We met virtually with Susan Credle, Global Chief Creative Officer and Fred Levron, Worldwide Creative Partner at FCB to discuss the incredible journey they’ve been on to transform the network into the creative powerhouse it is today.
From brilliant anecdotes to fascinating lessons in leadership, Susan and Fred give us an honest picture of the highs and lows of their journey. We get a sneak peek into the world of an iconic duo – the special bond they share and the value they place in people, relationships, taking chances and doing their best work on their biggest brands.
Their work together is testament to what it takes to shift a culture and achieve creative excellence. A real transformation story that is just only starting, just like their mantra: “NEVER FINISHED”.
Read the full interview below.
Susan Credle, Global Chief Creative Officer and Fred Levron, Worldwide Creative Partner, FCB
Susan Credle: It started with me taking the job in 2016. Carter Murray, my business partner and CEO, and I, did a few interviews talking about our philosophy, advertising, marketing and what we wanted to do. Fred read some of it and called me.
Fred Levron: It’s interesting how, sometimes, people are more important than the brand itself. I wasn't really interested in the brand, but I was interested in the woman. The way she was talking and the view she had of our industry were very different from where I was coming from, from where I grew up and my own journey. I was intrigued to see how we could transform one of the most respected, oldest networks in the world into a creative powerhouse. When I joined, most of my friends asked me if I was crazy! But I had that for pretty much all my career. If you want to be successful, you need to get into those moments where you don't follow the crowd. And for the record, we had never met when I signed the contract!
S: I'm on a few boards who are questioning, during times of COVID, whether they should hire anybody they haven't met in person. And I can say that one of the best hires I've ever made was someone I’d never met physically. So, we set off to do this thing. We didn't have a position for Fred. That's what took us the longest, as I couldn't figure out what he wanted to do! I would ask him do you want to do a regional role in Europe? No. Do you want to do an office? No. Then he said I just want your job!
Most global roles and creatives are very detached from the work and I think that what we have is unique.
Worldwide Creative Partner
F: No, I didn't say that! I said I want to join you in that crazy journey and crazy mission that you gave yourself. And we're going to do something that nobody else is doing. Most global roles and creatives are very detached from the work and I think that what we have is unique. And the relationship is what makes it unique first. And then, on top of that, it happens that we're not too bad at what we do when it comes to bringing people together, setting the values, being the North Star, getting around the world to be with people and impact the work. And I think that yin and yang doesn't exist or at least doesn’t work as well anywhere else.
S: Yes and we took a chance, which is that we made up a position we didn't know would work. And within six months, agencies around the world are asking: “Can we have Fred? Is Fred available? We need Fred”. And it's been a philosophy Carter and I share, that we work for the local agencies. They don't work for us. When I joined, we wondered what we would do that's valued, that the local agencies will care about. And as Fred said, one of them was the values themselves, which is that we operate as a collaborative. We try to make each other better. We believe that if anybody in the network succeeds, we all succeed and we share the victory.
A lot of agencies set up competition internally. So, you try to out-create your colleagues. It's not wrong. It works too. But we just wondered if there was a better way. And because we were the underdog, we were going to have to do this a different way. And we weren't sure if it could work or not!
We just finished our Global Creative Council. It was so interesting because there's a CCO who just joined and didn't know what to expect and I think he summed it up. He said: “when I used to go to these Councils at my old agency, I felt like I needed to wear a bulletproof vest.” Here, I just feel I went to a reunion and everybody wants me to succeed. He's been with us a few months and he's already feeling that there is a cultural shift.
I'm always amazed at how just a little shift in the way you approach something makes a world of difference.
Global Chief Creative Officer
S: Fred is very smart and the team is very smart and very honest about raising their hand when they think they have a client that believes in creativity and the power of it. Then, we have a saying that we want to do our best work on our biggest brands. Around a decade ago, there was a habit of finding niche little things that you could do really great creative things on. But the problem is that it does not help you understand the power of creativity because it's not being put on businesses that can say, “wow, when we applied creativity to this problem, the economic value (we call it an economic multiplier) was amazing”. The other thing, weirdly enough, is that somebody called me and said, you guys are so into winning awards. I don't think that's the culture I want to join. And I said, what's weird is we started winning awards when we stopped focusing on winning awards and we started focusing on the kind of work we thought would be valuable for the industry.
It's an important thing to notice that we have like-minded values and a like-minded sense of the kind of work we love and want to do. But our approach to it and how we show up is slightly different. And that's a great thing. We help each other be better at what we do. Five years later, “do your best work on your biggest brands” is still our mantra. But we add something every year. If you do non-profit, you better do it year after year after year. Because if you do it just to win an award, that seems pretty false and empty. Like the The Gun Violence History Book from the Chicago office. That started before I joined the company. That's a commitment. The work with the Canadian Down Syndrome Society out of Toronto. That's been a relationship for five years. And, Fred, you want to talk about when Nancy said, “I don't think we can do any more award-winning work on it”. Do you remember that?
F: Yeah. I do remember that. It's the year before she came up with the best idea. That tells you a bit about the mindset we are in! I believe that, as soon as you start to be happy with yourself and what you did, you're done. Some say that as soon as you think you're done in the industry, you're done. Nancy is a great example. Year after year, she came up with great ideas that did amazingly for her clients and amazingly at Cannes Lions. Yet, she always starts at the same point, which is a very vulnerable point, a very fragile point, when she comes to her creative leaders saying I am not sure I can get it. Her last initiative is called Project Understood. And I think it's unbelievable. Unbelievable. And we will see what it does at Lions in June 2021.
S: It's a perfect example of not putting awards first. When she said, I think I have gotten every award-winning idea I can get for the Down Syndrome Society, we said, is that why you work with the Down Syndrome Society, to win awards? I think it's to help these people and they're going to need help. Over and over and over again and every generation is going to need help. And, yes, sometimes you're going to hit it out of the ballpark, from an industry standpoint. But whatever you do is gonna matter. So, don't give up on it. And we kind of took the pressure off so that she didn’t feel she had to deliver an award-winning piece of work every year. Every year, she just needed to deliver something to that group that was meaningful. I'm always amazed at how just a little shift in the way you approach something makes a world of difference.
F: It's the same when we talk about our role. Susan always said you don't have to report to me. The best you could do is to ask me for advice. I'm an adviser. That changed the whole dynamic. That shift from don't see me as a threat or as an extra lead that will put pressure on you, see me as an accelerator, see me as someone that will help you cut to the chase and maybe go over some obstacles that we went through.
S: In my career, when my creative directors gave me more room to fail and succeed and didn’t judge every move I was making, I felt more responsible. And so, I stepped up. My feeling is that CCOs are running their agencies. If I have to tell them how to do their job, I've got the wrong person in that job. That's the difference between seeing yourself as the last word and seeing yourself as part of a team. Every once in a while, when we feel strongly, we say you cannot do this or you must not go here. But for the most part, we talk about an industry where we say failure is a part of our success. You learn a lot from failing and succeeding. I don't love failing and I don't know many people that embrace it but we try. I grew up with this phrase, “you're only as good as your last piece of work”. I think that's crazy. No you're not. You are as good as your curated work over time. And those last pieces of work that aren't that good. They're gonna be the catalyst to getting to great.
F: That's super interesting and important what Susan just said, because that goes against a trend that has been here for years now, which forces us as an industry to show up every single year in the Cannes Lions Awards and believe it every single year. And I do value, in a sense, that consistency. But there's something that changed quite dramatically. The kind of ideas that we're bringing to life for our clients are very different from a decade ago. Most of our biggest successes were a two-year process. So, it’s OK if we are a year on and a year off, as long as we remain true to ourselves and don’t lose the focus on what we want to do. I think that takes some tremendous pressure off our local leaders.
S: I also think that judging a creative agency success simply by the awards they win is a little disproportionate, because when we look at the health of the agency creatively we look at what kind of talent they have been hiring, who they are attracting, what kind of clients are calling them, what kind of new business they’re winning. And, by the way, is the work garnering attention within our industry and being celebrated? And I love what Fred said about the cycle. New York killed it with “Whopper Detour”. This year, if we had gone into the Cannes Lions Awards, I'm not sure we had much from New York. Because they're growing by 45%. They're having mad hiring. They're bringing great talent. And they're winning new business off of The Whopper Detour’s success. If we didn't have the Lions, I don't think people would have recognised the The Whopper Detour on the global scale that suddenly has talent wanting to be with us, clients wanting to be with us and clients that are with us being proud that they're with us.
F: Existing clients who changed their vision, their own ambition on creativity. And it's funny that we talk about New York because they were on the top of the world in 2019. 2020 will probably be blank from a Lions standpoint. But some work was in the pipeline that you will see in 2021 or 2022.
S: So, they've been killing themselves on this thing called Ultra Courtside. I love it. I think it's so cool. But again I think if we're too ambitious and we push everybody too hard, we end up with false positives and not work that we can lean on for very long. Whereas, you know, when you do a Whopper Detour, you do Ultra Courtside, you do Project Understood. Those things stay in the world for hopefully quite a while and continue to snowball for us. It's so weird to create a culture where you aren't leading with fear, you aren't leading through internal competition. And I’ve got to tell you, when we started and said we're going to lean into generosity, collaboration, having a good time, I was worried that that would be too soft. And I think it's been the opposite.
S: New York had been struggling for decades. We didn’t have the right clients. We didn’t have the right culture. We didn't have the right C-suite. It doesn't mean any of those people were wrong. It's just whatever was happening in concert was not a beautiful piece of music. Four or five years ago we were thinking of closing it. We didn’t know how to do it. But as long as it was open, we kept making changes. We got fired from some clients that were painful financially to lose but freed up the culture because you realise that if you have the wrong clients, if you're trying to go somewhere and the clients don't want to go there it is not going to work. They had all joined FCB before this creative renaissance declaration and did not like working with us. It was hard to lose them but it was the best thing that happened. And I think that is a big part of the transformation. Do the partners that you're with want to go on that same journey? And if they don’t, you're going to have to take some financial loss temporarily.
F: Ultimately, the final goal is to be successful and we've been successful. There are other extremely successful networks. What makes our story very interesting is that it's a transformation story. We're not born already highly creative. When you are in that transformation journey, the commitment that is needed from the creative leaders, but also the business leaders is crucial. Too often, we see and we hear stories where a business leader has some decent business and wants creative fame but they are not ready to walk the walk and put their creative partner, for example, as a peer. Or put the creative department in the middle of the agency, not calling it a creative department and calling the agency a creative agency.
S: What you're saying Fred is so important. I'm shocked at how many agencies have the creative work that wins at Cannes Lions and then they have the business work that keeps the lights on and they don't see them as ever joining. And I would say that the mission for Fred and I: that work should be both. The work that keeps the lights on should be the best creative in the house. The other part of what's been successful for us is - giving a shout out to Cannes Lions again - leaning into the clients that thought Cannes Lions was important. We met with Burger King at a conference, but our significant bonding moment was at the Festival. The networking has helped us a lot, whether it's talent, learning about ourselves and our ambition or seeing clients that want to go on the same journey. AB InBev is another big presence at Cannes Lions. And so we had a little bit of opportunity with Burger King. And then we have Michelob Ultra and then some other businesses at AB InBev. And we give them a lot of attention because we feel like they have an equal creative ambition and belief. So that's helped us identify which clients to join with at the hip to get us on the next step of this journey. You need to identify the clients that believe in creativity. Don't try to convince people that don't believe that creativity is an economic multiplier. And if you find the client that either believes that it's an economic multiplier or that it'll make them famous, either one. That's what we want to focus on. You pick your battles and you pick your partners.
F: I'm very excited for the future and where it's heading. It might have started in a place where the “Cannes Lions work” was on one side and the ongoing business was on the other side, but it started changing when you opened the door to more clients, to more CMOs, more Marketing Directors and Product Directors. And I remember, at that time when we were all looking at each other, the creative community, thinking that it was better before...when we were just amongst creatives. And yes, it was a very nice feeling. But the fact that there are so many clients right now, work gives them a different ambition and helps us to have that discussion. And also the fact that there is a reconciliation. FCB’s vision has always been doing the best work on our biggest clients, making the work prove that creativity is an economic multiplier. And look at what kind of work is winning at Cannes Lions. It's coming together. So I think one day, hopefully, we'll hear less business leaders saying yes of course you won at Cannes Lions, but was it on real clients? That needs to be part of the past.
The work that keeps the lights on should be the best creative in the house.
Global Chief Creative Officer
S: It's interesting because there's some noise out there that people get a little frustrated with Cannes Lions. And I have to say, I've said to a lot of my creative friends, I cannot. I can only say that without LIONS I would not be where I am for a lot of reasons, and I think the first one is just the networking at the Festival. You are in a small space with the top of the industry. And the first time I ever went to the Festival, I ended up going to one very intimate party with about 30 people. And, as I like to say, everybody there was famous but me and that one dinner party catapulted me up into a space I had never seen myself in. So, networking to me has been the biggest reason to go to Cannes. And it went from when, early on in my career, I was networking with production heads, directors, editors that I would call six months later and say, you've got to do this piece for me, you know?
And they would ask, are you sure it’s really me? I would tell them we sat on the beach, we had rosé. You know who I am, you know what I'm about. Do the damn piece. And then at FCB, it shifted to more meeting talent that we're trying to seduce to join us and clients that we want to tell our story to. So, that's been huge.
The first Titanium Jury I sat on was such an honour because Dan Wieden ran it. And because it was his concept to do the Titanium, it was wonderful to sit there and listen to him and say in his wonderful droll sort of way, “well, this is what I had in mind when we came up with it”. So when I was on the Titanium Jury last year with David Lubars running it (and David had been on that same jury with Dan), I kind of had a better idea of what we should be looking for. When the Titanium Lion came out and it was inspired by BMW Films, I think we all thought it was about the new tool that we're going to use to tell creative stories. What I realised was, the Titanium should lift up the work that shows the way forward for the industry. And if you look at the work we awarded last year, it was creativity that affected business. So, like the Microsoft work, that was a beautiful film, but the fact that they put it on the Super Bowl is why it lifted above others, because it was big. They didn't do a precious little piece that they ran on a couple of little social media channels about challenged people. It was a big celebration on the biggest stage, at least in America.
“The Whopper Detour” was a weird crazy-ass idea. But if you pull it all away, it also solved a huge business problem and made money at the same time as saving the client a lot of money. That was a multi-million dollar idea for that client. And that's where we started separating the work. I walked away from that Titanium Jury with this “economic multiplier” mission, which is our next goal, that this work has to play big. It has to have an impact. And if you put the same message out there, undressed from creativity. It probably wouldn't do what the creative idea did.
F: It's funny because the LIONS brand used to be a moment in time. In June, in the South of France. A lot of cries. A lot of joy. A lot of laughs. A lot of frustration. A lot of excitement. And we are out. It was pretty much it for the rest of the year. It was kind of a moment where you would take the recognition or the slap in the face. But The Work is a very interesting platform, at least for me, because it's a way to always work on that muscle. That’s one of the many impacts LIONS had on myself and the work I was doing. You tend to be quite happy with yourself when you don’t look at others in the industry. You could be very happy with what you do. And then in a second you've got a platform where you could see how other creatives, whether they are Indian, American, African, Brazilian, French, Spanish, are solving the same business problems. And you look back at what you're doing and go OK, let's get back to it. But beyond that, this is the biggest archive of how creative communities solve business problems, whatever the business problem and whatever the industry, which is quite fantastic. Only us in our creative industry have that platform that, if it's used properly, will never let you lose the focus of where the bar of creative excellence is and will fuel you so much when it comes to solving business problems through creativity.
The Work is a very interesting platform, at least for me, because it's a way to always work on that muscle.
Worldwide Creative Partner
S: Fred said, “Susan, I just have a question”. How much more do you think we have to do? Where do you think we are at walking or running up that mountain? And I said, I think we're 20% there. And I was waiting for Fred to get upset. Are you kidding me? Look at everything we've done. Look how far we've gone. But he said “Oh, thank the Lord. Because that's the same number I was thinking!”
F: I was nervous actually because I still really believe that. And that's why I asked that question.
S: What would you have said if I had said I think like 80%?
F: I would have said the truth, but would have hoped you didn’t take me for a maniac. But we ended up saying the same thing. Maybe we are maniacs, but what we always say with Susan is that it doesn't take more than one piece of work to change your office, your brand and your client’s brand, or even their career. And that's what we've been doing. Our success links to the fact that we are asking for one piece from dozens of offices and that puts us in the top three at LIONS. So that's why we say 20%, because we have so many iconic brands for which we could unleash the power.
S: We've got 80% more things to play with. We’ve got so much more to do!
F: And I think that's interesting because the turnover in our industry is brutal, 18 months to two years. You can't build anything in two years. It takes five years to get started.
S: And I think that's where we're at 20%. So five years in, we feel like we've started something. We've placed some bets. They look like they're paying off. In the next five years, we are getting those bets to pay off in a big way. I think perception and reality dance all the time. The reality four years ago is that we were better than the perception. And then all of a sudden when “The Whopper Detour” won, the perception looked better than the reality. But then that perception helped us pull up the reality. And now it feels less fragile every year. And we're always making changes. This is our mantra, “Never Finished”, because, as Fred said, the minute you think you're finished, you are.
Depending on the day you ask me, it can be either exhausting or exciting and exhilarating. And I do think that Cannes Lions, for some people, can wear them out or they don't get inspired by it. For others like me, I go and I see people I respect, I hear them struggling with things and excited about things. I call it an industry reunion. And I get reminded about why I got into this business and stayed in it for so long.
F: I think we all experienced it this year. What a fantastic way to remind us what place your brand has in our lives and our heart. Not having a Cannes Lions 2020 was a weird moment. Going through June and not having that reunion and that moment in time when you have a chance to break all the barriers and be just one industry coming together. We missed it.
S: And the other thing we missed are the juries. We work hard to get some of our best and some of our younger, up and coming people on juries, mainly because it makes them better creative directors. I learned so much sitting on juries because you curate them, you're around smart people, global people. And the discussions you have are masterclasses on how to look at creativity and make you realise that there's a lot of nice and smart people trying to do right by the work in the industry. When our creative directors come back from a jury experience the creativity goes up just from that experience. That's exceptional. It is so important to our creative directors to sit on juries.
Also I love it when we say we activate short-term business and we build long-term brand equity through creativity. Once, somebody said, “but isn't that the ambition of most agencies?” Yes, maybe, but if you don't declare it and if you don't work into it, you can say it all you want, but it probably won't come true. So, declare what you want to do even if it’s not original and different and stick to values. I'm not saying that we all make the right decisions every day, but that's what drives us to try to make those right decisions. If you create cultures like that, be clear and over communicate. I think it's the most interesting thing that we're in the communication business and the Achilles heel of most agencies is lack of communication.
What are we supposed to do? Why do I come to work? How do I know when I'm succeeding? How do I know when I'm failing? How do I know what I need to do to progress here? And it's just so interesting that if your partners, employees and colleagues can answer those questions the mission of the agency is more likely to be met. Don't be afraid of change.
F: We all spend a lot of time thinking about what will make us successful. Where is my next move? Where is the play that is killing it? And who is doing the best work? Do care about the people you work with and work for because you've got one life. We are in the business of creativity and creativity is a business, but there is still creativity at the core. And as a creative community, we are at our best when we feel good, when we take some pleasure and find joy and just be ourselves. For so long we've been putting that aside, and this is time to go back to something where there is no compromise between who you are as a person, how you want to drive your life, who you want to be surrounded with and then still be successful and lucrative from a business standpoint.