FCB Unleashed: Susan Credle and Fred Levron

The creative talents helping to steer FCB's transformation reveal the strategy behind the network’s record-breaking year.

Photo by Scott Campbell

Until recently FCB – Foote, Cone and Belding – felt like a fairly discreet agency, doing solid work for worthwhile clients. But this year FCB rocketed into the headlines, notably winning 51 Lions at Cannes, including its first ever Titanium Grand Prix. That’s more metal than in its 146-year history. It followed that up with 32 Clios.

The work was certainly “buzz-worthy”, as the network would say, from the cheeky “Whopper Detour” to the ground-breaking “StorySign” for Huawei and “The Open Door Project” from FCB Ulka, which grabbed India’s only Gold Lion at Cannes. 

But behind the work is a transformative strategy, put in place by global chief creative officer Susan Credle, infused globally by her worldwide creative partner Fred Levron – and driven from the top by CEO Carter Murray. We sat down with Fred in Paris and Susan in New York to find out how they unleashed the network’s creative potential. 

After an amazing few months everyone is talking about FCB’s “transformation”. So what needed fixing?

Fred: A lot of people deserve credit, but at the end of the day it was our CEO Carter Murray who took hold of things five years ago. At that time this was a decent network with a great history, but it wasn’t in the best shape. Carter had a simple vision, which was to come back to what makes us valuable for brands and businesses – creativity. In a context of new players entering the industry, we asked ourselves what our role should be in the world. The answer? Solving business problems through creativity. That’s what we do. It’s the magic we have that Google, Facebook, Accenture and all those guys can’t match.

What processes did you put in place to allow the best creative work to emerge?

Fred: Susan established our vision, “Never Finished”, which I’ll let her talk about. But a vision needs to be backed up with work. So we went very quickly from that to getting our heads down. I travel around the world spending weeks at a time with teams to make sure the work is the best it can be. Part of my job is to identify and focus on work that will get attention, because that’s how you change the reputation of a network. But we don’t set out to win a specific number of awards. The goal is to make the best work in the world for our clients. 

Susan: “Never Finished” came out of two things. When I got to FCB, I noticed that part of the “B” on the logo was shaved off, and I asked Carter why. He told me that it was because FCB was a global network of local agencies, so the missing part was to make room for local talent.

But there was an even bigger story to tell. When I look at the best projects I’ve been part of over the past 30 years, we’ve always created something that’s never finished. We left something behind for the next generation or creative group to work with. We created equity, which is far more valuable than a one-off moon shot that wins an award. It creates sustainable partnerships and it’s fulfilling for those who take part. We should always be pushing ourselves to grow, to learn, to experience. “Never Finished” started with the kind of work we wanted to do, but became the culture we want to live in.

Do you have a way of benchmarking creative work so everyone is on the same page globally?

Susan: When he was at Leo Burnett, Michael Conrad created “7plus”, a 10-point numerical scale to judge creativity. At the time I was shocked that a numerical tool was being used in a creative department. Later I saw it was a useful way of talking about work that wasn’t subjective and ego-driven: “I like it – I don’t like it.” But I thought one to ten was too many and that the points were too nuanced. So we have something called the “456” scale. 

1 is “damaging”. 2 is “invisible”, which is work weakened by fear and over-testing. 3 is “noticed”, which is day-to-day work and may activate the client’s business a little. 4 is “provocative”, which gets your attention; it’s something you want to share. 5 “creates behaviour”. Can we create a provocative idea that gets people involved? For example by giving them a way to play with the brand, like the “Whopper Detour”. 6 is “a never finished idea”, which our bespoke way of saying platform-building ideas. 

But it’s not 4, 5 or 6. It’s a combination. On our best day, if we do provocative work that creates behaviour on a never finished platform, not only will we have a great relationship with our clients, build businesses and brands and have the best talent, we will also help put the industry back in an incredibly interesting place.

Do you see many “damaging” ideas?

Susan: In fact damaging work has become much easier to do than when we created the scale four years ago, because of social media and the lack of geographical boundaries. But we’re also much smarter about advising our clients about when to take a risk or not. Our “Go Back To Africa” tourism campaign for Black & Abroad is a great example of that. It could have been a “1”. But because of the context and the audience, and the way we turned a potentially offensive phrase on its head, it was not. And in the end it won the Data Grand Prix in Cannes.

  

How has the network’s approach to recruiting and nurturing talent played a role in this success story?

Fred: Carter put talent at the core of everything. That’s why he brought in Susan, which was a massive step in the plan to transform the network, because he gave her total freedom to shape its creative future. Recruitment – and I’m another example of that – can play a role, but I don’t believe in coming in and changing everyone. People join this industry because they love creativity. But if their leaders aren’t inspiring enough, they give up. So the strategy was to make some key hires at the top, then bet on the potential of the people we had. FCB Ulka in India is a good example: Susan recruited Swati Bhattacharya as CCO, and I spent some time with her and the team. With our input, the exact same staff went from nothing to the most awarded agency in Asia.

You mentioned that you don’t have regional chief creative officers?

Fred: No – we have local CCOs, and Susan, and me. Local CCOs are committed to the creative output of their agencies. Bringing me on board was the answer to the question: “How can we help those local creative leaders globally?” One of the benefits of working with this particular network is that we bring extra talent to bear on local work. I learned a lot from my time working in the entertainment business, at CAA (Creative Artists Agency), where creativity is a much more liquid, collaborative process. So at FCB, while local teams “own” the idea, we have the freedom to bring talent in and out. 

Currently FCB is on a roll, but how can you ensure the great work will continue if you leave? 

Susan: We’re purposely trying not to build the agency on material leadership. If you look at Leo Burnett, it was built on pragmatic thinking and ideas that remain timeless. So we’re trying to put some timeless themes into the DNA of FCB. For example we have a process called “Brand Bedrock”, which is a bespoke way of getting to brand purpose, and it’s being institutionalised. We’ve even used it on ourselves: our Brand Bedrock is to activate business short term and build brands long term, simultaneously. 

We’re also working on a tool to optimise brand design and marketing design. Another tool is called People & Patterns, which is an opportunity mapping tool that enables us to see emerging behavioural trends. It works hand in hand with what we call The Right BIT – for Business Insight Tool. People have access to a lot of data, but they’re not sure what to do with it. So this will guide us to the right “bit” to help you activate your business. If you overlay those two tools, it will take you to the sweet spot of what you should be communicating right now. 

After that comes the creative brief. If you know your brand purpose, you understand your design, and you understand what’s happening in the short term with people, patterns and business, you’re ready for a brief. Then “456” is about measuring what comes out of that. All these tools will continue to function no matter who’s using them.

But talent still plays a role in creating standout work.

Fred: The problem with stellar creative work is that it’s not convenient. Everyone wants it, but few are willing to make the commitment it requires. Not the clients, not the creatives. The way to get there is to keep going when anyone else would stop. And one thing we’ve seen on this journey is a new willingness to go the extra distance – and that comes from the top, from our teams and from our clients. 

How has the drive among brands to find their “purpose” played into your creative resurgence?

Fred: Today, if consumers can’t see what the brand stands for, and see activations and experiences reflecting those values, then you can’t build a healthy business. When we started to work with Huawei, they already had a definition of their role in the world, which is about pushing the limits of what humans can do through technology. But that’s just the vision. You need to back that up with work, which is what happened when we came on board. For The Times of India, it was more about reminding them of the great role and responsibility they have in society.

 

Susan: Going back to People & Patterns, you can see patterns happening here. You have CEOs coming together and saying, “We can no longer build companies based solely on creating shareholder value,” which may work short term, but long term is incredibly damaging. It’s one of the things that led them to regard marketing as a “nice to have” and cut it. Now CEOs are saying, “We have to take care of community. We have to take care of our customers. We have to make sure our products are correct. We need standards.” Given the unsettling situation in the US and other parts of the world, corporations are asking themselves: “If not now, when? And if not us, who?”

By the way, we shouldn’t confuse a company’s purpose with cause marketing. Cause marketing is about doing the right thing – but your purpose as a brand might be to agitate, to make people think. Or simply to make them smile. I don’t think companies should chase benevolence for the sake of it, because it might not be authentic to their business.

A lot of the network’s talks in Cannes were about diversity. Has that also made a contribution?

Susan: I used to think diversity was just the right thing to have. But my opinion has evolved. Because when you’re sitting in a room full of people just like you, the stories that come out are all pretty much the same. How much more interesting to hear stories you’ve never heard before, from somebody else’s walk of life, or from their perspective on the world! The more diverse group of people we have looking at problems and coming up with ideas, the more interesting our solutions are. Diversity is good for this business.