Colleen DeCourcy on vulnerability

Colleen DeCourcy is Partner and Global Co-Executive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy - one of the most esteemed creative agencies in the world. Colleen's career could very much be interpreted as a creative journey, built up through many manifestations on a quest for self actualization. She has lived all over the world, taken strides in creative refinement, pushed the limits of the digital space and raised a beautiful daughter. She is open, generous and an amazing spirit. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a spy. Harriet the Spy had just been published and it was a new kind of hero for girls. I was also an only child and kind of an introvert. I was a latchkey kid, I moved around a lot. I liked that spies hung around the outside edges of things. I loved being invisible, but present. I made my own spy card that I’d carry around with me - laminated by the machine at the Woolworth’s store.

It’s a feeling that seems to have followed me around throughout my life. When my daughter was young, I was always away on business travel. I used to make it romantic for her by intimating that I was a spy. It was only when she was 11 or 12 that I realized she had thought it was true.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Martha Gellhorn, Virginia Masters, Joan Didion and Lee Krasner.

All of those women are incredibly gifted and groundbreaking. They were also married to, lived with and/or worked beside, equally genius men. Those women either chose to be caregivers of those men’s ideas or chose to care for their own.  I want to know why they made the choices they did.

When did Gellhorn decide she was better than Hemmingway? Why did Krasner decide that Jackson Pollock was more important? For many years Virginia Masters had to make herself invisible to do the work she wanted to do beside Johnson. Joan Didion was the more infamous, how did John Dunne feel about that? How did she?

If we come first or not; what that does to the dynamic of who we are as women, the choices we make, is curious to me. The one thing that seems clear is a woman's instinct to deliver someone or something. How we process that instinct defines us.

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
I have two.

When I was about 12-years-old my Nana gave me a beautiful leather bound special edition version of Darwin's Origin of Species. It became my bible. Darwin gave me an understanding of the world and of human nature. There was a direct connection I felt between that science and the possibility that we are malleable, that we do not die the same as we are born.

My other book is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I'm not a sentimental person, I think I may be actively afraid of sentimentality, but that book touched on troughs and currents of the heart and mind that are so central to being human. Things that matter: love, war, longing and morality.  There are passages of that book I can recite by memory, the reading from Herodotus in particular.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed around 11:30 to 12am and wake up again naturally at 3:30 to 4am.

It’s a holdover from raising a child alone and wanting to be a creative director. That space in the early morning was just mine. Before my daughter was born I used to write in those hours. Then for many years, my days got more complicated. There was someone to be fed and socks to be found and homework to be done and so much to organize just to get out the door. I also had to become a manager at work. During that time I started using the early morning for email. More recently I've started taking that time back and not let myself pick up the phone in those hours. I’m going back to inside-out, not outside-in. It's so much better for my thoughts.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
Friday. When it’s over.

Friday is a funny transition. Full of both dread and relief. It’s the beginning of the weekend. Two days to do my thing, to be free, to have my own thoughts, to be with the people I love, to get my own shit done, to just breathe. But, I also have this anxiety around stopping. A fear that I won’t get my ideas back if I put them down for Saturday and Sunday. Friday nights can be really hard, awkward moments for me of leaving my work-self and going back to my home-self because they are two very different people.

I'm a Monday-Friday workaholic and yet I will honestly tell you that in my heart I could stop tomorrow. I could live happily in Saturday and Sunday. But If I’m in it, I'm all the way in it.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
My job choices haven’t been calculated. I just kept going where I thought I could make the most difference to the point where it's sometimes led me into really strange territories.

My first job was in advertising as a receptionist. I thought it would be a foot in the door and a step closer to people who write. The Chief Creative Officer there was a woman and she was a complex force of nature. I’d not met a women like her before.  She didn’t give a shit about my development really - but she inspired me.  The fact that she didn’t give a shit about what I wanted from her, inspired me.

I finally got to write and then I went into broadcast media to get more hands on experience with making things. I wanted to know how to make television. I liked the nomad-like, craziness of it. I liked the camaraderie of being part of the team. Then, I stopped liking it. I became disillusioned with the churn of content and people in trucks on sets who’d never read the script. I wanted to be a single voice.

I left and started working with a concert promoter. I did weird stuff like working backstage with talent, making sure everyone had what they needed and learning how that all worked. It was a weird, live world.  I grew up fast.  I did a lot in a short amount of time. I was both on the run and running towards myself, trying to figure it out.

In 1994 I had my daughter and it was time to take stock. I ended up back in advertising.  After a while the small agency I was working for offered me a promotion to Creative Director, in London. I packed up my daughter and we moved.

It was the mid-90s. The whole internet thing was blowing up. There was this beautiful contextual backdrop for it in London; the English class system vs technology.  The internet was a major disrupter of who got what, who was entitled to what and who knew what. It shortened the boundaries between people of importance and people who felt they had none. I was fascinated with technology as an act of Darwinism.

It was also amazing to be in Cool Britannia during that time - ground zero for the resurgence of design culture, It was my finishing school. It cemented something in me about taste, form and function. I'd always been a searcher. In London I became a a finder.

Eventually I moved back to Toronto and I just kept going with it. I went fully down the digital rabbit hole at a place called Organic. It was around 2000 and nobody wanted to work for me because I was the “traditional creative.” I was a writer and everybody kept saying “no one reads on the internet.’ I just kept asking why they’d hired me. It taught me so much more about design, about the way people's minds work and the way we interface with things. It was tough and good for me because I couldn't design any of it myself. I had to learn how to partner with a person - to communicate my ideas. There were many long nights staring over someone’s shoulder moving pixels around on a screen and many early mornings sitting on the sofa in my boss's office, trying to resign because I didn’t feel I knew what I was doing. 

Organic was bought by Omnicom during the first holding company buying frenzy of digital shops.  Razorfish, Organic,, all bought and placed with different advertising agencies. BBDO took us into their fold. It was another seminal moment for me. I had recently been promoted to Organic’s Chief Creative Officer and we had some problems in our Detroit office. Chrysler was our biggest account and I was afraid we were going to lose it - so I went to try and sort it out. I didn’t even have a car for the first couple of months. I had a bicycle. I was incredibly naive. Somehow that helped me in a town where all the ideas had already been had.

I got pretty good at it. There were job offers coming from New York and New York seemed like something I wanted to do, so I packed up my daughter again and we went. I spent a year at JWT and then went to TBWA as Chief Digital Officer for a few years. I did some good work, I did some ok work. I had some really big ideas and I also fell down a lot and scraped my knees.  I said I never wanted to have a “change management” job again. I did my own start-up.  I learned about business the hard way.  I didn’t sleep for 2 years.  I scraped my knees some more.  My whole body actually…like I was dragged behind a bus. 

Then, I got a call from Wieden + Kennedy.  It was a little bit about change managing - maybe more than I wanted it to be but I couldn’t look away once they asked me. The managing seemed like something all my failing had prepared me to do.  I don't know why they would have picked me, otherwise. I know that Dan and Dave felt like they needed someone with perspective from the outside. I had traveled a lot. I had worked a lot. I'd done a lot of different things. Wieden had always been about having ideas from as many different points of view as possible. It was also about failing harder and being uncomfortable. They needed someone new as part of that mix and I felt fortunate that they saw something in me. 

There's a constant tension between the craft and “the way you do something” here and the curiosity that says “let’s do something new.” There’s a danger in being good at something - that the way you do something becomes the way you do everything - a useful skill and a terrible limiter. So doing different things, maintaining the chaos of W+K and still keeping everyone safe… That's the remit. I have no idea how you do it. I improve a little every day.  People are patient with me. 

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
Creative people really love comfort and repetition. We have this conceit that we don't, that we’re free spirits. But most truly creative people have managed to find a way to push everything else away, to make space for their own ideas. It’s a process of elimination and discipline. Creative people are really very set in their ways.  It’s called “being sure.”  It’s necessary. 

This whole idea of perpetual change and discomfort, which Wieden has always embraced, is at it’s core a kind of creative trauma.  So, the chaotic, changing world shouldn’t be taking us off our game, but it really makes things hard. 

What motivates you?
Fear. A Fear that I would be invisible and that I would start and finish my life and no one would ever know. It's not ego. It's not that I have to be important. It's that I have to matter. When you combine that with a lot of curiosity and the curse of being easily distracted, it’s a bit of a shit show really. Still, it keeps me going. It makes me work hard.

What advice would you give to your daughter at the start of her career?
Get up everyday and commit yourself to something that doesn’t feel like it’s taking more than it gives. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My answer is always “my daughter.” What I wish I had understood when this whole motherhood thing started for me, is that when you say that, it's because it’s the creation of yourself, too. 

Motherhood teaches you tenacity. It teaches you about wins over time. It teaches you about removing your feelings from the situation. It teaches you about eternal vigilance. It teaches you self-control. It teaches you how strong you are. I think we actualize through commitments like that.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Self-loathing, hard work and vulnerability. I never had a super strong definition of who I was, I am a fish that is constantly growing feet. At the same time, I seem to lack a self-preservation instinct. When I've gone through phases in my career when I’m not that way, I have done less well.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
That wanting a better future is not a denial of your past. Hanging onto things, our love of sentimentality and "do you remember when..." is a way of romanticizing our own failure to grow.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My daughter. We don't live in a loop of knowing everything about each other - I’m a big advocate of us being separate people - but when the chips are down and we're in trouble, we turn to each other.

I believe people in their clearest moments ask for what they need, so I've always tried to find a way to be very open to her. It's meant that in her darkest days growing up, full of all the things that mothers don't want to know, there's always been that moment where she looks at me, and tells me that thing that, if we both carry it, is not so heavy. She’s done the same for me.

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
Someone who can take their emotions, their fear for themselves, their needs off the table. You can't make a good decision if you are afraid.

What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
Don't try to do it. You have to let the tide pick you up.

What's next?
Nothing. I am very at peace. Uncomfortable, but at peace.



As told to Caroline Hugall at Wieden + Kennedy New York on Thursday 23rd April 2015.