2-18: "The Ambitious Leader" - Susanne Preissler

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"The Ambitious Leader"

Susanne Preissler is the founder of Independent Media, an advertising and entertainment production company that represents a group of some of the best known film and television directors around - from Ben Affleck to Janusz Kaminski to Tony Goldwyn.

Susanne is also a leader of intention and determination. She has high standards, a point of view and an innate ability to solve problems. She also wants to make a difference.

So this episode is called, “The Ambitious Leader”.


Three Takeaways

  • Determination

  • Strong understanding of what matters to you

  • Desire to make a difference for others


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-18: "The Ambitious Leader" - Susanne Preissler

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Susanne Preissler is the founder of Independent Media, an advertising and entertainment production company that represents a group of some of the best known film and television directors around - from Ben Affleck to Janusz Kaminski to Tony Goldwyn.

Susanne is also a leader of intention and determination. She has high standards, a point of view and an innate ability to solve problems. She also wants to make a difference.

So this episode is called, “The Ambitious Leader”.

“I've heard so many things. I've heard that I'm, I've had the word aggressive used, and that, when really what it is should be is ambitious. I've heard bitch, which should be, you know, I've heard bitch, I've heard tough. I've recently heard somebody call me vile. I mean, I've heard words that are so awful, describing me, that, and these are people that don't even know me. People haven't met me, worked with me.”

The author, Habeeb Akande once wrote, “Never pay attention to someone who has not earned your respect.”

Leaders lose the respect of others in three ways.

The first way is connected to something that I’ve talked about previously on the show about the fact that leaders are judged in an instant. That the slightest expression - an eye roll, a wink, a grimace - can be interpreted and misinterpreted a thousand ways before you’ve taken breath to deliver your next carefully thought-out, beautifully crafted statement.

In those micro-moments, leaders can lose respect in an instant - and spend the rest of their lifetimes trying to regain it.

Sometimes those moments happen involuntarily - leaders are, after all, human. And when that happens, your hope is that you have enough earned credit in the respect bank to offset the damage.

There are other times, as Susanne talks about in our conversation, when respect is denied you for reasons that are beyond your control. Biases, grudges, resentments, mistrusts, jealousies and ignorances born long before you were and that will be here long after all of us are gone.

As a leader you can do little about those. Your only expectation of yourself is that you should behave in ways that disprove them to the objective observer and that allow you to look in the mirror every night, secure in the knowledge that you lived today by the values that matter to you.

But for some leaders, there are circumstances in which who they are betrays them. When their ego, their arrogance, their stupidity earns them the fall from grace that eventually accompanies the self-absorbed. These leaders show up as one character on the way up - charming, gracious, engaged, and humble. And another when they reach what they perceive to be the safe haven of title and public acknowledgement.

They see success as a permanent state, burning boats, and bridges and reputation once they have arrived, firm in their belief that they will never again need to climb down or step back or look behind them.

These are the leaders who fail and fall most spectacularly. Whose decline is both predictable and inevitable.

Ironically, of the three threats to a leaders’ reputation - the inadvertent, the uneducated and the arrogant - it is only the third of these that a leader has full control over.

Whether you are respected and successful as a leader is decided first by who you want to be as a person. And second by whether that definition matters to you not only when you are climbing the ladder, but when you reach the top as well.

Here’s Susanne Preissler.

Charles:

Susanne, welcome to Fearless. Thanks for joining me today.

Susanne Preissler:

Hello, and thank you for having me.

Charles:

As you look back to your childhood, what's your first memory of something showing up to you as being creative? When were you first aware of creativity as a thing in your life?

Susanne Preissler:

I think the day I was born. My background, just to give you a little idea, is my mom's an artist that came from a family of artists and my father was an architect, and just growing up in that household, they kind of put pens and paintbrushes in your hands at a very young age, and we would be given a task every day of creating a painting , or we'd have to draw life models. You always kind of had things going like that. You also were exposed to a high level of music, opera, the classics and my father, at a very young age, when I was a little kid, purchased for fun, because he had a love affair with film making, he purchased a 16mm. camera, and we would go out and shoot little mini-films.

So for me, at a very young age, it was just all around me, and the thing that I fell in love with first, I would say, would be fashion was something I adored as a child because I just thought it was the most spectacular thing on the planet. The second thing that I fell in love with was photography at a very young age. I remember my father giving me a camera and he gave me spools of film and said, "I will only let you shoot black and white so you can learn composition, and then when you learn composition you can learn to shoot with color." So that was my first foray into photography, which has been a personal passion of mine my entire life.

Charles:

What was it about that medium that drew you to it?

Susanne Preissler:

I just, when you look, and when I say photography, it wasn't even so much fashion photography as it was just all photography. I love photojournalism a great deal because you're capturing a story in one image, and that's a really hard thing to do, so it's not just, you know, I think fashion photographers are amazing too, they can do that too, because they get into the essence of the story they're telling too, but what you get is the opportunity to train your eye to look at one frame and pull, as I said, the story from it.

It was just, for me, it was incredible, and it's also how does it make you feel? When a camera is at a certain angle or a certain lens or something's out of focus behind a person, you're telling a story but you're giving it your perspective of that story, so it always was interesting to me.

Charles:

Were there certain kinds of stories that you were drawn to more than others?

Susanne Preissler:

You mean with photography?

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Susanne Preissler:

I always thought people, real people, was interesting to me, but it also is how do you see life around you, and that always, for me, was the most important thing, was how am I connecting with what's on the other side of the frame, you know?

Charles:

And were there themes that came out that you started to realize, this matters to me, these are the kinds of stories that I want to tell?

Susanne Preissler:

As I got older, I think that I started looking at photography as a narrative. It wasn't just telling the story in one frame, it was also how am I telling the narrative? How am I going from one frame to the next? I really think if you look at the masters that have done photography for many, many years and are historical photographers and so forth, you see how history has evolved, you see how humanity has evolved, and you really get to see it through the lens, which I think is really important.

Charles:

What was your professional path? When did it become a career path for you?

Susanne Preissler:

I think I always had a love of movies, and I still do. I love movies so much. To me, movies are in a sense what probably library books were before we had moving images because what a movie allows people to do is just get caught in. They bring you into a world and you get to, for manner of time, get to experience something either that you have or you haven't before, and you get a point of view, you really get to fall in love or be in the middle of a mystery, or whatever it is, whatever your interest is.

So when that all, and I know I'm going off, I'm kind of rambling a little bit, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I always wanted to be in the industry in some way. Ironically, my mother had been in the ad business, and she had been an art director before she became a fine artist, and she was the one who said to me one day, "Please don't get into the advertising business."

What do you do when they tell you not to do something? You kind of do it. So after college I came out to Los Angeles. You kind of flip a coin and you either go to New York or Los Angeles, at least that was my thought. Came out to LA and I started off as a receptionist at a production company.

I think when I started to work there, I wanted to understand it before I said, “Hey, this is my ambition.” I'm an ambitious person, I think just because I've never had a safety net in my life, so my feeling was I can't fail, because I don't have a place to fail. So subsequently I just started nosing around in people's offices asking a lot of questions and wanting to learn. I didn't even know, really, what a producer did. I didn't even know what fully everybody's job description meant.

I figured if I'm going to go down the road of a producer I better know what each person does on the crew, I better know how budgeting is done, I better know how things play together and I better know union rules. I better know all of these things before I can call myself a producer.

I think as a producer, where I felt the most fun and the most interesting side of the equation lies is by supporting a director in the most, not just in ordering them the equipment and getting them their coffee, but really supporting a director and pushing a director. That, to me, was the interesting role that I felt was needed, and also was something that I felt comfortable with.

Charles:

Were you conscious that you wanted, through supporting people like that, that you were trying to create change or have influence? What was your ultimate motivation?

As you got into the industry, were you conscious that the industry was capable of having an impact, and if so did you care about the impact that you were able to have?

Susanne Preissler:

Yeah, it's so funny. The more you learn the more you realize you don't know as much as you think you do. So, for me, when I was getting into the industry, I was wide-eyed, eager, still have that wide-eyed eagerness too, to this day, but what was different for me is I started recognizing that yes, there were more men in the business, that the women were harsher than the men sometimes because they had to stand their ground, but I also realized that there was this phenomenal group of female directors that were not being treated the same way their male counterparts were.

I always was pushing, hey let's bring in, to every production company that I was working at, I was like let's bring in some female directors. So I was always pushing that agenda, but I wasn't really pushing it saying, we just want to fill up a quota. I was pushing it because I really genuinely thought these women directors are good. You had Agnieszka Holland who is an amazing director. You had Kathryn Bigelow. You had tons of different female directors who … Martha Coolidge who did a movie called Rambling Rose. You had Mimi Leder. You had all of these female directors who finally, in some ways, they got pushed to the side until this whole movement started and then they started coming back up again.

You look at even Barbara Streisand. Say what anybody wants, that woman has an amazing vision. You look at something like Prince of Tides and you look at the films that she's directed and you go wow, she always had something and she was always putting herself out there and was fearless about it. So to go back, and I'm not answering your question fully, but did I know that I could create some change? I always felt like, yeah, I could create some change but I always felt like I had to start it at home, and then push it on out into the industry as much as I could at the time.

Charles:

As your career evolved, was there a certain kind of work that you wanted to be around more, or a certain kind of director? What were your choices that you were realizing you were making as you went?

Susanne Preissler:

You make different choices in your life for different reasons, and you know, when I first was working at Propaganda, or when I worked with Ridley Scott's company, you made choices based on certain goals that you had to meet. Now that I'm doing my own thing, I kind of make choices a different way where I'm picking people that I also feel that can make a difference and that have an interesting voice.

I've evolved as a person too, so my taste level, maybe ten years ago, isn't the same taste level I have now, so there's a lot of things that are at play wit the industry but also within the individual itself.

Charles:

And when you were starting to work with places like RSA, with Ridley Scott's company, obviously you were gaining lessons and insights in terms of how different directors showed up and how they got different people to work together towards a vision. What were you seeing back then that has informed how you produce today?

Susanne Preissler:

When I was at Ridley Scott's company, I kind of was left alone, and part of it was my own doing and part of it was their doing. I came over there and I had a little division and ironically it was called RSA Independent just like it had been at Propaganda where I started it. It was called Propaganda Independent, so we called it RSA independent. It was interesting because they did do things differently at RSA than they did at Propaganda.

It was a different kind of structure, a different kind of organization but for the most part they just left me alone and you knew that there were things that you couldn't do, there were things that you knew you could do. My feeling is I've always pressed it. That's just part of my personality where I always try to push it to the max because I just believe if you don't push it to the max, then you're not going to evolve as a person but you're also not going to evolve change.

Do I know of one thing that I learned there? No, I think the experience I got there was that I was working with different people, some people who really worked their butts off, and I started learning a little bit about politics there which, say what you want, everywhere you go there's politics. I found that, in those kinds of circumstances, you had to maneuver in a different way, and that was pretty hard for me because as a person I'm pretty straightforward, and I don't mince words, and it was hard. It was pretty hard for me.

It was hard. Just when you get into a bigger organization, there's politics that one has to be aware of, and you learn from that because you learn how to, whether it's how you phrase things, you learn how to approach things, you learn how fast you can share certain things with some people and how you must share things with others. Those are the kinds of things you learn over time, projects, and just working in the business.

Charles:

You mentioned earlier, you used the phrase "push it to the max," that that's how you've always shown up. What does that mean to you and in connection with that, what's your relationship with fear?

Susanne Preissler:

Oh, that's a good one. Let me start off with "I push it to the max," and then you're going to probably have to remind me of the second part of the question. The "push it to the max," for me, means do everything you can. It means work so hard that you haven't left anything uncovered, that you've thought things through, that you've really done your best.

One thing I can't stand is waking up the next day and saying, "I should have done this." That's so hard for me, and that's within my whole life, not just my professional life. It's in my personal life too. So when I take on a job or when we take on a job over here at this company, what's different may be as it is in other companies, is we look at the project carefully and we really go, "How can we do our very, very best job? How can we support the director's vision? How do we keep thinking it all the way through?"

That can't stop when you accept the job or get the job awarded. It has to continue all the way through. It has to be the philosophy of the company. It has to be the people that are working together, and if you have people on the team that aren't moving in the same direction, at that point you have to be an adult and say to the people, "Hey, you got to do this this way," or if they're not willing to do that, you have to say, "Then, we’ve got to cut pay and find people who are really moving in that same direction."

Charles:

How long does it take you to get to that point because I see a lot of leaders who struggle with that reality. I've talked to others on the podcast before but there's an inclination with people who are very genuine warm human beings to over-index and worry too much about the individual and not enough about the entity of the organization that they as the leader are responsible for. How easy, easy is perhaps not the right word, but how quickly do you get to a point where you realize this is just not working with this person, and we need to move on?

Susanne Preissler:

Sometimes I'm not great at it. Sometimes I'm really good at it, sometimes I'm not. What plays into it is, you don't ever want to be heartless. You don't ever want to make an assumption. You don't want to accuse somebody of something that they haven't done. You're weighing those things in your head. I think the way I look at it isn't so much of … there's two types of people. There's sometimes the people who have the attitude that they don't want to conform to the way something is going, or a director's needs are, and they want to just do it their way. That's a very easy thing to recognize and usually you just don't hire those kinds of people.

But occasionally somebody comes on board and they're rigid or they're very set in their ways and they just don't want to change. You have to first have a conversation with them and be very honest and say, “Look, this is how we work and this is how we're all going to work together. If that doesn't suit you, then this isn't the place for you.” You know, then that happens now and then, and people are adults and they go, "I appreciate that." Or, they say, "Okay, let me try it." Sometimes you can watch somebody, suddenly they're breaking out of a shell that they've been in for like 10, 15 years, and they're breaking out of it and they're freed up and suddenly they become this different kind of person. They think differently. That's the one time that you kind of go, "Oh my god, I love this. This is when it's really working."

Now, with people who, let's say, come in and they sell you well, and you sit down with them. You know, you can tell when somebody's sitting across from you, if you've been in the business and you're seasoned, you can tell when somebody's kind of BS-ing you. But, at the same time, they're so enthusiastic that you go, okay, maybe this person needs a chance. Maybe they need to just be thrown in the middle of the lake, and they swim, and they learn from doing. And so you take that chance. Then, there's that kind of person that comes in and totally sells you a different bill of goods, and that happens now and then.

You watch them at work and if they're not working out well, you pull them aside and you go, "This isn't for you, and it's okay." You have to be honest with people, though, because I've had people which I really adored them. I mean, I liked them as human beings, and I've had to sit them down and say, "Look, I've realized after working with you, or I've realized after having this period of time with you, that this isn't the skillset that is needed for the job." I can help you learn the skillset, but if you're willing to do this, this, and this, or if you don't want to do this then we should part ways before we start hating each other. Because, I think where resentment builds up, and I mean I'm not perfect, trust me, but I've learned this over the years, is where resentment builds up is when somebody's not doing something that you need them to do, and they're not learning. You owe it to that person to try to teach them, but if they still are not doing the simple things and they're refusing to learn, you've got to cut pay. Because then you're going to ultimately end up getting angry with that person, and you don't want to do that.

Charles:

Have you, within that context, have you got, have you established values? Are you clear about the kind of culture that you're trying to build so that you have a reference point for deciding this person fits, this person doesn't?

Susanne Preissler:

Yeah, you can tell by talking to people. If you really listen to people, you find like minds. I think that's when you sit down with people. You got to spend time with people. I always tell people, sometimes we don't have that, in the freelance world you don't have that luxury, but I always like to bring people in. Especially if we're contemplating bringing in new freelancers, which you always do, you bring them in and you meet them before you hire them for the job and you sit with them. I think that's true of a director, even. Sometimes people just put the name on their roster and they go, "Okay, we can get this person."

Well, have you sat down with that person, have you learned who they are, have you learned how they work, have you learned what's important to them? I can probably say 90% of the time, they can't. I'm talking about more like filmmakers, because filmmakers are people coming in from outside, and some of them know our world. Some of them know a world that no longer exists. Some of them are newbies. I really feel that you have to spend time with them and sit with them and talk to them.

I've done this for many years, so I feel like I have a pretty good barometer of people. You've just got to take the time and listen.

Charles:

Do you ever turn down talent, people you think are extraordinarily talented, because you know they're not going to fit?

Susanne Preissler:

Yes. You have to be ready to do that. You also have to turn down jobs where you get a director on the phone and you hear the creatives and you can feel how the chemistry is going to be.

Charles:

Is that a hard moment for you these days?

Susanne Preissler:

Sometimes it is. Sometimes you get your heart broken. Sometimes you go, "Oh my god, I dodged a bullet." Sometimes you're the one that's judged, it's not the director or … it's me that's being judged or my other executive producer being judged. That's something you run into a lot.

Charles:

You're obviously a leader of your company, you're a leader within the industry. Do you think about how you want to be seen as a leader? What success looks like to you from a leadership standpoint?

Susanne Preissler:

I haven't given it as much thought as I should, to be frank. The way that I would like to be perceived is not sometimes the way that people think of me. I think the one thing I would say is, that people need to get to know people before they put labels on them. Having grown up in the world of, prior to #metoo, prior to #timesup, prior to ... I've had to really struggle and fight to get where I'm at. I've had to do that not just with men but also with women. It's been really hard. The gossip hurts, the shutting-out hurts. But, you move through that and you just keep your head up and you go through each day and you thank yourself for being here, or you thank everybody for being here and sticking by you.

How I would like to be perceived is how I really am. And that is, I'm a smart woman, I'm educated. I've given a lot of women help. I've helped a lot of men, too. I'm a giver. I'm a very creative producer, I like to figure out solutions. I'm not a party animal. I don't go out and schmooze, and probably should have, but I didn't have time. Because while all my male counterparts were out partying and schmoozing, I was out busting my butt trying to figure out how I can do this better, or as good as them, if not better.

Because, as a woman you're measured with a different ruler. You're not measured as to, “Hey, you're as good as your male counterpart.” You have to be better. I don't think that's going to change. It's starting to change, but I don't think it's going to change until both men and women embrace it. It's got to be on both sides. Until that happens, I feel like we're going to be constantly having to create this balance. That's the thing is, we want to achieve a balance that works for everyone, that doesn't just work for one particular group.

That's hard, it's a very hard thing to do, but I also feel that judgment needs to be out. It needs to be out of the equation completely. For some reason, the ad industry is a very judgemental industry, as is most entertainment businesses are. It's very judgemental. It'd be nice to have more people open their doors, talk about things, and if there is ever a problem, to voice it and not label people. Because there's a lot of compartmentalizing, labeling. It's not just about the executive producers or myself, it's also about directors.

The way that people look at things is very ... they compartmentalize things, and we don't need to do that anymore. We're in a really amazing place right now where people have multiple talents. I mean, you look at Patty Jenkins, okay? She's an amazing director. She did a small independent movie, and what does she do? She goes off and does Wonder Woman. Okay, do you really think if we hadn't gone through all this shift that she would have been picked to direct that? I don't know. I think it would have … people would have seen it more as a risk to do versus not to do. Now, I think the doors are opening more, and they're allowing for people who were shut out a long time ago, or even two years ago, to now come in and to have a voice.

Charles:

You talked about, I want to come back to the way that the industry, or creative industries as a whole, both support and get in the way of the development of female talent. But, I'm curious as to this notion of labeling. How do you think you're seen? What are the labels that are attached to you?

Susanne Preissler:

Oh, god, Charles, do I have to say this? I've heard so many things. I've heard that I'm, I've had the word aggressive used, and that, when really what it is should be is ambitious. I've heard bitch, which should be, you know, I've heard bitch, I've heard tough. I've recently heard somebody call me vile. I mean, I've heard words that are so awful, describing me, that … and these are people that don't even know me. People haven't met me, worked with me.

You just kind of go, "Have you looked in the mirror lately buddy?" Have you been so lily white, no you have not. I've heard that, but then I've also heard from people who have watched me and know me say that I'm the hardest working person in the business. I've had a director tell me that I work as hard as Steven Spielberg. I've had people say to me, “I had no idea how hard you work, and how much you care.” So, with all of the negativity, which is unfortunately what people listen to, there's also this positive side of me where they go ... I was just doing a job for a big client in Japan a week ago.

I sat down with the owner of a pretty nice big production service company. He turned to me and he goes, "I now get it." I said, "What do you get? I don't understand." He said, "You know, I was called up by people telling me to watch out for you. I was told that you were this, that, and the other thing." He said, "You're just very honest, straightforward, hard-working, and you want what you want, and you're willing to work to get it there. What I realize is, if you had been a man they would be celebrating you. You'd be the top guy in the business. You would be out there right now, and you would own everything."

It touched me because coming from a man who's been in the business for a really long time, it made ... and he's seen a lot. It made me realize that hey, I got through to somebody. The way I look at it is, as long as I can keep getting through to people, and people aren't limited or latch onto the things that they shouldn't, like the idle gossip coming from both men and women, I think I'll persevere. I've been here already, I've been here in the industry a long time, and I assume that I'm doing something decent and I'm hoping that the people that have stuck by me will continue to. I'm hoping that we can open up new doors where people are open and can think for themselves, and make their own judgments.

Charles:

Why do you think you're a lightning rod, you personally?

Susanne Preissler:

Because I don't take shit. I've stood up for myself, and when women stick up for, when they stick up for themselves or they stick up for their sisters or whatever you want to call it, their kind. You're suddenly … if you push back and you're a woman, get ready. People aren't going to like that. I've done that, and I had to fight tooth and nail to be in the industry, to stay in the industry, to maintain the industry.

Charles:

Have you talked to other women about this? Do they feel, do they experience the same thing?

Susanne Preissler:

I've talked to women in the film industry and they have experienced that, yes. In my industry, you know, I've talked to a few creatives. The other production companies, I have not really talked to them about it, because some of those production companies are the very people that also are part of spreading the legend.

Charles:

Do you guys, unfortunate use of phrase, do you and other women-

Susanne Preissler:

It's not unfortunate. I look at people as guys. I don't say “you guys” in male context. I know it does have male context, but you guys is used as a group thing, but go ahead.

Charles:

No, and I wonder whether that's part of the problem, because we all fall to this male-oriented vernacular as much as anything else.

Have you found that there are other woman that you can align yourself with who can support you as they can be supported by you?

Susanne Preissler:

Not really. I mean, I hate saying that. In my industry, you have to understand, you know, somebody asked me, I was on a panel last year and somebody said to me, well they asked us all the same question. "Who have been your female mentors and how did you, what were people that you looked up to?" I said I didn't have a mentor when I was coming up through this industry because there weren't any. Maybe there were one or two females, but they were playing a male’s game, too. You didn't really have that comradery that you want and you crave.

The type of women that I would always go to, and I still go to this day, is I look for powerful women who are in their field. Whether it's a powerful attorney that you really admire. Like I admire, my attorney is a very powerful female attorney and she's amazing. I go to her because she gives me constructive smart advice. There are a couple creative directors that I really admire and I've gone to them, as we were both growing up in the business, and we were support systems to one another.

There are female directors that I talk to. There are female producers in the film business that I've talked to a little bit, but for the most part it's not ... it wasn't as easy as I thought it should be. I also leaned on my mom, because my mom came up through the ad industry when, you know, here's a woman who was an art director and because she was pregnant was told she couldn't attend a meeting to present her own work, so the work was presented as her male counterparts work, and he got all the credit. I kind of … you try to find people with … you try to find your family is what I always like to say to people. Those are the people that you use as your sounding board, as your support, and you process with them.

What I've found is as I've gotten into the industry is that I've really brought in more women into my … and trained women in my company. I'm trying, if a woman wants to become a producer then they're going to become a producer here. If they don't want to become a producer or they want to do something else, we try to help them figure out what is their, what makes them live, what makes them breathe. With regard to moving forward and finding a group of women, it would be really great to have that and have somebody that you could bounce off ideas with.

I try to do that and I'm slowly getting to know some people at a [inaudible] company who I really genuinely like. I mean, friendships don't happen overnight, they have to grow and come together in the right way.

Charles:

I couldn't agree with you more, it does take time to develop authentic relationships. Spinning back to my question from a couple of minutes ago, what's your relationship with fear within the context that you've just described?

Susanne Preissler:

With fear?

Charles:

Yep.

Susanne Preissler:

I think I've got two relationships with fear. One, there's a part of me, people always say to me, “What are you going to do if you lose this, what are you going to do if you lose that, what are you going to do with that?” I just have to keep going ahead, because I don't have a trust fund, I don't have those kinds of things, so I keep moving ahead. I just hope that things … you just work ahead and you try to make the best that you can. On one hand I have no fear, because I feel that fear comes from when you feel like you're going to lose something. If I ever feel like I'm going to lose something, then I have to examine what that is and why I feel that way, because there's something wrong with me if I feel that way.

I go, “God, you know what, why am I fearing? Am I fearing losing this person, am I fearing losing this, am I fearing losing something, what's going on here?” Because then you're operating from a bad place to get something done. You're operating from a place where you're walking on eggshells, and you can't do that. You can't have that in your relationships. But, the other aspect, the other part of this equation, what am I fearful of?

I'll tell you what I am fearful of, is not making a difference. I'm not saying having a legacy, because a legacy is something that people remember you by. I'm talking about not making a difference in people’s lives. Whether it's at work, whether it's at home. You have to actively ask yourself why you're doing certain things, what motivates you, how is this going to affect you, how is it going to affect the people that you're doing this for? You have to constantly check in with yourself.

My fear is that not making a difference in somebody's life, that would be bad. Because that would be when I need to get out of the business, because that would make me fearful of what my motivation is.

Charles:

What's the difference you want to make?

Susanne Preissler:

Changes. The difference I want to make is I want people to open up their eyes and really do their best. I want to be able to … what we're doing is advertising but it's not just advertising. I feel like what's happening more and more is that brands are crossing into entertainment, entertainment is crossing into advertising. I want people to start looking at the narrative more. I want them to start understanding what's going into the work. I also want people to start treating people in a better way. I want people to embrace people, and really start working together and being kinder.

I've noticed that the industry has lost a lot of that kindness, and there's a lack of loyalty in the way that we should have it. It used to be, the brands used to sign a contract with an ad agency and they would turn around and have a long-term relationship where the creativity could build, the brand would build. And everybody who was funneling into that machine, to create this creative machine, they would keep building on that.

What's happened now, is you have a jump ball going on, where you have places like Chrysler, where they’re just jumping, the clients are making 5 different agencies jump for it, the same spots or the same media buy, and it's disheartening to me because what they're doing is, they're creating a lot of distrust as a result. It trickles down into the ad agency, into the production company. Suddenly the production company is no longer valued and you're pitted and you're asked to lower your markup, asked for the lower rates, asked to do things, more things for less money. And I know we're having these issues with the economy, although right now I'm being told the economy is in a great place.

But I just feel at this point there's so much that's happening where ... there's some of the values we really need back are some of our old values. Doesn't mean we do things exactly the same way, because I think there has been a hell of a lot of change, and I actually think for the better. I think the cutting of budgets and asking for more, that transaction I hate, but I don't have a problem with cutting of budgets and asking people to be more nimble about how they do things. That I don't have a problem with.

So I guess I kind of got off track there a little bit but it is a stream of consciousness. (laughs)

Charles:

How do you lead?

Susanne Preissler:

How do I lead?

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Susanne Preissler:

Sometimes I don't think I'm that great of leader, and I'm learning, so the way I lead is I really follow my heart and my conscience. I do have a moral compass that I like to think is very good. I lead from a very honest part, in my bones. You just got to be true to yourself and therefore true to the people that you're working for and around.

I think you lead with both a soft and heavy hand. And when I say "soft and heavy hand", I mean soft where you really elevate people and you try to do your very best to get them all the tools they need and you push them in a way where they're looking at things in a different way.

By a heavy hand, where you're watching and making sure that the structure, the foundation beneath them, remains solid. And that things don't go fly-by-night, we don't do anything by the seat of our pants, you don't wing it. Therefore your structure is very organized, it's very well thought-out, it's put together in a way where it mirrors what ... I guess not mirrors, it supports the director's vision in a way, and it also at the same time takes into consideration what the company's vision is. And the company's vision has to be worked into everything because you can't just have a bunch of creative directors running out there, doing things and not having structure underneath them. Otherwise something could go awry and they need to be supported the right way.

Charles:

Before we wrap up I just want to circle back to your thoughts on creating industries, creating companies that are more supportive of women. What do you think needs to happen from where the industry is today, the world is today, the business is today, in order to allow all of us who want to help to be able to help women fulfill their potential?

Susanne Preissler:

Well, a hell of a lot more. And this is one area where I'm not going to soften what I say. (laughs)

Not that I've softened anything, but... you almost have to swing the pendulum even further over... so it can eventually get to the middle. Because I feel like what's happening right now is more people are talking about it, which I think is great. And I think it's at the top of everybody's list but there needs to be a greater accountability... there needs to be much more than what's happening. I mean, just in my business, I'm a woman-owned company. And for years where we've been asked, you sign up for a woman-owned company status, and I can tell you right now I rarely have been called, being a woman in a company. And I think that needs to change.

The other thing that needs to change is, I think, free the bid is great, what they're doing, but I also feel that every client, brand, ad agency needs to say "We're really going to work with these female directors.” It can't just be, "We're going to bid you," it has to be, "We're going to work with you."

At the same time, I don't feel that men should be shut out of the equation, either. There’s been some fantastic men who've really plowed the way for women in our industry. My relationship that I have with Doug Liman is one that I always throw up there because he has stuck by me through thick and thin, and has been genuinely one of the most decent human beings to me in the industry. You want to celebrate people who have done something for women as much as you want to celebrate the women. And I think that's important that we not just put men in a category as being our opposition or the people that've kept us down, because not all men have.

But I do feel going back, I think that the advertising business and the brands need to make it a mandate, much more than what they are. And just because woman doesn't have a car on her reel, doesn't mean she can't shoot one. Just because a woman doesn't have an athlete on her reel, doesn't mean she can't direct one. Just because a woman doesn't have something on her reel or doesn't have ten spots, and only has two spots, doesn't mean she can't direct. That's the concerning thing I have right now is that, on one hand everybody's saying we recognize that there's been this inequality, but at the same time it doesn't mean you can just show them... open the door and say, "Oh, we're going to consider you.” You can't just say you're going to consider us, you got to hire us.

Charles:

There's an underlying challenge in the industry that goes alongside that, isn't there? Which is that … I remember when I was in the agency, a producer wanting to bring a director in for a job, male director. And having the creative team turn him down because although the spot in our case heavily featured apples, because he had shot a commercial with apples, the commercial he had shot contained red apples and we were shooting green apples.

Susanne Preissler:

(laughs)

Charles:

True story. True story. And no matter what, I couldn't convince this creative team, I use the term "creative" loosely, to, as they saw it, take a risk on this guy. So some of what you're describing is also endemic to the industry.

Susanne Preissler:

Yeah! It totally is and it needs to come from the top. And if you've got the top... and it's not just men, it's women too. But if you've got the top saying "Hey, I need to see it on the reel,” you've already right there. You're just knocking all of these women out of an opportunity.

Charles:

I think that's true. I think there is not just perceived, but a true risk factor to your point. Clients stay less time with the agencies, people get fired or companies get fired all the time, people seem to be constantly wired about their job security, they're looking for insurance policies. I was always conscious when we were building our film editing company, The Whitehouse, that we were building a premium brand not only because the talent was world class, but because we were essentially regarded as an insurance policy for many companies who said, "If I'm working with them, they will take care of me. How could it have been better than working with them?"

And I still think the industry is, to a large extent, driven by those kinds of very raw emotional sensibilities. I mean, talent is clearly fundamental but there's a bunch of other stuff that goes around it, right?

Susanne Preissler:

And to me it's sad because the ad agency business, the advertising business, it's a beautiful vocation, it's not even a vocation. I should say, it's a beautiful career. And you look at somebody like a surgeon, you look at somebody like a doctor, they go to school and they are trained. They come out after many years of training and they practice. So why is it that people think they can just go join an ad agency or a production company and within a month be able to call themselves a producer? I don't get that.

Charles:

I think the short answer is because no one's telling them they can't.

Susanne Preissler:

Yeah. And so you see people who've not learned enough or you see people that have learned enough who aren't given a chance. I mean you're seeing so many different ... it depends on the agency and of course the department, but you're seeing that. And I really feel like it almost needs to now come from the client, where the client has to say, "Hey look, we want to make things right. We want to do things that are slightly different than what they're doing now. We still want you to guide the process, we still want you involved in the creation of the creative, but, wouldn't it be great if we got a director involved even early on? Could we save money that way? Could we get a better product that way? Wouldn't it be great if you're concerned about this person not having enough spots on the reel if we got them involved sooner so that we could really understand and they would submerge themselves into the process?"

I mean there's so much that we could be doing, and yet we're not.

Charles:

I'm sensitive to the time, but as a wrap thought, I think the reason that a lot of that stuff doesn't happen is because both the advertising agency and the production company agency that supports it are built on a terrible business model, which is, it sells time. They both sell time.

Susanne Preissler:

Yeah.

Charles:

They don't sell value, they don't sell audience engagement, they don't sell behavior modification or change, they don't sell results. They sell time. And creativity as a force in business, which is never going to do very well when it's valued purely on the basis of how long would it take to do that.

How many people were involved in doing this? The consumer doesn't care about any of those things. The consumer cares about whether it moved them.

Susanne Preissler:

Well the consumer is a very savvy consumer.

And when you start to look at how much content is being pushed out there, quality is going to start mattering much more. The idea is going to matter much more. At that point I think you do revert back to some of the former principles that did work, but then you're moving ahead and you're saying, “Okay the model is going to be slightly different.”

And I really feel that the ad agency isn't just servicing a client, but they should be also servicing an audience. And I don't know if I fully believe that's happening consistently all over the place.

Charles:

I'm conscious of the time, and I'm conscious that you have been very gracious with your time today. So let me wrap this. I wrap every episode with three themes that I've heard that I think contribute to your success as a creative leader, regardless of what some people say about you.

So the three that strike me today are these: you are clearly very determined and it stood you in great stead for lots of different reasons, but I think without that determination I think, I can't imagine you would be where you are today.

Two, you couple that with being, I think actually, very sensitive through a couple different lenses, the most important of which is I think you have a very strong understanding of what matters to you and the difference that you want to make.

And the third thing that I think is powerful is that you generally want to make a difference for other people in their lives and how they unlock their own potential. And I think when you put those three things together, really good stuff comes out of that.

How do those resonate with you then?

Susanne Preissler:

No, I feel bad, I mean. I really do feel those things. I mean I know I probably rambled a lot but it's something... I just feel like there's more to this than what meets the eye. And I feel that we've been very lucky to be involved in an industry that is so interesting, and it continues to keep my interest but I would like to see it now evolve in a slightly different way too.

Charles:

Yeah.

Susanne, thank you so much for joining me today, I appreciate your candor, your honesty, your time. I've really enjoyed the conversation.

Susanne Preissler:

Well, likewise.