How did you get started in advertising? I was one of those weirdos who knew they wanted to be in advertising since middle school. In seventh grade, I had an assignment to invent a product, and then create an advertising campaign to sell it. So, I wrote, directed and starred in my first commercial at age twelve—I’m happy to say I’ve learned a lot since then. After briefly considering art school, I studied advertising at the University of Georgia, and then studied copywriting at the Creative Circus in Atlanta. After graduation, I got hired at Energy BBDO in Chicago, when Marty Orzio was chief creative officer. He took a chance on someone fresh out of school, and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me my first gig working on brands like Orbit and Altoids—a junior copywriter’s dream.
How does your experience as a copywriter influence the way you work as a creative director? I almost always think with words first. When I’m stuck on a brief, I’ll start writing about the problem—almost like a diary entry. Sometimes that ends up becoming a manifesto, but most often, it lets me empty out all the not-great thoughts so I can make space for real problem solving. I’m definitely guilty of being harder on my copywriters than my art directors; I can be nitpicky about punctuation, grammar and spelling. I tend to give my art directors high-level feedback, whereas I give my copywriters specific feedback. I tell my copywriters to reduce the number of words by 50 percent before they show me anything—then we really start editing.
What do you consider to be the greatest headline of all time? Call me old school, but for me, it’s the headline from DDB’s classic Volkswagen ad: “Lemon.” It’s one word! But it’s so powerful because it compels you to understand it, dig deeper and be curious about why a company would call its own product sub-par in a print ad. Today, we’d call that “thumb-stopping.” I remember seeing that ad in one of my college classes and being dumbstruck at its simplicity. At the time, it was revolutionary, and it still holds up in 2020. When you can stop someone in their tracks with a single word, that’s great copywriting.
What are the unique challenges and opportunities of creating content for social media today? At my agency, MRY, we pitch new clients by giving them some tough love. Consumers have never cared less about advertising, yet they have never expected more from brands. It’s a paradox. Consumers expect brands to behave in ways that reflect their personal values, and all it takes is a Google search to find out if the chief executive officer of a brand you thought you loved donates millions of dollars to a cause you’re staunchly opposed to. It’s challenging to create social media work for brands in a world where consumers are so passionate and informed because if you’re not walking the walk, you’re going to get called out, and great advertising can’t fix that. We push our brands to be better brands because you can’t out-advertise poor choices at the brand level.
How has your passion for cooking influenced your work with food brands? I’m definitely put on every pitch for a food brand, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I find it helps to be knowledgeable about cooking because most Americans cook every day! In New York, most people live on restaurant takeout and delivery, but for the average family, someone is preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for many people day in and day out. While I’m only cooking for two people, I understand that routine. It means a lot to clients when you truly care about their product, and when you’re knowledgeable about the category. My clients on food brands know that I understand what goes into making and serving food, and they trust me, which leads to better collaboration and better work.
You’ve competed on MasterChef. What creative insights did you take away from that experience? Cooking on MasterChef was a lot like working in advertising. We were expected to master the craft before we mastered the art; the judges would prefer to see a classic dish executed perfectly rather than a riff on a classic with imperfect technique. We had to prove that we could cook the basics flawlessly before we broke the rules and brought our own creativity to the table.
Can you write a powerful headline and pair it with an equally powerful image? Can you make someone stop scrolling? Can you create an ad that’s instantly recognizable as coming from the brand? Lots of people want to skip over the crucial building blocks and go right to the flashy virtual reality installation or what have you, but the vast majority of great advertising still relies on pairing words and images in a compelling way.
What has been your favorite campaign that you’ve worked on? At MRY, we are currently working with the organization One Vote At A Time, which is a group of women filmmakers who make campaign videos for candidates who are running on common sense gun law platforms. It’s a cause I’m passionate about, so I love working on every single piece of content we make for them. I’ve been lucky to work on campaigns with some incredible brands over the course of my career, but getting to work with an organization that is creating change on a grassroots level is a real gift.
What’s the most interesting advertisement you’ve seen recently? Every time I see an ad for the retail brand Baboon To The Moon in my feed, I stop scrolling. There’s nothing gimmicky about it—it’s simply colorful, modern design that stands out in the feed, paired with copy that lets me know that Baboon To The Moon is a company that cares about quality and sustainability. They could have hired a stylish influencer to pose in front of a brick wall with their bags, but instead, they went with an illustration of a tiger dressed as an astronaut riding a duffel bag into space, and I’m so here for it. I bought two bags from them, so their strategy must be working.
What is one challenge currently facing ad agencies that they need to address in order to remain relevant? Ad agencies must address the issue of diversity. It’s not just about hiring more Black people and people of color—although that’s incredibly important, from leadership to entry level positions. It’s about making sure that you can retain diverse talent by giving them a voice, making them feel included and making sure they’re heard. Are your conference rooms or Zooms filled with people who look like your consumers? Or are they still filled with almost uniformly White and male faces? It’s not something you fix once; we must all commit to prioritizing a diversity of voices and backgrounds every day, every year and at every agency because it leads to better work that better serves our clients. And it’s the right thing to do.
What skills do creatives need to succeed in advertising today? Resiliency. Flexibility. Courage. Be able to collaborate with everyone, not just other creatives. Be well read and active on social media. Know your memes. Be open-minded, honest and reliable. Don’t just accept feedback—crave it, and be grateful for it. Admit mistakes and learn from them. Play around on TikTok. Go beyond the comp and make something to get your clients excited. Be able to pivot quickly. And, it can’t be said enough: Work hard and be nice to people. It really is that simple.