SVP, executive creative director at Jack Morton New York speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about the opening and closing ceremonies of the Athens Olympics and why experiential advertising is like theatre
Lucille Marie Essey is senior vice president, executive creative director at Jack Morton, where she leads a team of creatives for the New York City office, working on clients such as Nespresso, Sheetz, EY, J&J, Google, EY, EOY, Unfinished, Walmart, ESD, EQRx, IBM, New York Times, Nevro, Bayer, Honeywell, Michelin and more. She is also a member of Jack Morton’s global creative council and is a vocal and active advocate for supporting women in the creative industry.
Prior to joining Jacon Morton’s NYC office, South Africa born Lucille was SVP, ECD and show director at the agency’s Hong Kong outpost, where she was instrumental in designing events for brands such as Google, Porsche, HSBC, Rolls Royce, Harley Davidson and PwC.
With well over two decades in the experiential marketing and broadcasting industry, one of her career highlights remains working on the production of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, as the lead on the Parade of Athletes.
And as LBB’s Addison Capper found out, Lucille is also a positive delight to talk to about work and life. Check out their chat below.
LBB> Jack Morton’s specialism is experiential advertising, which was one of the hardest-hit sectors of the marketing industry due to Covid. Can you speak a bit about the main challenges you’ve encountered in the last 18 months and how you dealt with them?
Lucille> One of the biggest challenges has been losing a safety net entirely - having no frame of reference, having no kind of fallback position, no ‘we did this in the past, so we know it works’, or ‘we did something similar so this is most likely going to be the outcome’ - just literally having a blank slate. The industry is changing in response to the way the world is changing. Clients are changing, expectations are changing and while there are some through lines that have settled and have become clear, there was a period where it was literally wide open.
To instil confidence in clients at that time was particularly challenging because, from my creative perspective, it was a fine balance between confidence but also retaining a sense of vulnerability, humility and humanity at the same time. That's a really delicate balance because they're coming to you for expertise, but at the same time, you’re figuring it out with them. So, especially in the creative field, sometimes it comes with a certain amount of, ‘Oh, we've done this and these before, and we have done that’, but now you couldn't. None of that really made any significant difference. That has been a challenge and I think an opportunity at the same time.
LBB> Considering the space that Jack Morton primarily operates in, what lessons have you learned in the past 18 months that will stick with you and maybe you wouldn’t have learned without the constraints of the pandemic?
Lucille> One of our values as an agency is agility and it's a word that falls so easily off the tongue - people speak about it very confidently. But something that the pandemic has taught me is the real power, the potency and the necessity of true agility. Agility on every level, and agility within your expectations of yourself as a creative as well. For me, that ability to be agile in the moment will never be as heightened as it has been during the pandemic, just because of this complete uncertainty. I loathe using the word ‘pivot’, because it’s one of those buzzwords from the pandemic, but there were those moments where you've literally had to do that in real-time. You can’t do that unless agility’s in your DNA. As a human being, I've always been agile by nature, but this has taken it to another level.
LBB> Is there a piece of work that, considering the constraints of the pandemic, you are particularly proud of? Why?
Lucille> I think there are several pieces of work that I'm particularly proud of. But just to pull back for a second, as an agency we have been so fortunate that we've managed to thrive during this period - I'm most proud of that, rather than singling out particular work. We have had so many instances where we thought we were going to be live, especially in the beginning, and we had to go fully virtual at a time where it was so new. I really think that there's something special about Jack in the way we have really thrived. Not just in terms of our clients, but it's with our people as well. It's not just the world that's going through all these ridiculous changes, we are too. And still, on top of that, we all need to inspire and need to bring solutions. You could be going through your own crisis and your own turmoil. Those are the things that I'm proudest of - our humanity.
And on a personal level, the fact that I relocated slap bang in the midst of a pandemic, when the US was politically in an interesting place. The analogy I have is like a blender that you stuff a million ingredients in, but forget to put a lid on. I came through that and managed to find those huge moments of opportunity within that time, even though I think I had moments where I was completely terrified.
LBB> Is this your first stint working in the US?
Lucille> For 19 years I was in the Greater China region and I relocated here to New York. Very early on in my career, I did a stint in the US, but I was on the West Coast, which is a different world from being on the East Coast. The advantage of being a global agency is that I was always exposed to the work in the US, but my primary involvement was with the work in Greater China. And this may sound like a strange thing to say, but honestly, I've had a bigger culture shock coming to the US than I did going to Asia. So, on a personal level and on a creative level, it's been fascinating. It's been a really positive experience, but to say that it hasn't been a culture shock, I'd be lying to you.
It's a very strange experience. I came in a time where people were hesitant to even make eye contact with someone because there was this feeling that they might infect you with something. And I knew almost nobody. There was one person in the city that I knew, and I'm somebody who thrives on connection. To come into an environment where people were just not willing to make that connection was a challenge. I wouldn't have changed any moments of it for anything. It's been completely worth it. And I have no doubt that it will continue to be okay.
LBB> How did you wind up in experiential advertising in the first place? What is it about this particular practice that drew you in and made you stick around?
Lucille> It wasn't something that I set out to do or had a clear roadmap of where I wanted to go, it just felt like a natural progression. I started in theatre and then from theatre went to broadcast television, and then from broadcast went into more corporate media. And then I just got into advertising in South Africa, where I grew up. One of the things that taught me most was this thing called Industrial Theatre, where at the height of the AIDS epidemic we were having to do education to the mining communities on the dangers of HIV and how to prevent HIV. We were going out to communities of thousands of miners, where there wasn't a common language and basically we had to go with a piece of theatre in a box, so that through what we were doing they would all get the message. They didn't need to be literate, they didn't need to have a common language and learning to communicate on that level was such a powerful, powerful training ground for me. And I got very involved in that line of work. It just naturally led me into experiential, and bigger and bigger activations. But the thing that drew me in is that I approach my life and my work on a heart-first basis, and this way of communicating with people gave me a real opportunity to be who I naturally am. I think that is undoubtedly the thing that has kept me - that we have the privilege of being able to access people and communicate with them on such a personal, individual level. And it’s exactly that, it's a privilege. So that's kept me interested in the industry.
LBB> You have a degree in Drama and Film and I guess there is a sense of theatre about experiential. Is there a connection between the two in your opinion, or just a bit of a happy coincidence?
Lucille> Yes actually, I think it's all theatre! I think it's theatre that's just dressed up in different ways. There is a magic about something that happens in that moment and never happens exactly the same way again - that is so compelling and so moving for people. If you look at the history of theatre and how theatrical moments have been used in culture as storytelling devices, it's part of who we are. It goes back thousands and thousands and thousands of years. We've just morphed it and called it something else. But there are parts of it that we carry with us on such a fundamental level and I think what's really interesting is when you can access that collective memory that you're not consciously aware of and something really powerful happens. It's like alchemy.
LBB> More traditional agencies aren’t really traditional at all anymore - and the reality is that specialist agencies now do much more than their original specialism. What are your thoughts on that with regards to Jack Morton?
Lucille> What I find so fascinating about that is, yes, traditional industries have been very siloed, but I think with experiential, it's not new for us. We've always had to kind of dovetail into other industries and other areas, more so than, for example, traditional advertising having to dovetail into experience marketing. We've been exercising that muscle all along. I think we all do a little bit of everything because the way we communicate has changed so fundamentally that there's no room for those traditional, very strict, narrow lanes for us to operate in.
LBB> Also, with that in mind, what are you looking for when hiring new creatives to your team? What does a great experiential creative need to have?
Lucille> One of the things that appeals to me as a creative leader is a combination of curiosity, willingness and an openness to the world around them. I need to sense a passion and hunger - of course, I will look at the resume and I will look at the hard skills and all of that - but I need to connect with that person in this setting and I need to really feel them. If they don't have a thirst and a hunger for the work that we do or to be part of this industry, then they're not right for it, they're not going to thrive in that environment. So it's not a singular quality that I look for, it's more a combination and how they bring their own flavour to it. And I get so excited about people who are going to push me. I want them to be the smartest in the room, I want them to be the bravest in the room and really challenge me. That was one of my reasons for coming to New York - I'm continually after that challenge. I need to feel like I'm being pushed and I felt like I needed a big push as a creative. I thought, ‘New York's going to give that to me’.
LBB> I wanted to ask you about your experience of working on the opening and closing of the Athens Olympics. That’s pretty epic. I imagine it was incredibly rewarding but hard work. Tell me about it!
Lucille> I had such an incredible time working on the opening and closing of the Olympics. It was so interesting because I was coming from Hong Kong, where we operate at a level of efficiency that is just mind-blowing and then you land yourself in the heart of Athens and every decision needs a half an hour consultation. On a cultural level that was a real eye-opener for me. One of the tasks that I was given was to manage the parade of athletes. It was the first time that the parade of athletes was done in Greek alphabetical order, which is entirely different, where you could potentially have Serbia coming off before Angola. It was mind-blowing, but maybe it's because I have a personal attachment to those ceremonies. I think what the Greek creatives brought to that was esoteric, there was something so deeply moving about it. I'll never forget that scene of the pregnant woman and her belly glowing and she was in the water. I mean, all the metaphors that they used were truly moving. The Beijing Olympics were spectacular, the London Olympics were incredible, and every Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies has had something bigger and better.
I spoke earlier about that collective memory and the power of storytelling and I think the Greeks articulated that in such a powerful way. I was fairly new to Jack Morton then and I have to say it was a huge opportunity they gave me because it was at the beginning of my career in Greater China. I'm forever grateful for that.
LBB> You are a vocal and active advocate for supporting women in the creative industry - but is there someone in the industry that you look up to or someone that has been a great mentor?
Lucille> I've had so many. I've been fortunate to work with so many incredible people, men and women, I would hate to just keep it to women. But somebody who I really admire, who is outspoken in the industry, even though she leans more towards advertising, is Cindy Gallop. She's gone into places where some people fear to go and I really respect her for that. I've never had any direct contact with her, although I'd love to, I think she's been a beacon for me. Somebody else, who is more of an artist, but her whole approach to how to speak to an audience is so captivating for me, is Es Devlin. Two just such different and such incredible powerhouses.
And I have to say, when she was alive, my mom was an incredible inspiration to me. In my first significant role as a creative, I was taking over from a very renowned creative. He happened to be a man, but not that that was particularly significant in this case, and I remember saying to her, “How am I ever going to fill his shoes?”, I was so terrified. She said to me, “You're not! Because you go out and make your own shoes.” That's really stuck with me. I think as creators, many of us doubt ourselves at times and suffer from crises of confidence. I always go back to that and it puts me out of the space of comparison - I think comparison is such a dangerous, dangerous thing - and brings me back to a centre where I can operate.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you entertained / relaxed / sane / busy?
Lucille> With theatre, dance and live music not being in full swing by any means this past year, I found public spaces as my source of inspiration. One of those public spaces is in Central Park. I think I know Central Park like the back of my hand right now - there are so many different pockets and I love just ambling around the park. You get all sorts of things that you would never see anywhere else in the world, people are the most creative - whether it's a unicycle or some strange, half-rowing half-cycling machine. It's like nobody really gives a damn and they just want to be who they are. And I love that. Especially coming from Asia, where you're a lot more mindful when you're in public. There's a beauty to that as well, whereas here it's like nobody cares, you’re just all day for everyone to see. So that and then going and walking along the river are two really simple things but they've been accessible to me throughout the pandemic. And they're a great source of inspiration and calm and centring - I love it.
No matter where you are, you're going to find something that's unexpected, so I try to walk as much as I can in the city. If I have to take the subway I will. But if I can get there within a 45 minute or an hour walk, I will walk.