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Building Brands: A Conversation with Lauren Demarest at McCann
The following is the first part of a series from our Creative Director, in which she interviews brand and creative strategists, copywriters, and designers about their careers, lives, and perspectives.
Lauren Demarest has created her own universe that spans the Met, Central Park, her apartment in a prewar building on the Upper East side, and the McCann offices in midtown. In this interview she talks about how she always knew she wanted to be in advertising, her circuitous path to McCann, and finding a home somewhere between the visual world and the writing world.
We were introduced to each other by our mutual friend Alex, an Art Director here at Percolate, about six months ago. He’s told me you’re the most creative person he knows. Where does your creativity come from?
That’s so nice of him! My dad bought me my first sewing machine when I was five, and I started to put together random bits of lace, weird fabric, rabbit pelts, and all kinds of strange things into creations that my mom actually let me wear to school. I think having the freedom to dress myself in whatever I wanted sparked something creative in me very early.
I’ve always known that I wanted to be in advertising. My favorite show as a kid was called Bewitched, and it was about this modern and lovely witch who was married to an advertising creative named Darrin. The episodes that included him were always my favorites because he would have this big paper and write and draw about soup or something and all of a sudden you would see that he’d come up with something and he’d be like ‘That’s it! That’s how I’m going to sell the soup!” and I thought ‘Well, that’s the best job ever.” I think that show sparked something in me because I started to cut ads out of magazines and collaging them together. I would cut them out really meticulously, I thought about how they fit together, and I thought about the shapes and composition. At one point I wallpapered my room so thoroughly there was just no wall space left. My mum told me it made her want to throw up, but I thought it was beautiful.
My dream as a kid was to be a professional soccer player, and I painted a soccer ball pattern onto my entire desk.
Right! It’s like when it’s really important to you it manifests itself in funny ways.
Tell me about your path to becoming a copywriter.
Actually getting here was a very circuitous route, I wish that I’d realized that there was easier ways to accomplish it. I tried to prepare in high school by taking a lot of digital graphics and art classes. For my undergrad I chose a college called Gilford because they had a program that let you create your own major. I attempted to create an advertising program and put together a curriculum of creative writing classes, computer classes, digital art classes, coding and web design classes, business law, mass media, and psychology classes. Unfortunately they changed the leadership of the program during my last semester, and I ended up with a BA in Photography and a minor in Communications. I graduated in 2007, which was not a great time to be graduating and like most people my age I went back home, lived with my dad, and made lattes for people. After a while I realized none of this was amounting to advertising. I was making coffee. I lived with my dad. This is not the dream. Where did you go wrong? You did all the right stuff. And I thought, ok, I have enough of a portfolio to apply to an advertising school. At this time I’d learned that there was something called Advertising school, which I probably should’ve known to begin with. I got accepted at Savannah College of Art and Design. It took me a long time to get there, but that program and those professors changed my life completely.
You spend the first year at SCAD learning about every role in Advertising. They wanted to make sure that if you only did a year you would get everything that you needed to be able to come into this business and succeed. Understanding how a strategist creates a brief and mine for insights, and understanding how an account manager sells the work to the client helps me leverage the team and to be a better partner.
The second year, which is optional, you have the opportunity to hone your skills in one particular area. I chose copywriting. It was all about developing style, and every assignment was designed to get you thinking from a totally different point of view. The teachers were great at giving feedback. They would look at my work and say “What’s going on with the hand in this photograph? It looks terrible, no one’s going to buy a waffle from looking at this!” or “Why are these three headlines the same? They should be cousins, not twins.” Those professors totally shaped me and my work and thankfully a portfolio that got me here.
By here you mean the McCann New York office. How did you end up here?
During my last couple of weeks at SCAD, while I was preparing for finals, defending my thesis, and hanging my art show I started realizing that more and more people around me were talking about the summer internships that they had locked down. I thought “Oh No! Was this something I was supposed to have been doing this whole time? I’m so screwed!” I was graduating in three weeks and I had not tried to get any internships and I had not been building any industry relationships. Luckily I got a phone call from Kimberly at McCann, God bless her, she was like “Hi, I saw your portfolio online and we would love for you to work here!” I was overjoyed. McCann is one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world, and I thought it would take me 10 years of working my way up before I could even apply to a place like this. I graduated on a Saturday and started at McCann the following Monday.
That’s amazing. And now, five years later, you’re the senior creative on the L’Oreal account.
How do you make sure you understand what the client needs?
The toughest part is when the client says they want something totally new and different, but you know it’s not super true. Clients have comfort zones, and I think you have to work with them for a while to know what they’re comfortable with and what’s too crazy. There is a way of doing things, and you can’t change things too quickly.
“Change is a gradual thing. For example one of the best gradual changes that I’ve seen since I started working on the beauty team for L’Oreal is the shift to a much more inclusive casting process where women in the spots, and in the print ads, and in the Facebook carousels are more reflective of what Americans look like.”
Of course they’re more beautiful than most people, but it’s a shift in what we’re seeing as the representation of American beauty.
Another example is the shift in a piece of language. McCann wrote the line ‘Because you’re worth it’ for L’Oreal over forty years ago. The women’s empowerment movement was at its height during the 70’s, and this line meant a lot, but it meant a lot specifically to women. Today we have a whole new bevy of issues on the table, we have LGBT rights, we have Black Lives Matter, and these issues are representative of more kinds of people. So we’ve been working to shift this piece of language to ‘Because we’re all worth it’. This message of inclusivity shouldn’t just be visual, you should be able to hear it as well. It’s a small change but it means so much more, and it means so much more to a lot more people. These are examples of small changes that can make a big impact on how this brand represent itself, not just on the American market, but on the world stage as well.
Tell me about your creative process. How do you start developing concepts?
A brief usually includes an awful lot of information because there’s an awful lot that the client wants to say about each product. They are so excited that they want to talk about every single great thing about it, all the great ingredients and all the great benefits. By the time you look at this list of things that you have to talk about you realize that there is not much room for any other type of messaging. But there will often be a little piece that is about an insight, or something about the audience that can serve as a jumping off point.
I like to get started by making wordlists. Often times the product will be called something cool, or it will be about something specific. I’ll start making lists of synonyms for what it is. If it’s for hair I’ll start to write down fun ways to say hair: strands, quaff… If the product is called Total Repair 5, I’ll write down other ways to say repair: fix, undo damage… I’ll make all kinds of lists and sublists and start to look for words that fit nicely together.
I’ll start to connect dots and lines — do you remember magnetic poetry? All the words are written on magnets and you’re supposed to stick them on the fridge and rearrange them and make sentences. It’s kind of like that! I usually write in my notebook, I’m very much still a physical notebook and pencil kind of person. I make thumbnails and dumb little designs, and if I want to explain something I always get the big piece of paper and I’ll start to map everything out. For example: The digital ad is the starting point that is going to lead to the coupon, which is going to lead to the purchase, which is going to lead to a review, which is taking us back to digital. That’s the circle! And that’s back to being online!
“Good things happen when you can write it big and start to connect the dots and people can see your thinking.”
Who do you collaborate with?
I like to brainstorm with my art director and a social strategist. I really want the social strategist to be in the room when we start ideating because they’re coming at it from a totally different point of view. For example, I don’t know if this will go anywhere, but right now we’re working on a haircare campaign and the copy line the client likes is “Change the life of your hair.” This is the copy line we launched the product with in 2013, and since then it’s evolved and changed. Now they’re telling us that they liked that line and that they want to go back to it. In developing this campaign we started to think about other ways to say ‘Change the life of your hair.” We landed on this interesting idea of 360 video being the new way people watch video on their phone. What could that mean for hair? 360 video allows you to see the model from all angles. The face is really just one side of the model, the rest is hair, and that’s a lot of unexplored real estate. It makes it easy to engage with the hair and allows you to see how incredible the hair looks as you circle around her. The line “Turn your hair around” suggests not only the way we’re envisioning seeing the hair and turning it around physically using the behavior people are already using to consume media, but it is also an expression that means to change. So “Change the life of your hair” put into a bit more people speak is “Turn your hair around.” Being able to take a line like “Change the life of your hair” and give it new life with this more consumer facing piece of language that ties nicely into a visual mechanism feels right. Developing a holistic approach like this is only possible when you bring team members with different sets of knowledge together. We’re yet to present it to the client, so fingers crossed they’re going to like it.
How do you create a voice for a brand and decide what they talk about?
A big part of it can come from the brand equity the brand already has. A while back I worked on the Cinnamon Crunch brand, and they already had these two characters called the Crazy Squares. The Crazy Squares are two Cinnamon Crunch squares with eyes and a mouth and they are cannibals and are always licking each other and eating each other. With character like these already in place you can think about what would it be like if the crazy squares took over Twitter? They would probably spell everything wrong and mix capital letters with little letters and they would say crazy things like “You look tasty!”.
The other big factor is the audience. With Cinnamon Crunch we realized quickly that there were two audiences that required totally different kinds of messaging. And again, we wouldn’t have known this if it hadn’t been for these genius social strategists who said “We’ve done an awful lot of social listening and when we’re looking at who’s talking about Cinnamon Crunch online it’s a totally different person than the person that is in all these briefs. The brand champion is mom, she’s who we’ve always been selling this cereal to. But it turns out that the digital brand champion is actually a stoned college dude. The person in the digital space that actually talks about the product, share recipes, write poems, take cereal selfies and make gifs and music videos is a stoned college dude in the middle of the night. You get really hungry and you want to eat the fried sugary cinnamon cereal. I get it. You’re not going to talk to mom the same way you’re going to talk to this guy. So how do we create different messaging in different places? We kicked off this idea that we called “Official cereal of late night” and created a website that you could only find in the middle of the night. We did things like live stream crazy metal concerts and made it into a hub where you could find funny entertaining content.
How do you create guidelines to help other people create on brand content?
Using a celebrity or someone that people are already familiar with, their style, or tone, or just their life sometimes helps when trying to describe the brand voice. If I say “channel Chris Rock” you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what that means, and if I instead say “channel Kid Rock” it’s going to be totally different. From there you can provide examples: Chris Rock would always say this / he would never say this. You’re also going to want to get into the little rules: We always say “We”, we never say “I.” It’s always in the second person, never in the third person. You also have to figure out if the message is coming from the brand, or someone who represents the brand.
What makes a good campaign?
A campaign is good if it’s memorable. It’s something you think about later and laugh, or think about later and cry. I like it when it’s kind of sticky and gets into your brain. I don’t know a lot of important things, but I do know all the words to the Doublemint gum song. It’s also important that you feel the same way every single time you see the commercial. If the first time you see it you get a giggle, but the next time you see it you’re rolling your eyes, and the third time you want to turn it off you haven’t done a good enough job.
There is a lot of rejection involved in doing creative work. Do you have any advice for how to stay focused on the opportunities instead of the limitations?
Yes. Create things as if you had no budget. If had unlimited resources, what would you make? That always keeps me on the positive side. Also, you should always be digging for what’s new and what’s next. You never know what kind of emerging technology or new discovery or trending topic is going to lend itself to a really game-changing idea. Not just something fun or cool, but something that fundamentally changes the business.
Want to learn how brand innovators at Land O’Lakes, Sutter Health, Google, and more are thinking about the future of marketing? Request an invite to Transition 2017 in San Francisco.