Marketing Re-Imagined: Jen Costello Of TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles On How We Can Re-Imagine The Marketing Industry To Make It More Authentic, Sustainable, And Promote More Satisfaction
An Interview With Drew Gerber
Be mindful of the impact of your brand’s entire footprint. There are too many self-proclaimed ‘inclusive’ brands that are also buying media on Fox News or making money off creators of color without crediting or paying them.
From an objective standpoint, we are living in an unprecedented era of abundance. Yet so many of us are feeling unsatisfied. Why are we seemingly so insatiable? Do you feel that marketing has led to people feeling unsatisfied and not having enough in life? If so, what actions can marketers take to create a world where people feel that they have enough, and they are enough? Can we re-imagine what marketing looks like and how it makes people feel?
In this interview series, we are talking to experts in marketing and branding to discuss how we might re-imagine marketing to make it more authentic, sustainable, and promote more satisfaction. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Jen Costello, Chief Strategy Officer at TBWA/Chiat/Day Los Angeles.
Jen is on a mission to show brands potent new ways to interact with culture. As CSO, she leads a diverse strategic department known for delivering transformative insight and understanding for our clients. She’s a magnet for brands looking to find their emotional center and make a lasting impact through experiences and innovation. Over her years at Chiat\Day, she’s worked closely with leadership teams at Airbnb, DIRECTV, Robinhood, Discover and many more to help define their visions and chart new paths to growth.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
I knew creative agencies were where I wanted to be, but I didn’t understand where I fit in. My university taught the basics: account management, creative and media — that’s it… and none felt like *exactly* the right role for me. I’d gone to interview for an account services internship at GSD&M in Austin and waxed on to some poor account director in the interview about why I thought human psychology and behavior were important for advertisers to study. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “You don’t belong here.” BIG PAUSE. “But let me take you upstairs and introduce you to the planners.” I got the internship, and that was my start.
It was a poignant lesson for me on the importance of knowing and listening to what lights my brain up, even if — or maybe especially if — there’s not a tidy label for it. If you can describe where you want to go, you can enlist others in the journey and navigation.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
You don’t need permission. Full stop.
You don’t need permission to say the thing, or make the thing, or to ask for the thing. So, don’t waste time or creative energy wondering if you should.
Also, balance is a myth. The real job is to create space for what you want — and comparing your journey to anyone else’s is misery in the making. As Mark Pollard says, “Save some of you for you.”
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful for that support to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
I have been blessed with many brilliant guides, personally and professionally. Many have been enthusiastic advocates, but I’ve learned and grown just as much from those who looked to block my path or stifle my voice. They’ve shown me who I don’t want to be as a leader — insecure, untrusting of my team, or ego-driven.
Here’s a sunnier one for you, though — an early but significant mentor for me was Dr. John H. Murphy from The University of Texas. I’d gone to him with a cover letter I was planning to submit for a Jr. Strategist role. After he read it, he looked up at me, smiled, and told me that everything I’d written was conventional and familiar. It wouldn’t make me stand out. I was trying to follow generic cover letter wisdom, and it showed.
“Quick,” he said, “Give me the three reasons you’re worthy of that job right now.” He instructed me to go write that down instead. I stayed with that brilliant indie agency in Austin for the next four years, and I’ve never forgotten the power of surrounding yourself with people who won’t shy away from giving you the unvarnished truth. Surrounding myself with people who will give me the real-real has been critical to my happiness and ascent.
What day-to-day structures do you have in place for you to experience a fulfilled life?
The most significant practice I have for staying integrated and aligned in my daily life is a practice called a Quadrinity Check. It’s a morning reflection process I learned at the Hoffman Institute, where I check in with my Physical, Emotional, Intellectual, and Spiritual self — observing how each of those four parts are feeling that morning and asking them what they need from me today. Then, making sure I create space to give it! Otherwise, it comes down to those little choices throughout the day and week — minimal meetings on Mondays to create time for deep thinking, camera off on Friday, good coffee, avoiding energy vampires (humans and tasks), and travel every chance I get.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Now let’s discuss marketing. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority on marketing?
I could tell you the conventional stuff — nearly 20 years in this industry, I’ve been a trusted advisor to America’s most commercially and culturally influential brands, from Airbnb to Walmart and way beyond, and that I’ve got a title that says I’m an authority. But what actually makes me good is that I stay a student of creativity, culture, tech, branding and — this is the most important — real human beings in the wild. I mess around, I ask naive questions, I take in lots of different perspectives, and I stay open to what unreal things could become real. The moment I really start to fancy myself an expert, it’s time to pack it up.
Throughout history, marketing has driven trade for humans. What role do you see that marketing played to get human societies where we are today?
Marketing has this special dual ability of warping our brains and making us better. It can shift norms, like whether we wear seat belts or aggressively airbrush models. Or it can create unattainable ideals and anxiety. The most important role marketing has played is by reflecting what matters to us, what we value. But that seems not enough these days, especially as more marketers settle for ‘good enough’ and follow trend lines rather than committing to values with real conviction. And honestly, agencies too. I see it a lot right now in the push for diversity — so many marketers want to portray diverse casting but with neutered motivations or storylines used to signal inclusion outwardly without reflecting it in the internal operation of their business.
I work in marketing so I’m very cognizant of this question. What role does marketing play in creating the human experience of “I don’t have enough” even when basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing are met?
This is marketing’s role: to create influence and desire. The more we deny that as an industry, the more we deny our great power and — even more importantly — our great responsibility not to hurt or exploit people in the pursuit of growing our clients’ business. What if we all got a lot more honest about that? It’d put a stop to faux-worthy work like this and put positive pressure on all of us to construct realities and possibilities that build us up rather than tear us down.
What responsibility do marketers have when it comes to people feeling that they aren’t enough?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Many 21st-century marketing professionals in a capitalistic society will discuss solving human “pain points” as a way to sell products, services, and other wares successfully. In your opinion or experience, has aggravating pain points led to more pain?
Pain points are lazy problems. Sure, they may be true and irritating flies in the ointment of life. But the real magic comes from identifying a fundamental problem — something that’s actually missing from people’s lives. This is fundamental to how Emily Heyward, founder of Red Antler, approaches building iconic and valued brands.
“The single most important question we ask in our first conversation with founders is not how their business works or who their competition is, but what the problem is that they are solving for people. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, they don’t answer with the problem they’re solving — they answer with a description of their business and its benefit. Someone launching a new gym concept will answer, “Getting consistent quality training at an affordable price.” Or someone launching a platform for small-business owners will say, “Visibility and ownership of their data.” Notice these are not problems, these are solutions.”
This is why the Red Antler team won’t stop their problem ID practice until they reach human mortality. Here’s a fictional example that Henry Ford would’ve been keen on:
Why does it matter to people that their horses are slow?
“It takes me too long to get places and I can’t travel very far.”
And why does that matter?
“I spend more time getting myself places than enjoying my life and accomplishing things.”
And why does that matter?
“Because I’m going to die pretty soon, and I have so much I need to achieve first! I can’t waste my short life on the back of this horse!”
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: It seems as if we have never stopped to question marketing. In your opinion, how can marketing professionals be more responsible for how their advertising shapes our human experience of feeling safe, secure, and knowing that we matter? Based on your experience or research can you please share “Five Ways We Can Re-Imagine The Marketing Industry To Make It More Authentic, Sustainable, And Promote More Satisfaction”?
I love this question about impact. We think a lot about what our work should do or say, but not as much as imagining what ripple effect that work may create. Maybe we should all begin at the end more often.
Here’s what comes to mind — all familiar, but not easy.
- Only create things that are a fair exchange for people’s time.
- Center diverse voices and stories. Stop stripping diverse casting of authentic stories, which is something we sadly still see in advertising.
- Be mindful of the impact of your brand’s entire footprint. There are too many self-proclaimed ‘inclusive’ brands that are also buying media on Fox News or making money off creators of color without crediting or paying them.
- Spend more time on the problem you’re solving than the solution. And if there’s not a real problem, don’t try to invent one. Own your brand’s DNA honestly instead.
- Look critically at every room, panel, and meeting you’re in. If the group is too homogenous, stop and ask why. We shouldn’t be giving energy or oxygen to events that still gate-keep women, people of color, mature and LGBTQIA+ voices.
For you personally, if you have all your basic needs met, do you feel you have enough in life?
I am at peace more often than not. It’s my favorite place to be.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
I’ve just finished Denise Zimmermann and Katherine Gleason’s book, Wicca and Witchcraft: Learn to Walk the Magikal Path with the God and Goddess. It may not be for everyone, but I found it to be a delicious reminder of the power of our own internal energy and thoughts, and a reminder just how beneficial a connection to nature is for our sense of self and worth.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’m unmoored by watching Twitter descend further into a cesspool of hate and yuck. How about free, high-quality therapy for every American?
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: For 30 years, Drew Gerber has been inspiring those who want to change the world. Drew is the CEO of Wasabi Publicity, Inc., a full-service PR agency lauded by PR Week and Good Morning America. Wasabi Publicity, Inc. is a global marketing company that supports industry leaders, change agents, unconventional thinkers, companies and organizations that strive to make a difference. Whether it’s branding, traditional PR or social media marketing, every campaign is instilled with passion, creativity and brilliance to powerfully tell their clients’ story and amplify their intentions in the world.