Getting reel with Kurt Fries, CCO of mcgarrybowen

Kurt Fries

Kurt Fries

“The job of creatives
within this agency is
to make me slightly

—Kurt Fries


Last Summer, veteran advertising creative Kurt Fries
took over as CCO for mcgarrybowen Chicago.
Reel Chicago sat down with the affable creative leader
to see how the year’s been.

Reel Chicago: So how did you get started in the business?
Kurt Fries: Although I was lucky enough at an early age to know exactly what I wanted to do, I did take a less traditional path. I didn’t go to a college, I don’t have a degree, I went to a 2 year art school with a vision that was, in retrospect, ahead of it’s time. It also had an amazingly talented group of graduates that was were willing to take me under their wing and that’s how I got here.

So, here’s the thing. It’s almost been a year since you took over mcgarrybowen. How are you feeling? I love the job. And I am incredibly lucky. A lot of people are put in this position and they’re forced to deal with issues and problems, things that are broken. Ned [Crowley] left me something that was incredibly strong, vibrant, and energized.

Outstanding. I’m eternally grateful to be surrounded by talented people who are doing really, really good to great work. Still McgarryBowen may be the best kept secret in Chicago. That was really my first goal — to elevate the agency and the work.

So, would you say that’s your goal now? Absolutely. I want to make us famous. And I don’t mean me famous. Or any one person famous. What I want is for the work to make our clients, our talent and our agency famous. I want McGarry to be THE place that attracts great people and great clients. I believe we are on our way.

That’s awesome. So, how does one achieve this fame, Sensei? [chuckle] It’s about taking the best of what we have right now—what we are doing is damn good and making sure that the world knows it. We’ve gotten great press for a lot of our work recently, especially for Oscar Mayer — from creating a Weiner Drone to a Rocket Man that flies, even creating the first bacon-backed cryptocurrency. From Disney to Planters to Marriott, we’re on the cusp of some really breakthrough work for iconic brands. We did well at the Chicago Addy’s and were thrilled and honored to be named “Agency of the Year.” We even had a couple of hits at Cannes.

What do you see as the new challenges now a year later? It’s about doing more with less. And doing it faster.

Yeah, it seems the days of having weeks or even days to work on a project are gone. So many things that clients are asking now have to happen in real time. And frequently what is needed is not about the craft, but bringing forth a message that is timely, relevant and cultural.

Kurt, what keeps you excited about the gig? You’ve been in the business for a while. What gets you going? I love this business. It never gets old because it’s about ideas. It’s always been about ideas. Now, I get excited about my own ideas for the agency but even more so by helping other people bring their ideas to life. Helping them find the nuggets and nuance, and then craft and mold those ideas into something that is powerful, strong and big — that’s what keeps me excited.

What terrifies you the most? I want advertising — what we do — to be a force for good. If we fall short of that, we fail. Advertising is power. We are responsible for creating thousands and thousands of messages, images, and stories. I have two daughters who consume all of this stuff ferociously. What we put out there makes a difference to the world. It all matters. When I do walk away from this business someday, I want to know that I made a difference.

Talk to me about your own creative process? I like the scrum. I’m not a person who likes to be presented to. I hate that. I like collaboration and conversations. I like getting the right people in the room to talk about the work. I love when it is all creatives, but it’s just as good when the right people coming together are a blend of creatives with account, planning, right alongside our clients.

It does seem the creative process really does involve way more than just a copywriter and art director in a room. I don’t want to have a workplace where everyone has their headphones on and their heads down. That’s a factory. I want to be a part of something that feels loud, proud, and has energy. I want dialogue and collaboration. I want people to feel free to look me in the eye and say, “I have another idea and it may not jive with your idea.” I say, “Bring it.”

Do you still get surprised? Do you say, “Wow I didn’t think of that?” Yeah, every damn day. I’m amazed by the things that people bring to me. My favorite response is, “Can we do that? We should do that? Can we do that?” If I’m not surprised, you should turn around. The goal of the creatives within this agency should be to make me slightly uncomfortable. Sure, we are responsible in keeping our client’s vision in mind as we’re moving through the creative process, but we absolutely must push the limits.

If you could ban one buzz word what would it be? The worst thing you can say to me is, “Circle Back.” There’s no energy in that phrase. It’s not positive. I only hear Circle “Bad.” Because I know what it really means is that we’re going to table it.

And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? Follow your gut. It’s easy to over intellectualize things. Too often we all underestimate the power of heart and soul and passion. And sometimes you just look at something and say to yourself, I don’t know why I like it, but I like it! I’ve learned to jump when I see something that makes me feel passionate and energized and interested. Why waste time stewing?

Who were your mentors? Who do you have the invisible conversations with no one knows about who? Who kind of shaped you? Well, mostly I have invisible conversations with two people. One is myself. And yes, I do actually start talking to myself. And my mom, because she’s the one who keeps me honest and to stay being a good person. As far as the business is concerned, I don’t have just one mentor because I been very fortunate to have several people in my life that have shaped and molded me, and that I can lean on to this day.

Tell me about them. Larry Walters was the guy who hired me first. He taught me that that only way to learn was through my own mistakes. He taught me the basics of a business. He was phenomenal. Jonathan Harries is also a great mentor and friend. When I got this job, he [Jonathan] was the first person I went to for advice. He said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing because it’s obviously working.” ¶ Two people who had the biggest impact on my work were Susan Emmerson and Judith Werme. While only spending a small amount of time at DDB, they made a huge impact on who I became as a creative and how I approached the work. Those two women were so incredibly smart, and had a sense of energy and soul that was so refreshing. Judith taught me how to present. She was tough as nails, but had such a big, big heart.

If you could get into a time machine what would you tell yourself? Fail more. I could have done a better job of failing when I was growing up. Maybe that is just a polite way of saying, “I should have taken more chances. Put myself on the line a little more. Spoken up in more meetings.” ¶ There needs to be more failure — positive failure — in this world. It’s the best learning tool. There’s an old saying, “You’re not skiing, if you’re not falling.” I could have skied harder.

You’re on an island. What do you bring along? How much can I bring? Because I have to bring all of my family. And a camera. And a six-pack of cold ones.

Speaking of family, you’re married to a fairly unknown creative director. [Laugh] Did you guys ever have any competition? Did you talk about work? Did you bounce ideas off of each other? I’d be a fool not to. Debby [Fries] is one of the smartest, most passionate people I know. She’s one of the best creatives in the business and I frankly wish she were still in it. ¶ You know what her true beauty lies? She’s not afraid to tell me exactly what she thinks and she is definitely not afraid to tell me when I’m wrong. She is positive and strong and I’m better because of her. To this day, I ask her advice about work. I’d be crazy not to. The beauty of having a spouse who was in the business is she understands it. She understands what I’m going through and the decisions that I need to make. There’s nobody I trust more. She’s my best friend.

Debby is amazing. How are you guys handling the #metoo conversation? All I can say is that as an industry, we must do better. Our company is proactive in fostering an open dialogue and thoughtful about how we rollout policies and training. As a creative, I am passionate about doing my part in making sure that the work is representing society at large. We need to erase stereotypes. We need to make sure that we’re holding up a mirror to society and making sure that it’s reflected in the stories that we tell. Again, I have two young daughters and I want them to grow up to a world that is inclusive, smart, safe and kind. I’m going to do everything I can—at home and at work—to make sure that is going to happen.

Contact Colin Costello at or follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.