In the latest installment of our "Looking Back to Progress" series, we spoke with Sue Batterton, The Richards Group's first-ever Chief Creative Officer, about advertising's new self-awareness, encouraging work that seeks numerous human truths rather than one “universal” human truth and incorporating time back into our processes to allow for the luxury of thought and introspection.
Tell us about your role and how long you have been working in the world of advertising.
My name is Sue Batterton, and I’m the chief creative officer at TRG — our agency’s first CCO. My role is to foster an environment that nurtures talent; inspires creativity; and encourages brave, breakthrough thinking that drives business, culture, and conversations forward. I’m also tasked with helping refound the newly people-run, nonprofit-owned TRG as a member of its Leadership Team. Though I’ve been working in advertising for over 20 years, this is by far the biggest challenge I’ve had — but also the most rewarding one.
Are there some common staples or tropes that have developed in recent years within the industry? How do these compare to the ones of 10 or even 20 years ago?
One trope I’ve noticed, or maybe it’s more of an ongoing trend, is that advertising has become incredibly self-aware. Narrators breaking the fourth wall; messaging that’s intentionally nodding back to itself; inside-industry humor and jargon. I recognize that today’s consumers know when they’re being sold to — but don’t they also still love to escape into a great story? Fully immersive experiences are sought in our online worlds. I’d like to think we’ll choose to seek them once again in all forms of our advertising and entertainment.
What were some aspects or qualities about ads from the past that you feel modern advertising could benefit from adopting?
It’s an impossible wish at this point, but I think we could all benefit from time.
Perhaps it felt like we had more time built into our past schedules simply because our production processes were more involved, but I do remember the luxury of thought. Former timelines were generous enough to permit real introspection, refinement, and originality. Audiences had the attention spans to appreciate print ads that were honestly closer to essays. Look back to the brilliant work of Janet Champ and Julian Koenig. Their long-copy ads were full of personality, wit, and passion, with words chosen with great intention, not by counting characters. (Though I will admit, there’s a lot to be learned from the rigor required to distill a brand into a tweet.)
Was the work approached differently, or have the methods remained the same?
We still start the same way: by identifying a problem to solve. Obviously, the problem-solving methods we employ now — our research, testing, and strategic tools — have become far more sophisticated. But the biggest advancement we at TRG have made is how we identify that problem. Namely, the brief. We’ve moved from a persuasive approach to one of empathy by introducing a new idea brief and backgrounder. It’s enabled us to uncover deeper insights and encouraged us to seek not one “universal” human truth, but human truths — plural. And that is absolutely making the work more relevant, meaningful, and effective.
How have ads evolved to keep up with technological and cultural advancements such as smartphones and the internet?
I’d like to think our ads have evolved at the rate of technology, or nearly. Certainly, our visual language has evolved. What’s most fun is that the proliferation of platforms has opened the doors to more unique, varied, and personalized messaging. Each stage demands its own show.
Do you feel as though ageism is a problem in the advertising industry?
I do. As advertisers, we have an insatiable appetite for the new. The latest technology, the most cutting-edge trends, the most innovative tools. That also breeds a constant fear of keeping up, of trying to remain relevant. Too many are quick to decide that new, and only new, is good — and therefore, old is the opposite. What many overlook is that the true masters of our craft get better with time. It takes practice to hone your skills in storytelling, design, and art. It takes years to find your voice as an artist.
TRG is such a creative powerhouse because of our balanced portfolio of talent, which includes creative professionals of all ages who actively learn from and inspire each other. Our vault of experienced, award-winning staff is unmatched in the industry — and that includes a wealth of creative directors who still actively mentor and make. I’ve never worked anywhere where I’ve continued to learn so much from so many.
True creativity is about inclusion and diversity. Of all backgrounds, perspectives, and ages.
What advertisements do you remember seeing when you were younger that left an impression on you, and why do you think they stayed with you?
When I was a child, I thought all ads told jokes. (Delightful jokes – Little Caesars’ glorious “Pizza! Pizza!” campaign comes to mind.) But later, Nike and Apple proved that ads could also be serious, beautiful, and often profound. That work illuminated that advertising is a deeper, more empathetic form of communication than I had originally given it credit for. To make someone feel, or think, or act — or yes, even laugh — you have to start by understanding your audience. By saying something that matters. And that challenge, as a fiction writer and poet, was appealing. Janet Champ proved to me that I could be a writer and a copywriter.
Looking to the future, where do you think the advertisement industry is heading?
I’m eager to see what happens when the lines continue to blur between traditional advertising roles, departments, and even industries. Our emerging talent are not only copywriters or art directors, but multiskilled, cross-disciplinary makers. Advertising, too, is leaning into new product development, cause work, experience design, and the infinite possibilities of the metaverse. And entertainment! We’re building a TRG Studios content team now.
But what I am most excited about is that we are starting to connect with audiences that we never have before. Underserved or overlooked no longer. We are telling new stories, to new people, in new ways — and that is opening a world of incredible partnerships, ideas, and possibilities.