ingredients’, anything from an observation, a random reference, a tone of voice or feeling (usually a Cannes gold film from the late ‘90s), something someone said, a piece of epic music or writing, an emotion, a cultural data point, some new shiny technology… whatever. The rule is to load the basket without a critical eye or ear. I make it a habit to have a good conversation with R&D as well. Those chats are like gold. 

It’s only when I start unpacking the basket, that I start looking at it all critically against the brief - analysing what is useful and what is not, what is vanilla, and what is the new pecan praline. My initial aim is to find a fresh point of view for the brand or a provocation that feels relevant. Something simple and short enough that it can be easily shared with someone in a text and get them excited, but with enough story-making potential to scale it into an ecosystem. If I’m stuck, I pick up my basket again and go find more random things to add and play with. 


I was born in a total bubble. Early ‘70s, Rustenburg, South Africa, Afrikaans. You could say we were a niche audience. I experienced one culture. For entertainment, we sang Afrikaans songs, and we watched Afrikaans shows (dubbed from Germany and Sweden). I was never given any English books or magazines to read so I never learned another language or experienced another culture until I was 23 years old. I lived a traditional, conservative non-eventful life, so I kept myself busy with drawing. 

Always drawing, even without a desk

Colouring as a kid

When I moved to Johannesburg for my first job at FCB, I couldn’t speak English, so I buried myself in learning the craft of art direction and design. My inability to express myself properly in English forced me to keep my language simple – in my work and in my conversations. It has served me well over the years, as I know that the people who we are talking to don’t speak marketing either. It’s important to me that the work stays human and culturally diverse and relevant. I have to be able to see a problem clearly, without all the jargon, so I know what we are solving for. I will always be the first in a meeting to say, “I don’t understand what that means.”

There are so many threats for a creative project, I usually have to protect a creative idea more than I have to direct it. One of the biggest flags is when platform specialists speak their own language, forming silos, and forgetting that they all need to speak the language of the idea. Another is overthinking, and the need to put everything in a box. It’s sometimes OK to just try something that’s not perfect and learn from it. My latest saying is, ‘What would Ryan Reynolds do?’ He thinks culture first, puts the product at the heart of the idea and delivers a story with wit and charm. He is not precious, and he doesn’t have a formula. 

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Leo Burnett Chicago , Fri, 17 Mar 2023 13:13:54 GMT