29: "The Non-Linear Person" - Colleen DeCourcy

colleen headshot - january 2017 - favorite!.jpg

"The Non-Linear Person"

Colleen DeCourcy is the co-Chief Creative officer of Wieden & Kennedy. During her career she has been at the heart of some of the most original and disruptive thinking of any of the creative industries.

She has experienced life as an employee of a holding company, an employee of her own company and of an independent company. She has been described by Dan Wieden as “the real deal.”

As she approaches the end of her fifth year at Wieden, I talked to her about discovering that months don’t always start on Mondays, about her role as a change agent, and about the one thing she wishes she had more of.


Three Takeaways

  • Relentless curiosity for figuring out what else might be true and possible in a situation.
  • Genuine concern and empathy for other people and their success.
  • A willingness to adapt.  The ability to accept a different set of possibilities and see yourself in different forms. 

"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 29: "The Non-Linear Person" Colleen DeCourcy

Charles:               

Colleen DeCourcy, welcome to Fearless. Thank you so much for being here.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Thank you for having me.

Charles:               

I'd like to start differently. I know you listen to the show and I'm sensitive to the fact that you might have thought about the answer to the question I normally ask. I'm going to ask you a different question.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Ah, damn you.

Charles:               

Do you want to answer that question?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

No, I'll answer whatever questions you have, Charles.

Charles:               

How do you define creativity? What is creativity to you?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

You know, it's funny I think it does tie in when I tried to figure out what the answer was to the other question because I had a little surprise when I figured it out.

Charles:               

Now I'm going to have to ask you.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Well, no, I can do it together. I'm the nonlinear person. Creativity to me is, it's [inaudible], it's connecting two things that have never been connected before. In my mind that is constantly, or at least discovering those things and the feelings, the view of the world, the lens, the response that you have when two things connect and you go ahhh. And all ideas come into your head that were not previously there, that to me is creativity.

Plain and simple, I view ... music was always a massive part of my life from a very young age. Reading. I didn't come from a heavily educated or affluent family, but music and reading were always a very big deal. I didn't realize at the time that was sort of the great British way of having a narrative of having a voice, whether you're Irish, Scottish, English. The idea of oral tradition in writing almost is a classless thing.

Charles:               

Dickens, right?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, totally. So I don't include, even though that was a massive part of my very young, those would be my earliest thing, being obsessed with books, obsessed with music. That's not what I thought of when I thought of creativity. My first moment of creativity I remember, for whatever reason, and I can actually visually still see where I was sitting, the mirror in the hallway, the little table. I was always doing my artwork in the hallway floor when you come in the front door of my grandparents house.

 I was wanting to make a calendar. I don't remember when this was, but given other events in my life and who I know was at the house, I think I must have been about five or six at the very most. And I was wanting to draw a calendar, because I used to make little books and little houses. I liked making things out of paper. That to me was just like normal, that was like talking or breathing, that was expression.

But this calendar I wanted to make and I set it all up and I had a grid. I had 12 sheets of paper and the top left I started with Monday and number one. Then went through to 30 and got to the end and was very proud of them. I had September, October, November, December, always starting in September because that's when school started.

Then got a real calendar because then I wanted to put in holidays and things and I noticed on the other calendar, first of all it didn't always start on Monday, one wasn't on the first day of the week that you knew, that sometimes one was on a Wednesday and it blew my mind. It literally blew my mind and then I started trying to figure out how could that be, how would that work, what do have to do?

I started kind of making and remaking and remaking these calendars and then I had the empty holes that I had to fill with stuff because it wasn't okay with me that they were just empty. So I figured out a story for each month and then however many empty squares I had before one started, were like frames of the story. The story had to fit into those frames and then start each month with a story. A three frame story, a two frame story, four frame story.

It was just a weird thing of connecting stuff and all of a sudden the world felt, I felt like I unlocked something in the universe that I now had a view and I just rapidly started making things because of this discovery that the months didn't always start with number one on Monday.

For me, that is very much creativity. I'll hit something and go, "Oh, my God, no way!" Everything goes.

Charles:               

So you've always told stories?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, yeah, I think I always have.

Charles:               

What draws you to story?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Stories, all the reasons humanity is drawn to stories. Stories are transformative, stories are escapist, stories are ways of understanding your life or your world or the world around you. My daughter and I have a joke that whenever we see someone who is speeding and truly being an asshole on the road, we always look at each other and say, "Oh, his wife must be pregnant."

Then there's this story in our head what must be going on in that car and you don't feel as angry or as negative, or as judgmental, there's always a reason and I think that's what stories are for in our lives.

Yeah, I think at different ages and at different times, probably for everyone, but particularly I see myself in this light, the stories. I was someone who always ran dialogue in my head and maybe everyone does that.

Charles:               

Dialogue of what?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Whatever, whatever was coming up. I could sit on a bus and see people and I'd start to talk in my head like the one person and the conversation would come together. Maybe I'm telling you that I'm insane. You might want to edit this, Charles. I would imagine narratives and dialogues later-

Charles:               

So between people you were observing?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, or that guy on the bus, he's carrying a bag. Wonder what's in it? He's going to get home, maybe it's his dinner, he puts it on the table, enter the wife. I would tell these kind of ... that's how I passed the time.

I was an only child, I was alone a lot, we didn't have phones. I was a big lover of reruns on TV, but that was how you took your brain to places because stillness was very tortious for me. I was a typically ADD kid except that I was girl and so sports and running, punching, jumping, weren't as fitting so I think my brain would go do those things.

Charles:               

What was it like being an only child?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I have nothing to compare it to, honestly. I don't know. It's funny if you look at major relationships, live-in partners, marriages, best friends, they were always one of seven, one of nine, one of five. I think I probably stayed in several relationships just because their family was so awesome.

I think being an only child is a particularly limiting thing. I think there's a lot of things you have to go out in the world and learn for yourself when you're an only child. You don't have normal and social constructs, you don't have other people's ideas in your head, you don't have anything to push up against in terms of sibling. You don't get their influences of music or art, it's a deafening silence of you.

So I think only children have two ways to go. They're either incredibly self-indulgent or they're incredible self-exploratory. I think they're two different things. I only have one child so maybe I should ask her that. I'm not sure if she counts herself as the only child in her house.

Charles:               

What were you drawn to when you went to school and at college? What did you focus on?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Well, I focused on English, journalism. I wanted to, I guess, still tell stories. [inaudible] term the Paper Chase.

Charles:               

Oh, yeah.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I got to school and my deepest kind of disappointment was that it wasn't the Paper Chase.

Charles:               

Funny, mine too.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Really?

Charles:               

I got off a bus in South Beloit, Wisconsin, thinking my only own experience of American collegiate life is the Paper Chase.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Exactly.

Charles:               

And it would like this and it didn't.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

No, it didn't.

Charles:               

A holiday in South Beloit does not look like the Paper Chase.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

No. I was very upset about it until I think, it took me a few weeks to let go of my snobbery about that and I think it was, again, visual memories. It must have been fall because I was in a pile of leaves, laying in somebody's front lawn outside of, I think, a frat house, dressed as Superman, just super high on mushrooms. Oh, well, there's no Paper Chase, but whatever, this is interesting.

Thus, began my very messy kind of exploration. I was going there to exert rigor on my brain and I think instead what happened in the absence of that is I just kind of exploded it. Some people might say got very lost for a number of years, but actually I found a lot of things there. Most of it I still use.

Charles:               

Did you feel that you needed rigor? Were you looking for structure?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I was, I definitely was. To this day, I still like to understand how things are going to work. I don't love hierarchy, I just like a clear field to understand what's going on in a larger context. I tend to look at a lot of things from above to try and figure them out. Not as in, I'm above, but just, oh, what is this?

I think some people run down the field and kind of handle stuff as it comes at them, I hugely admire that. I like to see it from the top and see if I can see patterns, see what's going on here. I moved a lot in my life, maybe that's what it is, the need to see something, just for a second in its complete state and then go, okay, so this is where I could fit in this or what role I could play, or what I'm hoping to find at the end.

So I think I did want rigor. It's the other thing having a very small family unit, or a fluid family unit does to you. There's not that shape of a family, there's not a shape of a mini society on it. So, yeah, I'm always looking for some kind of rigor and then usually don't find it and throw myself off cliffs into the abyss of absolutely no rigor.

My very best friend used to say if there's no chaos, Colleen will create some just so she can move through it.

Charles:               

Do you think you don't find it because it doesn't exist or you don't know how to look for it?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Oh, I probably wouldn't know it if it hit me in the face, yeah, absolutely. All my pretensive order is just based on something that I think order might be probably.

Charles:               

Given that you don't like hierarchy, do you prefer being part of the group or do you like being in charge? Do you like leading?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I like having a voice, it means a lot to me. Throughout my life the maintaining of my will and my voice and two incredibly important things. One of the things that drew me to Wieden Kennedy was Dan's idea of being a place where people could find their voice. I think in the last five years I have further found my voice or our voices change as we move through life.

But, yeah, it's a funny thing. I have very conflicted emotions about leadership. I do like to be in charge, but I don't like what comes with that. I like being in charge because I like people to come with me and look for the idea that I stubbornly think is the thing. It's that, it's that! And if you're not in charge, you spend a lot of going it's that and everyone's like ooh.

It allows you to really find what I see as creativity. If I have a thing, it's kind of, "Oh, my God, it doesn't start on Monday with number one! Everyone help me figure it out!" There's that. But I think that I don't enjoy power and I think that if you are not a person that enjoys power, you do not enjoy power as an end, leadership is a difficult burden.

Charles:               

What is it about power that you don't warm to?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I think I fundamentally don't believe it. I'm suspicious of power. I think that people who maintain power do it through tricks and magic. So much energy has to go into the sustaining of the position of power, that I often wonder what they're missing that's really interesting that isn't about their power.

I think clarity and leadership matter for groups of people.

Charles:               

Clarity around?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

The mission. But I'm not sure if power is required and where it is, I tend to brush up against it with the lightest touch. I'm a reluctant leader.

Charles:               

Is there a difference in your mind between power and authority?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes. Because I believe that authority comes from conviction, I think authority comes from conviction and proven insight.

Charles:               

You have to earn it?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes.

Charles:               

You have to earn authority?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

I do think so, I really do. Who was it that wrote, there was a, Jim ... this is terrible, I can't remember the name of the book, but it was Good to Great.

Charles:               

Oh.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Remember it was that business book in the 90s.

Charles:               

Jim Collins.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah. A wonderful boss that I had, Mark Kingden, he gave me that book to read. The point of view on leadership I thought was really interesting. That when companies move from good to great, the majority of leaders that led them, and I hope I'm remembering this right, it's been 15 years since I read the book, were not visible power figures. That they were not iconic, but some of them had led some of the biggest most profound business transformations in the industry up until that time. They'd done it from the back, they'd done it without it being about them. They had done it by seeding and re-seeding, watering the trees when they start to grow.

By creating collusion in such a way that once you got it, once you understood it, that one didn't always start on Monday, everyone could behave in a way that led the company to the vision this leader had.

I think that would probably be the clearest version of what I inspire to do as a leader. But I really don't like the sound of my own voice and I don't like standing up and making the jokes that make everyone want me to like them. I don't want people to give me that. I want just to have enough authority for everyone to believe that the vision is something they can follow.

Charles:               

You're often brought in as the change agent. You've talked about this in other articles. Why do you think that is? Why do companies pick you to be the revolutionary?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Because I have never lived in a solid state in my life, because my specialty is mutation. Well, I think there's ... hmm, I never really thought about that. I think there's probably a couple of things. One, I do think, is just part of my personality is that I'm never sure of what I'm sure of as being the absolute. And so I'm very open to change.

Charles:               

Do you like change?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes, though, ironically, I'm going to be 53 this year and I'm sure as all people when they start to get older hit, I'm less in love with change than I used to be. Yeah, I don't have anything more to say about that. I don't why. Well, mostly I just start to crave some consistency.

Charles:               

I think as we get older we recognize the things we value more and things we care about less. We want to spend more time doing and being with the things that matter the most.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes, that's probably it. You see the shortening timeline.

Charles:               

Right, yes, daily.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

So it's, oh, I like doing that, please, can I just keep doing that. I think some of it is that I grew up with a lack of sense of belonging. As I said, we moved a lot, I was always the new girl. You had two options, one was to come in a ball breaking bully and make sure no one hurt you and the other one was to just be really, to listen a lot and choose where you stuck in. So I think I was the second.

I think that I have a very curious mind because I like figuring out what the connection is that has never been connected before that that's what really jazzes me. It's a bit of a sickness, you're always looking for things you didn't know yet because those things are like the little pills that feed my creativity and so I need them. I need to not know the answers to truly be creative so I was always leaning there.

I think when you combine those two things, you get someone that most people feel they can relate to that doesn't seem like a complete and utter stranger, doesn't seem like a massive threat, but that has interesting points of view that they wonder about too. Honestly. Then you add just the timing.

If you put that mindset to the time that I have kind of come of age in my working, I am truly boggled by people who have not had their output changed by the times we live in. You say, we're you not listening? Or, you're amazing because you're so focused that you are an artist that blocks out those things, which I think a lot of truly great creative people they're blockers of inbound stimulus. I was never that person.

The time when I was truly making my way creatively through this business, there was a lot of meteors coming and each of them was, wait, what? What? Why would someone think that anyone would want to go on the internet? I don't know, let's go look at it. Wait, what? No, that's not what's going to happen. Hey, look at Four Square and Twitter and when you put them together, wow, what's that? That's going to be something. Those were the connections that were appealing to me.

I often, I think, kind of pretend, or not pretend. People assume and I don't dissuade them, because it's not useful to my pursuit that I have no background in film, television, all of the [inaudible] of advertising, when actually that was my first thing that I started in. Worked everything from episodic TV to I was an editor. I fully know the tools.

Charles:               

Well, you're sort of a gorilla journalist as well [crosstalk].

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, I'm used to gathering stuff, shooting, editing, recording, going, framing, framing, framing again, searching, framing. That's my creativity.

Charles:               

Telling stories.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

It's just that that skill, the decade I should have probably been just honing that skill, I was really happily distracted by all the other connections that I didn't know the answer to and so it just took my career in a different direction.

Charles:               

Why should have been honing? What judgment do you think?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Well, I ...

Charles:               

Do you feel you've missed out on something by not having that discipline?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, oh, yeah. Hopefully we're all deeply paranoid about our efficiencies of most things. It's the only way to be a humane boss of anyone.

Charles:               

Can we just be deeply paranoid about anything?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

No. Though you can, but not at work. That's a whole other level, which I will indulge myself into. No, I can walk into a room where there's a problem with a script on the table and I know what's wrong and I know what I want it to be, but there are people that have spent the last decade writing scripts and filming them as ads and cutting them together as ads, and quite frankly, they're going to be able to solve that problem better than I am. And that's just something I've had to make peace with.

Charles:               

Have you made peace with that?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

No, not all. Neither has anybody else. When we look at who our heroes are, it's often a mapping of a thing that we're kind of pursuing, or a thing we're pursing in someone who's really good at it. That's why for a long time the Greek gods looked like all the men that dreamed them up. And everyone thought maybe Jesus was white and Superman. This idea about see it, be it and women and heroes, I really believe in that.

So it meant that in this industry, people wanted to be able to look at my skills and see that they were their skills because that meant that was where that road went for them. To be a leader with different skills than the people you lead is to have the people you lead go, "What about my skills?"

So it's a tricky dance that I try and do every day. What I feel very confident in is that I can connect things they can't. That my part of the puzzle is to bring those things into frame and reframe and articulate and reframe again and shift it over here and frame again.

I mean, a place like Wieden Kennedy contains a majority of the best talent in our business in any given year in one place. 

I believe in their creativity so profoundly, I'm so confident in what they can do that I feel the biggest thing I can do for them in the business is to do what I do and that's how I'm at peace with that. And I think every day it's an act of doing it in a way that furthers all of our collective mission that earns me my seat. And as soon as I find someone that can do that, I will give it to them.

Charles:               

What do your heroes look like?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Oh, well, I have weird heroes. Margaret Moff is a hero of mine because she was just a fearless workhorse running out there in the field. Chuck Yeager is a hero because he was just crazy and did unbelievable scary things.

Charles:               

Unbelievable things.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

And had charisma while he did it. Every day I open a newspaper and hear about someone else that I believed in turning out to be a horrible man. I just always hope that none of them are about Chuck Yeager.

Joan Didion is fascinating to me because of the way she lived her life. Her relationship with her art and her family and her husband and how they balanced those things and still managed to keep a real marriage. Then lose your family and continue without self-pity to be an incredible expressive voice that's meaningful is unbelievable to me.

I like a good soldier. I respect Steve Jobs and he's amazing and everything, but my heroes are the people that go in as normal people into the fight and win through sheer tenacity. Yeah, I think that changes the rules.

Charles:               

As you move through the stages of your career, what have sought, what have you been looking for at each point?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Hmm. Geeze, you often don't think of it at the time. I have often found myself in situations where look around and go, "Shit, no one else is going to figure this out." I don't know how many more ways I could articulate this without it becoming the worst thing I ever did as a leader, but I truly was never looking for that. I'm looking for meaning in my contribution. I'm looking to know that I made the difference.

Charles:               

Made a difference to what?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

To whatever it is, quite honestly. That's a bit of a drug in itself. It's not like ego, like I have to be. It's I want to make a difference every day. I don't want to win, I want to make a difference.

Charles:               

Are you more discerning about the difference that you're making as you get older?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes. I used to throw myself at all kinds of absurd challenges, well meaningly put in front of me by people. Look, I think I suffered a little bit from being a square that looked like a circle so people would want me to be the person who solved their digital problem.

I remember once in a particularly painful review, I'd just killed myself hiring people, trying to put great work on the table, trying to save accounts. I think I was stretching between [inaudible] and Pepsi. There was some Nissan. I lived in New York, I worked in Amsterdam and LA, I was just throwing my body over every bomb that could come my way.

One, because I really believed in the place. Two, because they were smart enough early on to put in my head that this was part of solving what media arts would be in the world and who doesn't want to take that up? And, three, because I wanted to be the one to make a difference.

The criticism that I got was, "You're just not very operationally focused. People want you to tell them how to organize it and how to budget it." And I thought, I'm a creative director, just how many fucking things do you want from me? You want me to have the ideas, find the talent, express the ideas, sell the ideas, price the ideas, operationalize the ideas. Jesus Christ!

That's when I drew a line for myself and I thought you need to start being more true to the way your brain works. I was okay with continuing to try and solve the problems in front of me because it's the only way my work got sold, quite frankly. And that's when I went off and started my own business, even just to do it for as long as I did it.

Because if someone was going to hold me accountable for that, then I was going to next time know how to do it. So it was like a double, I decided I wasn't going to play there, but I was going to figure out how to do it. Because I was just confounded and I think that was probably the most self-flagellating part of my career, and that's something that I learned isn't productive. That I've eased up on.

Charles:               

It's easier for you to say no now?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah. There's also a very funny thing about finding your home.

Charles:               

Your emotional home?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Hmm. I feel like I've found that where I am now, which doesn't mean it's perfect and it doesn't mean it isn't fraught with emotions and misunderstandings and sibling rivalries, but it's home. So once you are home, you kind of play at what you're great at. I think that feeling of safety, which is very much part of Dan's ethos, doesn't mean be easy, doesn't mean be paternal, doesn't mean make decisions for everyone so that no one every does the wrong thing. It means you're home.

Charles:               

Was that a journey? You were brought into Wieden's as a change agent, and changes agents aren't normally welcomed with open arms from the organism. Was that a tough adjustment?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yes and no. It was a tough adjustment for other reasons. The truth is, for my first, this'll be my fifth year at Christmas. For the first two years I didn't make any change really. I started some things, like Lodge. There was great creative people who were technology people, not to leave because I knew we'd regret that and I understood that they needed to be making things not justifying other people's ides, they were craftsmen too.

But besides that, I kept my head down it was so overwhelming to be an outsider that I kept my head down and I just tried to learn Wieden Kennedy. So I don't think I had the change agent thing as much. If anything, I think I made the mistake of not, because people's view then was, she's clearly a different shape than us and then she's not changing things so why would she be here? Which is a really valid question, which at the end of year two I asked myself and then decided it was either time to dig in and pick up that mantle, unwillingly or not, and start making the changes that I thought were right for Wieden Kennedy. Then it got easier.

Charles:               

It got easier because you were doing stuff?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Because I was showing up, true to myself. This is what I do, this is what I see, this is what I believe in. And I see you and I believe in you and I know we're different and that's amazing because the world is full of that. Every angle on a problem.

Let me kind of shift it to talking about work, because I feel nobody in the world needs to hear more about me or my leadership. But this idea of when you look at what's going on with advertising right now. Suddenly in the last six months I'm so jacked about it because there's clarity again to me on what we bring. We bring strategic thinking, we bring framing, we bring human language and emotion and understanding to business problems and that is the job.

Communication is the job. You can't convincingly communicate things that you're not intimately involved in the thinking of. So taking our people further up the value chain in terms of who they're dealing with. Connecting amazing creative thinkers to amazing business minds on the client side and saying you two come up with a narrative you love about this endeavor and we will wrap all of our resources around creating the behaviors and the signifiers and the messaging and the stories that back that up, but I want deep into your business.

I don't buy into the further away we are the better it is for you. I think it's kind of an arrogant gift. Oh, I know nothing about you, but let me tell you what I see of you. It's like, well, you know what? You know shit. I think that's what business owners started to feel about us, about advertisers, advertising people.

When I truly look at a great creative mind applied to a real problem, I don't know why we would want that away from our business issues that our clients have. I feel like different skill sets required, focusing on the inputs and letting the outputs come naturally and then applying our craft to them as we catch them coming out the other end.

I want to sit down with a CEO and look at his business problems and craft a 28 team plan for that business. It is not just about marketing and then say, well, if this is true, what unlocks that? Oh, this idea, this idea works for all of these different stakeholders. This idea then, let's now push all of your business, ambitions and problems back through this idea. Does that feel like a business that you want to run? Is that a successful thing? Okay, so now let's bring in people and make that true for you. Let's put skin on the bones.

I think that's where our industry is going and I think we get distracted about it. Is it digital, is it not? Is it TV, is it not? We're way down in the weeds of the output only and I think that true creativity runs the whole ladder.

Charles:               

You talked about authenticity earlier, and you have the ability to engender trust among some of the most senior people in the industry. In some cases, people who have founded their own business. Where does that come from? Why do they trust you so quickly with such a deep understanding of their business?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Because I think trust is the secondary thing, I think some people choose me. The way to make someone decide if you're the person they should choose to share all this with, create trust with, is to go in very open-minded with a very open and transparent brain and think out loud for those people, with those people. To say things like, "I don't know if this is right, but when you said that I thought of this." Or, "I was wondering about X." Or, "I read that article last week and it made me think about a conversation we had a while ago and I came at you with an answer, but now I've reconsidered. I think it might be this."

If you are right for that problem and that business and that person, then they will choose you because they've seen it and they trust it and they know you'll always be transparent with it and I think that's what the trust is. I have answers in there that are right for that person. My answers won't be right for every person. When they're not right for that person, they shouldn't trust me. (laugh) They should find someone who has their answer.

But I think it's less about trust and untrust as much as it is of agreeing that we share a common point of view on something and can therefore work from there. And I try and be as open and fluent and verbal and transparent as possible so that that person can decide if I am the right pick.

Charles:               

Do you think creative people find it easier to be transparent or harder?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

It depends. It's a really funny thing, the creative people thing. I know they sit on a continuum. Some creative people are so transparent that they're almost like Tourette's. There's nothing that comes into their head that they can stop themselves from saying. Those creative people are incredibly useful when you're trying to run through a lot of ideas and sees things from very non-logical, lateral places. I wouldn't ever want to be without those people.

Some creative people like to have the answer before they say it. I'm less inclined towards those kind of creative people, but I do know that some of them have made amazing work. So when that situation is right, when you have a client or a business proposition or business problem in front of you that the client is easily skittish or isn't really someone who likes to have that open dialogue or doesn't want to know that sometimes you're wrong. They want to think every thought you have is the right one and that's the only thing that keeps them comfortable.

Those are really good people to partner with those kinds of business people, where they're controlling the dialogue so that no one ever sees that maybe somebody doesn't have all the answers. There's a time for that.

I think creative people in general, though, it's easier for them when you take away distraction and some creative people find wrong thoughts to be a distraction. Some people find them to be an inspiration.

Creative people naturally fight the order. I've confessed to you that there are certain pieces, the DND piece pretty much was written under absolute panic.

Charles:               

You mounted a presentation [crosstalk]

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, a presentation I gave to DND that I think probably annoyed enough people that got notice. But I was in a hotel room, up against it, writing it in the last four hours before I had to go in and present it.

Sometimes my best work is done when I wake up at 5:00 a.m., tapping it on my phone in my dark bedroom. A lot of times planes, it's literally a glass of wine, the headphones go on and whatever that emotion would normally go into crying at the bad movie, goes into this work thing I'm working. Brm, brm, brm. So I would say that I think maybe I do work better in isolation situations and yet every time I try to just orderly sit down and go, "Okay, turn your desk away from the window and open up your laptop and now you're going to work," I fool myself.

Charles:               

Clean your desk off, put all those things away, right.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

But I pull myself out of the situation. I am my own worse distraction. It is the single thing I have not been able to figure out. I have reached out for many, many time management, ADH management, I've tried every ... what is wrong with me? I walk right up to the wall and go, "Whoa, no!" And I pull myself back away. I fight myself to get into the zone. I am my worst puller-out-of-the-zoner, but I can't figure out why.

It means that this business that we're in that's been codified and commoditized and overgrown and over muscled, this infrastructure that's been built up around creativity as a deliverable. Truly, you could make a lot of money and be very famous if you just knew how to sit down and bash that thing out, but we can't.

Charles:               

No.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, it's also, I've wondered anyway, if it's about that heightened, that elevation of panic, not in that cliché way. But, "Oh, my God, there's nowhere else to turn, it has to come out of me now. I've left it so late I can't even get help. It has to come out of me now." And then all of your everything and all those chemicals that rush through your body that are flight or fight and you just go ahhh and then all the chemicals are moving around and your brain is bopping around and then you just reach out, that! And you pull it down to the ground and you throw your body on it and then you wrestle with it for the next four hours, 10 hours, 12 hours.

Usually until someone pulls it from my raw, bloody hands.

Charles:               

They're, okay, enough of that.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah. I have a history of addictive family with issues like that. I think I have spent the majority of my life fighting those tendencies sometimes better than others. I always joke, if I jump up and down on that spot 10 times, I'd have to do it all night long.

I think that is the same feeling that I get when I'm wrestling that beast for an idea. The feeling of your addiction being satiated is not that different than the feeling of finding an idea because it could very well be the thing that wrecks you forever unless you control it by slightly exerting your control over it. It's a free zone, it's a weird space. I don't think those two things are fully separate in my experience.

Charles:               

There's a great Virginia Wolff quote, which runs something like, "It's amazing how the creative spirit at once brings the whole world to order." I think very much along those lines. This notion of there's an idea, it exists, can I bend it slightly to my will and can I borrow it for just a short amount of time to take this thing forward it very palatable.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah.

Charles:               

This notion of delivery I want to talk about. You gave an interview earlier this summer and you posited a theory I've never heard from anybody else before and I would like you to talk about it a little bit. I pulled this out just so I get the quote right. You said, "The one thing that seems clear is a woman's instinct to deliver someone or something. How we process that instinct defines us. Women are expected to place their own needs second. It's not just conditioning, it's part of our genetics."

Talk to us a little bit about delivery.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Well, I think that it's probably very also tied into why I always ended up being a change agent. I do believe that in both a good way and a harmful way, a very deep seeded, I mean like cave man seeded thing, that women are seen as needing to place other people's needs before their own. And I think my example in that instance was about carrying a child.

If you're a cave lady and you're knocked up and there's a bear coming or a triceratops or whatever it is, you're pretty scared and you know that when you go into it. The act of being pregnant was very fascinating thing for me.

First, as I watched my body not become known to me, and, second, as I realized that effectively I had taken off my armor and made myself vulnerable and possibly easily killable in every single way. Then you deliver this child and in the 18 hours or whatever it takes for that process to happen, the second it comes out you have to be the fiercest, most protective warrior on the planet.

I think that journey ... man, probably feminists everywhere will kill me for this because I just reduced the woman in the role of carrying a baby ... that's not how I mean it, but it's an example of, I think, a deep seeded instinct that is the duality of women. That quote that I had given came on the tail end of talking about Masters and Johnson and Hemingway and, oh, God, there was examples, I had four of them. Where a woman had chosen either to do her thing or deliver a man's thing.

Jackson Pollock was delivered by an artist who was every bit as talented. Joan Didion decided not to do that for her husband. Virginia Masters had to pretend she didn't exist for her brilliant work to get seen by the world. What's interesting is you can judge it, but I think each of those women felt at peace with their choice, except maybe Martha Gelhorn, because that just didn't end very well. Hemingway, in fact, was a real dick and she was a far better writer.

I think these are the challenges that we face and I think it makes us particularly suited to leadership. A lot of creative directors, I think the often repeated thing is, "Well, you become an executive creative director or creative leader and you don't get to make work anymore. I don't know that I could do that," and really my first instinct is always, then you shouldn't. Because it doesn't mean you don't make good work, but it means you're too much of a narcissist to put someone else's work before yours, which could make you a freaking genius and that's awesome.

But get the hell out of the running for the seat because women have constantly had to live that duality. We make our work around the outsides, or we can choose. As many women do now, which is amazing, choose no. I choose to deliver myself, but I believe that is the part of the work or struggle we see with women in leadership roles in creativity. I think it's what makes us amazing at it.

I think sometimes we lean too far into the delivering when we get into leadership. Something I'm trying to watch out for myself personally.

Charles:               

By that do you mean that's too easy to step back in a situation?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, yeah.

Charles:               

It's too easy to not?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Sometimes it's too easy for me to turn into the Irish mom of 12 boys who just lets them all go off and be famous while I just stoke the fire. I'm not so interested in that, but I do believe as a leader I have chosen to put my will behind the success of others.

So I mean I think actually I just contradicted myself there three times and you can see that is the inherent issue that I have in this role that faces women as leaders. Is it about them, is it about me, is it okay?

Charles:               

And the answer can be both at different times-

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Absolutely.

Charles:               

Of life and career evolution?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah, it can be. I think both things add real value.

Charles:               

And are fundamental to who you are anyway.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charles:               

You said at one point something along the lines, "The only thing people regret is not spending more time with their kids." How do you reconcile ... obviously the industry you've been describing and live in, the role that you have, the job that you currently have, the roles you've played in the past, all of those are massively demanding. You spend a lot of your life on planes, you travel an incredible amount. How do you reconcile those two pieces of your life?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

As it's coming out in the wash, a little better than I did when I was in the middle of it. My daughter is 23 now. I'll be straight up with you, what started as a need to provide ... I was a single mother, I hate that phrase, single mother. I chose to have and raise a child on my own from the get go. I don't regret that decision, I would do it again tomorrow, but I've had to come to terms with my inherent selfishness and that somewhere along the line it stopped being about just making sure we had food on the table and a roof over her head. And I wanted a career.

You can ask anyone, raising a small child, raising a big child, raising any child is hard. Raising yourself is fricking impossible so transferring that to another person, as someone who doesn't desire power, was an interesting choice for me.

When I told people I was pregnant, I think most people were just shocked.

Charles:               

Shocked because?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

They didn't think I would do that. Yet, when it happened, there was no question in my mind, not even a bit. And, yet, I'd chosen differently at different moments. At this moment there was no doubt in my mind this is what I was going to do.

I was away. I wanted this, I wanted to express myself through my creativity. I didn't want to work at a firm as a something, I wanted to self-actualize. So one side of the story is, oh, so hard for me. I raised this child on my own while fighting my way up through the ranks of being creative in a field where so few women are. Always away and the sadness of missing important moments for my child, yeah, I feel all those things.

But there's also the, "Wow, seriously, you were the only parent she had and you chose to dedicate 80 hours a week to your job?" Yeah, I did, I did. Now, I look at the young woman that I care more about more than myself, more than anything, and she's proud of me, which means a lot to me. And she is a very determined young woman who is also an amazing partner for her boyfriend, who's an amazing daughter for me.

She was very clear cut about her needs and what she wants and it matters to her and that is priority one. Her. Actualization and yet she's incredibly giving woman.

So I feel okay about it. I think that statement of the only thing that you'll regret at the end of your life is not having more time with your children is now round two of selfishness. Now I want her, I always wanted her, but now I want the time, I want the stuff I missed, I want the showing up with cookies at school and being home on a Saturday night and not always be packing on Sunday and phoning home on Mother's Day.

I missed it. And she will use that as her springboard for a life where, hopefully, she will find a balance. I am rounding the bend to, oh, I don't get that back.

Charles:               

Would you do it differently?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

There are things that I would do differently, for sure. I think I tried to do a lot. I think that I should have realized earlier that a live-in nanny would help a lot. I think I should have instead of being afraid that if I didn't take this promotion that was overseas, or if I didn't work on this account that I really wanted to work on, but that was based in another continent, that that opportunity would never come again.

I do think possibly if I'd had more confidence in myself, I could have cut that line differently so that I was home more often. I think that was just me being afraid that those opportunities were once in a life. Every opportunity to me was a once in a lifetime because I always considered myself so improbably there and so unlikely to get the chance again.

Charles:               

How do you see that now? What does the future look like?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Well, I mean seriously, I'm 53, I can count it. It sounds terrible, but I have really lately started to become conscious of the fact that my daughter was born 23 years ago, 24 years ago this April. Add 24 to 53 and you hit a number where I may or may not be here and that is shocking to your system.

So I am trying to decide which things I want to do on repeat and make sure I get to repeat them as many times as I want to. I am trying to finish my career in a way that makes me proud of the impact that I had. I would like the end result to be that I made a difference, but I also want the last chapter to be, and then she lived happily ever after doing whatever the fuck she wanted. Yeah, these are interesting days.

Charles:               

What are you afraid of?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Finding out it all meant nothing. My stock answer probably right then would have been myself, but I'm not anymore. That's what being 53 does give you. I'm afraid of finding out that I picked the wrong things to make the world a better place. Yeah, that sounds really locked in, stupid. It's true.

Charles:               

I don't think either of those are true. I think that, yeah, not locked in, not stupid.

I wrap every show with three themes that I've heard.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Oh, good luck. I'm sorry, Charles, you're always so good to me and I'm just the worst subject in the world.

Charles:               

The first thing that I think stands out is, and you've described this a lot of different ways, but is your relentless curiosity and thirst for figuring out what else might be true and possible in a situation. How might we combine two or multiple different things together and create something that we've never seen before or felt before. That is so prevalent to me in listening to you.

Two, I think, is a genuine concern and empathy for other people and their success. You are so interest, not more than interested, I think committed to helping other people and lock their talent, their creativity. You mentioned the word self-actualization a couple times. I think there's a real humanity about the way that you do that.

I think, third, is your willingness to adapt. I think that you don't ... we talked a little bit about your interest in rigor and creating order out of chaos, but I think it's pretty clear that you have found a way, and in some cases, relish actually, the challenge of how else might this be possible? What else might this existence look like? What might come from being willing to accept a different set of possibilities?

And I think as you've described your life in terms of your own career development and having a daughter and the challenges of that, your willingness and ability to go through that and see yourself in different forms and different modes in each of those ways has given you the ability to arrive at this point with the relationship you described with your daughter and with the career and success that you had. Do those resonate for you?

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Yeah. No, they do. Thank you. I mean, yes, that's more sense than I've ever made of my life. But there's a phrase that I first read in a William Gibson novel and I have no idea if he picked it up and it was already a phrase. But it was, "The street finds a use for everything." I think a lack of thinking you're owed anything, a lack of a sense of privilege, I feel very much like I'm from the street and I will find a use for everything that's put in my way.

 I think that has been a driving force of me as a person and in my view of creativity and my view of how you can structure your own worlds to be the one you want it to be. As a creative person, I think that's my biggest tool, picking things up and saying, "If I assemble it like this, it's a happy thing, it's a good thing, it's a thought I didn't have before." So, yeah, thank you.

Charles:               

I look forward to the journey that you take from here and I know it's going to be extraordinary.

Thank you, Colleen, for doing this so much, I so appreciate it.

Colleen DeCourcy:          

Thank you for your time.