Leigh Browne is a Creative Director at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. Last summer, she was named to AdWeek’s Creative 100 and was part of the team that made Popeyes Chicken Sandwich go viral. Her work for Popeyes, Avocados from Mexico, Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Walgreens has been featured in Communication Arts and honored by Cannes Lions, The Clios, The One Show, Art Directors’ Club, The Webbys, D&AD, AICP and the Effies. Leigh started her career as a newspaper reporter, making her a storyteller long before that was a buzzword. She has a Master’s in advertising from The University of Texas. In her free time, she loves travel, reading, great food and gin cocktails.
Zack Seckler : How did you get started in advertising?
Leigh Browne: Like so many creatives, I took a strange path. I studied journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, which taught me to be really scrappy (great training for advertising). Then I got into marketing, working in house at a small company for a few years. That gave me a lot of empathy for our clients and the business decisions they have to make. But I also started to want more of a creative challenge, so I went back to school for advertising at The University of Texas. I got my first job by replying to a tweet from Luke Sullivan (author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, which had been one of my textbooks). He told me I didn’t suck, and I almost died.
What was your first big break?
The first Avocados from Mexico Super Bowl spot, “First Draft Ever.” It was a pitch, so not only did we have to beat out everyone in our agency (and pretty much everyone took a swing at it), we had to beat out several other agencies. It was a great lesson in persistence. We literally must have written hundreds of spots to land on the one that made it. And selling the spot was just the beginning. Making a Super Bowl spot was the longest, most intense production we’d ever been part of.
What’s your creative process when working on a new brief?
My partner (Jon Williamson, the other half of JoLeighn) may be CDs, but we always concept on big projects alongside our teams, especially when we’re running lean. Sometimes we feed kernels of ideas to teams and sometimes we run with them ourselves (especially when our teams already have plenty on their plates).
We usually start just by talking through the brief, trying to poke holes in it and making sure it rings true to us. Sometimes it’s all good and we jump in. Sometimes we shift it 20%, so we have something we can push off of a little better.
Then we just start concepting—always on paper to start. I find that computers get in the way at that point (and it’s really hard to stay focused as emails pour in). I even write down the dumb stuff we say just in case it spurs something later. We keep it really loose at this point. And we try to work outside the office as much as possible. It really helps open our brains and keeps co-workers from popping by to talk to us when we need to be focused and do deep work.
Once we have a ton of dumb ideas down in my notebook, we’ll start to refine them as we type them up into a google doc or slides. Love being able to both type at the same time—or type while my AD places images. We’ll even leave ourselves comments about what we need to keep figuring out.
And from there, we just keep trying to make the ideas smarter, simpler—and easier for the client to buy. (Because what good is an idea no one will buy.)
Do you have any hacks for jump-starting your creative process?
Shut your computer. For real. There’s something about pen and paper that makes you think differently. Also, it’s hard to really think with your email open. And put away your phone if you can. Otherwise it’s too easy to keep picking it up every time someone texts or you get a notification.
Also, don’t be afraid to say, “This is kinda dumb, but…” Or “this isn’t right, but…” I can’t tell you how many great ideas have started that way. That’s why you have a partner. You never know when something silly you say will spark something awesome in their brain.
People. And I don’t just mean artists and other makers. I mean everyday people. I love psychology. I love social science. I read everything I can about what makes people tick—especially people who aren’t like me. For example, I don’t have kids. But I need to be able to step into a parent’s head sometimes. So often we have to remind our clients that they are not the target audience. And I think it’s important for creatives to remember that we aren’t always the target either.
What would you like to change or improve on about our industry?
We still have a long way to go on inclusivity. It’s getting better. I’ve seen big changes in the last few years. But it’s not enough. We need more creatives of color, more women, more non-binary folks. And we need them in leadership. That’s where we get stuck sometimes. At most agencies, I see way more diversity among junior and mid-level creatives than in leadership roles. Some of that will happen as people move up over time, but we have to make sure people aren’t hitting a wall, that they’re getting mentored, that they have opportunities. And I don’t just say that to be PC. I have honestly seen diversity make the work so much better. Having those voices in the room is so important.
Any advice for young creatives?
You are not your work. You have to learn to step outside your ego and not take criticism personally if you ever want to make great work. And know that basically everyone sucks for a while, but if you keep pushing and listening and learning, you will get better. (Borrowed that last bit from Ira Glass, but it’s so true. Get the full bit here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/ira-glass-success-daniel-sax/)
How about advice for directors, photographers or other artists who want to work with you?
Be nice. Be smart. And roll with it.
Life is too short and our jobs are too stressful to work with jerks. So I don’t do it (and definitely never do it twice).
That said, I don’t want to work with pushovers either. I want someone to come in with an opinion and help us make the work better than in started. So smart is key.
And finally, crazy shit happens on production. Sometimes clients change their minds about stuff you thought was settled. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes (true story) the alligator won’t walk where you need him to walk. So you need someone who can roll with that, solve problems and get what you need to make it work.
What’s a trend you see defining the future of advertising?
Ads that don’t feel like ads.
I don’t think TV is going anywhere, but I do think it feels increasingly less important to both audiences and brands. What gets people talking are the headline-makers—you know, the stunts, the experiential stuff, social campaigns, and things that are delightful and/or useful in some way.
To me, that’s such a more exciting place to play than a :60 TV spot. (Does anyone even do those anymore?!)
Follow Leigh Brown on Instagram @leighmbrowne