Advertising: The it girl

When it comes to figuring out what's cool in advertising, Colleen DeCourcy has the answers.

The evening street scene is starting to heat up in New York’s hip SoHo neighbourhood, but Colleen DeCourcy seems oblivious to it all. She’s sitting in her loft apartment, tapping away on her computer — one of five in the home — while sipping on a glass of wine. Her 13-year-old daughter, Emma, is on a nearby couch, checking her cellphone for instant messages. They’re listening to music sent from their individual iPod players to a kitchen computer that randomly plays from the 5,534 songs downloaded over the previous two years. Do mother and daughter really share the same musical tastes? DeCourcy laughs and thinks for a moment. “We’ll both listen to John Mayer,” she says, “but [the infinitely more indie pop singer] Sufjan Stevens is our biggest shared obsession.”

Sufjan Stevens? As mothers go, DeCourcy is pretty cool. Then again, she’s paid to be cool. At 42, the Toronto-born DeCourcy has become one of the most influential figures in shaping the future of advertising and marketing in the digital age. Just a year after being named the first-ever chief experience officer at ad agency giant JWT in New York, she was wooed away to become global chief digital officer at TBWA Worldwide in late August. CEO Jean-Marie Dru personally flew to Halifax, where DeCourcy was on vacation to court her. The reason: her ability to think creatively about giving people new ways to experience products through the digital world is increasingly at a premium as traditional advertising loses steam.

Experiential marketing can mean anything that persuades a customer to interact with the brand — events that bring the brand to life. The idea didn’t start at ad agencies. Many consider Disneyland to be one big branded experience aimed at selling Disney products. The same can be said of stores like the Middleton, Wisc.–based retail outlets for American Girl, which boast hair salons, restaurants and even theatres oriented to glorifying a line of pricey dolls.

For DeCourcy, the concept is altogether different. She’s mainly trying to move beyond websites, looking at new ways to build brands through mobile phone applications, video content and even through social communities such as MySpace and Facebook. That can mean anything from promoting online games for users to having them fight over hair-colour preferences. At JWT, one campaign she built had real people on plush couches in the middle of Times Square, dispensing free tissues while listening to people’s problems.

It’s the ad industry’s response to a world where roadside billboards, television commercials and newspaper ads seem so easy to ignore. And where new forms of advertising might entice a younger generation — the ones posting photos of one another on the web while trading instant messages with friends about whether to boycott Coke — who seem jaded about big-name brands altogether.

Into this mix steps a quirky single mother who loves to play computer games (two current faves: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Shadow of the Colossus) while instant-messaging her daughter to nag about homework. DeCourcy believes that businesses need to fundamentally change the way they speak to their customers — all customers — if they want to sell new products in the digital age. The reason is that people aren’t just acting differently, like shopping with their computers; they’re starting to think differently about why they buy. They’re more moved by word-of-mouth than by pricey ads. Ultimately, says DeCourcy, today’s customers care more about how companies act in the community and how products make them feel.

DeCourcy has long been someone who enjoys exploring the wilds of her imagination. Her mother, Susan Woolsey, recalls her daughter spending hours planning fun — meticulously designing ID cards and tools to be a spy. “She would be thrilled by the planning and move through the actual event,” says Woolsey, laughing. “She sees life differently than most people.”

After leaving the University of Western Ontario in London, where she took English and journalism, DeCourcy went straight into advertising and moved up the agency ladder, taking jobs involving writing, editing, producing and post-production in Toronto, Montreal and London, distinguishing herself as a creative force with a strong interest in technology. Eventually, she moved with her cutting-edge boutique agency (Organic Inc.) south of the border to handle the account of its biggest client, settling with her young daughter in Birmingham, Mich., a small suburb of Detroit. “She’s very free-spirited,” says Troy Young, who hired DeCourcy at Organic in 1999. Indeed, in a digital world staffed with young design geeks, DeCourcy stood out. For one thing, says Young, she had a sound design instinct, but “was much more conceptual and mature” than many people working in the online ad world.

It was in the testosterone-fuelled auto industry of Detroit where DeCourcy was first noticed by traditional advertising agencies. She led the creative team behind such award-winning campaigns as Unleash your Freak for the Dodge Charger — one of the original muscle cars. They decided the way to sell the car was to market its strengths to different “freaks”: the Power Freak, the Speed Freak, the Style Freak and the Control Freak. Her team also came up with the idea of “MediaJamming,” scattering different types of content — music, video, games — across the web. They worked with local bands to get original music and created an online contest where users had to collect virtual keychains. The result: more than 2.5 million visits in the first four months of the campaign.

That success helped lead her to JWT, or J. Walter Thompson, as the world’s oldest existing ad agency was known before it adopted the acronym in 2005. Ty Montague, co-president of the New York office, met DeCourcy at an awards show. “She’s quite a presence — bright, funny, smart,” he says. “I essentially stalked her for six months or so.” The job and its New Agey title — chief experience officer — were created during those months, with DeCourcy formally joining in June 2006, as the duo discussed where advertising was going. Her mission: to bring people throughout the agency together to help create a more holistic branding experience for clients, and to act as a creativity magnet to draw cutting-edge talent to JWT. “It’s hard to overstate the impact she’s had,” says Montague. “There’s nobody more dialled in, nobody hipper, than Colleen.”

What drew DeCourcy to TBWA, she says, was a chance to up her game through setting the agency’s global digital strategy. TBWA already has the raw ingredients with clients such as Apple, PlayStation and Absolut, as well as strong digital units like Tequila and, and a reputation for innovative work. At the time of her hiring, though, worldwide president Tom Carroll called her “this rare talent that you run across” who could be the catalyst in pushing the frontiers of all things digital. “Her knowledge of the digital landscape, grounded in creativity, makes her an invaluable addition,” he says. Adds DeCourcy: “It’s such a drastically new time for the industry. Technology has made people more in control of how they interact with brands and how they receive messaging.”

Having a teenager has helped DeCourcy understand how the world of advertising has to change. “People are intimidated by how this generation takes in information,” she says. Not only do they time-shift — deciding when and where they get information instead of relying on a TV schedule — but they also seem to do everything at once. As daughter Emma puts it: “I’ve become really good at talking to my friends, watching TV and doing homework at the same time.” (When she says that, her mother shoots her a skeptical look, noting that Emma also does chores every week to earn the cost of her Sidekick phone — with web browser and instant messaging — and music for her iPod.)

While she embraces the Internet like few of her peers, DeCourcy also understands the perils of modern technology. One is discovering your daughter has a profile listed on the popular social networking website Facebook, where online predators might see her photo. DeCourcy’s solution was to insist that Emma list her as a “friend,” allowing DeCourcy to monitor the site, and closing Emma’s page off to strangers. Even so, Emma checks it constantly, to see what her friends are saying and check on her photo — more proof, in DeCourcy’s mind, that technology doesn’t change human nature. “My theory is that you are as awkward and geeky as I was at 13,” she tells Emma. “There’s just less of a divide with parents and all of these role models of how to act like [TV shows] The O.C. and One Tree Hill.”

Certainly, mother and daughter communicate as much virtually as they do in person, even instant-messaging each other’s cellphones over dinner at their favourite neighbourhood Italian restaurant, Lupa, when Gwyneth Paltrow sat down at the next table. “I could see some people looking at us like it was pathetic,” says DeCourcy. “They didn’t realize we were sending messages to each other.” DeCourcy will, when appropriate, instant-message her daughter to tell her to “get off IM with your friends and do your homework.”

It’s clear that unlike some women of her generation, DeCourcy isn’t daunted by the digital world. She’s excited by it. “My mission is to help us find a new form of communication, a new way of talking to people,” she says. “Technology is changing the way all of us see the world. For DeCourcy, that also means technology is changing the way people experience advertising. Advertisers are increasingly less fixated on standard media — glossy magazine ads, 30-second TV commercials — than, say, putting live theatre in HSBC bank branches or setting up a “megaphone” centre for U.S. budget airline JetBlue customers, where they can record their feelings about the airline.

Consider the work DeCourcy and the JWT team did for Kleenex. Few give much thought to the ubiquitous tissue brand, even if they do have a box in their home. It’s just there, like wallpaper. And if it’s not there, you’ll probably grab toilet paper to blow your nose instead. But JWT built an experience around Kleenex. To start, the team sent a “good listener” with an overstuffed bright blue sofa (and a steady supply of Kleenex, of course) across the United States this year to record people’s emotional moments and pose questions like, “What would you say to your mom if she was here?” DeCourcy helped put together the website, where people could vent their feelings in diary form or through homemade videos. The goal: make Kleenex become associated more with life than with a runny nose.

She’s eager to make people involved in the advertising experience. For Sunsilk hair products, that means a website that has blonds battling brunettes. is filled with videos, jokes and a “cat fight” game where users earn points. (So far, the brunettes are ahead.)

Weeks into her new job at TBWA, DeCourcy is now setting a strategy for how to take the agency into the future. That means everything from acquisitions to testing radical new approaches with clients. The ad agency won’t go away, she contends, but creativity has to take some very different forms. “I want TBWA to move into the new world with the same power as they’vecontrolled the old one,” she says. “I want to make a piece of history.”

DeCourcy is used to taking risks. Andrew Robertson, a friend and chief executive of rival agency BBDO Worldwide, says DeCourcy has “a fear and paranoia that she doesn’t know everything she needs to know, combined with the courage to experience it and learn it and find out.” She experiments, sometimes knowing full well that something might be too over-the-top for public consumption. Yet, with sudden access to millions, if not billions, of people through the Internet, for example, whom do you target? One tactic DeCourcy favours is creating personas — mental images of the perfect customer for a product. Her argument: it helps you understand the real people you’re selling to, along with their distinct wants and needs. She recently set up a “persona workshop” to help friend Sarah MacLachlan do that for her House of Anansi Press in Toronto. She wrote up eight different personality types, such as the literary hipster or academic and the engaged customer, giving them names, lives and preferences. “She’s even making them into dolls, so we can visualize our real customers and what they want,” says MacLachlan.

That matters, insists DeCourcy, because the 21st century has created a new kind of customer. “There are no longer prepackaged vehicles that products talk to you through,” she says. “People will increasingly create their own media packages.” As a result, they can choose to engage with advertisers, rather than simply enduring them to get back to their favourite show. Among her predictions: faster cycle times for brands, an emphasis on cultivating uniqueness over buying the latest trendy thing (“because anyone can buy that thing on the Internet”), and a move from clunky reality programming or user-generated content back to craftsmanship and high-quality web entertainment and TV. The most popular clips on video-sharing sites such as YouTube, she notes, aren’t babbling babies or wacky cats, but short snips of popular TV shows. “People now say, ‘I don’t want the whole 30-minute show. I want the three minutes that kill,’” she says.

In her view, what the communications industry is enduring is similar to what happened to print with the advent of television. With so many new ways to deliver information and so many distractions for consumers, those who stick with the old ways will find themselves shrinking by the day in the marketplace. It’s not just where the audience is, but what they’re doing differently that’s important. “I think we all realize that the changes are just going to keep on coming,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to wake up every day and go to work in this environment?” Certainly DeCourcy does — who’s determined to turn advertising into a digital experience, and who understands all too well the challenges of reaching fickle teenagers in a high-tech world.

1986 Enters the advertising world as a receptionist at a retail ad agency, Saffer Cravit & Freedman, in Toronto.

1999 After working for various agencies — including Spafax and ICE Integrated Communications & Entertainment — she joins ad giant Omnicom Group’s Organic unit in Toronto.

2005 A year after moving to Detroit with Organic and already chief creative officer at the agency, she helps launch the Unleash Your Freak campaign for the 2006 Dodge Charger.

2006 Becomes chief experience officer at WPP Group’s JWT in New York, creating digital and other content around a brand’s positioning.

2007 Just over a year after joining JWT, DeCourcy rejoins Omnicom as worldwide chief digital officer at TBWA.Colleen DeCourcy Born 1965 in Toronto

Advertising executive, experiential marketer