Karen Costello: Leader of the Pack

By Eleftheria Parpis Posted on Jan 16, 2020

"Ideas still matter. Craft still matters."

The ADC 99th Annual Awards is open for entries and searching for the very best in design and craft that the creative industry has to offer. The awards cover an amazing array of disciplines, with each led by a Jury Chair — a highly respected creative who will help guide the conversation towards selecting the work most worthy of a coveted ADC Cube.

Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring stories on the various Jury Chairs of the ADC 99th Annual Awards. We hope you'll be inspired, knowing that these individuals will be appraising your submissions.

Karen Costello, Chief Creative Officer of The Martin Agency and the ADC 99th Annual Awards Advertising Jury Chair, is happy to report that 2019, her second full year in the top creative job, was a good year for the Richmond, Va.-based agency. “What’s been fantastic is that we’ve been able to concentrate on progress and growth and really focusing on the momentum moving forward,” she says.

The agency’s success is especially meaningful for Costello and CEO Kristen Cavallo. Both came into their leadership roles in a time of turmoil for the agency following the highly publicized late 2017 departure of their CCO amidst accusations of sexual harassment. A management overhaul brought Cavallo in as CEO from MullenLowe, and a few weeks later Costello, who had joined the agency just three months earlier from Deutsch LA, where she had spent much of her 25-plus-year agency career, was elevated to the top creative job. “As everyone knows from everything we were going through, our first year was just kind of making sure everything was stable and we were working through the situation,” she explains.

Client relationships were shored, and The Martin Agency’s first female-led leadership team made some significant internal changes. The agency launched a third-party wage audit for gender salary disparities and closed the wage gap. It doubled the number of women on its executive committee, revamped its human resources department, and added new positions, including the appointment of agency creative vet Danny Robinson as Chief Client Officer, who became the first African-American to join the executive board in the agency’s history. The parental leave policy was also adjusted to become family leave, allowing anyone caring for a family member, not just new parents, to take needed time off. “We have a policy that looks out for everyone,” she says. “We’re quite passionate about that.”

The changes have produced notable effects. “We have a great trajectory going, and we have a lot of positive energy,” says Costello of last year’s gains. The agency won several competitive pitches, adding DoorDash and CarMax to its roster, among others, and introduced bold work for new clients such as Buffalo Wild Wings and longtime brand partners such as Geico and Oreo. Costello says she’s proud to see the agency continue to consistently create culturally-impactful work, such as the insurance carrier’s “Best of Geico” effort last year and Oreo’s collaboration with Wiz Khalifa which featured the release of the artist’s new single on a cookie and an endearing TV spot showing the hip-hop artist sharing a “Playful” moment with his 5-year-old son. 

Fostering a supportive corporate culture is critical to success, stresses Costello. “Even more powerful than policy is the everyday behavior that you encourage and allow in an agency that lets people know you are looking out for them,” she says. Both working mothers, she and Cavallo are vocal about her own parental obligations and encourage employees to do the same. “We try to create open communication that allows people to raise their hand when they need to be an engaged parent,” she says. “I do think it matters to have a lot of really responsible people that care about each other and respect each other. That allows you to understand when a teammate has to go pick up a child at six and know that that person is not going to drop the ball.” That understanding extends beyond internal behavior to client relationships as well. “Most clients agree, happy people make better work,” she says.

The demands of the advertising business can erode personal lives if you let it, warns Costello. “Advertising is a really intense business. If you don’t constantly keep yourself grounded and keep perspective about the things that matter, the people and relationships in your life, it’s easy to let the industry eat you up from the inside,” she says, when asked to share her advice to young talent in the industry. “It’s really important there is a grounding element in your life, something that gives your perspective, that allows you to come to your work with joy and not too much stress.” It’s also important to “stay hungry” and always raise your hand in participation. 

That’s why work-life balance is so important and passionately supported at Martin. Creatives don’t do their best work at 2 AM, stresses Costello, and the greatest creative inspiration comes from a life outside the agency’s walls. “I don’t think people do their best work when all they are doing is staying in their agency and not going out in the world and experiencing culture and interacting with other humans. That makes for better create work,” Costello says. “Creating culture that allows people do that is important for the work and not just for the humans because it’s all connected.”

Costello, mother to two middle school-aged children, says she turned down award show judging opportunities over the years because oftentimes participation required too much time away from her family. An art director by trade, she says she is honored to have been invited to chair the 99th ADC Awards and “happy that I was still considered after a history of saying no,” she laughs. She’s felt an affinity and respect for the organization since early days in her career working as an art director for Kirshenbaum & Bond and The Colby Agency. “The Art Directors Club was always the group that I really admired and wanted to be a part of it because the craft and all the things that were the foundation of the group were things that mattered a lot to me,” she explains. “That’s how I grew up. I looked up to it.”

Now charged with helping select the advertising winners of the 99th show, Costello says she will zero in on the fundamentals. “I’m going to go about this focusing on the foundations of what we do. It’s really easy to get seduced by the technology or ‘the first ever.’ But it still needs to be about ideas,” she says. “Ideas still matter. Craft still matters.” The best ideas are usually universal and easily explained, she adds. “It’s clear, simple. I can tell someone about it in one sentence. I can write it on a Post-it. That is the foundation of a great idea, and it’s also something that sticks with you.”

One of the big winners from 2019's award show circuit still sticks with Costello, and is an example of the kind of work she'd like to see in this year's show. “Keeping Fortnight Fresh" by VMLY&R for Wendy's featured a character resembling the fast food chain's red-headed namesake waging war against frozen burgers inside the popular video game. “It was such an inventive way to work with Fortnight, and so tied with who they were,” says Costello. “I was so jealous. Mad respect.”

That’s the reaction she’ll be looking for from this year's entries before deeming them Cube-worthy. “Mad respect.”

The ADC 99th Annual Awards is accepting entries from now until January 31, 2020. 



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