Mara Lecocq — Founder, Secret Code

Mara talks to TheNextGag about the state of advertising schools, how ad agencies need to evolve and why advertising people are the best suited to change the world.

Mara Lecocq is the Founder of Secret Code in the USA.

Mara Lecocq (formerly Mara Binudin) is a former creative director at AKQA, who decided to go freelance to help empower the girls of tomorrow through a project she launched called Secret Code.

She’s also been named one of 2016’s Next Creative Leaders by the One Club. She was one of Mashable’s Rising Stars in advertising. And she was selected as one of 12 women in the world to be part of the See It Be It initiative at Cannes Lions). In short — she’s pretty bad ass.

Mara wants to address the diversity problem in leadership and technology, and give girls of all ethnicities a chance to see themselves as heroes. She’s created an innovative children’s book that recently won a grant by Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss foundation.

It’s called ‘Secret Code’, a customizable children’s book that stars the little girl in your life as a trailblazing hero, in a role that challenges stereotypes. You go online, personalize the hero’s name, skin, hair and eyes, so she looks like the girl you want to inspire — and your girl receives a classic paper picture book about her leading a fun modern-day robot adventure.

THENEXTGAG: WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND YOU CREATING A CHILDREN’S BOOK ?

MARA LECOCQ: I was tired hearing about the lack of diversity in the workplace, which I was facing it first-hand as one of the rare female creative leaders in digital advertising. There are different issues, but a core one is that women were not brought up to aspire to get into male-dominated fields like technology, and stay there.

I looked back at how I ended up being one of the only female creative directors at AKQA. My dad pushed me in technology when I was a baby. He taught me how to dismantle a CPU when I was 6. He bought me a book on how to code when I was 12, and in 1995 I coded my first website on Notepad. I was the only kid in school who had a website. It’s no mystery my job today is actually still making websites at its core.

Girls aren’t usually raised this way. They’re often conditioned to look up to certain roles, and at the same time lack role models who make them think differently. And studies show the stereotypes sink in between ages 5 and 7, where kids start associating jobs to genders — and that impacts their interests, and later, their aspirations.

And children’s books are full of stereotypes, because big publishers believe mainstream white-people stories drive more revenue than minority-led stories. You’d think it’s changing, but only 6% of best selling picture books in the USA have a lead female of color in 2017, when they represent 40% of the population.

I wanted to help girls dream of something different.

TNG: WHY DID YOU CHOSE TO COLLABORATE WITH JESSIKA VON INNEREBNER ?

ML: I love her style. She was perfect for my audience. I found that a lot of “feminist” children’s books showed characters that weren’t aspirational to little girls. I mean, if you want to compete with princesses, you better make them look cool and cute. It’s like, do you want to look like Elsa or Barbie, or that character with overalls and a straw hat?

Jessika balances the cute and badass aspects of a character really well.

TNG: HOW DID YOUR CAREER IN ADVERTISING PREPARE YOU TO WHAT YOU ARE CURRENTLY DOING ?

ML: I treated Secret Code exactly like an ad campaign for a brand. But my brand was “Women in leadership and technology.” I had an insight, a strategy, an idea and an execution. I had a product, a launch film, a launch event and PR outreach.

We were basically a mini ad agency to make Secret Code happen. I rallied a team of ad folks I worked with at AKQA: a copywriter (Nathan Archambault) and a tech partner (Rodolfo Dengo). I worked with an illustrator (Jessika Von Innerebner), developers (Iris Salvador), a PR person (Elisabeth Rosario). I worked with a director (Philippe Grenier), production company (Mile Inn) and music studio (Apollo Studios). I was the creative director, art director, designer, co-writer, project manager, producer, accountant, and PR assistant.

Advertisers really have the power to do great things because they know a lot of aspects of business thanks to the variety of briefs and roles they are exposed to, AND they’re connected to a lot of doers. We should take advantage of that and take time off to do our side hustles. It’s the most rewarding thing ever, and we can make a difference. Few people are in our spot.

Do it!

TNG: DO YOU FEEL LIKE WOMEN OF YOUR GENERATION STILL HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN BECOMING A MOTHER AND THEIR CAREER ?

ML: I think the US doesn’t offer enough help to make mothers want to stay at work. I come from France originally, where we have great options for mat leave, day care and vacation. My previous agency, BETC Paris, is one of the, if not the most, consistently long-standing award-winning agencies in this world. And there’s tons of women in leadership who have kids. Talent retention there is insane. Ex-coworkers from 10 years ago are still there.

Gender equality exists in some agencies: the senior leadership team of BETC Paris has 2 co-founders and 2 co-presidents who are equally male and female

When you have to choose between working long hours making things the real world doesn’t care about at the end of the day, and seeing your child grow, the choice seems pretty straightforward. I’m being specific because I think when you work long hours on something that gives you a sense of purpose, you might make the case.

Which brings us to the next question.

What’s cool now is solving world problems and being on the cover of Fast Company. It’s not killing yourself making a glorified case study to win an award, that no one outside of advertising cares about.

TNG: IS THE SOLUTION TO CURRENT ADVERTISING WOES TO HAVE YOUNG PEOPLE STARTING THEIR OWN CREATIVE SHOP ?

ML: First, the definition of “great work” has changed. The new generations want to have an impact and a sense of purpose. What’s cool now is solving world problems and being on the cover of Fast Company. It’s not killing yourself making a glorified case study to win an award, that no one outside of advertising cares about.

Second, agencies, struggling with business, make their staff work really hard for little impact. How often has your “brilliant idea” been watered down by an army of fearful execs throwing their 2-cents and going for consensus vs. daring to actually be disruptive. Or work has been canceled after months of commitment, and not having a life. Or an idea ends up being really good in the case study but it never really happened that way.

I think new generations will stay engaged in careers where they can have impact, or flexibility. Not none of the two! Like, work 15 hours a day for a cancer research foundation. YES. Or work from 9 to 5 on banners for a pizza cracker brand. That’s fine too. The worst is, “Let’s innovate in this pizza cracker banner brief. There’s an award-winning, creative opportunity in every brief! You just need to give it your all at every moment! You gotta make the hours and work hard for it.” Uhm…middle finger emoji?

I get that the older generations want to replicate habits that worked for them, and are like “Back in my days…!” but that’s not helping with talent retention. Agencies need to change fast — or just watch everyone jump ship. It’s already happening.

TNG: DO YOU SEE YOURSELF GOING BACK INTO ADVERTISING ?

ML: Yes, but only if it offers work with impact which I’m ready to not have a life for, or work-life balance on something maybe less “compelling.” I’m making the distinction because we have to be realistic too. You can’t, like, hope to work on something that will change the world, earn a ton of money, and just leave at 6 every day. You have to set some priorities.

TNG: DO YOU STILL FOLLOW FRENCH ADVERTISING ?

ML: I still have a lot of friends who work at BETC Paris, so I enjoy what they share, but that’s pretty much it.

TNG: I WAS IMPRESSED BY YOUR ONLINE PORTFOLIO. DO YOU FEEL THAT CREATIVES HAVE TROUBLE TO SELL THEMSELVES WELL ?

ML: I never think I’m awesome (maybe it’s my French side where we can’t bear being more than “not bad”) :).

I feel like I see a lot of decent portfolios these days. But to answer your question, I think that junior advertising talent is hard to find in the US, because they don’t have great creative advertising schools like they do in other countries. Usually, students come out being either “conceptual” with poor craft skills, or they’re designers who have a hard time concepting. It’s not their fault, they just don’t have the right access. Especially digital advertising education. And damn the schools are expensive!

A lot of countries abroad have amazing, free and highly competitive digital programs where the minimum skills they learn is to concept, design, code, shoot, animate and edit. And they illustrate and do typography too. That’s your intern right there. The one-person-army is not something I’ve seen so much in the US yet…hopefully, it’s coming.

I do find people always learn from each other at the end of the day, and Americans are just amazing at presentation, which is as important as the rest. A lot of us are absorbing these lessons.

Back to the portfolio question, I find however that, with tools these days like Squarespace, it’s hard to fuck up your book. I find a lot of books look pretty good on the surface.

The one thing I have trouble with, on the contrary, is how people just put work they hardly touched in their portfolios. It’s really hard to watch out for the leechers. In France or Canada, where I’ve worked, you don’t ever do that. It took me a while to realize it was something common here. So you gotta ask the right questions and get to the bottom of who did exactly what.

Mara Lecocq at Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss Rally, March 2017 in LA

TNG: CAN A CREATIVE BE SEEN AS BEING SUCCESSFUL WITHOUT DOING PRESS, SPEAKING AT EVENTS AND SITTING ON JURIES ? IS IT PART OF THE JOB ?

ML: Totally. I think most talented creatives actually don’t do all these things. They win awards and they’re golden. Or just have an excellent rep. Press, juries and speaking events are extra. I feel fortunate to have had those opportunities, and I know awesome people who haven’t. I personally enjoy experiences, so I love traveling for conferences and speaking events. It’s not everyone’s thing. Also, I’m 1 in 10 creative directors in advertising who’s female, so I’m often the token woman people jump on. Which is totally cool! I get it. It inspires young ladies to move up, so it’s for the greater good.

TNG: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR PERSONAL TOUCH ?

ML: I love thought-provoking, meaningful experiences. Whether it’s a film, an interactive experience or a book, I love uncovering deep insights that no one has thought of, and using that as groundwork for the creative idea. I’m not really a random “do cool shit” kind of creative. I love creating a connection that either enlightens, entertains or solves someone’s problem.

Mara Lecocq

Secret Code

Founder

Linkedin | Twitter | Website

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