Carmen Love uses creativity to make a positive impact in the world
This is part of our 100 Creative Directors interview series. It has been edited for length and clarity. To return to the series homepage and browse other interviews, click here.
What does it mean, for you, to be a creative director? How has that changed over the years?
I always knew that I wanted to be a creative professional in some capacity, and I tried several different things, led a few different lives. It’s always been about using creativity to make a positive impact in the world.
I do believe creativity can change the world for the better. That's what I'm still aiming to do with my work, at a 30,000-foot scale. Of course, in the day to day and practical aspects of it, my work is very much about finding the truth of the brand. Helping it grow and develop into the best version of itself, helping its people find it, being the steward of it, if you will. And that can evolve into lots of different things depending on what kind of campaign you're working on, what your budget is, what your platforms are.
Ultimately, in the professional sense, it's a mix of art and commerce. You’re helping a client brand find its place and a level of fame in culture.
Can you just tell me more about what you mean when you say creativity in advertising can be a force for good in the world?
There are several different aspects, because sure, at the very basic level, we're selling stuff, and you could say, given the current state of the world, that's not a positive thing. But at the core, we're all problem solvers. That's what we do every day.
You’re faced with different types of problems and you're always striving to find the best solution for whatever issue you're faced with. Sometimes that applies to creating new products. Sometimes that applies to solving real-world problems or raising money for a cause, which happens a lot when you're working with companies that are focused on social impact — that’s much of my work.
In the strictest sense of the word, there are specific KPIs to show you’ve accomplished something for a cause. But it also comes down to what you can provide to an audience that is valuable, or entertaining, or gives them a fresh perspective on life. There’s always an opportunity to incept an idea or worldview, even if your work is meant to support a brand’s commercial efforts. Early on, I made a career decision to stay away from certain brands and categories that aren’t, in some way, giving me the opportunity to provide one of those positives.
If you can help people find something new in themselves or look at the world in a new way, you’ve contributed to making their experience better. If that’s attributed to a brand, then you’ve done your job.
What are some of the challenges to actually getting an idea that you really believe in and are proud of out into the world?
Purely from a creative perspective, how you do anything is how you do everything. That is the blessing and the curse, because it means that at every point in the journey of bringing an idea to life, you have the opportunity to make things 2% better, but also 2% worse. It’s up to you. If you’re on a long-term, multinational project, working at speed across time zones, you will start to get tired — but you cannot get complacent. It’s up to you whether it’s going to be death by 1,000 papercuts or glory by 1,000 consecrations.
You just have to hold the vision and stay true. Maybe you’re listening to the audio mix and you hear a little blip of static that shouldn’t be there. Will anybody notice? Well, you noticed; people will notice. You can’t let it slide, because when you let enough things slide, it becomes a mess.
The key thing in this work is resilience. It takes self-awareness. You need to know yourself well enough to know when you’re getting tired and mitigate the risk of getting complacent. That’s when you most need to focus.
How do you think about building a team and creating a really healthy, productive, collaborative environment, as a creative leader?
One thing that I've found that works really well is casting not just for skill, but for passion. There are plenty of people who have the skill to write about a certain topic. But if you can find somebody who has a personal interest in that topic, or in the brand, then they're always going to be invested in a personal way and bring personal insight.
Another thing is mentoring, which is really about helping people find their zone of genius. It's very worthwhile connecting with people individually, even if you've been thrown into a big pool of freelancers, or it's a short-term project, and you're not necessarily going to coincide with these people on another project soon.
I find that some of the most constructive moments happen in those one-on-ones where a person feels comfortable enough to tell you something about themselves, or you can observe something, and either offer advice or acknowledge them in a way that they maybe are not getting from anyone else. That creates an environment of trust, where you know you can go to the creative director and say, “Hey, I'm thinking about this problem this way,” or “I'm feeling strongly about this other direction.” Maybe you’re not comfortable speaking up in groups, but you know you can go to the creative director and you're not going to be judged. Don’t get in people’s way. You’ll learn from them, too.
Are there any moments in your career where somebody really showed you the way or set you up for success, moments that felt pivotal?
Oh, there’ve been many. But there’s one that stands out, with one of my favorite ECDs I ever had. He’s someone who sets the bar very high for creative and for creatives, which doesn’t make him the most popular ECD, but does make him one of the best. Working with him, you can trust you’ll be proud of whatever you make.
When I first moved to the US, I had been in advertising for 10 years, including as a creative director for 3. I had opened an international office for Chiat Day in Mexico City and was leading creative for Gatorade Mexico and parts of Latin America — but when I moved to LA, companies wouldn’t hire me as a creative director because they didn’t believe my skills were transferable.
I ended up taking a job with a very large agency in LA — a great group of people, great brand — but I had a tough time there because when you start throwing out creative director opinions without the creative director title, not everyone appreciates it.
After a couple of years, I left that company and went to a different agency, which is where I met the ECD I mentioned. He knew my work, he saw I had the experience, and he gave me the trust.
He helped me understand the culture and the way things are discussed. The cultural differences were very significant. He helped me get back on my feet as a creative director, to the level of seniority I should’ve been hired at. He helped me embody it within this new culture I had no experience with and earn the respect I was looking for. It was invaluable. He took the time to explain this to me when he could’ve just thrown me into the mix and said, “Okay, figure it out.”
It's easy to come into the work and the timeline and everybody's crushing towards this one goal, and you have to be focused. But you can't let that blind you. It’s important to consider different perspectives — especially when the people you’re working with come from different backgrounds — to thrive in different ways.
You started your career in Mexico City, spent years in LA, and now you’re in Paris. What do you think you’ve gained or learned by moving throughout different countries and cities, as opposed to just working at different agencies in one city? What has that given you, as a creative?
That's a great question — it's something that I'm passionate about, because you do absorb so much from different cultures.
First of all, it’s fascinating from a human behavior perspective. From language to gestures to all the ways people interact with each other, it’s so different from country to country what people prioritize. You see what makes people proud of their national identity and how that defines their relationship with advertising and with brands. Different cultures express creativity differently, it’s fascinating to see as an observer.
You’re exposed to all these different expressions of creativity in terms of art, film exhibitions, everything you have access to in different places. You develop a skill for navigating different cultures from your own perspective, which you become very self aware of. That definitely sharpens your power of observation, but also your empathy, which is so important in our line of work. You have to be able to understand where people are coming from, what’s important to them, and how you can best communicate with them.
What are three things that you can't do your job without?
The first thing that comes to mind is time. Time to do the work, but also to sleep, to be laterally inspired by other pursuits. To do nothing. Everyone needs time to just reflect on their experiences and daydream. That’s when all your lived experience gets marinated and distilled into uniquely personal interpretations of the world, which you then bring to the work.
Self discipline, which I always say is more powerful than willpower, or even talent. You can be supernaturally gifted, but if you don't wield that power, if you don't practice, if you don't do the thing, you're not going to get better at it. And that means you won’t develop your own voice, which is a shame, because you're the only person who can do it. You are the only person who can be that good at being yourself.
Lastly, integrity, because you're constantly searching for the soul or the human truth of the brand, of your audience, of the company you're working with. You have to be vulnerable enough to filter that through your own experience, and share it with the world in a very personal and at the same time very public way. And that can be intimidating, but it's also wonderful to realize that you're the only person who can provide that perspective.
How have you seen the advertising industry evolve over the past 20 years?
It's definitely been pulverized. Budgets have shrunk, timelines have shrunk. There are fewer long-term relationships with clients. But at the same time, I think it's a really exciting moment for our industry, because there's a chance to reinvent how we do things, and maybe that's always true — you can reinvent yourself at any given time. The current, increasing democratization of creative tools makes it easier.
The industry, this work, has become more approachable to more people who are not necessarily “professional creatives,” but who have really specialized skills. I'm talking about people who can make a great TikTok, but don't know anything about marketing, or people who are doing incredible things with AI, just not necessarily for a brand. There's this global spirit of openness and possibility with these new tools.
Remote collaboration has become easy since the pandemic. If we embrace it instead of fighting against it, there should be so many exciting opportunities to connect and collaborate with people outside of traditional advertising roles. I don’t think that’s competing with agencies; agencies hold a lot of equity in creativity and process. There’s a place for new influences to play with and enrich the industry. That’s the way I see it going forward, whether you’re within a large agency or you’re freelancing, or you’re partnering up with five other people to deliver a project for a brand. All these tools and connections are available — what will you do with them? Shoot your shot!
What's a piece of advice you would give to a creative just beginning their career today?
First, invest in your skills. Invest in getting better. Anything that you can develop as a skill is going to come with you wherever you go and open doors for you.
Second, and most importantly, remember that we have a unique opportunity to say something to the world. When I was disillusioned with the industry and thinking of leaving it, even though I loved it, I wondered if my work was meaningful enough. Was it a valid contribution to humanity? And my ECD at the time reminded me of how, as a creative person, I was so lucky to have these opportunities.
Every project is a new platform that just so happens to have paid media behind it. You have this blank space that people are going to see, where you get to say whatever you want. So long as you’re delivering on the brief, you get to tell the world your message. I find that most great work has an element of that.