My career in 5 executions: Vida Cornelious

Walton Isaacson's CCO, a keen observer of life, has fought to make her voice heard in the agency world

Name: Vida Cornelious
Title: EVP, CCO / Walton Isaacson
Years in ad industry: 20+
First job in ad industry: Jr. Art Director, Burrell Communications

Vida Cornelious spent the early part of her career in Chicago, where she launched the Bud Light Lime brand while at DDB. In 2015, she joined Walton Isaacson in Los Angeles as chief creative officer.

Everyone, including brands, has a story, she says. So she takes every opportunity to observe people. Her favorite activity? Riding the New York City subway, of course. "Every ride is like being in a petri dish of life. I love that, the sheer cultural anthropology of it." Witnessing the behavior of other people helps her understand how they see the world. "Being cognizant of it, understanding the context of it, is where truth lies."

Here are the 5 executions she says have meant the most to her career.

Brand: Sprite
Client: Coca-Cola
Agency: Burrell Communications
Work: "Freestyle"
Year: 1994

For Cornelious’ first-ever commercial assignment, she was tasked with creating a spot for Sprite’s "Obey Your Thirst" campaign that would appeal to urban teens. "I remember staring at a white sheet of paper for two days, terrified," she says. "I had no idea what was ‘sellable’ to clients."

Her creative director was the hovering type who made her nervous with his constant checking in. "But then he said to me, ‘The best ideas come from what you know."

At the time, fresh out of school, what Cornelious knew was hip-hop. "It was the music I listened to, the culture I was a part of, and it was all about self-expression." She knew freestyle rhyming was the cornerstone of the art form, so she based the spot around that, to show teens that Sprite understood them, too. And it worked.

Brand: Bud Light Lime
Client: Anheuser-Busch
Agency: DDB
Work: "Catch One/Summer State Of Mind"
Year: 2007

Leading the launch of a new Budweiser brand was a prime opportunity for Cornelious to improve her visibility in the agency. But while being a woman in the beer group was tough, "being a black woman entrusted to lead this high-profile launch was even more daunting," she says. "But I was determined to win."

The challenge was to attract non-traditional beer drinkers who liked the social aspect and flavor profile of mixed drinks, while minimizing "frat boy humor." To do that, Cornelious tied the brand to a "mind state," targeting multicultural young adults with the introduction of the breaking musician Santigold.

Bud Light Lime became the most successful launch Budweiser has had thus far. Cornelious landed a VP title and learned to "ignore naysayers and seek out allies." And she realized "my perspective, as a person of color, is valuable."

Brand: Jeep Wrangler
Client: FCA
Agency: GlobalHue
Work: "Whole Again"
Year: 2013

The strategy team wanted to create a spot focused on veterans returning from Afghanistan. "But we didn’t want to do another ‘thank you for your service’ ad," Cornelious says. Instead, they focused on a simple proposition. Jeep was there "in 1941 to take our soldiers into battle, and we would be there to bring them home."

Cornelious wrote the spot, and it was an "amazing" experience to have Oprah Winfrey read her words in the voiceover. It ran during the Super Bowl, but the response from veterans and their families was the most gratifying part.

"With all the reports of PTSD, ‘Whole Again’ was a message of assurance," Cornelious says. "We knew we did something important for that audience. We harnessed the power of social media to move people to action, spark conversation and create work that mattered."

Brand: Chrysler 200
Client: FCA
Agency: Global Hue
Work: "America’s Import"
Year: 2014

Chrysler was accepting pitches from all agencies on its roster for its 2014 Super Bowl spot. GlobalHue knew it had fewer resources than many of its competitors. "I made the executive decision to go for quality" over quantity, Cornelious says. Though the team only submitted two pitches, they won.

The resulting spot was "unapologetic, bold and talk-worthy," and featured Bob Dylan. But it didn’t win the agency the launch assignment for the Chrysler 200. "It was one of those teachable moments where I really had to reflect on every step of the process as a leader, accept the loss, and swallow an ugly, harsh truth: the ‘best man’ doesn’t always win."

Brand: Lexus
Client: Lexus
Agency: Walton Isaacson
Work: "Inside Out"
Year: 2015

Before joining Walton Isaacson, Cornelious says she had never worked with a client willing to speak to an LGBT audience. Now the challenge was finding an authentic insight to connect that audience with the client, Lexus.

The agency partnered with Here Media to let influential thought leaders in the LGBT community speak for themselves in a branded web series. "Hearing their stories, and capturing the tenacity it takes to be an innovator -- a success story despite any adversity one could face for being openly gay, was inspiring," Cornelious says. Feedback from the LGBT community was positive, and the series was listed as one of the top LGBT-themed ads of 2015.

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