Creative Q&A: Martin Agency’s new chief creative officer

Karen Costello at Martin’s Shockoe Slip headquarters. (Jonathan Spiers)

When Karen Costello joined The Martin Agency last fall, she had no way of knowing that in just four months she’d be named the firm’s top creative executive, let alone the first woman ever named to that post.

After starting in September as an executive creative director, the 25-year industry vet was named chief creative officer in January, in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal at Martin that included the departure of previous CCO Joe Alexander.

Costello joins an executive leadership team at Martin that, by design, is now decidedly more female, with women making up half of its ranks. Among them is CEO Kristen Cavallo, likewise the first woman named to that post, who appointed Costello as CCO after first crossing paths with her at a conference a few years ago.

BizSense sat down with Costello to talk about her whirlwind first six months at Martin, her first couple months as CCO, and how she plans to lead Martin’s creative team going forward. The following is an edited transcript:

Richmond BizSense: You’ve been in your new role for over a month now. How’s it been?

Karen Costello: It’s been actually exhilarating in a lot of ways. Lots of challenges, and lots of exciting things. It’s been amazing partnering with Kristen. We had known each other before. We had met at a 3% Conference maybe four years ago, and the subject of that conference, as many 3% Conferences are, was: “Let’s get more gender equality in the creative departments” and “What holds women back from rising up the ranks into positions of leadership.” She and I were doing a co-presentation – she was at (MullenLowe Group) and I was at Deutsch – and I met her and remember thinking, “Gosh, she is so amazing. She’s an amazing force.” And then, cosmically, here we are four years later running an agency together.

RBS: You were previously at Deutsch (part of parent company Interpublic Group along with Martin and MullenLowe). What prompted your move from their Los Angeles office?

KC: Just the need for some change and a little bit of disruption in my life. I had helped to start Deutsch when they were 13 people and grew it to 400 people in the first six years. I left and did something else and then I came back – that’s the boomerang thing that happens in agencies sometimes. I was there for another six or seven years, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different.

If I was going to change, I needed to find a group of people that felt like the kind of people I wanted to spend my time with. I wanted a group of people that felt like they had creative ambitions in the way that I did. And I wanted to give my kids – I have two kids: a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son – a very different experience than Los Angeles. I wanted to show my kids a different way of living.

RBS: How does Martin do things differently than other places where you’ve worked?

KC: There’s a super-deep bench here; the talent here is incredible. There’s also this inherent desire to “make.” There’s a lot of outside artistic interest with almost everybody that works here. It might be a small-town thing; it might just be unique to the people that are drawn to The Martin Agency – there is a maker culture that feels like the DNA of the creatives inside here, so they bring that to creative projects and bring more diverse ways to look at things.

RBS: Joe Alexander was associated and credited with a lot of the accolades Martin has received in recent years. Is there a void with his absence? Is it a challenge to move forward?

martin leadership

Costello and the new senior leadership. (Martin Agency)

KC: I’m going to go back to the incredible people that are here. The bench, the talent – the senior-level creatives all the way down to the people that have just come out of school – it is one of the most incredible groups of people that I have ever worked with in my advertising career. That hasn’t changed. That group of people, they are creative, they’re powerful, they’re compassionate, they care about this place. That was (the case) then and that is now. That’s the real power of this place. It’s not just one person.

RBS: What are your priorities as CCO? Are you looking to maintain what’s going on, or do you have some specific things you’re hoping to change?

KC: I don’t think any agency anywhere in the industry has the luxury of staying the same … You have to constantly be figuring out different ways to work. The changing industry, the changing media landscape – everything changes and it changes rapidly, so there is no staying the same for anyone in this industry, including Martin.

Me personally, I’m very ambitious. I love doing things that haven’t been done before. I love ideas that make an impact. I love creative problem-solving and business-changing ideas. So if we can do more of that and keep doing that, I think we’ll be in great shape.

RBS: How does Martin, and you as the team leader, approach the creative process? How do you attack a campaign?

KC: I would think that a lot of agencies work like this, but the way we do it here is you start with strategy. The strategy department is lock-step with the creative department, because what the strategy does is they dig into what are the issues and the problems with the account or what problems are we trying to solve, what’s the objective, and then who are we talking to, and how is it best to talk to those kinds of people.

Then you go about what’s the most creative way to solve that problem and how are we going to get people to pay attention. We call it “finding your enemy” – what’s the thing that you push off of, what do brands push off of. When Dove first came out, they were pushing off against the norms of beauty for women: beauty tells you to be like this, we’re going to tell you to be a real beauty. They were pushing off of something that made people pay attention. That’s where you find real power with consumers, when you’re leaning against something that’s happening in culture.

RBS: How do you keep from repeating yourself? How do you find fresh ideas?

KC: Coming up with that fresh solution is a variety of things: it’s what’s unique for that brand; it’s always in service of what is right for the problem we’re trying to solve and what’s right for that brand and that client. We don’t have a “Martin voice” or a particular (approach); we really dive into what is particularly needed for this.

To be inspired, I think it’s really powerful to look at creative problem-solving in the world around us. There’s medical technicians that are doing it, there’s anthropologists that are doing it; there’s all sorts of creative problem-solving that we can be inspired by in industries outside of our own. I think that’s where a lot of those “aha” moments come from, especially if you’ve already done the rigor of what’s true about the brand, what’s true about our consumer. Once you do the rigor of that, then be inspired by things outside of advertising in the world around you.

RBS: Are there any shops in town you’ve come across whose work you admire?

KC: I know the Arts & Letters guys are doing something different. They’re a group of people that are just getting together to try something different, and they are bringing more creativity to this community. I also know Deb Hagan at Barber Martin from a past life in L.A. She’s an incredible person, a great woman, a really great creative. I know they’re going to do great things over there.

RBS: If you had the opportunity to ask someone you admire one question, who would that person be and what question would you ask?

KC: I love Michelle Obama. I think she is just one of the most graceful, intelligent people that has come into politics. I would want to talk about the notion of grace and how, in politics, which I’m super interested in just in general – the ability to have such grace. I don’t know if I have one question for her, but I just want to, by osmosis, seep some of that out.

Karen Costello at Martin’s Shockoe Slip headquarters. (Jonathan Spiers)

When Karen Costello joined The Martin Agency last fall, she had no way of knowing that in just four months she’d be named the firm’s top creative executive, let alone the first woman ever named to that post.

After starting in September as an executive creative director, the 25-year industry vet was named chief creative officer in January, in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal at Martin that included the departure of previous CCO Joe Alexander.

Costello joins an executive leadership team at Martin that, by design, is now decidedly more female, with women making up half of its ranks. Among them is CEO Kristen Cavallo, likewise the first woman named to that post, who appointed Costello as CCO after first crossing paths with her at a conference a few years ago.

BizSense sat down with Costello to talk about her whirlwind first six months at Martin, her first couple months as CCO, and how she plans to lead Martin’s creative team going forward. The following is an edited transcript:

Richmond BizSense: You’ve been in your new role for over a month now. How’s it been?

Karen Costello: It’s been actually exhilarating in a lot of ways. Lots of challenges, and lots of exciting things. It’s been amazing partnering with Kristen. We had known each other before. We had met at a 3% Conference maybe four years ago, and the subject of that conference, as many 3% Conferences are, was: “Let’s get more gender equality in the creative departments” and “What holds women back from rising up the ranks into positions of leadership.” She and I were doing a co-presentation – she was at (MullenLowe Group) and I was at Deutsch – and I met her and remember thinking, “Gosh, she is so amazing. She’s an amazing force.” And then, cosmically, here we are four years later running an agency together.

RBS: You were previously at Deutsch (part of parent company Interpublic Group along with Martin and MullenLowe). What prompted your move from their Los Angeles office?

KC: Just the need for some change and a little bit of disruption in my life. I had helped to start Deutsch when they were 13 people and grew it to 400 people in the first six years. I left and did something else and then I came back – that’s the boomerang thing that happens in agencies sometimes. I was there for another six or seven years, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different.

If I was going to change, I needed to find a group of people that felt like the kind of people I wanted to spend my time with. I wanted a group of people that felt like they had creative ambitions in the way that I did. And I wanted to give my kids – I have two kids: a 12-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son – a very different experience than Los Angeles. I wanted to show my kids a different way of living.

RBS: How does Martin do things differently than other places where you’ve worked?

KC: There’s a super-deep bench here; the talent here is incredible. There’s also this inherent desire to “make.” There’s a lot of outside artistic interest with almost everybody that works here. It might be a small-town thing; it might just be unique to the people that are drawn to The Martin Agency – there is a maker culture that feels like the DNA of the creatives inside here, so they bring that to creative projects and bring more diverse ways to look at things.

RBS: Joe Alexander was associated and credited with a lot of the accolades Martin has received in recent years. Is there a void with his absence? Is it a challenge to move forward?

martin leadership

Costello and the new senior leadership. (Martin Agency)

KC: I’m going to go back to the incredible people that are here. The bench, the talent – the senior-level creatives all the way down to the people that have just come out of school – it is one of the most incredible groups of people that I have ever worked with in my advertising career. That hasn’t changed. That group of people, they are creative, they’re powerful, they’re compassionate, they care about this place. That was (the case) then and that is now. That’s the real power of this place. It’s not just one person.

RBS: What are your priorities as CCO? Are you looking to maintain what’s going on, or do you have some specific things you’re hoping to change?

KC: I don’t think any agency anywhere in the industry has the luxury of staying the same … You have to constantly be figuring out different ways to work. The changing industry, the changing media landscape – everything changes and it changes rapidly, so there is no staying the same for anyone in this industry, including Martin.

Me personally, I’m very ambitious. I love doing things that haven’t been done before. I love ideas that make an impact. I love creative problem-solving and business-changing ideas. So if we can do more of that and keep doing that, I think we’ll be in great shape.

RBS: How does Martin, and you as the team leader, approach the creative process? How do you attack a campaign?

KC: I would think that a lot of agencies work like this, but the way we do it here is you start with strategy. The strategy department is lock-step with the creative department, because what the strategy does is they dig into what are the issues and the problems with the account or what problems are we trying to solve, what’s the objective, and then who are we talking to, and how is it best to talk to those kinds of people.

Then you go about what’s the most creative way to solve that problem and how are we going to get people to pay attention. We call it “finding your enemy” – what’s the thing that you push off of, what do brands push off of. When Dove first came out, they were pushing off against the norms of beauty for women: beauty tells you to be like this, we’re going to tell you to be a real beauty. They were pushing off of something that made people pay attention. That’s where you find real power with consumers, when you’re leaning against something that’s happening in culture.

RBS: How do you keep from repeating yourself? How do you find fresh ideas?

KC: Coming up with that fresh solution is a variety of things: it’s what’s unique for that brand; it’s always in service of what is right for the problem we’re trying to solve and what’s right for that brand and that client. We don’t have a “Martin voice” or a particular (approach); we really dive into what is particularly needed for this.

To be inspired, I think it’s really powerful to look at creative problem-solving in the world around us. There’s medical technicians that are doing it, there’s anthropologists that are doing it; there’s all sorts of creative problem-solving that we can be inspired by in industries outside of our own. I think that’s where a lot of those “aha” moments come from, especially if you’ve already done the rigor of what’s true about the brand, what’s true about our consumer. Once you do the rigor of that, then be inspired by things outside of advertising in the world around you.

RBS: Are there any shops in town you’ve come across whose work you admire?

KC: I know the Arts & Letters guys are doing something different. They’re a group of people that are just getting together to try something different, and they are bringing more creativity to this community. I also know Deb Hagan at Barber Martin from a past life in L.A. She’s an incredible person, a great woman, a really great creative. I know they’re going to do great things over there.

RBS: If you had the opportunity to ask someone you admire one question, who would that person be and what question would you ask?

KC: I love Michelle Obama. I think she is just one of the most graceful, intelligent people that has come into politics. I would want to talk about the notion of grace and how, in politics, which I’m super interested in just in general – the ability to have such grace. I don’t know if I have one question for her, but I just want to, by osmosis, seep some of that out.

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