Mother's Corinna Falusi on her accidental career in advertising and the pain of an agency breakup

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The latest in our series of interviews between a rising copywriter and a senior creative about making it in the ad industry.

Lalita Salgaokar is a rising advertising writer in New York. Creative Class is a recurring column in which she interviews senior creatives about their professional journey, the state of the industry and how to develop a creative voice.

Six months after Corinna Falusi announced she was leaving Ogilvy to become Chief Creative Officer and Partner at Mother New York, I stepped into her new agency’s Hell’s Kitchen office to find two surprises: One, Falusi herself waiting in the lobby to greet me (who in advertising is that punctual?), and the sounds of children screaming with delight.

"It’s Bring Your Monsters to Work Day," Falusi explained.

I wanted to chat with Falusi not only because of her brilliant work on brands like Coke Zero, Amex OPEN, Tiffany and Ikea, but because of her reputation as a warm and friendly leader. During our hour-long conversation, this German native and former Strawberry Frog Executive Creative Director did nothing to make me think her reputation was undeserved.

How did you get into advertising?
By mistake. You find a lot of people in advertising that wanted to be an artist, but landed up here. I went to a school that was based in design and graphic design. It was very uncommercial. We’d do things like listen to classical music and paint and create shapes.

A German agency, Jung Von Matt, saw this weird shit and invited me for an interview and hired me. I got very lucky. It was my first job and it sucked me right into liking advertising.

Tell us about a really good decision you’ve made in your career.
I don’t ever regret things. Whenever I looked for a new job I went to places where I felt I’d succeed as a person. I didn’t always go with the work I liked, I chose places I knew I’d feel comfortable in. Workplaces that would accept me for who I am.

And how would you find out if they would accept you for who you are?
Just observing during interviews. It makes all the difference. If you also work with somebody who doesn’t want you to succeed or can’t see that you could succeed, it doesn’t work. You need people that believe in you. When I felt like that wasn’t the case, I left. That was a reason to both leave a place or to choose a new one.  

Some leaders believe mentorship doesn’t exist, while some believe you’re your own mentor. What are your thoughts?
I think it’s a good thing to have a mentor. I don’t think i ever had a mentor. What was more important to me, and still is, are the people that I work with who are smarter or better than me. And it can be a strategist or a client. I don’t think mentorship is just work-related or output-related, it’s personality related. Every time I work with people I learn something from them, and it’s not always someone who’s my boss.

Do you set personal goals? Long-term and short-term?
I do set very specific goals, and the goals manifest themselves in small ways. I write Post-It notes and put them on things I love or on projects I love. These goals don’t have to be singular, they can be multiple things. I don’t have goals like "I want to be this or that in my career."  I’m somebody who’s very "right now" in my life. I don’t plan that much into the future, neither at work nor in my private life.

As you move forward in your career, "creating" becomes choosing ideas and building on existing thinking. How was that progression been for you?
It was sort of an easy progression because it wasn’t a dramatic switch. I really like doing work and I still like having my fingers in some little projects. The biggest step was at Ogilvy when I went from being responsible for 20 people to having a creative department of 150. It was very fulfilling for me to see people’s careers grow. That is something that makes me incredibly happy.

So you’re a people person?
I’ll give you an example: A person I worked with twice also left me twice. But I know she’s really good and it’s normal. I’m sad every time she leaves, but I’m proud of her for growing and moving on. I look at it more as a cycle of things. People will meet again, I will work with people again. And if I do my best to get people to do their best, then it’s all worth it.

And you’re a big believer in side projects?
I
 can’t live without them, I always have them. I have side-projects with people from different agencies. These projects are not company-branded. We do them for the sake of creativity. And it makes me happy.

I don’t look at our industry as a group of agencies and its people, I look at it as a creative community. Nobody needs to tell us who to work with.

Is making time for side projects hard?
What you’re excited about always fits in. I like what I do, most of the time. So, if I’m excited about a project, it doesn’t feel like an impossible task to make time for it.

Any favorite side project that comes to mind?
I’ll give you an example. "Refugee Nation" started when some creatives came to me and said they had an idea to create a flag for refugees, because it was the first time that refugees were participating in the Olympics.The flag was designed by a refugee from Syria, and it originally matched a life-jacket. They presented this idea to me, and you know when you see an idea and get that it’s amazing? The reason it’s my favorite project is because it was two people and another person joined. And every person that joined did everything they could to make this happen. And right now I think it’s a group of 12. But there was no egoism. There was no "this is my idea." It’s like everybody believes and everybody supports each other. And the flag ended up in the V&A museum, and it all became a proactive effort.

You’re thought of as a focused leader. Did you intentionally work for that reputation?
Since I was a kid I could never accept a "no." My Mom is still suffering from it. But if you tell me this doesn’t work or we can’t do it, I immediately go to "of course we can," and then I become slightly obsessive. Every energy I have goes into making it happen, because I genuinely believe we can. And if "no" happens multiple times, I get angry. And then I ride really well on anger, too. You put me in any environment, my unrest with a "no" will not go away.  

What are your favorite kinds of creatives?
I think there are two kinds of creatives, the passionate ones and those who are the opposite of who I am. I really try to find people that I feel slightly uncomfortable with or people I don’t know what to do with. Because it’s a good challenge. We can do our best work if it isn’t always all funny or weird or predictable. If I find people who would do things I would never do, then that’s very exciting.

Is that where diversity comes into play, not just cultural but also diversity of personalities?
When you grow up in Germany, you don’t have that much diversity. But when I moved to Amsterdam, there was just one Dutch person among all the expats. That was the best thing I’d seen all my life. That opened my perspective on how important it is to have all types of people. And I never want to miss out on that. That was one of the reasons I moved to New York. Because the city does that and you get different opinions. Sometimes there’s friction, but I want that.

You’ve worked in global offices in Germany, Amsterdam, Paris and New York, and also you judge work from around the world at award shows. What is one thing you’ve learned about global work?
I believe that every great idea will work globally but every country or every region has something that is unique to it–an in-depth point of view. Sometimes there’s work from Germany that someone from here may not understand or think is great, but is actually amazing. And I hope that never goes away, because it’s important.

If you look at students and their portfolios, you used to see portfolios that are so very different, but now they’re all similar. Everybody builds it on Squarespace, schools tell students to do one campaign, one social, one app. It’s hard to find people who, when you look at their work, you think, "Oh shit!"

As a creative director, do you have to choose to be loved and respected by either creatives or clients? Can you serve both masters equally?
It comes back to trust. I want people to trust me, and I want to trust them, and that applies to creatives as much as it does for clients.

I can’t help but say what I think and I really have no agenda. There were situations where clients knew I would say what I think. It comes down to the fact that nobody wants to be bullshitted or sold something. I’m not saying that it doesn’t work for some people, but it’s just not my style.

Can speaking your mind or truthfully giving your opinions backfire, especially in client meetings?
If you trust each other, people would like to hear what you think. And then they can always disagree, right?

You’re still fresh at Mother from Ogilvy. What are the main differences between the cultures at the two companies?
I think that Ogilvy is about David [Ogilvy]’s principles, but this place is about individuals. And it always has been. You feel that because every single person here is an owner of something. There are pictures of all our moms hanging on the wall. When you come into Mother and you sit down, you instantly feel at home. The whole agency is centered around a kitchen, and that says everything. We have tourists come in here everyday thinking this is a café.

It’s an independent agency that’s creatively founded, so you feel that in everything.

In the end, it comes down to people you work with. And wherever it is you work, it will be hard to leave. It’s like a breakup. It’s horrible.