Girl Guides: Leo Burnett chief creative officer Susan Credle on creating equity for the next generation

In a world where we are constantly looking for the next big thing, the longevity of an idea is rarely afforded the approbation it deserves. Continuing our Girl Guides series where we catch up with the women trailblazing a path to the top of our industry, proving role models for young girls along the way, Leo Burnett’s Susan Credle tells The Drum’s Katie McQuater we are missing a trick if we’re not creating equity for future generations to build upon.

Equity is a word you don’t hear very often in advertising, and yet it’s what Susan Credle, chief creative officer at Leo Burnett USA, wants creatives to deliver – creative equity that can be gifted to the next generation, put out into the world and built upon in years to come. Longevity, she says, isn’t valued or considered as much as it should be in advertising.

“We flip around with messaging so much that it feels like the thing you put your soul into, the longevity of that idea, lasts as long as it’s out there, and we don’t support the bigger idea for very long. I wish everyone in this business could create something that becomes an equity for the next generation, and that you watch somebody take your thinking, your line, your character or your story, and start to make it relevant to the next generation.”

Credle began her career at BBDO in New York, where she spent the next 24 years. When she got into the business in the 1980s, she says she was given “so many gifts” from the previous generations; creativity that she was then able to “play, twist on and take to the next level”.

Flying to New York on a one-way plane ticket and $400 – a graduation present – in her pocket, perhaps it was with this sense of wanting to make a mark on the world that saw her climb the ranks from secretary to the role of executive creative director, though her “Southern politeness”, in her own words, has been a personal challenge when it comes to pushing her hands out first.

The move to Leo Burnett in Chicago in 2009 was a “crazy” jump for Credle, who “loved” New York City, her clients and her accounts at BBDO. Yet a twist of fate prompted her to change her creative path after she discovered she and her husband were unable to conceive.

Credle decided there and then she would make the “crazy decisions” that if she had been able to have a family, wouldn’t be possible. In her mind, it was the only way she could “forgive the universe” for pushing her down a path she didn’t think she was going to go on. And so when she was offered the job at Leo Burnett, she accepted, which she admits was like “jumping off the high dive” after almost a quarter of a century at the same agency.

Moments after landing in Chicago, and before she had even begun her first day at Leo, she had a rocky start in the form of a voicemail from a client threatening to pull their business. So did she regret the move in that moment? “I felt sucker punched,” she laughs. “I kept waiting for the cameras to come out and go ‘you’ve been punked’. But it’s kind of like jumping off the high dive and halfway through you lose your stomach. Did I regret jumping? Well, I thought, I’ve already jumped, I’m not taking it back – and I don’t regret it.

“It’s been almost five years and I have been stimulated and pushed to do things I didn’t know I was capable of. I’ve continued to learn; if I can look back every three to five weeks and say I feel like I grew or learned or failed and stood up again, that’s stimulating to me.”

Her belief in equity as a gift means Credle is most proud of the work that has lasted the distance – one example of which is the redesign of the M&M’s characters she undertook with her partner in 1995.

“We did it very mindfully, not putting them in ads but thinking about how long they could exist in this world long-term,” she says. “It’s been almost 20 years and I see new creatives at BBDO writing for them, I see them around the world existing in the way that we meant them to, and that’s exciting.”

She admits getting “giddy” when she walks past an M&M’s store and sees the work she has created. “When I think that we started that – that’s crazy! Do I wish maybe that I had discovered a vaccine that had cured something? That would be awesome too, but I chose advertising.”

Credle says she’s been privileged in her partnerships with “some amazing” CMOs over the years because of the confidence they gave her to share her opinions, but she says not all clients want to have a real dialogue with their agencies – something she believes is worrying for the industry.

“When a company doesn’t want to have a dialogue with its agency, and if there’s no mutual respect, you won’t go far. The biggest barrier to this relationship is fear, but if leaders are feeling they don’t have enough brave people working for them, they need to look directly at themselves. It is not the people they employ, it is the culture they have created that creates bravery or fear.”

The fragmented media space has almost placed the CMO in the position of the ECD, according to Credle. While this can work for a certain type of CMO, “who absolutely gets creativity down to the bone”, working project-by-project with lots of smaller agencies can be “painful, confusing and disastrous” for others. And according to Credle, that’s where the bigger agency comes in. “Another type of CMO is going to want a partner that will go on a longer journey that’s more consistent and doesn’t become fragmented.”

Going back to the idea of equity, she believes that a project-by-project, fragmented approach can create “a lot of noise and distraction” for the brand. “The next thing is, you have a lot of boyfriends but you don’t have that great relationship with one, which is the advantage of a longer term relationship with an agency.

“I wouldn’t say that’s in vogue right now, but I have to believe that some brands are going to start to say wow, sticking with somebody who doesn’t want to reinvent me every two years and someone who’s envisioning where we go three or four years from now creatively – that’s an exciting idea for people. I hope it comes back.”

She’s excited for young women entering the business, but wishes sometimes that the industry would just “shut up and start celebrating women”, and that it needs to be careful not to make the male-female divide a bigger issue than it is. “I came into this business because I thought this was where women could kick ass. I was looking around in the 80s at choices where women were dominating in leadership positions in America, and I couldn’t find any, except in advertising. They were everywhere.

“I don’t want us to say ‘where are the women in advertising?’, I just want us to say ‘here are the women in advertising’. Just start declaring it.”

This article was first published in The Drum's 1 October issue, guest-edited by Cindy Gallop.

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