Colleen DeCourcy: The Way I See It
Wieden+Kennedy chief creative officer Colleen DeCourcy offers up some career confessions.
Just 15 months after joining W+K as global ECD (now re-titled CCO to better reflect her role), the formidably talented, fast-moving Colleen DeCourcy was made partner. She joined the agency in 2013 from the social media agency she founded, Socialistic, for which she won top clients Red Bull and Fast Company. Prior to that she held such major creative roles as the first chief digital officer at TBWA.
An outspoken critic of gender inequality, in 2012 she revealed she was the author of Confessions of a Female Ad Exec, which detailed shocking examples of sexism in the industry. She tells Carol Cooper about the mouse houses and moss roses of her past, navigating advertising’s “boys club” and coping on just four hours’ sleep a night…
I was born in Canada in 1965, the child of British immigrants. I grew up in Toronto and my neighbourhood was filled with brand-new, lower-middle-class Irish, English, Greek and Italian families who ventured out of Europe, post-WWII, in search of opportunity.
My earliest memory is of the long, sinewy arms of my Grampa on the steering wheel of the car. I’m looking at him from the passenger seat. The sun is making a corona around his profile. It’s summer. I can smell Rothmans cigarettes on his golf shirt. It’s a smell laced with overly warm, interior trim plastic, loamy earth, and the green plants we’ve picked up from the garden centre that are now nestled in the back seat. I am very young – maybe four or five. Everything around us is in motion but we are safe. I feel an extraordinary amount of love.
I’m the product of a lot of parents. My Grampa was the head landscaper for Ortho Pharmaceuticals. We used to escape the house early on Saturday mornings before anyone else was awake and we’d go to the aforementioned garden centre where I’d get my pick of a plant. I’d always pick portulaca [aka moss rose or sun rose]. I’m not sure why, because it’s just a kind of ground cover. There were much prettier things available. We’d go back home and he’d help me plant it.
I don’t think we could have had much else in the garden in the end, only portulaca. My Nana was the regional director of a weight-loss company. The fact she worked was pretty controversial. But it was what she wanted, so my Grampa said “As long as there’s dinner on the table every night you can do what you want.” I used to help her in the basement office as she wrote the company’s monthly newsletters. They’d get copied on an old 1970s Gestetner [a type of duplicating device]. I’d turn the Gestetner machine handle, stuff envelopes and hopelessly jam up the stamp machine. When she had to go on business travel, I would sit on her bed and watch her pack. When she came home I’d touch all her clothes to see if they gave away anything of where she’d been or what she’d done while she was away.
My mother was very young when she had me. She left school and worked as a secretary to pay for her own apartment. Later in life, I was blessed with a stepfather who took me on as his own. He was a civil engineer.
I didn’t have a happy childhood and I’ve heard it said that an unhappy childhood is a prerequisite of creativity. Clearly not true, but I know a lot of adults who, as unhappy children, turned to creativity as a coping mechanism. I became an obsessive maker of miniature things. I’d make mouse houses out of food boxes and cigarette packets. The mice were invisible. I’d carry them around in my pocket and then carefully put them in the houses at night.
I used to make little books out of folded paper and put them in my Grampa’s packed lunch. He’d say “You’re going to be a writer when you grow up.” I thought I’d rather be a spy. I liked that spies hung around the outside edges of things. I loved being invisible, but present. I made my own spy ID card that I’d carry around with me – laminated by the machine at the Woolworth’s store. Through it all, I was writing.
When I was about 12 years old I was given a beautiful leather-bound special edition version of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It became my Bible. Darwin gave me a new understanding of the world and of human nature. There was a direct connection I felt between that science and the possibility that we are changeable. That we don’t have to die the same as we’re born, that if I pushed myself into inhospitable environments and just stuck it out, I would adapt and grow. It defined my own evolution, which was as much about self-actualisation as it was about escape.
I’m sure I’ve had many nicknames. I was always the new kid.
Was I a good student at school? Well, I was a popular student, but I couldn’t seem to focus academically. It said “average” on my graduating high school report card and that paralysed me for a little while. While I thought of myself as funny and quick and maybe even cool – my official record was posted as “average”. I never let that happen again.
I studied English and journalism at university but left in 1985, just short of getting my degree. I wanted a writing job.
My first job was as a receptionist for an advertising agency called Saffer Cravit & Freedman in Toronto. There was a female chief creative officer there who really inspired me. Her name was Margaret Cioffi and I’ve never met a woman like her. She didn’t set out to please anyone. She had moods. She was demanding. She could be charming and then she would be abrupt. Her bedside manner was terrible, but her work was exceptional. She was more than “one of the guys”. The men feared her because she left them off balance. They didn’t know what she was, they just respected her.
I’m not sure why it’s harder for women to be perceived as creative superstars. I think it’s tied into humility, which is more often found in women than men. We don’t self-promote as much as men. We don’t posture well.
Women are expected to place their own needs second. It’s not just conditioning, it’s part of our genetics. When a woman is pregnant, she places herself in a vulnerable position in order to deliver another life. I think it is a woman’s super power, to deliver others. However, I also think it’s every person’s right to put themselves first.
In Confessions of a Female Ad Exec, I talked about being one of the guys. About how I smoked cigarettes and hung out in record stores instead of the fashion mall. That helped me see that there was more than the archetype of girlhood that was being served up to me. I could pick and choose from both sides to create an identity for myself.
It’s not a straight line that separates male and female. I still care more about records than malls. It’s too bad that the era I grew up in attributed those things to genders. That’s what I wanted none of.
[In Confessions of a Female Ad Exec DeCourcy described how she had to work hard to be accepted as a woman in advertising in her twenties and thirties:] “I didn’t sleep my way to the top. I smoked, drank, workaholic’d and off-colour-joked my way there. Talent and a good book weren’t enough. You had to have talent and be one of the boys.”] Now, I’m not “one of the boys” but I’m not “one of the girls” either. I do think I received less sexism because of being “in the club” but it came at a price.
I had to disassociate my mind from my gender and I think it was a loss. I’m less of a guy than I used to be. Ironically, I’m becoming more of a woman as I get older – a time when some can feel less feminine. The strength and calmness I feel now comes from that place, not the guy place in me.
I have seen so much progress in the five years since I wrote Confessions… It’s been a stunning shift to witness. It gives me optimism about the state of the world. I believe that both men and women will be better because of it.
When I was starting out in the industry there were some people who mentored me and others who fought me. They all made me better. Andrew Robertson at BBDO taught me about equal pay and I’ll always be indebted to him for that. [TBWA’s] Lee Clow thought I was smart and spent a lot of time championing my thinking, which I still endeavour to live up to. Mark Kingdon, at Organic, thought he spotted a leader and guided me to find my purpose in being one. Troy Young [former chief experience officer at Organic, now president of Hearst digital media] taught me defence. Dave Luhr [W+K president] taught me that half the job is stamina. The people working beside me and under me taught me the most. People who followed and believed and tried to deliver what I could see. Those people were my real mentors.
In the early days of my career I was questing, exciting, difficult, compelling, fast, too fast, way too fast, chaotic, relentless, never satisfied, full of impossible asks. I had a lot of original ideas and that made me slightly arrogant. It was a fun time though. I liked to have fun and I created families out of my teams. I believed in us and the power of what we could do. I didn’t care about people’s experience, only their ideas, so I gave a lot of people chances they might not otherwise have gotten. It’s good to think about that. I need to remember that person a little more.
Since becoming a parent I have learnt about commitment, obligation and tenacity. Parenting teaches you about wins over time. It teaches you about removing your feelings from the situation. It teaches you about eternal vigilance. It teaches you self-control. I have learned that childhood is sticky and invasive and challenging and precious and the only thing you’ll want before you die is more time with your children. Parenting has taught me that we don’t own the people we commit to, we’re only entrusted with them. My daughter [Emma] is 23 now. A grown-up of her own making, with my help.
I don’t know really how I juggled work and motherhood when she was younger. I don’t think I did. At any given time either work or motherhood was losing. I loved her intensely and always conveyed that as hard as I could. I have a very old school view of my parental task: to lift her up and over my shoulders. If I worked and was away it was because I wanted her to go to the best schools. If I took a job in another place and moved us it was because it provided for her in a way that kept her safe and in a nice house. I also had hopes and dreams for myself and wanted my achievement of them to set an example for her.
Thinking about how mothers and fathers might juggle their careers in different ways, I think I feel a certain amount of empathy for the role men played in their families during most of the 20th century. They left home every day to provide for their families and were often forced to live as an outsider to that world. I always felt more like a dad than a mom. I think those divisions between men’s and women’s roles are rarer now.
In 1996, when my daughter was two, we relocated from Canada to the UK. The small agency I was working for, Spafax (which later became part of WPP), offered me a promotion to creative director in their London office.
At the time Spafax specialised in branded content for airlines. My journalism skills and TV experience came in handy. It was weird but cool. I saw the world with that company. We were going all over the world with cameras and flight passes. It was an amazingly open environment. No one checked your work. Both praise and criticism were rare, but expectations were clear.
I spent my raise on having a live-in nanny because I was a newly minted creative director and the hours were unpredictable. I worked almost around the clock Monday through to Friday so I could be home on weekends with my daughter. I think it was a gift to us – the time was hard won and so we used it well. Our time together always counted. It still does.
When I came to London I found art, creativity, curiosity, debate, colour, collaboration, intellectual pursuit, history, love and curry. I developed my palette and my taste. I found a bigger world and even though I eventually left London I never really went home to my smaller world again.
At TBWA in New York [where she was chief digital officer] I was hired as “a symbol of change” and that’s a tough role for a creative person. I let myself get too tired. I took the inevitable push back too personally. I forgot what I was good at.
I’m still proud of a lot from that time. The groundwork I laid for branded content and real-time social ideas wasn’t happening anywhere else in the industry and it’s still in use. That thinking delivered really new ideas for Pepsi and Nissan and adidas.
If I wasn’t in advertising and could be equally successful in another profession I would choose to be a foreign correspondent. I have this quasi-fantasy that I’ll eventually retire from Wieden+Kennedy and become the oldest living foreign correspondent at VICE News. Why isn’t there a 60-year-old female Anthony Bourdain-like character on TV? I have ideas. It’d be funny. It’s an under-served market. VICE should call me.
It was my hatred of commercials that steered me to wanting to work on them.
However, the best piece of advertising work I’ve ever seen is Double Life for PlayStation from 1999, directed by Frank Budgen. It became a fetish item for me. I transferred it onto my new, 7lb, Apple PowerBook G3 Bronze Keyboard laptop and made people watch it. It came from TBWALondon. Copywriter: James Sinclair. Art director: Ed Morris. CD: Trevor Beattie. It was the reason I took the TBWA job when it came for me. Not Apple, not adidas, but PlayStation and that fucking crazy ad. In my first month on the job I was enlisted to try to defend the PlayStation account with TBWAChiatDay LA. Sadly, it wasn’t saveable.
So much has affected the ad industry since I began in the 90s. Everything from the disruption of TV, music, movies and newspapers, the development of major social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the rise in the power of consumers and the influence they have on brands. I’d say race and gender equity has impacted our business… or it’s starting to, finally. But, technology is still the thing that’s changing everything.
I said in a 2014 interview that the industry had become a bit boring but I think at that time it was a case of a calm before the storm. Everyone was all about being smart; digital marketing had becoming pretty systematic and not about innovating with tech; ideas were 360° and placed everywhere they needed to be. It felt very orderly and bland and, quite frankly, not a lot stuck out. 2017 is proving to be a bit of a ball buster for this industry. I think it’s the year that we’ll see some of that order go away as marketers search for big, bold and explosive ideas that capture people’s imaginations.
The full-time employee model of pricing isn’t going to hold up anymore. It soon won’t take as many hands to get work out as it does right now. Technology enables an easier process for delivery. It’s always been the way of innovation. The printing press put the monks out of business, the camera put portrait painters out of business, iPhones took cameras out of business and Instagram took Kodak out of business. Progress is direct access to the means of getting to an end.
A shortening of the distance from A to B. It’s happened to the music industry, it’s happening in Hollywood and it’s about to happen to advertising. The ideas matter just as much but the infrastructure isn’t as important. What does that mean to you and me? We need to start charging for our ideas, not the process it takes to make them. Clients need to help us change the model or we’re just going to keep hacking at costs in a way that harms all of us and the work, too.
Wieden+Kennedy has been a pioneer of using advertisers’ dollars to make a social statement – from Nike’s 1995 ad If You Let Me Play to this year’s Unlimited work to Secret’s support of women and transgender individuals [the Stress Tested for Women campaign]. We did it when we felt that it was authentic. Now it has become a style of advertising and I’m not sure that it is always appropriate.
In terms of brands/products I’ve not yet worked on that I would like to, I’d like to work on Tesla. Actually, I’d like to work with Elon Musk. I don’t care on what. I’m wildly interested in Tesla’s solar roof panels.
I would also like to make something with Jeff Kling [CCO Fallon, Minneapolis].
My advice to a young person entering the advertising industry is to be as disruptive and different as possible. Even if you’re an absolute nut, if you have a real and singular voice, there will always be a spot for you.
What’s of most importance – artistic merit or success for the brand? They only count when they work together. That’s why it’s a job.
If I could change one thing about myself it would be my attachment issues.
If I could time travel just once, knowing I could come back to the present, I’d go back to nine months before June 14, 1946 and put a condom on Donald Trump’s dad.
My biggest fear is losing my daughter.
I last cried yesterday. At dinner. I was laughing.
My greatest weakness is my choice in men.
Am I extrovert or introvert? I’m an introvert. Do we have to talk about it?
I’m not sure if I know when I have been closest to death. How can I know what person almost fell asleep at the wheel of their truck while I was crossing the street?
I don’t think I can really cope with the four hours of sleep a night I have. I just know I have to. I’m not a rocket scientist; ideas don’t just fall out of the air and land in my lap. My brain needs quiet and solitude to really process things. Late night and early morning is the time that happens for me.
My heroes are everyone who got up today and believed in the good intentions of everyone else.
What makes me angry? Selfish manipulation.
My hobbies are gardening, bike riding, playing guitar badly, feeling guilty about not doing yoga.
I used to Google myself. Now I only care what people who say it to my face think of me.
Mobile phones are the single greatest invention of our times. And mobile phones are the single worst invention of our times.
If I was US president for a day, I’d issue an executive order that funded Planned Parenthood until the end of time.
I only have two ambitions: to be a good mother and to do things that matter in the world.
I’m determined to be remembered as the person who reinvented Wieden+Kennedy and that thought makes me very happy.
At the end of the day, what really matters is self-respect.