New Wave Creatives

Collaboration, generosity and Marketing Through Mud and Dust: decoding Shelley Smoler

The Droga5 London CCO is one of a new wave of creative leaders. But how did she get here and what's her style?

By Olivia Atkins

As Droga5 London's first female chief creative officer, and successor to the creative titan that is David Kolbusz, expectations for Shelley Smoler run high.

But don't assume Smoler is much worried about that. This is a woman whose first Superbowl commercial, Amazon's Before Alexa, garnered an Emmy-nomination, and her multi award-winning work for The Zimbabwean newspaper forms part of a permanent collection at both the British Museum and the Design Museum. She might be one of a new generation of creative leaders just stepping up in London (all of whom we'll be profiling over the coming weeks), but Smoler is already one of the UK's top creative talents.

So what kind of creative leader will she be? And how has her journey to the top of Droga5 informed her approach to commercial creativity? We asked Shelley lots of questions to try to find out.

Creative Salon: Tell us Shelley, what does the word creativity actually mean to you?

Shelley Smoler: Creativity is everything, it's not just a process or working to measure results on a finished item, it’s a way of being and thinking, more of a philosophy or worldview, where you can look at everything and imagine how to make it better - whether aesthetically or effectively. I once read a quote that said 'Art is how society decides what it wants, and science is how we get there.' I actually think it's the other way around. Science decides what society wants, and then art dictates and imagines how we get there.

CS: What role did creativity play in your childhood?

SS: I was always sitting in the corner drawing as a child. I saw things differently; my dad used to call me an astronaut because I always had my head in the clouds.

CS: And who were the inspirational people who helped shape your path or way of thinking?

SS: There have been so many people that inspired me along the way. I’m the black sheep of my family; they’re more left-side-of-the-brain-people into engineering and maths. Whereas I’m the creative one. My dad doubted me being able to make a career out of art but I've met so many people who've proved otherwise. David Droga is one of them.

The book Marketing Through Mud and Dust by Muzi Kuzwayo was another reason I got into advertising; I read it during university and it's about how South Africa emulated marketing from around the world. Muzi was probably the biggest inspiration on my career. After my studies, I actually contacted him as he’d started the King James agency and he invited me in. That was my first foray into the industry.

CS: What did you want to bring to the creative industries?

SS: I didn't study advertising. I did a Psychology BA, and then my honours degree in Graphic Design. I accidentally stumbled into advertising while on a design internship at an ad agency. That was when I realised I didn’t want to just design ideas, but also come up with them. I wanted to make ideas that actually impact the world and affect culture; that was my mission.

CS: What were the biggest challenges that you came across at the start of your career?

SS: In South Africa, the challenges were very different to the challenges that I face here today. Budgets were much smaller and the market is a lot more segmented. We worked more in LSMs (living standard measures) as metrics; because there are so many different earning brackets to consider. It's a lot more compartmentalised. Society there is probably less ad literate than in the UK, so we were constantly questioning how to cut through.

CS: What is it about advertising creativity that currently excites you most?

SS: It's more challenging now than it's ever been. These are crazy times and more than ever, we're fighting harder for budgets and for clients to buy into brave ideas. We're fighting for people's attention; there's so much around. With all this data, everything's so measured, which only makes things more difficult.... But I also find that endlessly exciting because creativity can be measured. I believe the most brilliant and creative ads are also the most commercially successful; creativity does transform business People can be quite negative about measurement but it can help to make the work better. Ads should be commercially successful. They shouldn't be isolated entities.

CS: Is there a favourite piece of work that you've created over the years?

SS: I have so many babies that I love for different reasons. I'll always love The Trillion Dollar campaign that we did for The Zimbabwean Newspaper in South Africa (2009). It was my first piece of work that had global reach and impact. My first Superbowl ad with Droga - Amazon's #BeforeAlexa - was special (2020); it marked my first work for the Big Game. And I love our most recent PaddyPower campaign, Love Football, Intimately, which was picked up by the mainstream press.

CS: So do you have set conditions that you require for fuelling your creativity?

SS: I try to visually stimulate myself as much as humanly possible and consume as much as possible, whether through art, film or fashion. It builds the database in my head of references and ideas.

CS: How would you describe your approach to creative problem solving?

SS: Very collaborative. I love hearing different people's ideas and building on them. When people collaborate, the seed gets so much better. And generosity - when you're generous with your ideas and you share them, they only get better. The more minds on an idea, the better it gets.

CS: What would you say is the biggest challenge you're facing today as a creative leader?

SS: Speed. Not only are deadlines getting tighter, people have to make brands learn quicker - you've got six seconds to capture the audience. Life has become so much more quicker. I don't long for it be slower regarding timeframes on projects - that's just the way the industry evolves and we have to keep up. We need to continue to raise the bar but it's a tough - the more companies move creative in-house, the faster they can do stuff themselves. So we also need to come up with creative ideas more quickly without slowing the whole process down.

CS: Do you think that speed impacts creativity?

SS: If we had more time to craft, maybe the ideas would be stronger but I think it's about working smarter. We have to learn to work within those boundaries. I don't think it does impact creativity, I think it actually pushes it on. People also consume things at speed; you've got to instantly draw them in, it challenges you to do better creative and to grab people much quicker at the beginning. And then you can retain them for longer, but it's about that speed up front.

CS: As a leader now, how do you work on overcoming some of these challenges?

SS: We only hire people that really do understand consumers and culture, people with an ear to the ground. It’s important to get more types of people into the industry and not just go through conventional routes likes tertiary education or advertising institutions. We need to go to different places where creativity is inherent, like comedy clubs. They’re full of people with interesting ways of seeing the world and we need to focus on diversity and aim to appeal to all segments of community.

CS: What do you think the industry can do to raise its creative standards?

SS: We pay a lot of attention to ideas and sometimes less attention to how and where that idea shows up. Everyone's on a mission to make an AMAZING film but how people consume media has changed and we need to invest in where it goes; I don't think that we're doing that enough. We need to better tailor work according to the medium to make the piece of work as effective as possible. Sometimes, advertising can be too self-referential; it speaks to the people in the industry but we need to focus on better representing all of society. Which is why we need to prioritise getting more voices in - to speak to larger populations - and actively listen to people who aren't necessarily normally selected in advertising.

CS: Imagine advertising is banned. Come 2023 what would you do for the rest of your life?

SS: Okay, so I get it - the question is about finding out what my other hobbies or interests are, what else I'm good at. The answer is nothing. Yeah if the industry folded in 2023, I'd reinvent it. For me, advertising isn't just a job, it is a hobby, it is something I love and I'm passionate about. If I couldn't do that, then I would probably be a really bad artist or a professional dog walker because those are things I love doing. But I think I'm probably better at advertising. And even then, I have a way to go.

CS: Finally, what is the biggest lesson you've learned so far in your career that could help someone coming up behind you?

SS: There isn't one style of leadership. I used to emulate what the rest of the world was doing in advertising and when I stopped, that's when my ideas actually became interesting. It's the same with leadership. For a long time, I thought I had to be the loudest person in the room, or have a certain style of leadership, but when I realised I could embrace my own style, I started enjoying leading - and probably became better at it.


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