Advice for Young Creatives in Design, Marketing and Advertising, Part 2: Creative Process and Leadership


If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Part II: Lessons learned and career advice from Britton’s chief creative officer

By Emily Richwine

In our second interview with Susan Britton, our chief creative officer and co-founder, we ask her about her creative process, her leadership style and what young creatives need to know to succeed in this business. (If you need to catch up, click to access part one of the series: Advice for Young Creatives in Marketing.)

Chief Creative Officer, Susan Britton

Q: How would you describe your leadership style? You always seem to lead with such authority, yet there’s a distinct kindness and grace. How do you mange to do both? Why is it important to keep that kindness?

A: These top three principles I have found to be true for me:

1. Ninety percent of it has to do with building trust. Most of us have worked for or with people we didn’t trust. It seems obvious that you should build trust by treating others like you want to be treated. If we are up-front and honest with others, all cards on the table, it at least builds a trust relationship and at best builds great long-term partnerships with staff members and clients. You can get so much more done instead of wasting time watching your back. Allow for mistakes when team members are trying to take on additional responsibility or for trying a new strategy. And secondly, over-communicate, even some things you don’t need to, so everyone knows you are trying to keep them informed as part of the whole. Here is a good resource: Trust Is Everything: Become the Leader Others Will Follow by Aneil K. Mishra and Karen E. Mishra.

2. If you hire the right people, then respect them as “human” resources. They are our product as a marketing firm. I am sympathetic to people who are trying to do a good job but haven’t been able to figure out some things yet and need a mentor, or perhaps were placed in the wrong position for their skills and need advice on where to go next. Many writers and designers are introverted, and we need to often pull their struggles out of them, which can be hard to do in a busy, fast-paced workplace. Let’s face it, extroverts rule the world in a way and keep us all laughing or mesmerized by their ability to work a room, but it is often the introverts who are always listening and observing, who can employ their quiet, reasoned wisdom — and often highly developed, unique and creative skill sets — to build the core of a business’ success.

Additionally I have noticed there are so many different kinds of creatives. There are the technical and artistic skills that great designers, illustrators, copywriters and producers have, which can be qualified as their “craft.” They hone their processes and details to each new project, making each one more amazing than the last. These types are often a blend of left and right brain, leaning right. I am more that type.

“Understanding where your creative strengths lie and embracing that area of work is key.”

And then there are the metaphor-driven creatives, the “crazy” idea generators. They are more the generalists, not the “detailists,” and of the very right-brain personality profile. They are often the TV ad types, the inventors, but also can be found in many agencies, driving strategy. Jeff [Susan’s husband and business partner] is more that type.

The creative process

Understanding where your creative strengths lie and embracing that area of work is key. For example, if you really do a great job producing a file and feel less secure designing one, chances are you are a bit more left brain, and may want to consider becoming the best, most amazing senior production person the company has ever seen. It will make you and your employer much happier. If, on the other hand, you are putting a design file together for release and you keep forgetting important parts, then maybe you need to focus more on the aesthetics and leave the production to those better skilled. As a new hire, though, you will often be required to do both, which will eventually sort itself out.

“The glass can always be half full. It is a matter of perspective. A bad attitude only serves to slow us down; it truly never helps, no matter how difficult it is to change our perspective.”

We often say people are “able and willing,” “able and not willing,” “willing and not able” and “not able and not willing.” I would hire the “willing and not able” (yet) over the “able and not willing” every time. People who are hard workers overcome. They find a place to excel. Those who think they are “superspecial” will decide they are too good to do some things and not others. I want to hire people who are not afraid to empty the trash can, because that means when the going gets tough, they will be there down on the floor with me, picking up the pieces and movin’ on! Humility is one of the most underrated virtues in our society of celebrity. Kindness is the outcome of humility. It still surprises me when someone, maybe a new employee, communicates that they are intimidated by me, as that’s the very last thing I would want is for anyone to be, afraid of me! I am the person who was afraid of everyone growing up. One of my most important mentors often says that when meeting someone we should always be “more interested instead of interesting.” I have to remind myself of that in my busy days too, to slow down and listen! It is amazing what you can learn.

3. One of the other top three principles we must operate in is that of delivering a high-quality product in the end. That’s what keeps us in business. That means hiring skilled and über-passionate people, and getting out of their way. I guess if there is one thing I don’t tolerate it is laziness. If anyone gets into trouble, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough, they were careless, or at best they are in the wrong position for the demands of the job. We always must expect the best from ourselves, so we can provide excellence to our clients. That is what makes us viable. The end result must always be a happy client, and that gives back pride in a job well-done.

If I have a critique of young staff, it’s that someone didn’t take the time to take their work far enough. They stop just shy of making it amazing. It’s mediocre. I often remind them that if it isn’t amazing to them, it sure won’t be amazing to the client, who has seen a lot more marketing than they have in their young career. They should as a last check of their work, make sure the white space is balanced, tweak the kerning or sizing on fonts to be a more readable, etc. All these details really count. Often they have a great concept, but when they don’t take the time to figure out how to execute it supremely, they think their idea was bad. In the end, they just didn’t solve the problem completely. It just takes longer than they ever dreamed it would. It’s there. They have to find it, and when they do it is a breakthrough learning experience, and beyond gratifying.

“We often say people are ‘able and willing,’ ‘able and not willing,’ ‘willing and not able’ and ‘not able and not willing.’ I would hire the ‘willing and not able’ (yet) over the ‘able and not willing’ every time.”

One by one those experiences line up to provide the designer a type of design shorthand

Q: What does your creative process look like? Where do you get your ideas? What do you do when you get stuck?

A: It seems the more work you do, the more the creative process becomes a sort of shorthand and a mental checklist, and there is no shortcut for it. Often I start a job with brainstorming and collecting inspiration from a wide variety of ever-changing creative resources. You must be continually identifying and collecting, from trend shopping, surfing the Web, magazines, catalogs and artists’ sites and books.

“It seems the more work you do, the more the creative process becomes a sort of shorthand and a mental checklist, and there is no shortcut for it.”

The resources should be segmented by the personality of the project: Is it an outdoor product? Is it a women’s product? etc. I collect online parts and pieces, and actual hard copy folders of inspiration and scans. Some of my steps are similar to other creative directors and some different. Everyone finds their own set of sequences that works for them.

I might then fill pages and pages of an InDesign doc with ideas, and then hone it down to five or six directions, and then start to play with those to see which three have the most legs, and then size it down to three, depending on the project scope. I often get my best inspiration at the beginning, and then it bogs down in execution, particularly in the middle of the project. That’s when my creative side gets restless and starts to question the originality of the idea and how to come at it from a more original point of view. That’s where the real work gets done, I would say.

Q: One of the things I struggle with is presenting my own ideas. What does that look like for you? How do you get better at it?

A: I wish I could say I was a natural presenter. Being an introvert, it is still difficult for me, but I keep forcing myself to work at it so I get better. After all, let’s be realistic, it is still an extrovert’s world. So if you need training, find it. In the end, I just try to be genuine with passion. It seems that if you put yourself in the clients’ shoes and seek to understand their hot buttons and struggles, the better solutions you can provide. In the end, if I believe in the product I am marketing, and I believe in directions that I am proposing (because I believe them to be on brand) and have done my client homework, then it is easy to be passionate in speaking about it. In the end, a client relates more to your understanding of them than your flourish in the delivery, but flourish helps edge you out from the competition. Now if you are an agency developing TV ads, then that is all theater, and that’s a different ball game.

Q: Who has mentored or guided you along the way?

A: I have learned so much from every creative and marketing person I have met — what to do and what not to do, or how to think differently and visit a different viewpoint, try it on for size. I learned how to let go at times from my husband, Jeff, who is a good balance to me. His generalist nature helps modify my overly perfectionistic approach when it will not win the day, or is wrong-scaled to the project. He taught me that that there are multiple right answers to a creative solution and that expanding your view beyond your natural interests can make your work more interesting. Jeff’s interest in a wide variety of subjects has given him a repository of knowledge, which he applies in the form of metaphors to marketing problems, which often takes it further than I ever could. If I need an idea from a different angle, he can give me 15 ideas in 15 minutes. I envy that nonlinear thinking and suggest that if designers want to be more creative then they should tap into that idea person they know. While I have learned a lot from his opposite perspective, I guess the lesson is that we can as women learn from everyone we encounter, and can actually learn faster since we are a bit more empathic by nature.


“The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.”

One of my other major influences is Barbara Baekgaard, co-founder of Vera Bradley. Her enthusiasm and positivity, even during crisis, is remarkable. One of the most important things she taught me, as an angst-ridden German Lutheran girl, is that the glass can always be half full. It is a matter of perspective. A bad attitude only serves to slow us down; it truly never helps, no matter how difficult it is to change our perspective. Get over your pity party and move on, or get left behind, sitting on your lonely curb, your choice. She taught me that showing up — to events, meetings, etc. — connects us to others and possibilities, and is something critical that this introvert needed to understand. If someone invites you to a party they spent time planning, go! I could write a book about all I learned working for her at Vera Bradley, but there is not enough room here. Suffice it to say that her drive for excellence, kindness and positivity taught me ways of thinking and working that will serve me forever.

“I live by this quote from Barbara Baekgaard, the co-founder of Vera Bradley, that she always believed in: ‘The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.’ Everything well-done looks easy, until you try to do it.”

Another big influence was my parents. My father taught me to not put disagreeable things off and to deal with them head on, which helps in my relationship to our team. My parents both taught me discipline, which I now employ to begin any work I would much rather put off. They are the ones that taught me to “sweep in front of your own door and the whole world will be clean.”

Q: What have been some of the most difficult lessons to learn?

A: Overall I think the most difficult lesson in life is that change is inevitable. Just when you’ve worked hard to make sure everything is going well, then “poof!” something out of your control happens to interrupt it. Change is hard and painful, but you always grow the most from those times, as disagreeable as it feels. For example, I think one of the things I am proudest of is getting through the loss our son, Andrew, but that is not a story most people want to hear about at a cocktail party. Now, when bad things happen to me in life, I can truly say, “Well that is not the worst thing that can happen.” All of a sudden I am less afraid of what life can throw at me. It became about “landscaping the crater” he left behind, but being thankful at the same time that we had the time we did. It helps us appreciate other beautiful things in life and to treasure times with family and friends.

Check back in on Saturday for the conclusion of the series kickoff of “If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” If you missed the first part of the series, click to access Advice for Young Creatives in Marketing.



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