Reel Women: Susan Betteridge, Group Creative Director

Susan Betteridge

Susan Betteridge

The mcgarrybowen
creative leader
and SheRunsIt
Working Mom
of the Year
describes how she is
“still figuring it out”

Susan Betteridge has made a profound and positive impact on a lot of people since moving to Chicago from Grand Rapids nearly two decades ago.

Besides clients and coworkers at mcgarrybowen, where she has been a Group Creative Director for six years, her success as a mother and a professional recently inspired the New York organization SheRunsIt to name her 2019 Working Mom of the Year.

Betteridge was chosen from dozens of nominations submitted by colleagues and peers to receive the honor. By all accounts, her ability to influence on a macro level through brands like Disney is matched by an instinct to shine on a micro level through her wife, Julie, and their nineteen-month-old daughter.

I met Susan long before she was a creative director and I was an editor. Like everyone who has gotten to know her, I could go on and on about how she is not only talented, but also kind and funny and genuine and smart and pretty much every other synonym for the word “cool.” But why listen to me?

Below, Susan Betteridge tells Reel Chicago about her career, her family, and her friends.

Betteridge onstage (far left) at SheRunsIt's "Working Mom of the Year" ceremony in NYC
Betteridge onstage (far left) at SheRunsIt’s “Working Mom of the Year” ceremony in NYC


What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? I am most proud of recently being honored as a SheRunsIt Working Mother of the Year.

The 3% Movement challenges how few women are Creative Directors, but the truth is even fewer women are CDs and moms. To be recognized by my peers for doing both is incredible.

Susan and Julie with daughter Aria
Susan and Julie with daughter Aria

My life shifted immensely when I became a mom — I leave work at 5:30 p.m. and log back online when my daughter goes to bed at 7:30 p.m. My agency recognized that what I’m doing every day is showing how it is possible to be a successful mom and a creative director.

I could list campaigns and spots that I’m really proud of, but to be recognized as both a dedicated creative director and a hands-on mom is bigger than any other industry award I could win.

How did you find out about your working mom of the year award? Laurel Flatt, our president, called me into her office and said, “We have some great news: SheRunsIt has selected you as a Working Mother of the Year. “

It is humbling because there are so many moms in this business who have done this day-in and day-out for a lot longer than I have. I remember thinking, are you sure you picked the right person? I only have a 19-month-old. I’m still figuring it out.

How has your creative thought process changed since becoming a mom? From an emotional and ideation standpoint, I’m more inspired every day, especially (working) on Disney. I’m talking to parents who are saving their hard-earned money for two or three years to go on a once in a lifetime vacation. Now that I am a parent, my work that is that much more relevant and resonant.

My daughter is obsessed with Mickey Mouse and calls him MouMou—and I don’t even remember introducing her to the brand. It’s the magic of that iconic mouse… Walt knew what he was doing. It’s so amazing to be able to experience and share memories with her. There’s nothing more important as a mom.

I’ve got a production coming up first week of April and I may have (my wife) Julie and my daughter fly down after we wrap to go to Walt Disney World for her first time. Flying with kids is crazy. We’ve done vacations quite a few times, but the flying part is never fun.

What’s the best thing about working on the Disney account? The best thing about working with Disney is that they’re good people. Good people who believe in what Walt did, which is putting families first and telling amazing stories. They trust me, so if I need to delegate and miss a meeting or a production, they support doing what’s best for my family. I don’t think Disney employs people who are not truly good people.

What’s the best thing about working at mcgarrybowen? I think it’s a lot of little things including celebrating individuals. They realized that what I’m doing is worth some acknowledgement.

Julie and Susan with Gordon Bowen
Julie and Susan with Gordon Bowen

Right when I became pregnant the first time, my mom had a really debilitating stroke. mcgarrybowen was great about it. Whatever you need to do, family comes first.

Sure, everybody has their share of new business pitches and work travel, and mb’s no exception; but they also just rolled out a parental leave policy giving both primary and secondary caregivers 16 weeks of paid parental leave regardless of tenure, which is pretty amazing.

What improvements need to be made to family leave policy? The fact that we don’t have federally-mandated paid parental leave in this country is ludicrous, but thankfully we’re moving in that direction.

What’s the best way to offer support to an expectant mother or new Mom at work? I think having the open-mindedness and a confidence that she can do it. So often you see the panic in co-workers’ eyes. How are you going to go to a shoot? How are you going to manage it all?

Trust that, if a Mom has to leave at a certain time, she’s still just as committed to her job, even if she prioritizes her time differently than you do. There is a way to be a working creative director and mom in the ad business.

Flexibility and communication with your partner at home also helps. My partner now bakes bread every Saturday, which is a new thing. I try not to micromanage her, and since I have never made bread first-hand, it’s not even within my purview, so I stay out in the kitchen when it’s bread making time!

What unexpected joys and challenges came along with your daughter? As for joys, what was unexpected as a new mom was how much I enjoy doing absolutely nothing with my daughter. Sure zoos, museums, outings are great, but just hanging out is the best thing ever. Watching her brain work and hearing her start to talk is the best! And she has a big personality, which is no surprise.

Jean Batthany, Marty Muller, Susan Betteridge, and Laurel Flatt
Jean Batthany, Marty Muller, Susan Betteridge, and Laurel Flatt

One thing I didn’t anticipate was how challenging breast pumping would be when I went back to work. I wasn’t prepared for the pressure of constantly doing what I call “milk math” and all of the logistics involved. Is this ice going to melt going through airport security? When are you going to pump if you have a day of back-to-back meetings? You’re constantly thinking about it. I did it for about eight months, which I figured was a win.

When I was a brand new mom I was also taking care of my own mother, who lives about a three and a half hour drive away. After she had her stroke, she lost all of her verbal skills. It’s called speech aphasia and apraxia. Intellectually, she can read and understand everything — and she loves Facetiming with her granddaughter — but she can’t use many words.

She’s also in a wheelchair, but that’s not the hard part. Making sure she’s understood is like a never-ending game of charades. Whether she wants Tylenol or to say I love you, she can’t and it’s frustrating for all of us, but especially her.

When you’re not being a mom or a creative director, what are you doing? I started writing a book when I was on maternity leave and shortly after my Mom’s stroke. The working title is Mother Me. It’s about how I went from being an independent 40-year-old living for just me, to being a mother on both ends of the equation. I became a mom twice over.

It was really therapeutic to have a creative pursuit when I was on maternity leave. Now it’s just harder because I don’t have as much time, but I’m still working on it.

I’ve also got my blog, which is a great outlet and hopefully a resource for new moms, especially LGBT moms.

How have professional attitudes towards women changed over your career? There’s an awareness now that we as an industry have to be better treating women and especially moms. It’s much more inclusive, which is great, but we also have a long way to go.

Clearly sexual harassment still goes on every day and too many women are still saying #metoo. Women still make 76 cents on the dollar compared to men, so there is much work to do.

The 3% Movement has been fantastic at shining a light on the situation. I was part of the team that pushed to get new people to go to the annual conference. Kurt Fries, our CCO— a huge advocate for female creatives—took a handful of new people to last year’s conference at Navy Pier and attended himself

What is your most significant #metoo moment? Early in my career, I was hit on and harassed over a couple of years by a creative director. I remember HR saying yeah that kind of stuff just happens, and I was brushed off.

I was maybe 25 and it took a lot of gumption just to go to HR. It was deflating for them not to take any action. It was one of the things that made me start looking for another job at the time.

What makes a good mentor in the professional ad environment? The best mentors I’ve had are people who lead by example, who are strong, have a point of view, and can be critical about the work, but they do so in an encouraging manner.

With women in business, sometimes there’s this false belief that you have to be impersonal and stern. But you don’t. Some feel threatened by mentees or subordinates, but that is a really small-minded way to look at the work.

What do you enjoy most about mentoring younger creatives? I love mentoring. It’s one of my favorite parts of being a creative director.

Finding young talent that is unfettered, a little raw, and then helping them take an idea and make it stronger and really shine is the definition of a good creative director in my book. It’s why I love coming to work!

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