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If an idea really scares the shit out of you and gets you excited the most, you should go for it: Susan Hoffman

Hoffman, Chief Creative Officer, Wieden+Kennedy, in an interaction with Simon Cook, CEO, Lions, stated that it really takes an army to come up with great creative work

The last day of Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2023 saw Susan Hoffman, Chief Creative Officer, Wieden+Kennedy, sitting down for an interaction with Simon Cook, CEO, Lions, wherein the both of them tried to decode what it really takes to do great creative work.

Addressing Hoffman, Cook stated that the woman behind Nike’s iconic Da-Da-Ding campaign is truly the heart and soul of the agency which has won 423 Lions at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity since 1982, of which Hoffman has been personally credited with over a hundred of those and now in the 70th edition of the coveted awards gala has been conferred with the lifetime achievement award- The Lion of St. Mark for 2023.

Commenting on what it really takes to be a “Susan Hoffman” piece of work and what it takes to deliver multi-award-winning creativity, again and again, over multiple decades, and one of the key ingredients to it being a sense of togetherness, Hoffman stated that while she’d like to take all the credit for the work, she is just a small part of it.

“We've all been spoilt and lucky at Wieden+Kennedy because we realise that it takes an army to do great work and that everybody is in service to ensure that creativity comes first, no matter which department one belongs to,” she said.

Sharing an example to support the same, Hoffman talked about an earlier incident wherein Dan Wieden and David Kennedy, the founders of the independent agency, had put up herself along with Janet Champ, who at the time was a receptionist and is now a well-recognised writer, and Christy Meyer on an assignment for Nike AIR. 

“I had then asked Dan and David to put me with somebody that's like senior or knows what they're doing, and then Dan got really infuriated with me. He said that if that's your response then you shouldn't be at Wieden+Kennedy and so here were the three of us who had never worked together and Janet had never done anything in advertising. So, when we went out to conceptualise things at the Dakota Cafe, which no longer exists, and it influenced one of us and we came up with the “Revolution” idea and that too with a Beatles track,” she said.

She then went on to share that she had got two lessons from the aforementioned incident- One is that everybody has talent and that when put together as a team, everyone can recreate themselves to come up with magic, even amidst the chaos. The other was that even if an idea really “scares the shit out of you” but “gets you the most excited”, one should really go ahead with the idea. 

Upon being questioned as to how she, as a creative leader, supports and encourages failure at Wieden+Kennedy, Hoffman stated that while “Fail Harder” is one of the sayings at the agency, she was often accused of “not wanting to fail” by Dan Wieden himself, the definition has gotten a little bit askew as the reason why failing harder was an important mantra to the founders was that it's a safety net which gives one the ability to go out on the edge and if it doesn't work, one can take a chance and get protection from that because that is probably the only way that gets people moving outside of their borders. 

Commenting as to why being candid, to the bosses, to colleagues and to clients, seems to be an important or rather her superpower, she said that while she has obviously had some hard times when people had been honest with her, that truth has actually changed her career and that’s the reason why honesty is extremely important, even if it’s not easy.

“When I met Kim Scott, the writer of the book- Radical Candor, a book which really helps you with honesty, at TEDx Portland, she told me that challenging people directly is a good way to show you care,” she said.

With this, Hoffman, who is also known for having an innate quality of not being satisfied unless there's space for one to shake things up, stated that she has a harder time with clients because she doesn't want to lose a piece of business owing to her honest nature. 

Sharing her views on how one can get better at creativity, Hoffman reminded people to go to the office because one cannot come up with work such as “Da Da Ding” unless one is in the office.

She also recalled that when Kim Papworth and herself, owing to the experience, were helping Wieden+ Kennedy’s India office, they indeed went through a few rounds to get to this, but the team in Delhi was local and into sports themselves and that it was just a group of these individuals who came up with the song and that all she and Papworth did was steer the team in their voice.

Elaborating on some of the biggest learnings that have come from becoming a better creative, Hoffman shared that when she first made a creative director with Jim Riswold, she remembers going to Wieden and saying out loud, “What are you doing? You're putting me out to pasture,” to which he responded by saying that no, such is not the case and that they needed her help.

“Experience really helps you a lot, through the years and just your learnings! Dan and David were always willing to go outside of the limits a bit and it's just something we learned from them. I think the other thing that happens with creatives, myself included, is that you're so scared on every project, it's almost like, I've got to solve this thing, and then you solve it and there's a relief, but you actually haven't solved it to the height that it needs to be and I think that's where your partner, CDs, ECDs, CCOs, everybody gets together to push each other as a group,” she said.

She further stated that the agency is not all about happiness or sadness but actually making editorial international advertising that really makes a difference and in turn, makes people feel something.

Highlighting as to what is her version of funny when it comes to creative work, she said that both she and the agency are not a big fan of ‘sophomoric humour’ but some ‘really smart humour’ that often comes with a wink.

“I think you have to be really hungry and you have to work hard because it doesn't come easy. You can do good advertising, but if you want to do great, you just have to work at it and work as a team and you have to debate and challenge each other. It doesn't just come overnight on your own- you might get an inkling of an idea, but other people can expand it, push it! So, work super hard,” she suggested to the young people who are entering the industry now.


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