From landing her dream gig to judging award shows, Leo Burnett senior copywriter Karen Ferry has come a long way since graduating in the top 30 of her AWARD School class and is now a tutor for the 2017 class. Here, she reveals how tackling unexpected hurdles and tapping into her own emotional insight have given her the creative (and business) edge to succeed.

TCC: How many years has it been since you did AWARD School?

KF: I graduated top 30 in 2009, so it would be eight years now since I did the course.

TCC: What have been your career highlights since then? Any favourite campaigns?

KF: There’s been a heap of highlights. Working at agencies like DDB, The Monkeys and Leo Burnett. Winning awards, and then getting to judge award shows. Helping establish a now successful agency. Back when I did AWARD School I was only focused on what campaigns I was making over the next few months. I never stopped to imagine where I’d be in 2017, so my progress is probably the most rewarding thing.

I’ve gotten to make some great campaigns for some of my favourite brands, like Volkswagen, IKEA, Compare the Market and Samsung. My favourite campaign is still one I made for Volkswagen Passat back in 2010. Usually when you make a campaign and more and more people get involved, your idea gets watered down. But in this case, it got better at every stage. From the idea, to the script, the director, the edit and the music. And it ended up becoming something more beautiful than we ever predicted.

TCC: What learnings from AWARD School have stuck with you to this day?

KF: Firstly, the best creative work comes from your own emotional insight, which is different to the insight that’s written on the brief. My tutors kept talking about it, but what a good vs bad creative insight didn’t click for me until after I submitted my book. And once I did get it, it was like opening up this whole new world of understanding. Figuring that out has influenced all the work I’ve made since, and propelled my thinking to new levels, every time.

Secondly, it’s that most ideas you have, have been done before. So dig deeper by coming up with lots of ideas. That’s 100 for each brief. This process is one I’ve kept throughout my career, and now I work to get 200 ideas or more on each brief. You have to mine for the interesting stuff. It’s not going to be floating on the top of your subconscious.

TCC: What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

KF: At the time, I wish I accepted that coming top 10 isn’t important. It doesn’t mean anything in the long run. It’s like a UAI – a good ranking will help on the first step of where you go next, but no one cares how you placed after a few years. What makes a difference to what you achieve after AWARD School is what you’ve learnt from the course, and your own tenacity and perseverance, no matter if you come first or if you drop out.  

I took that for granted back then, and put too much pressure on myself instead of giving my brain the freedom to expand my creative thinking. In the end, this fear of failure hindered my ideas.

TCC: Has there been a key mentor or role model that you’ve continued to look to from then until now?

KF: Everyone and no one.

The path I want to forge as a creative and eventually a creative director is a completely new one for an Asian Australian woman so it’s about figuring out what’s right for me, when what I need to achieve is a bit different to navigate.

So for me, I take advice where it works best. A little bit from Susan Creadle, or Matt Eastwood, or from Warren Brown, who I was lucky enough to meet on AWARD’s recent Emerging Creative Directors residential course. And for the other stuff, it’s about surrounding yourself with the people who want you to do well. The friends, colleagues, CDs and agencies that believe in you, and will push to provide the opportunities you need to succeed. Sometimes the relationships you find might not be perfect, and that’s cool. Make the most of what you can from the experience, and then move on.

TCC: What have been your biggest challenges along the way and how have you dealt with them?

KF: Tenacity and perseverance don’t just apply to doing the work, but also having to deal with the unexpected hurdles that get thrown at you. And sometimes these hurdles are how people treat you, or situations that you aren’t happy with.

And beyond what your agency can do to back you in these situations, you still have to emotionally process it. So if I’m ever in a hard place, I ask myself, “will this really matter in 5 years time?” And more often than not, it won’t. Besides, you can use these situations to spur you further. Nils Leonard has a great quote about it:

“Sometimes I feel like giving up, then I remember I have a lot of mother**kers to prove wrong.”

TCC: What do you think the creative director of the future looks like?

KF: They’ll be media neutral, but always on the lookout for new innovations. They’ll understand business needs, not just creativity. And they’ll know how to build relationships with partners from all sides.

The industry is no longer siloed. The media landscape is changing. People no longer have to watch ads. They now have the choice to see or listen or participate in our messages, which means we need to fight to be entertaining and relevant. So for the CD of the future, it’s not just about innovation of creative solutions, its innovation in their business relationships as to how they make these new ideas happen.

TCC: What sort of creative do you think you’ve evolved into? What further evolution would you like to achieve?

KF: I think deep down I’ve always been the same creative. But what’s really become clear in the past few years is that I love the business side of the industry, and mentoring other creatives. Which is the shift I needed to make it clear that I want to become a creative director, which is a very different skillset to a senior creative. You’re no longer coming up with the big ideas, you’re helping get them sold in.

And what further evolution I’d want to achieve on this? It’s hard to predict how things are going to be in the future. Beyond continuing to work closely with clients and partners on a one-on-one level, I’d love to get to a point where my work can increasingly influence society. At Leo Burnett, we call it Humankind, and its creative solutions that can change the way we live in the world, like Dove or Nike Fuelband. That’s the ultimate goal. To make something beautiful and full of love for the world.