Nicole Michels McDonagh of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP): “Be truthful”

Be truthful — There’s no substitute for telling the truth. As people. As brands. The bullcrap meter and ability to check everything your brand says has never been higher. Stay true to who you are and what you stand for. As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Michels McDonagh. She […]

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Be truthful — There’s no substitute for telling the truth. As people. As brands. The bullcrap meter and ability to check everything your brand says has never been higher. Stay true to who you are and what you stand for.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Michels McDonagh.

She is currently a Group Creative Director and member of the leadership team at Sausalito-based advertising agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP), the latest step in a career that’s stretched from Seattle to Seoul with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. Prior to BSSP, she was a GCD at Wunderman Thompson/Seattle (formerly POSSIBLE) and held senior creative roles at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners; Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners; and Cole & Weber. She started her journey at FCB Seattle where she was a horrible executive assistant, but (luckily) a decent copywriter. Fast forward to her work being recognized by Cannes, The One Show, Effies, D&AD, Communication Arts, Clios, ADDYs, Archive, and Fast Co’s World Changing Ideas.

Nicole has appeared on Adweek’s Creative 100 list recognizing top creative talent and was honored to serve on The One Show jury along with award-winning creative directors from around the globe. In 2019, her work for Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive — the first fashion line designed with and for people with disabilities — was acknowledged with multiple Cannes Lions and the coveted Titanium shortlist. Throughout a 20-year career her most mind-blowing creations remain her two sons, collectively known as Beast Mode.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was always that weird kid sitting on a rock in the woods writing poetry, so I was bound to be drawn to a creative career sooner or later. In 1993, I was attending the School of Visual Concepts at night, training to be a copywriter and my day job was working as an assistant for an Executive Creative Director. One day. she told me I was a horrible assistant, but a decent writer. After throwing me small assignments here and there, she promoted me to junior copywriter. Early on in my career I was also very lucky to have CDs, art directors and writers who were senior to me and very generous with their time and craft. It helped me tremendously. That’s one thing I love about our business: a tradition of helping those coming up behind you. I don’t know if you get that in say, accounting.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was a late night at one of the first agencies I worked at. I was grumbling about working on a small space newspaper ad while my friends and co-workers just a few years older were working on exciting assignments for this thing called radio.

One of the creative directors happened to walk by my desk as I was openly kvetching about the assignment and said: “You know, Nicole, there’s a category in The One Show for small space newspaper.” I’ll never forget it. It wasn’t just a lightbulb moment. It was gamechanger.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

Ironically, my career tipping point happened during my first stint at BSSP in the early 2000’s. There were a few writers ahead of me in the pecking order who were always doing great work for the best clients and about 99% of it was humorous. So, I started to write everything like they were writing it. If it was working for them, it would work for me. Wrong. The tipping point came when the agency’s founders, Mike Shine and John Butler, called me into their office and said: “What’s going on?” I’m sure I had a deer in the headlights look because I had no clue what they were talking about. They pointed to a few ads in my book — one for a financial services company and one for Mattel — and then went on to very kindly explain (with choice words like “WTF?”) that the reason they hired me is that I had the ability to write well in different voices. That the last thing the agency needed was one more humor guy. In that moment, it was incredibly freeing to understand that I was hired for me, not to be a carbon copy of someone else. And that being true to how I created, wrote and crafted work for our clients had unique value. I’ve seen so many junior creatives make the same mistake. And I always try to pay forward the advice Butler and Shine gave me.

As creative directors and leaders we also have a responsibility to find, tap into, and encourage unique and diverse voices. Jimmy Iovine said it best in “The Defiant Ones” when he had an epiphany that his role as a music producer wasn’t to try to change the band and make them sound like what he thought people wanted to hear. His job was to do everything in his power to let their unique sound rock.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Honestly, I think every project has the opportunity to be an exciting project. We’re creating a new campaign right now for Rao’s Homemade which is the fastest growing pasta sauce in the country. People are absolutely obsessed with the taste. And it’s always fun to work on a product that has that kind of passion behind it.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

You have to think of your brain as a hundred little drawers. Your job as a creative is to fill those drawers with as much diverse information as possible. To avoid burnout, I seek out films and books and articles and art that aren’t my usual cup of tea, and dive into them anyway. I always come out of that surprised and refreshed. And nine times out of ten, even if it’s years later, I find myself opening that drawer and taking something out to make the work better.

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Your brand is the expression of your values, and your role in the world. Today, as more and more consumers — especially young consumers — chose to spend their money with brands who align with their values, the difference between product marketing and brand marketing is disappearing. Your product is the greatest keeper (or disappointer) of your brand promise.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

Someone will always come out with something new or better. When that happens, the only thing that protects you from a massive customer migration is that your customer has an emotional connection, a relationship, with your brand. Just like in all relationships, when we’re deeply invested we’re willing to forgive mistakes, to stick with it during the down times, and to show our love and loyalty openly. In our social media driven world, the last point may be the most compelling. No amount of media spend beats having 10 million brand evangelists who will sing your praises for free.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

I’d group the reasons to rebrand into two categories.

Some are tactical — as your audience and purchasing power shifts, there are brands who have to re-invent themselves to make sure they’re appealing to the audience with the most buying power.

Some are emotional — your brand values no longer align with how you’ve been marketing yourself out in the world, and it needs to evolve.

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

It’s never the right move to do a brand makeover as kneejerk reaction. Sometimes you need to double down on who your brand is and weather the storm. I’d advise most companies who have extreme brand loyalists to be very careful about how you go about a rebranding. If your loyalists think you’re trying to be something you’re not, if it doesn’t feel authentic to the brand they’ve come to know and love, you can have a customer mutiny on your hands very quickly.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

  1. Be truthful — There’s no substitute for telling the truth. As people. As brands. The bullcrap meter and ability to check everything your brand says has never been higher. Stay true to who you are and what you stand for.
  2. Be visual — Every study ever done shows that we humans are visual creatures. Often brands get so caught up in messaging framework and language, which while extremely important, is only one aspect of how customers interact with your brand. The visual expression and the feeling and vibe it conveys is usually what stays with the consumer forever.
  3. Be aware of culture — It feels like the world has never changed more rapidly. You must be aware of culture and your brand’s role in it to be successful and to know what areas to lean into or avoid.
  4. Be brave — Brands often weigh risk first, which is understandable. But very often the loudest voices in the room are only rattling off what the brand has to lose. Never forget to think about what it can gain. What if trying something new leads to all of the brand’s wildest dreams being fulfilled?
  5. Be nimble — Don’t be afraid to move quickly. If you see a conversation your brand should be a part of that feels authentic and right, GO.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

One of our BSSP clients, Blue Shield of California, has done an incredible job of not only re-branding but reframing a whole category. They are brave and they are not afraid to be part of whatever cultural conversation is happening, in fact, they welcome it. They take a stand and encourage their members to do the same. That takes courage. And its resonated incredibly well with their audience. The key here is that they have a very specific sense of who they are and who they are not. When you know that, it makes all other decisions easier to make.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There is no reason that in the wealthiest and most innovative country in the world that any child in the U.S. should be living in poverty. Lifting children out of poverty has an impact on all areas of society: health, racial injustice, educational opportunities, economic opportunities.

I’d like to see each of the “big 5” tech companies spend 5% of their time (working independently and together) devoted to children living below the poverty line. We would see major strides in a short amount of time

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Creativity can solve almost any problem — the creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.

George Lois

I first met the legendary George Lois in Cannes about 10 years ago. I sat in on small 30-minute session and hearing him speak was lifechanging. And if I didn’t believe in what he said, I would have no right to be doing what I’m doing.

How can our readers follow you online?


Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

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