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How did you get started in advertising and learn the necessary skills? I got started in advertising almost directly out of a four-year university. I had a fine arts degree and my first job was at a small suburban design firm in Illinois. I was actually fired from that job for screwing up a print job of a puzzle featuring the penis of Michelangelo’s David. But I’m always thankful for that job because it was the beginning of the road that brought me to where I am today. A designer at that job introduced me to someone from Cramer-Krasselt in Chicago, and I started there as an intern. It was an absolutely perfect second first job. I always feel like I got my portfolio school education there.

You were recently part of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada’s online panel Beyond Pro-Bono: Doing Better Work for Paying Clients. What takeaways did you hope to leave with viewers? Better work can be in absolutely any form, and it’s completely subjective. Sometimes, there’s a perception that better work means either pro bono work or work that is only beneficial to the agency. I think the key to better work is building a relationship with clients, understanding their business needs and problem-solving from there. Then, it’s about assembling the right people and bringing out the best talents in each of them to create something amazing. Sometimes, I feel like a cheerleader, but whether it’s a creative colleague or a client, my job is to get the best out of people. That’s when you can really see the difference in the work.

You’ve also spoken at 3 Percent Conference about building brands for clients while building team unity. What are ways that creative leaders can build team unity now that we are all working remotely? These days, everyone is Zoom-fatigued, including me. A creative environment that used to feel organic and free is now restricted to creativity and camaraderie during a set virtual meeting. I have new creatives on my teams whom I’ve never met in real life. It’s weird. But, at the same time, it’s forcing me to learn new skills to build unity. But building trust over Zoom between creatives and myself is one thing; finding a way for them to do it with each other is even harder.

Taking the time to get to know people on a personal level is not only incredibly important for a leader, but it’s also important for our work culture. Our jobs as leaders are to get the best out of people, whether that’s a particular skill set or their optimal creative time during the day. Peer relationships need to do this as well. How do you create a team environment where you have people to turn to for support, accolades and advice? During the pandemic, this started with slightly awkward Zoom introductions and then a weekly meeting on Mondays to talk about work or life, or work and life. I usually share a lot of personal stories or challenges. I show my team that I’m fallible, and I’m incredibly self-deprecating. I check on my team when I know they need checking on. I am sincerely interested in what they like or dislike. I show them that they are valued and that their points of view are important to me and important for the work we do. At the end of the day, the only way I can teach my team what types of things create unity is to show them. Even over Zoom.

Do you think this is the time for brands to take risks? My rule on risks is that there’s a time and a place for risks. There are also different types of risks: financial risks, reputation risks and missed-opportunity risks. So, personally, I don’t think I would do anything differently now than what I’ve done in the past around risk. Though, I do think that if you haven’t had a conversation with clients about risks, now is a good time to start an open dialogue about where and when risks are important. Have these conversations before you get to a risky moment.

Not every idea has to be purpose-driven, but it has to be made with purpose.”

What has been your favorite campaign that you worked on? We did a back-to-school campaign for IKEA, in which the brief was to show how IKEA solutions could help students relax during their stressful college experience. It was a fully integrated campaign, but we felt there was an opportunity to do something more that tapped into a niche genre of content. Auto sensory meridian response—or ASMR for short—wasn’t unheard of as a narrative technique since brands like KFC had already explored the territory, and it was the perfect storytelling tool for a brand like IKEA, especially for college students.

Our amazing interns brought this particular idea forward, and I knew we had to make it even if it wasn’t part of the original plan. We were able to create the Oddly IKEA campaign, named after the Oddly Satisfying channel on Instagram that held all kinds of niche content, from unboxing to ASMR to cake decorating. ASMR was a way for us to talk in depth about every single aspect of the IKEA products.

The team really tried to be true to the styles of ASMR artists, and, ultimately, the ASMR community embraced IKEA’s take on the technique. We created several short pieces of content for social, but the 26-minute film we shared on YouTube was the game changer. We garnered great press and our clients were absolutely thrilled with the results. Ultimately, it’s my favorite project because, against all odds, it was made and was a success. I love a good underdog story.

What trends in advertising are you most interested in? The long-term efforts driving meaningful change that makes sense for brands. We’re in the middle of a societal reckoning, between the health crisis, politics and racial injustice. When I look at efforts like the CROWN Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on hair texture and hairstyle and championed by Dove and the Crown Coalition, I am overwhelmed by the purpose and power of brands. Not every idea has to be purpose-driven, but it has to be made with purpose. How can your brand create a long-lasting and purposeful positive impression on society?

What are some of the challenges and rewards for women of color working at high levels in the creative industry? My challenges and rewards stem from the same thing: being sought after for being a woman leader of color. I have been humbled by the acknowledgement of my role in a leadership position—not only for the point of view I bring to the table, but also in how I understand and champion the points of view of others, regardless of race, gender and age. It’s an unbelievable responsibility to be heard, and I want to use my time in this role to not only talk about meaningful change but also lead by example. On the flip side, I often get requests for participation in various capacities, and I can almost always tell when the decision is purely about representation and not necessarily about who I am as a leader or my point of view. As an industry, we are definitely headed in the right direction, but it’s going to take time for it to not just be a trend.

What do you think of the advertising industry at the moment, and where do you see it headed? Advertising is in a really interesting space right now. There’s always going to be focus on growth, personalization at scale and data, but society is at a crossroads of economic inequality, food insecurity, racial injustice, diversity and inclusion issues, and environmental issues. People are looking for signs of a better world ahead. Brands have the power—and they hold the responsibility—to amplify the good they can.

Della Mathew has spent more than 25 years helping brands tell their best possible stories and find their voices. She is currently with Ogilvy New York, where she runs both the IKEA USA and Citizens accounts. In a past life, Mathew helped launch a global integrated campaign for Fanta, and worked on other iconic brands such as Heineken, Stoli and Unilever. She has been a speaker at the 3 Percent Conference, where she spoke about creativity at scale, and most recently, spoke on a panel to help raise money for the Advertising & Design Club of Canada.

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