The head of the agency behind Nike’s Kaepernick ad on finding allies and letting in fear

Captain of the ship.
Captain of the ship.
Image: ADR
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When I first met Colleen DeCourcy, the chief creative officer of US advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, and co-president of the firm alongside Tom Blessington, she had just returned from a 10-day solo hike in California. On the first day of walking she felt so exhausted and scared that she threw up by the side of the road. Then she texted her daughter to tell her about it, and carried on. DeCourcy is no stranger to surmounting terror.

The agency had recently made headlines with a Nike commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick, the American footballer who has become an NFL pariah since making the decision, in 2016, to kneel during the national anthem in protest at social injustice. (The agency made news again this September when McDonald’s ditched its lead US ad agency of three years to sign a contract with Wieden+Kennedy’s New York office, a deal Ad Age called a “huge win” for the firm.)

The Nike campaign prompted angry customers to publicly burn Nike products, before a backlash-against-the-backlash saw opinion swing in the company’s favor. The “Dream Crazy” campaign, as it was dubbed, was credited by some with a 5% increase in Nike’s stock price, and won a slew of awards, some of them at the Cannes Lions festival of advertising in the South of France, where DeCourcy—now on the deck of a yacht with the sun setting somewhat magically in the background—told the story about her hike.

A few weeks later we spoke again by phone. Cannes, where the global ad industry meets for an annual mix of self-congratulation and soul-searching over flutes of champagne, had been characterized by a lot of talk about how much the ad industry was changing—and needed to change. “Diversity” was the word on everybody’s lips, but is the industry really changing? And if so how does a leader provide direction for a team—in DeCourcy’s case, about 1,500 people—if the maps are no longer functioning? She explains her approach in the following interview, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: People keep telling me the ad industry is changing. What does that change look like to you? 

A: These changes have been going on for years, and I’ve often been brought in to do things differently—because the industry was getting more digital, it was getting more more experiential, it was speaking with voices other than the ones we know we’ve heard. But after 15, 20 years of that, this year I think everybody has seen—I hate to use the word “seismic shift” because that’s a cliché, but it has been fucking shaking. The earth has been moving. 

I think it’s a combination of our clients’ business changing, the economy changing; climate change and direct-to-consumer [retail] have changed some of our clients’ businesses; it’s all coming together at once. The idea that we’ll just throw the same bodies at the internet that we threw at TV… Change comes up in ways you didn’t expect. It’s different than just changing what we make. Budgets change, the way media works changes. 

[I know we’re on the wrong track if] I hear us problem-solving to protect our current infrastructure. That, I think, is the biggest sin a business can commit in terms of longevity and success. Ten years ago a popular question was “Why didn’t Kodak invent Instagram?” Like it was just a missed train! And the real answer to that question is: Making choices around survival is a really difficult thing to do when you’re up close to it. “We think that this thing we do still serves a purpose in the world, but that the way we do it is no longer relevant.” Those are the kinds of conscious decisions that businesses are having to make to succeed—as opposed to “What do we have to do to make sure we are not changed by this moment?” That’s when companies die.

So how do you lead through a time of change—particularly when you’re leading creative people through that change? 

I can tell you my thoughts on it, and I can tell you that I spend a lot of nights staring at the ceiling wondering if I’m right!

I believe that, with creativity in particular, there are two types of leadership. One is the cult of personality: The person that everyone just wants to be like, to emulate, whose approval everyone wants to gain. Sometimes—usually during a bull market—that really can create momentum for an agency. It means people will want to go work there. And the more that person’s noticed, the more that everybody who works with them has a chance to have their work seen, because anything that comes out of the shop of *name star* is worth seeing. I’ve watched agencies truly catch a wave in that way, and then grow.

However, I don’t know that this works as well in uncertain times. In the agencies where that happens, when that person’s time is over, the benefit is gone. I believe that when you’re leading through the kind of time that we are in right now, what works better for creatives is a kind of “topping from the bottom.” Teaching, training, coaxing, cajoling, disciplining, supporting, adjusting. Yes you can go out and lead by example. And that’s always part of any leadership job. But I have to make sure 1,500 people are all getting the same magic. And I don’t think emulating a kind of rock star characteristic is going to do that for them. 

So: vulnerability, sometimes complexity; clarity, of what you want and where you’ve got to get to; knowing that there isn’t necessarily an answer. It’s a bit like—and I’m going to be careful of using this phrase because I don’t want it to be taken in some kind of gendered phrase—it’s a bit more like parenting. You need to prepare people for the world when you’re not quite sure what it’s going to be. You need to make sure that they have confidence and that they’re smart, that they know how to break down a problem, that they know how to work hard.

The next leader could well be a rock star and we’ll have both done our part. Right now I believe in the other way. 

But you’re a rock star in your own way; it’s not as though you lack personality. 

Fair. I’m not a wilting flower. But I don’t like venerating. I never did it coming up through the industry. I had some heroes: Lee Clow was a hero of mine, Dan Wieden was kind of a hero to the industry. Beyond that I do not really buy into following, and I prefer people who don’t follow like that.

So how do you deal with people who don’t want to follow you? 

I used to think that everybody had to want to follow me or I wasn’t the leader. And in the last 10 years I’ve realized that’s the surest path to not being a very good leader.

I think there are two ways that you can go. One, if you’re not the right leader for someone and they don’t want to follow you, then they should go work somewhere where they are inspired by the leaders.

Or, if it’s someone the company really needs and I see real value in them, but they’re just not inspired by me, then I [can] look at myself, and say: “Why is that?” And usually I will try and get myself into a situation where I’m either in a pitch with them or on a project with them, and I try to take the boss hat off for a minute and solve the problem with them as a partner. If at the end of that they still don’t respect me as a leader, well, their choices are to be ok with that or to go, but they can’t stay and be disruptive for the people who do proceed under the leadership.

You can’t make someone love you. If I believe I can make someone better, I will fight with them on that: “I know you don’t like me, but here’s the thing—I’m trying to make you better at X. If you want that, stay and do it with me; you don’t have to like me. If you’re not better in two years time, then you should go, and I’ll help you. But hear me out.” I think that’s how you can deal with adults.

How do you make people into allies—whether that’s a gender ally, or an ally in some other way? 

I think that we have to ask for what we need; that’s part of our responsibility, particularly in a changing world.

The whole game is changing, so I look around and see people who I respect, or who I think are good people, or who can aid me, then I am really straightforward about saying: These are the challenges I face, here’s how you can help me.

But if after the first time they’re still not getting it, then I cut my losses and move on. I like to have an ally. If I can’t have an ally, then fuck it, I’m not going to stop. I’ll just try to make myself an example. But I do believe that everybody deserves the opportunity to be told once: “This is what I need, and I’d love to get it from you.” It’s when people know how they’re fucking you up, and they don’t stop, [that] I’m like: Oh, ok, no more time on you! Done with you!

Do you have advice for when you don’t have an ally in the room and you’re not yet the leader?

When you don’t have allies, when nobody in the room sees you, the biggest thing you have to do is not grab onto anger, injustice, bitterness. I used to do this thing of saying to myself: “Oh, that sucks for you, you don’t know I’m great yet.” It was a little thing I would say in my head, that I barely believed myself. But it helped me turn it back, because as soon as you believe you’re hard-done-by, you’re fucked. You’re just never going to rise. And so, you have to be your own ally, you have to be more focused on why you’re good, so that when other people realize it, it’s not too late, you haven’t been beaten down.

The other piece of advice I’d give is that when you don’t have any allies, you have to remember that if nobody in the room automatically thinks what you said is a good idea, it’s probably because no one’s thought of it yet. There is just as much chance that you just had the genius idea as there is that you’re wrong. And you have to be the last person in the room to think that maybe you were just wrong. And then if it’s clear that you are wrong, you have to let go of that idea, you know? But you have to be the last person to do it. 

We’ve talked before about fear. You’ve said that you feel it, and let it in. Is that harder when you’re the leader? Or easier, because you already have “proof” that you’re good at what you do? 

I think that I am more prone to feeling fear now than I was before because people look to me for answers, because I have a lot to lose, because things are taken more seriously. I actually think that I used to think nobody gave a shit what I thought anyway, so I would just say the most outrageous version of the thing I believed, because at the very least they would remember it, even if they thought it was wrong. Now, fear drives me every day. Fear drives me. What it can’t do is set your destination. Where I’m going to, from fear: That’s bad. A place I know I want to get to, and I’m really scared: That’s good.