5 Minutes with… Suz Keen

Suz Keen, along with colleague Lyle Yetman, was promoted to executive creative director at McKinney, a previously vacant position at the agency, earlier in July. Suz’s primary role is to lead and define the creative vision for the agency’s Los Angeles office.

Suz got into advertising after majoring in math, before becoming a web designer and coder – all those experiences that shape the creativity she is today. So did a career stint in the sunny climes of WhybinTBWA Sydney before returning to the States, particularly New York, to join bands like Translation, Interesting Development and Pereira O’Dell.

Eager to learn more about what influences her work and plans for McKinney, LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Suz.

LBB> According to your biography, you believe “in following the pleasure and letting your life influence your work”. What are the main elements influencing your work at the moment?

Suz> In this very hot moment, there are so many things that influence my work. Vintage car culture, immigrant stories where people experience cross-cultural environments, Shea Serrano’s latest book “Hip-Hop and Other Things”, exploring the many sides of LA and rediscovering the West Coast, being outdoors, and being creative and applying craftsmanship to adjacent industries. As long as I’m learning something and trying new things outside of my comfort zone, I’m satisfied.

LBB> You were named ECD for McKinney in July – how is your new role going so far? What were the main challenges and objectives when you took this title?

Suz> It’s going well and I feel tenacious. A challenge for me is self-preservation. Sometimes I feel like I can’t do enough. There is always something to fix or improve. In this role I am more visible than ever but my natural state is to fly under the radar.

The goal is what it has always been: setting my team up for success. Articulate a vision. Find good customer partners. Do impactful work. This is how I have always viewed the work of a creative leader since I became ACD.

LBB> Being an ECD should mean your role is a bit more about managing and inspiring your creative teams. How do you find this challenge and how do you approach this process?

Suz> This part is not really a challenge because growing talent and talking about inspiration is how we work the job. It’s a language we speak every day as creative people. Sharing what lights us up is our love language. Pushing creative people to do work that only they can do, leaning on life experiences to tell human stories, talking about art, music and books… these are my favorite exchanges because I always learn something thing.

When it comes to setting a creative vision for the whole agency, luckily I’m not alone there. Lyle Yetman (ECD) is an inspiring partner and we can co-navigate together.

LBB> ECD’s appointment to McKinney was really driven by the agency’s growth and new business. What spurred all this positivity for the agency?

Suz > I think magic can happen when the old guard and the fresh blood embrace progress together. A special mix of stability and risk. We approach problems with an openness – it’s part of our culture. When we do this, we can create new approaches together. This openness at McKinney allowed us to trust each other even as we were pioneering new territory for the agency. The foundation is there because we live our values. For me, it’s back to following the fun. I rely on levity every day, you can see in the work when people had fun doing it.

LBB> With this in mind, what recent works have you been particularly proud of and why?

Suz > The Foldables campaign for Samsung with Todrick Hall and his team – WOW, what a banger. They did everything right, from the collaborative choices to the crafting. What a joy to live this campaign. Scott Clark runs our Samsung business with a finesse that I admire.

Another recent campaign that I love is our Little Caesars ‘Ficeroni Pepperoni’ social activation. Naturally, we created an IG Galleroni with drops of merchandise that sold out in minutes.

LBB> You started as a math student, then became a web designer and coder. How did you end up in advertising?

Suz> A lot of us have had not so linear paths in this industry, right? The simple answer is that I had no idea what I was doing. Not many hotties inviting me to parties in my math class. Let’s say my priorities were perhaps not as academic as they might have been at the time. When I was learning to code, I loved the front end design more than anything and that’s when I jumped to study visual communications. After school I got a job as a digital art director not knowing what that meant or all the places a creative person can flex. All I knew was that I loved web design and someone was paying me to do it.

Fortunately, some people saw potential in me, but it took me years to fully discover the spectrum where this kind of work could take me. Lots of failures as a digital evangelist in a time when I didn’t look like the game and no one wanted what I was selling. I have to mention that this was before social media.

LBB> Does this pre-publicity experience help you in your work today? How?

Suz> God yes! What kind of ideas and human stories can we tell without a big dose of life? Interesting people do interesting work. All the weird jobs, good bosses, bad bosses, friends outside the industry, travelling, living outside the US and letting lifestyle lead instead of working – all of that often made me feel like a latecomer in this industry, but after a while I learned to turn it into my superpower. Listening, observing, screwing up, paying attention, being okay with being wrong – these qualities make me good at my job. I can’t say that I would have cultivated these qualities in the same way if I had followed a linear path or had gone to advertising school. Not that it’s a choice… I didn’t know advertising school was a thing!

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you the most when you were a child? Have TV shows, movies and commercials influenced you?

Suz> Music inspired me the most growing up. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of unlocking when a song or album comes out. My dad had a rule that if we were singing when we got home, we couldn’t get out of the car. We had to sit there with the volume high, let the track play and melt our faces. Anything audio driven is the most powerful feeling for me.

LBB> Speaking of inspiring people, who inspired you in the industry?

Suz> I tend to draw inspiration from outside the industry. But I learned a lot from some interesting people.

I learned how to defend myself from Morgan McAlenney.

I learned to tap into an irrational amount of confidence from Guto Araki.

I learned to negotiate with Avish Gordhan.

Matty Burton and Dave Bowman showed me how to cultivate a culture driven by creativity to fuel growth.

I learned to hone a creative vision through massive amounts of chaos from John Norman.

I learned to be decisive very early and often thanks to Rob Lambrechts.

I learned when and how Peacock from Steve Stoute.

Paul Ciaozzo taught me that you can’t get around problems – it’s the only way.

Jonathan Cude immediately showed me the confidence and autonomy I want to show others.

Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to work for a woman. But I’m careful. Whether they realize it or not, I gleaned an awful lot from Sheena Brady, Colleen DeCourcy, Shannon Washington and Suzanne Lau.

LBB> Outside of work, what do you do to decompress or stay cool? The pictures in your biography suggest that food is something of a hobby.

Suz > I mean yes the food is delicious and I like to eat it. There’s not much I wouldn’t do for a plate of ravioli. Film photography is a passion, especially the medium format. I appreciate the tactile mechanics. I made a commitment a few years ago to write a few pages, by hand, every morning and it has served me well in many ways. I love directing work and one day I will dedicate more time and space to developing those skills. My partner and I restore and customize vintage cars. Building a lifestyle brand around this is his current focus and it has been exciting. Scuba diving. Backgammon. These are my jams.

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