Colleen DeCourcy’s planned retirement ended up becoming little more than an extended vacation. The creative executive had ascended to arguably the best job in the advertising world, co-president and chief creative officer of Wieden+Kennedy, where she helped the agency reach new heights, helping it do what it had legendarily done for Nike for decades for other A-list brands such as Ford and McDonald’s. But as she said when she announced her retirement last December, “You can’t be a huge advocate for change and not ever think it means you. If you really believe that injecting new thinking, new blood, and new dynamics into a company like Wieden only makes it more interesting, then at a certain point, you change yourself out, too.”
DeCourcy’s plan was to do a whole lot of nothing for a bit. Maybe go on a motorbike trip. Maybe do some landscaping. Then she would start to think about how she might further engage her particular set of skills built over a storied career.
That “what’s next” arrived sooner than she thought. Last month, less than six months after leaving Wieden, DeCourcy was announced as the new chief creative officer of Snap, the self-described camera company whose flagship app, Snapchat, has 332 million daily active users. Reporting to Snap chief marketing officer Kenny Mitchell, her assignment—as described by Snap’s press release at the time—is to “steer the company’s global creative efforts and help elevate its brand image and storytelling.”
Her first piece of work with Snap was an ad during the Oscars, in a nod to the nominated film CODA, that highlighted Snapchat’s augmented-reality Lenses to learn American Sign Language.
In her first official interview since taking the job, DeCourcy tells Fast Company that her new job boils down to helping Snap move beyond being “the best known, least understood” social platform. It’s a big challenge, one befitting her goal to engage her skills and embrace change, as seen in Snap’s frenetic public stock-market performance. The general public, who are mostly outside of the 13 to 34-year-old demographic that makes up much of Snap’s audience, don’t quite get Snap. What follows is an edited version of our conversation:
Before you joined Wieden+Kennedy in 2013, you founded your own social media-focused agency called Socialistic, so the move to a social platform isn’t a complete surprise. But coming so soon after “retiring” perhaps was. How did this come about and why did you want this new job?
It has always been an ongoing love/hate relationship I have with the (social) space. But I do believe it can bring value, and so I had it as something I might take a look at once I’ve had a break. Maybe I’d consult or something, who knows. Then a friend introduced me to [Snap CEO] Evan [Spiegel], who is a really compelling guy. His values really aligned with mine, and we enjoyed chatting about all kinds of things. We talked about the social media landscape, the company, and more. I’ve always been looking for a version of social that just does better. Initially, I thought that maybe I could help them with some contract work, and the discussions happened much earlier or quicker than I’d expected. Then it just became unavoidable, that with the juice I had left, I wanted to take a stab at this.
What was Evan looking for in those initial conversations, and how are you defining the chief creative officer role at Snap?
I was really surprised in what we talked about, in terms of how massive Snap’s scale is. As we talked, it occurred to me that this was the best known, least understood platform that we’ve got. That’s something I can work to do something about. And doing it in a way, which we did at Wieden as well, which is when you can tell someone a story about their brand and what it’s bringing to the world, and it can resonate with them, it helps guide the way they look at the path and future of that company.
Our hope was he would keep telling a product story, and I would keep talking to him about a brand story. And we’d see if this would take us to a place where more people understood what was really going on here. We’re just getting started.
Snap has been jokingly referred to as Facebook’s product development department. How can creative brand work help convince users to stick with Snap over using similar features borrowed by other platforms?
Evan’s go-to answer on this is that they can’t replicate our values. That’s the answer that’s been guiding my thinking, in terms of how to approach this. The job is to get people better understanding what we do, especially in this time [when] we’re at a 10-year mark, and people have preconceived notions about Snap and Snapchat and the metaverse discussions are happening. Snap AR is one of the best, most-used contributions to that world, so it’s a moment to define that.
That sounds like a big change compared to your experience working as an agency partner with Facebook. As the company faced a laundry list of self-inflicted problems back in 2020, you had told me you were hoping to affect change from within there, but it seemed too heavy a burden.
Going back to values, that’s what drew me here. Because [Snapchat} is always building from the community out, I can do my style of storytelling, which starts with the values and community, and do it at Snap where I’m just surfacing truths and values from within the company, as opposed to trying to sell something as something else.
What’s an example of that?
The first thing I had a hand on here was the Oscars work with the Snap American Sign Language. This amazing film Coda was at the Oscars, we have a very large team here of deaf coders and developers who had created lenses to bring more deaf people into the Snapchat community, because they enabled you to communicate, enabled you to sign, and honestly, it was a matter of keeping it as simple and honest as possible. Taking these beautiful products that had come out of the values of the company, matching it to a moment, making it as un-sales-y as possible, and just kind of saying, ‘This is what happens here. If you like it, you might be into it.’ That easy way of thinking about the care that’s gone into growing the community, makes the job far easier than it may have been in the past.
What lessons across your wide-ranging career do you feel will help you most in this specific task?
When you come up through the ranks of advertising, most of the time you’re working on CPG [consumer packaged goods]. You have a product, you know what it is, there’s other products like it, you map competitively, or if there’s no real difference, you create another thing for people to be inspired about with the product. That’s how we’re raised.
Now this is an environment where it’s, “What is the product? What is the other product it’s competing with?” Social technology is a very different animal, and I think it’s why for a lot of years, ad agencies and tech companies just could not figure out how to work together. What’s helped me in terms of this, is the combination of the digital space I came from and can think about problems in that way, but also the fundamentals I learned at Wieden apply in a space where you might not have a specific product. I don’t have a shampoo to sell. But the truth matters. Real human experience matters. And saying something with the work matters. So I feel like those three things are the lens through which I’ve been looking at Snap and Snapchat in these early days.