Last month, as reported in Reel Chicago, DDB Chicago promoted Melissa “Mel” Routhier to Executive Creative Director from State Farm Group Creative Director.
After spending an hour talking to the former Texan, I can see why.
Routhier is funny, inspiring, passionate, and engaging.
Her work for State Farm — which includes the Following campaign that won a 2017 Cannes Lion — is a fitting reflection of her talent, personality, and work ethic.
No wonder the insurance giant, as well as DDB, has found her indispensable.
Here, Reel Chicago talks with the creative star who was selected as one of twelve female creatives to participate in DDB’s Phyllis Project.
Mel Routhier: I was living in Texas. My second job was at a tiny little mom and pop advertising shop. All of my friends were interning at GSD&M, but I worked for two people, who used to work in New York City, and they gave me all these great opportunities as well as like running errands like dropping off dry cleaning. But the real break came from Leo (Burnett). They took a chance on me straight out of school and I think it probably has something to do with the fact that I had promised the recruiter there that I would happily write coupons.
RC: Wow. Did you know in school that you wanted to do advertising?
MR: I did. By the time I got to college, I definitely knew. I always wanted to write. I thought I wanted to be a novelist. But, I was thinking about going to UT (University of Texas) in Austin and was wandering around the campus and there just happened to be an outdoor college career day at the communications building. I came upon this tent that was all about their creative portfolio development program. And I thought, “Wait a minute. I can write ads for a living? This is amazing!”
I decided right then and there that I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to UT’s portfolio development program which is called “Texas Creative.” It’s a cool program because while you’re getting your undergrad, you can also develop your portfolio.
RC: So, Burnett brings you from warm Texas to brr, Chicago?
MR: My dad was military, so ties to Texas were very thin. I’d moved around my entire life and had really been in small towns in the south. Besides that we spent a lot of time in Germany. The big cities on the east coast and in the midwest were very intriguing to me. And Leo gave me a chance. I interviewed in the summer and thought, “this is glorious!” I had no idea what the winter had in store for me.
RC: How did you feel when you first went through those revolving doors?
MR: I can remember sitting down at this big ol’ clunky computer and thinking I actually convinced somebody that I could do this for a living. Holy sh*t! I hope I can do this because up till now it has been teacher projects but this is the real deal.
MR: I got a really unique opportunity in the sense that I was paired up immediately with a partner who was about ten years my senior, which at that moment, when you’re 22, you erroneously think “Why do I have an old man as my partner?” It’s a terrible thing to think. But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. We’re still friends and I actually just talked to his son who graduated college and is looking to get into the business which blows my mind.
RC Every now and then when I visit an agency it’s like a nursery.
MR: I was lucky to have a mentor with more experience. We had concepts that sold right away. I went on production immediately. He’d walk me around sets and teach me all the ins and outs. I was actually really lucky.
RC: Yeah, it feels right now that the clients only want to see younger people.
MR: There’s this weird mentality that the youth almost know more because they’re so ingrained in all the things that some of us are like, “What is that and why aren’t we on that platform? Should we be there?” Some clients just feel like if they throw a little bit of everything at everything, they’ll cover all of their bases. So, in a way there is a teaching that goes both directions, which I think is healthy. Being able to really just talk to people in a meaningful way and craft a story and be entertaining. Ultimately, I think if you do it the right way, your brand is finding a really authentic way to have a great conversation, entertain people and get remembered. It’s a really super hard, but simple human equation.
RC: What do you see as the major challenges for your new position?
Mel: I think the biggest challenge is the big “I” word – integration. For instance, State Farm is a huge piece of business that stretches outside of DDB. We work with a plethora of partner agencies and it is a Herculean task to get your arms wrapped around all the multitude of people that touch the business and create content for the brand. It used to be really the idea makers are in very siloed places, but it’s not that way anymore. They create great content and it’s really about working as one team – being a great partner to them; being a friend. It kind of gets lost in the meaningfulness of it all in terms of really understanding what they’re up against.
RC: For sure. I mean you’re following in a long line of really great creative leaders at DDB.
Mel: Thanks for reminding me of the pressure.
RC: So, you wake up the morning after being promoted to ECD. Are you like Jesus Christ, what did they do?! You’re promoted now.
MR: I think there is there’s a sense of having butterflies if you’re being honest right? There’s always that little bit of doubt and I think it actually is good to have that. It keeps you on your toes. But there’s a bigger feeling of honor. To know that you’re walking through the doors of such a historic agency like DDB and you’re following on the heels of the people who created such history. I mean (Bill) Bernbach walked in here and look at what he accomplished and then to know Keith Reinhard is still here.
He wrote the original tagline for State Farm, that to this day everyone still quotes the tagline “Like a Good Neighbor” back at me. And when you walk the halls of State Farm, they’ve got Barry Manilow’s State Farm jingle on the wall and Keith’s name is on it. It’s a huge honor to be entrusted with the task at hand and to know that I’m working on one of the biggest brands in the U.S. So, I take it very seriously. There’s definitely stress and pressure that’s associated with it. There’s a ton of gratitude for being afforded the opportunity to be the next person that can go and make a mark.
RC: How are you going to shake sh*t up?
MR: I’m not sure about necessarily shaking sh*t up, but just reminding people that when they come to work on this brand that we have an opportunity to shepherd forward a long lineage of fantastic creative. So, when you think about shaking sh*t up, I think it’s just kind of dangling that carrot out in front of everyone to remind ourselves that there is no reason that we can’t go out and create some of the best work of our careers. It’s what drives me.
RC: Well, State Farm is interesting work, especially for in the insurance category where Geico kind of set the benchmark. How do you keep it going?
MR: I think it goes back to what I was saying earlier in terms of being such a huge opportunity. When you talk about Geico setting the benchmark, I think there was a little bit of chasing a tone that others had. And it’s easy for brands to be like, “Oh let’s go out and do more of that.” When we originally launched “Here to Help Life Go Right,” it was a very deliberate decision to establish a different tone. For us, it was about understanding all the facets of life. For insurance, it’s easy to make light of when sh*t hits the fan, but at the same time it’s serious. It’s really easy to make ads about just the hilarity of calamity striking your life, but you’re always trying to drill a little bit deeper to ensure that the humor comes out of a true insight.
RC: What’s your own creative process?
MR: You find yourself doing less of the actual creative ideation yourself and actually doing more of the (creative) direct. You know, I’m lucky to have such great relationships with the creatives that a lot of times I get to just come into the office and work together to solve a problem. My process is more about asking, “Do I get it? Do I feel something?” If I don’t, I don’t.
It’s just like that little intangible thing inside of you. I think an important part of succeeding in this business is to never lose the ability to sort of embrace that thing you trust that deep down inside of you to know that humans will react to that.
RC: So you still get surprised then?
MR: Oh God yeah! If you’re not I don’t know why you’re in this business. I’m constantly surprised by the creatives’ ability to go back to the drawing board on things that have been killed. They have the confidence and so much trust in a concept that they can change it and then come back with something that’s like, “Oh wait wow.” It might even be a “reco” now. So, you know that’s always lovely.
RC: What’s the work you’re most proud of right now?
MR: Oh easy what I’m working on now. State Farm. To have been given the opportunity to take the reins on State Farm and to elevate the craft on the business and is so satisfying. I’m so proud of the team and the incredible amount of individuals that have been involved in locking arms and turning that ship around.
RC: So what’s the buzzword you would eliminate from our lexicon given the chance?
MR: Sigh. “Thumbstopping.” It’s in every meeting I seem to be in these days. It doesn’t give value to what we’re really supposed to be doing as advertisers. Everything we make should be earning some sort of ability to be remembered and for not.
RC: Who were your mentors?
MR: I was in a really unique situation that from very early on, straight out of the gate, I had a ton of female GCD’s and ECDs and CCOs. So my first three ECD and GCDs were female. And so were my first two CCOs. Very often I was the only female creative in the room, but my leaders were not. They were all female. And I don’t remember thinking much of it. I think more about it now, but I do realize that it had such an impact on me. I was so lucky my very first GCD was a female who just immediately gave me advice and shepherded me along.
RC: What was the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
MR: Be kind. I guess that’s life advice right? That husband and wife and shop that I worked at, her name was Delane (Caesar) and I can still remember her telling me, “Mel, this business is small and this world is small, too, and your job is to just be kind. You never know who you’re going to interact with again. And it’s just something that I’ve really taken to heart. She had this incredible story where a very senior leader at a big agency in Houston did not treat her well. Fast forward to New York, years later. Some recruiters saw this guy coming in and on his resume was the same agency that they had both worked at. She was like what would be the chances that she would have the ability to impact his potential to be at a place years later?
RC: If you had a time machine what would you go tell yourself?
MR: Read more books. I’m a huge book nerd and I do believe the more you read the more you expand your brain and the more interesting you and your ideas become.
RC: So, we are living in the #metoo era. What steps are you as a leader, and DDB, taking to ensure a safe work environment and in the same breath promote diversity?
MR: I think all agencies are really using this as an opportunity to really look inward and find ways that we can improve. You take our Phyllis Project Initiative. It’s a huge initiative in terms of shining more light on the women in our network and really changing that ratio. I know Amir (Kassaei) is very determined to find the best way to identify women across the globe who can really be the initiators of this conversation. They can be the ones on the ground to say what they are seeing and hearing in the offices. It’s also an opportunity to band together as a global network. We’re only halfway through its initial two years. And I think it goes without saying there’s Wendy. Wendy Clark is our North Star in partnering with us and being a voice and initiator for all of us.
Contact Colin Costello at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @colincostello10.