She’s just making it up as she goes along. And killing it

Sue Gillan has been directing talent on stage and screens, in agencies, companies and business schools worldwide for over fifteen years. At Chicago’s Second City Theater, Sue began her career as a resident company actress and writer and went on to direct both their National Touring Co and Chicago stage. From there, she helped launch the branded content arm of the Second City and began applying the tenets of improv to help develop talent for companies and schools. Sue has written and directed commercials, theatricals and short films, including the award winning, The After Party.

She joined OKRP in 2013 as its first creative director and, after working overseas and running her own consultancy, returned to the agency in 2018 as the head of talent.

In this Barstool Interview, Sue discusses how she made her way into agency life, why improv is so applicable to the ad-making process, what she looks for in talent and more.

So, you’ve always been this performer, writer and director. How did you make the move from directing into HR?

Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities. HR used to be more transactional, more “See you at open enrollment.” Which, for the record is still vital to talent. But now, every industry — especially advertising — understands that talent is everything. And OKRP has put its stake in the ground that we are a creative-first agency, which means we better have some great talent or we can forget about great creative.

More and more, I’m excited by other people’s talent and helping them connect with all that potential. So, the question is how big do you want to grow? Because if you want to get really big — or if you know your favorite role is more behind the scenes or as a utility player — I want to help you figure that out and get you there. That was true when I was directing at Second City and that is 100 percent true here in this role.

It’s not enough to find awesome talent. We also have to create an environment where people want to grow, where they want to stay and where they want to return if they leave for another opportunity. I want them to come back in a different role down the road. I know that that happens here at OKRP because it happened to me.

I was here as a creative and then left for this crazy opportunity to go live in Amsterdam. By the time I came back, there were so many brilliant people here. There was this opportunity to build out a department that takes care of talent — a very intentional discipline around all things talent. And yes, some of those things still fall under administering HR — Angela (Schullo, Director of Facility & HR Administration) and I stick close on those because they are still a big deal. With Amanda (Jacobs, Talent Manager), I’m also focusing on strategies to bring awesome talent in here and, with all department heads and partners and managers I’m focused on strategies to keep everybody here, and thriving.

What I’ve always loved about OKRP is that it’s so open to every kind of talent — whether that’s improvisers, documentary filmmakers, woodworkers, data junkies, journalists, photographers, big-thinking strategists, novelists, journalists or these kids from city schools who have kick-ass Instagram accounts. They don’t have a definition in mind, “Here’s what creative means, here’s what talent means.” It’s just this wide-open “We know it when we feel it” vibe, and it leaves a door open for people like me who never imagined advertising would be an avenue.

One of OKRP’s four principles is putting the agent in agency. What does that mean and how does it relate to cultivating talent?

It’s the idea that we bring our best work when we curate best-fit teams — we don’t expect ourselves to have every single brand of talent in house 24/7. And not every kind of talent wants a 24/7 gig. In order to put together the magic band for any given project, we have to have the expertise to know where to find the best fill-in-the-blank when there’s a call for that particular niche individual or team out there. And then we have to have the relationships to be able to go get them.

So a perfect example of this is the Writer’s Table. What exactly is it and how does it work?

The Writer’s Table was born out of a Tom O’Keefe (OKRP CEO) idea that, like all great ideas, was so simple and obvious that now a lot of agencies claim it. Tom came to Second City, saw improvisers taking suggestions from the audience and turning those random “briefs” into performed “insights” that you’d keep thinking about and laughing about in the car on the way home and he wondered, “Why aren’t we using improvisers as creatives?” And then he did.

Now, the Writer’s Table is used any time we want a lot of options really fast — especially surprising options. Jen (Bills, Group Creative Director) is great at looking at a brief and turning it into assignments improvisers can succeed at. She can also identify what random ideas have potential to make the cut. And Greg (Mills, Copywriter) is shamelessly prolific. He will always make everything funnier and truer so he provides creative intimidation. In the best way.

What tenants of improv apply to advertising?

Being iterative, being brave with ideas, cranking out more and more in a relentless pursuit of making that undeniable connection with the audience. It’s easy to think that improv is about comedy, but it’s really about making something out of nothing in real time with people we often didn’t choose and with inputs we can’t always control. And it only succeeds when the audience decides it does.

How does that play out when developing a creative idea for a client?

Well, creatives often have little control over the brief — just like improvisers can’t control what the audience will throw at them. An improv audience is like Strategy with no research, no data, no insight and a bag of gin — so what we get handed is what we have to work with. Because we don’t choose our work teams, we have to quickly identify and play to each other’s strengths. We need bring to the benefit of doubt, forgive mess-ups quickly, keep building and bring a sense of play. Those are the only things we can really control and they super affect the work.

Something that comedic improvisers are really good at doing is finding the true thing. Truth in comedy. When we are doing our job really well, we’ll put something out there that gets everybody in the audience head-nodding while they laugh, like “Oh my god, I know” because it’s true, but they’ve never heard that true thing in quite that way before. So, it’s funny.

Advertising has so much of the same end goal where we’re looking for these truthful insights that are delivered to us in the most surprising way. And it’s the surprise part that makes them stick. Sometimes it sticks because it’s visually stunning, or it moves you to tears, or it’s pee-pants funny, or it’s an ear-worm living in your brain.

How long does this process take?

It depends. Some are real tricky codes to crack. Usually, it goes pretty quickly. There can be good stuff to be mined in the 11th hour table flips but usually, you end up coming back to those undeniables from first rounds. The hardest part is finding the big idea. And even though you can have many people cranking, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can immediately find that big idea. It’s not enough for that big idea to match the brief, it has to match O’Keefe. Nice rhyme. There’s got to be that magic dust on it, where it’s undeniable not only to us, but to Tom — he’s like the director — and then to the client and their consumers, our audience.

I feel like it’s similar in a way to putting together a show at Second City. You have these ideas in your head of the kind of scenes you need to make up a show. Well just checking those boxes is not going to do it. There have to be elements of those scenes, where everybody — the director, the cast and the audience — is like Yes! that is the thing I can’t get out of my head. And that’s not an easy thing to do. It does require some element of magic.

Does the client understand this? Do you have to explain to them how it works?

It’s funny because, as you can see from this interview, explaining improv is like trying to catch a cloud. It’s kinda sad to try. Because there’s some magic involved, the best success we’ve had is just showing clients. We’ve done that in the past in works sessions or pitches — it helps.

I think our investment in “creative-first” means something to our clients. We want to offer every kind of amazing, creative thinking that we can possibly get our hands on. That includes improv, that includes kick-ass designers, that includes photographers, food bloggers — what do you need? Because as we discussed earlier, we have that agent in agency ability to pull into all different kinds of talent.

How does trust factor into improv?

Trust is key to improvising successfully. In order to put out the very best ideas I have or a weird one or the one that just occurred to me, I trust that you are going to get right up here next to me — even though you’re not sure what’s happening and we have had no time to plan. I trust that you’re going to grab onto something I’ve said and build on it. And then you trust that I’m going to build onto that. And people in the back line trust that that enough has been established that they can step in and successfully add another piece and here we go, without any plotting, planning, sidebar conversations, script, costumes or set pieces.

We have just built something out of nothing that is hilarious or poignant or moving or surprising or all of the above. And that is fucking magical.

But we can’t even do it if one person on stage decides I want to get all the focus on myself or I’m going to quit because I don’t know what’s happening or because I’m afraid. So much of that is true in any collaborative company, not just on stage. Any time you’re asked to make something from nothing in real time, without getting to choose the project and without getting to choose your coworkers, we have to build some trust here, which means we have to act in a trust-worthy way.

Would you say OKRP is known for its ability to integrate improv into the agency?

Yeah, I would — at least for the improvisers in this town. We had an audition over a year ago and we had over 100 improvisers here in the city auditioning for us. It was so exciting to see this talent that knows OKRP is a destination to be a freelancer and learn this skill that you can take to New York or LA — and while you’re trying to kick down doors with your amazing improv comedy acting talents, you can actually make a living as a freelancer.

And learning under Jen Bills — one of the most generous, prolific and hilarious people I’ve ever known — and Greg, so sharp, so funny and maybe the most true-speak writer ever in the history of history… I mean, yeah — that’s great improv integrated into the agency every day.

And it’s an incredible thing to see how learning to work in an agency changed the lives of improvisers in Chicago. I know that because I hear from them all the time.

There are people who were working with us years ago that were able to move to LA based on the money they made as freelancers. For an improviser in Chicago there aren’t a lot of job options. It’s a big, big deal for the improv community here in the city. So, I wasn’t surprised that 100 improvisers came out to our audition.

I could name for you so many insanely talented improvisers who worked with us and went onto incredible things. Keegan Michael Key of Key & Peele; Peter Gwinn who went on to be a staff writer for the Colbert Show; Tami Sagher who is like one of the most in-demand script doctors in LA and has been a writer and show runner for every amazing comedy you can name from 30 Rock to Broad City; John Reynolds, who was a kid when he came into OKRP four year ago, is now winning Emmys for Stranger Things. And most recently, Katie Kershaw went from covering the front desk to co-starring on a new HBO series.

It’s no joke. Through our table we really do provide these incredible opportunities for improvisers. And it’s just a reminder that we know talent when we see it and are fortunate enough to have the kind of place here at OKRP that even improvisers who are on some star-studded ass adventures want to come in and spend time here because they know it’s going to be fun. The way that Jen Bills runs that table it’s going to be a blast and you’re cracking some codes and that feels good. It always feels good to come up with creative solutions if you’re a creative person.

It’s almost summer, which means Camp OKRP is starting. What is it and how does it help OKRP cultivate diverse talent?

There is so much talent here in the city of Chicago and we always want every kind of talent, especially creatively in ad agencies. Tom, a couple years ago, got really frustrated that more city school kids aren’t in ad agencies.

We’re looking at this incredible city of Chicago that has these beautiful poets, rappers, musicians, artists of every visual type, kids with killer ability to navigate social media and express themselves across multiple platforms.

He asked if we could figure out a way to partner with city schools and, in order to do that, I firmly believed that we can’t just bring people in. We have to give them the ability to succeed.

So, we wanted to provide tools by making Camp OKRP, which is as much an education as it is a summer job. We broke it down into some workshops — what is a brief, how you find mentors, pitch skills — skills that unfortunately are not taught a lot. But city schools are where so much talent is sitting and never imagining that advertising might be a path because there simply hasn’t been the exposure.

It has mattered to us to scout in places like job fairs — where we are seriously the only agency present among booths for hotels and the military — and show that we are a viable option. If you’re a creative thinker, we can teach you advertising.

Camp OKRP turned into this awesome hybrid of we’re going to do a lot of educating but then we’re also going to put you to work. You have these skills and we’re just going to start aiming them at things. And it worked. We’re already planning for Camp OKRP 2020 to focus on high schools — that’s crazy exciting to me.

Certainly, you meet a lot of people who are interested in working at OKRP. What do you look for in talent?

I am most excited by people who can teach me quickly how to use them. I love nothing more than when somebody comes to the table and says, “You must hire me and here’s why. I do a, b and c, and in my home life or in my hobbies I like to do x, y and z.” The more I get a picture of somebody, the more they’re excited about their own talent, then oh my God it’s so easy to decide to what to do with them. And I say all the time to candidates, “Interviewers want nothing more for you to be the person they’re looking for because then we get to stop looking.” Which means, relax — you have more power here than you think.

There’s no benefit to playing smaller than you are or playing humble. I can also smell bravado a mile away. But when somebody is genuinely talented, genuinely excited about what they do — of course I’m going to be excited, too. There have been many times where I’ve been like, “Ooof, I don’t have a role for this person but by gosh I’m going to find one.” Because that talent is undeniable. There have been many times where I thought if this person doesn’t end up leading here, they’re going to end up leading somewhere else — so how do I create a path for them here?

Last question. As OKRP grows, what’s top of mind for you?

Have I said talent too much? The fact that I have trust from Tom, Matt and Nick — I feel an obligation to use that trust to advocate for the group. Let me put it this way: once they let you in the room, be ready to kick down some more doors. Like, let’s make more room. I feel like some of the best use of my talent is an ability to push. I don’t always love pushing, but I love the results that pushing gets. And I feel like if I’m not going to push, I can’t ask other people to. And since I do push, I do ask other people to.

The partners don’t always love being pushed on talent issues — especially because they are busy pushing on lots of other important things — (laughing) but they don’t hate it so much that I’ve been dismissed! If you’re not making leadership uncomfortable to a degree, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. Because some of what worked for us as a 20-person agency didn’t work at 40, and sure as shit isn’t gonna work at 100.

So, we have to keep improvising — evolving, reinventing. I know that shit can be deeply uncomfortable. I’m lucky that I’m used to doing it — that’s been my whole career. And I have an eye on the prize — how do we grow in such a way that includes room for everybody to succeed? If we commit to doing that, we will grow together and stay together as a team. It can be messy at times, but I believe with my whole heart it’s worth it.