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How to Join the Ranks of the Digital “Supercreatives:” An Interview with Leslie Bradshaw

Leslie Bradshaw
Leslie Bradshaw

Fast Company named Leslie Bradshaw one among The Most Influential Women in Tech last year. Her Los Angeles-based agency, once known exclusively for its data-rich infographics and social data-driven interactive displays, is now a leading force in content development and visual storytelling with clients like Google, Nike and American Express.

CCO spoke to Bradshaw about what it takes to be a rising star in the competitive world of digital supercreatives, how to work with a creative agency and why some content breaks through the clutter.

CCO: How do you ensure your clients are not jumping straight to execute tactics (e.g. infographics) instead of thinking strategically?

LB: Thanks for asking this question — it’s what helps us vet whether or not we want to work with a client. If a client comes to us with what we call “tactical enthusiasm,” we typically turn the project down. If someone believes an infographic is going to solve all their communication needs, or that an infographic is going to go viral, we know we don’t have the right match. We want our clients to look holistically and strategically over all communications goals, and study how visual storytelling and data-driven storytelling fit within that mix, and within what mediums.

Some clients will come and say, “We really liked your infographic. Will you make us one?” Those projects aren’t that interesting to us because, yes, of course we could make the infographic, but we need to keep pushing ourselves as an agency to do larger, more programmatic engagements. What we’re releasing now are projects that are much bigger, have a longer burn and tend to explore multimedia like video, analog, print, mural and reporting. Our skills transfer in a lot of different directions — including video, analog, print and murals — but I like to say just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail.

Now, just because you see an infographic on Mashable doesn’t mean it’s the right solution. In fact, often it means an infographic isn’t the solution because it’s such a crowded, noisy landscape and infographics are very time-intensive. To do them well, you have to do not only primary research, but secondary and tertiary research to produce a definitive story that has never been told. You need to follow a process and have enough data points to make it interesting. Most people don’t have the stomach for that whole process. They have the desire to be recognized by the media and have their voice heard, but data-driven storytelling is not always the best answer.

Infographics are a high-level tactic that is good for educated audiences; they are not actually good for consumer audiences. Consumer audiences are much more likely to share something on Facebook that’s really “snackable.” Think about Pinterest. Those are the pieces of content we call “snackable” content — short, bold statements. If we produce content that has just one or two data points, we call it a data graphic.

We’ve been producing data graphics for clients like Nike and Google over the last three years. We figure out how to produce a lot of interesting content that will be grabbed through Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Instead of investing in a single anchor piece of content like an infographic or video, we’re able to take that budget and apply it to 50 graphics and feed the masses through their social channels for many meals as opposed to one meal. So what we tend to do is, back to your question on strategy, look at overarching, communication goals that clients have, and how can data-driven storytelling and/or visual storytelling be a part of that.

What projects are you proudest of in your career?

I’m proud when we create something that never existed — projects that are innovative and meaningful. One of my favorites is the C-SPAN video library we completed a few years ago. We were asked to design a better experience for how information — including 30 years’ worth of congressional testimony and other important government files and data — is sorted and displayed. We won a Peabody for our work together, which was the highest honor we could have received from a very great group of people.

I also have projects that I’m personally interested in, both the outcome and the journey. When I was in high school and college, I wrote papers like, “Does God exist?” and “Why are there not more women in leadership roles in business or in politics?” I pursued those questions because I was fascinated by them. Some of the projects you’ll see at JESS3 are personal interests I want to explore visually with my team. On that theme, I’m really proud of our Foursquare “I Voted” project.

We are always working to figure out how to best deliver a content-oriented experience to the end user, whether interactively, through video, or a piece of static content like an infographic or white paper. We like projects that bring together different sources to say something in a new way, especially those that are complicated and difficult to solve — like The State of Wikipedia or our work with Amnesty International visualizing 50 years of human rights. We love to look at large data sets and complex topics across a spectrum of time or ideas, then pull them all together to deliver meaning and value.

Some of your clients — Nike and Google — are very sophisticated partners. What about companies that just don’t have the same resources and sophistication? How do they play in the big time?

I have two takes on this. One take is you have brands — our four biggest brand clients are Intel, Nike, Google and American Express — that have a clear sense of self and a clearly articulated brand. Those brands are so recognizable and people are passionate about them — to the point where some get the Nike swoosh tattooed on them. With that type of brand, we are focused on “brand maintenance.” Whereas when we work with Eloqua and Mindjet, we are focused on brand building. Mindjet and Eloqua were not unsophisticated, but they also weren’t at the level of a Nike.

The No. 1 thing we look for when brands like Mindjet or Eloqua come to us is humility. Having the humility to say, “Hey we don’t know, but we want to learn.” And, “We don’t want to put so many constraints in place that you can’t do creatively what we’ve seen you do for other people.” Our employees love working on Eloqua and Mindjet, not because they’re big, well-known brands, but because the employees have greater freedom with those brands to express them in new and exciting ways.

That is my No. 1 recommendation: When you come to an expert, a consultant or an agency, you have to have that humility and willingness to offer runway.

When you take on a new client, what do you look for that signals the partnership will be successful?

We look for a clearly demarcated point of contact; someone who is either empowered with decision-making abilities themselves or who can internally “socialize” ideas and come back to us. We’ve worked with clients where a committee of nine people gets on the phone and the voices are distributed. We come out of it feeling like we’re in the United Nations — everybody is around the table but no one really has decision-making authority.

We also look for focus. We watch some projects fall out because our point of contact is being splintered and stretched too thin, and it creates a bottleneck. I would say to a CMO, make sure when you are engaging with an agency that you have one single, clearly enunciated, articulated, punctuated point of contact at the onset. Empower that person with decision-making abilities or make clear how she or he fact-find and gather and come to that consensus before coming back to the agency so it isn’t splintered and diluted feedback. And be sure the person has the appropriate time built into every single day to be part of the creative process, giving feedback, giving approvals, brainstorming and driving it forward.

Tell me about some of your favorite apps.

I call myself a “late-early” adopter because I’m not on the cutting edge. I love Netflix, Hulu and HBO GO to decompress because I don’t have a television. I also love the default Yahoo Finance app that comes with the iPhone. When Facebook and LinkedIn each went public, I tracked the IPOs with that app. I’ve always liked reading about business and economics, and keeping an eye on the markets.

Two or three others that I’ve really been jamming with I love Shazam. I upload a lot of music to my phone from that app. I love Path. I use it like Instagram. There’s a fun, smaller group of people on Path. It’s a little less noisy and higher quality than Facebook, plus I love Path’s photo filters.

And last but not least, Tumblr. There are times when I have an interesting thought or come across a quotation — something that’s a little more in depth or a little meatier than just a tweet — and I use Tumblr to talk about it.

Where do you find inspiration for your work? 

I rely on three pillars for inspiration. Pillar No. 1 is entrepreneurship and leadership. I look for entrepreneurial leaders that have been in my shoes at some point building a company, people like Sheryl Sandberg [COO of Facebook]. Seeing how other people are thriving and surviving inspires me.

The second pillar would be social sciences. I have a background in gender studies, anthropology, political science and economics, and they all frame how I think about approaching client problems.

The last pillar is agriculture. My mother comes from a long line of farmers, starting six generations ago coming across the Oregon Trail. Agriculture to me has always meant family, hard work, valuing nature, working long hours to get something done. Agriculture is about the literal nourishment of one’s self and in the work that I do there is a nourishment of the web with content or the nourishment of a client’s goal. It keeps me very grounded; literally and metaphorically. I’m inspired by the hard work my parents put into our farm back in Oregon, and when I’m able to I love to chip in.

I have a younger sister, and she’s a human rights advocate and activist. She works at Amnesty International on the human-trafficking and sex-trafficking issues. Her dedication and compassion also keep me grounded. It’s easy as an entrepreneur to get lost in the stuff swirling around the industry like the Facebook IPO. You have to figure out what we’re really here for. My sister reminds me there are bigger things out there beyond the money; it’s about how you treat people and how you behave as a citizen of this world.

Want to understand what Bradshaw means by “snackable” visual content? See the data and socially optimized graphics JESS3 has created for brands like Nike and Google, and learn how they use Google+, Facebook and Tumblr to spread these content ”snacks.”