Susan Credle is fond of a horticultural metaphor. The chief creative officer of FCB global first uses one to describe her dissatisfaction with mature brands that, she says, have relied for too long on building growth through cutting their marketing budgets.
As Credle points out, consistent trimming eventually means there’s nothing left at which to wave the secateurs. “If you haven’t been investing in growth and putting money towards organic growth and building your brand, once you have cut everything you can cut it’s going to be a sad state of affairs,” she says.
Brands should be treated more like gardens, thinks Credle, with a feeding and watering routine to encourage growth rather than constant chopping. “A beautiful garden not maintained will not be beautiful with time, if you don’t take care of it.” Younger companies tend to understand this better, Credle thinks: she recently met the owner of a small but very successful cauliflower pizza business, whose board of directors had repeatedly advised doubling the company’s marketing and advertising budget as a strategy for maintaining growth.
Such a trend might usher in a “beautiful change” in favour of the value of creativity, hopes the New York-based CCO, whose biggest wish for the industry in which she’s spent over 30 years working is for clients to correctly value, and pay for, the best ideas. She sees a lot of those in this part of the world: speaking to Campaign from Mumbai where she attended FCB’s global summit, Credle thinks work from India, which includes FCB Ulka’s recent award-winning #NoConditionsApply campaign for The Times of India, contains “a looseness, a freshness” that excites her — “it doesn’t look like somebody studied the awards list and tried to emulate them.”
Another office whose work she enjoys here is New Zealand, although she wonders about the impact of the Christchurch attacks on work from that country. “It will be interesting to see what happens with the work because prior to this week New Zealand was always fun, light, let’s have a laugh. It will be curious to see culturally what brands and agencies will do with this moment in time. It’s weird, I remember when 9/11 happened and for me as an American it changed my feeling of being American forever.”
Brilliant creativity being valued more highly would stop talent seeking other opportunities at better-paying tech companies, says Credle: and young talent is also at the root of her next gardening analogy, when I point out that her own career, in which she’s moved just three times — after 24 years at BBDO, Credle spent almost six at Leo Burnett before joining FCB in January 2016 — must seem unfathomable to today’s millennials, who typically jump ship every other year.
Credle says she worries for this generation. She was inspired recently by a horticulturalist who, during a lecture in New York, told his audience that his best advice for creating a great garden was to move into one place and stay, the better to learn the intricacies of the views, the soil, the light and all the things that really affect the health of living things in that particular spot.
“I think that’s what I feel bad about for young people who are hopping around all the time,” says Credle. “They are just creating stuff. They are not building brands. It takes time to understand the business, to understand the brand, the people and cultures you are working with, to be able to navigate them and put things out that are really going to matter.”
"[When I started as a creative leader] I was micro-leading, I was all over people, I had a perfection sort of fate that I was born to, I didn’t want people to fail and I sure wasn’t good with it"
Credle is, she accepts, a natural long-term thinker. After leaving BBDO, she resolved never to spend less than five years in a job because she thinks it takes that long to create “anything of value that would have a chance of remaining”. Brands wanting to have a point of view in the world should adopt the same philosophy towards any purpose projects, she thinks. FCB’s ‘Never Finished’ tagline fits in well with this concept. If an idea dies in six months, says Credle, she feels she’s let the client down. She’s justifiably proud that some campaigns she created 20 years ago are still going: she was integral to the creation of the M&M’s characters still used today, for example, and says she gets a “warm feeling” when she sees campaigns whose foundations she worked on so long ago.
The perspective Credle has gained over three decades of work lead her to conclude that advertising has in some ways come full circle. She thinks the rise of television as a mass media made marketers lazy — “All you had to do was put up something interesting on TV or you could buy your way in” — but notes that books about marketing released before TV’s dominance describe a scene that looks very familiar in today’s world of the internet and fragmented screens and audiences.
It’s heralded a return to a more disciplined approach to marketing, says Credle, and this intrigues her. “It is really not doing ads,” she explains, “but understanding brands and expressing this through ad-like narratives and pieces of creative.” Even today’s small budgets are familiar. When Credle worked on M&Ms in the early 2000s, she had very limited resources but a brief to make the brand look much bigger than it was. “We did a lot of things outside television and a lot of things that were strategic and placed directly so we got a lot of value but we did it through creativity. It was the most fun I ever had in my career because it wasn't just about producing film, it was really about thinking about their brand and their business and what we could do to move it.”
It was around this time in her career that Credle also made a conscious shift in the way she worked as a creative leader. She confesses to being “very bad” as a leader when she first started, because she was still acting like a creative maker. “I was micro-leading, I was all over people, I had a perfection sort of fate that I was born to, I didn’t want people to fail and I sure wasn’t good with it.”
When she realised she needed to make a change, Credle talked to friends and identified that she’d been operating under a model of "scarcity”. Working on the belief that every great client, brief and opportunity would be the last, this saw her acting in survival mode. So she began to try to do the opposite. If she believed she was working in a world of abundance, she theorised, it would lead her to be a more generous boss. “I think that fundamental shift from surviving to generosity is the most important thing a great leader can do. It is hard. It sounds great — “oh be generous” but it is super hard to get your ego of the way, to believe that your work that got you there will sustain you.”
Not everything has become easier with experience. When Credle says she thinks marketing values remain the same over time, she has another awareness at play about how this sounds, which relates to the industry’s imperfect attitude towards age. “Coming out of a 55-year-old [Credle is 55], that could be interpreted as ‘she’s out of touch’. Maybe coming out of a 30-year-old, that would seem progressive and intelligent and forward thinking.” Is advertising ageist? “Maybe a little bit,” concedes Credle. “I think we have been too quick to forget the people that have been in this business and done brilliant things.”
To dismiss the “wise, seasoned human beings” who have worked in the industry for several decades is to miss out on “access beyond belief”, says Credle. And given the emerging trend around young people switching back to unconnected flip-phones because of their addiction to the internet, she wonders whether those who lived before smartphones might actually be better placed to understand the coming world.
For all her experience and her many awards, Credle at first says she doesn’t often reflect on work she’s done in the past. But the more she talks, it’s clear that this isn’t entirely true. Along with that “warm feeling” when she sees one of her campaigns continuing in a new direction, she also gets upset when something doesn’t look right. “I’m like 'arg, that’s so wrong, why did they do that?' It’s kind of like somebody adopting your child and you’re like: 'You let them drink? What, why!'” She also confesses to phoning the creatives at an agency she’d left to ask why they’d walked away from the vision.
“I guess I do care,” says Credle. If her whole career’s work was a garden, it seems likely that we’d still find it bright and flourishing after so many years of careful tending.
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