Interview with an Art Director: Sue Murphy of Ogilvy & Mather

Susan Murphy

I can’t remember how I first met Designer and Art Director Sue Murphy but it was some time ago; and every now and then I check back on her work to see what she’s up to and find her in a different country. Born in Ireland she’s since racked up a fair share of air miles studying in Savannah, working in Amsterdam and of right this moment working as an Art Director for Ogilvy and Mather in New York. To begin this series of Creative Interviews I thought who better to begin with than the freckly, funny and flighty Sue.

She was also kind enough to takes some snaps of the office in New York and comment on them. I always love seeing these sorts of places, I can’t quite explain why but I find it interesting to see the environment that great work is created in.

“Ogilvy is an eleven story building in Hell’s Kitchen, on each floor we have what I personally call the ‘Mad Men’ areas, the nice places to hang out with the fanciest of chairs. Since we have a special team for IBM we have some lovely wall decals to keep us inspired.

As I’m a giant nerd I think I’m the only one who made an IBM background specifically for their laptop! I know Paul would be twitching at the sight of using the blue, but since it’s for personal use… The work spaces where creatives sit are all open plan.”

Ogilvy & Mather New York Office

Ogilvy & Mather New York Office

Firstly, can you explain your role within Ogilvy & Mather and how you came to work there?

I’m an art director at Ogilvy in New York; I relocated here a few months ago (nine to be exact, so a baby grow amount already) from Amsterdam, where I worked as a designer at Edenspiekermann. I came here to join the IBM team, which is a really unique bunch of creative people I feel very chuffed to work with. Funnily enough, both jobs I got on Skype calls, the new way of interviewing where you don’t need to wear pants. In fact, I came to NYC from just one call with my super-hero bosses Mike Hahn and Ryan Blank, who somehow thought it was worth the visa torture of getting me over, despite how emotional I can get over GIFs.

As an art director here I tend to do a lot of things on all scales of challenging, trying to approach stuff in new and different ways. I particularly wanted to work on IBM so I could learn and feel like I’m doing some good in the world (even though I’m currently in the advertising world, an industry which can get a bit of a slagging). I can be working on brand awareness ideas, trying to translate what a supercomputer means to the world, working with illustrators/designers/photographers, organizing events, sending a lot of emails while being in meetings and also doing a fair bit of design – something I’m mad about.

That’s awesome and interesting in terms of being hired over Skype – were you still in Amsterdam at this point? Were you headhunted!?

I was indeed still in Amsterdam, and with Ogilvy, no! I’d been at ES_ (Edenspiekermann) nearly a year and felt like I needed another challenge–both a positive and a negative for me is that I constantly want to keep doing more–and I missed the US. I was learning Dutch in college at night (sadly Google Translate only gets you so far) and had begun to feel that being a designer wasn’t satisfying me enough creatively; my ideas were bigger in my head than what I could create with my own hands. So I talked to a few agencies, and also to ES_ (aka the family) about what I could do next. I happened to be reading David Ogilvy’s book at the time and read the line about Ogilvy being like a teaching hospital, this sounded like an awesome environment to me where I could keep learning. I emailed the NY office directly saying how I was a designer/art director and could it be the right fit for both of us? Mike and Ryan won me over because of IBM, a client that has had special relationship with the agency since ’94. The company has a longstanding giant history of design (Rand, Eames, Noyes…) and you’re not creating ideas out of thin air/atoms (nerd joke). A big consideration for me this time was the next place I’d be in. I’d been living kind-of all over the place the last eight years, and if I were going to start from scratch yet again, NYC would be somewhere I might stick around. Because of the internet, I think the work situation is so different these days, I’ve gotten to get to know and become friends with a lot of agencies and people that way, including you Mike.

Ogilvy & Mather New York Office

Ogilvy & Mather New York Office

What was your experience with formal education, did you study design at University or was this something that developed later?

I have a first class honors BA degree in Visual Communications from the Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Ireland. I also have a Masters in Advertising Design from the Savannah College of Art & Design here in the States. Coming from a little town at the bottom of Ireland I was interested in design since I was small (the typical nerd girl coding in the living room age eleven) but I didn’t really know what it was. This was before the Internet was the massive resource it is now (wow I feel elderly). I used to go to multimedia summer classes at the college in my city–basically to ‘borrow’ Photoshop–but I didn’t know other people I could talk to about this stuff. By a weird stroke of insight from my Dad I ended up going to College in Dublin on my “portfolio” (aka cringe-worthy websites I’d done while in high school).

Without a doubt both degrees were monumental to me, and not just in what I learned in classes, but being around like-minded people, and of course my professors. I can’t count how often or appreciate enough how David Smith from IADT has shared his wisdom and Clark Delashmet from SCAD has taken a random phone call from me from a random country. Because of all that, and despite days when the old inbox seems to be a terrifying abyss, I try make time to do what I can for students coming out of there too. I’m a very honest person as well and don’t tend to hold back in terms of sharing, how much Nutella I’ve eaten today or what I was crying my eyes out over last.

I remember my first portfolio it was similarly very cringey – this was like 4 years ago when the whole nautical trend was exploding. You can probably guess what was found in there.

What sort of things do Ogilvy & Mather look for in creatives, do they value an education in Design and Advertising – or in your case were they sold on your previous work with Edenspiekermann? Or even your work at Savannah?

Ughhh there’s nothing like the feeling of looking at old work. For me, and I think for my Creative Directors at Ogilvy (although I can’t vouch for everything they look for, as they have super-brains), good ideas are paramount. You look back at those and even though sometimes the paint might not be a color you’d pick out now, the concept is something you can still be proud of. What the guys told me they liked in particular was a conceptual project called SOAR – which I created on the side with my friend Alex at SCAD (a branding and advertising project) and a blog Polyhistors that I had started in my free time in Amsterdam where I interviewed creative people and wrote about cultural things. I think education is important for a number of reasons, but in the creative industry the people who hire you aren’t looking for a fancy-sounding resume, they’re looking for a browse-worthy portfolio.

Can you run through the process of the IBMblr campaign from getting the brief to production to having it signed off on?

(Unfortunately we couldn’t get a full run down of the process, as these sorts of things have to be signed off by IBM PR team which according to Sue can take ages!)

This was the first project I worked on at Ogilvy. Myself and copywriter Sam Mazur had the brief to announce IBM’s 20th year of patent leadership. As the newbie and outsider to IBM I had no idea IBM was so ahead of the pack, and by quite a lead. A while back IBM used to be everywhere with ample opportunity for people to come into contact with their logo, even for me I had an IBM PC and used to have the Rebus as my screensaver. Nowadays, IBM isn’t just about those computers, it’s about ‘building a smarter planet’. Our challenge was to get this conversation into the mainstream in a very IBM way, which lead us to celebrate the milestone by sharing how they did it. There are over 400,000 IBMers (ay caramba!), questionnaires went out to a bunch and they shared their failures, inspirations and knowledge. In a pretty rare move for a Fortune 500 company they gave all of this knowledge away on Tumblr. There’s an article about the project here on FastCo. Being an art director on a Tumblr project is a whole different kettle of fish. We were getting content out every day – so I could be making GIFs myself, briefing illustrators/animators, in meetings and since the platform is so new it would also involve trying to troubleshoot why stuff wouldn’t upload in the dashboard sometimes $!?!!.


Lastly, what is the most surprising thing you’ve learnt during your time in the industry?

Hmmm. I guess I would say I’m pleasantly surprised how nice the industry can be. Starting off in a vacuum I was just doing what I did because it’s what I loved to do, I’m not much of a competitive person. The more you move forward out of that; the more voices come into the fold which can be hard to ignore. But I am so happy that being nice pays off much more than anything else, and being an asshole doesn’t.

All photographs and images belong to Susan Murphy, Ogilvy & Mather and IBM.

September 4, 2013 / By