Leo Q & A

GenLeo: Ryan Brown

The copywriter has kept busy during quarantine, launching creative side projects that showcase brilliant Black voices

GenLeo: The newest class of inspired thinkers. Let Leo Burnett’s up-and-coming talent clue you in on the trends they’re forecasting, the work they’re creating and where the industry is headed with these creatives at the helm.

For Ryan Brown, the work never stops. When he is not in the office writing copy, he is expressing his creativity in other ways: writing, music producing a YouTube series and starting his own website. Ryan uses his platforms inside and outside of Leo Burnett to bring people together and create real change. By representing so many human-centered values, it’s not surprising that he was recently named one of Leo Burnett’s Star Reachers. Here he opens up about the work he’s passionate about and the diversity and inclusion he wants to see in the ad industry in the year ahead:

1. Congrats on being named one of Leo Burnett’s Star Reachers! Star Reachers are agency up-and-comers who represent Leo Burnett’s values. What components of your work led to your receiving this honor?

I think it’s my ability to collaborate. I don’t just work with the Altria team – I’ve found ways to collaborate across teams through Shades ERG, projects with Create Greater Than and Naomi, and now the Inclusivity Product Council. By working within all these different programs, I’m able to contribute to a lot of the efforts across the whole Leo Burnett agency. I think that exposure to so many teams and initiatives has really made me able to collaborate so well and maybe brought me front of mind for Star Reachers.

2. Star Reachers embody the four C’s that define LB’s human-centered culture: The Soul of a Citizen, The Hands of a Craftsman, The Heart of a Champion, and The Eyes of a Child. Which do you relate to most and why?

I would definitely say it’s the Eyes of the Child and the Heart of a Champion. For the Eyes of the Child, it’s this mix of technology and nostalgia. I’ve never stopped watching cartoons and I think that has just allowed me to remain creative, and not creative in a corporate way. Not that there’s anything wrong with corporate creativity, but it can be limiting because it comes with a lot of restrictions and boundaries. I think my understanding is that we’re in a corporate setting, but I am not abiding to the corporate status quo. For the Heart of a Champion, I’m willing to speak up when I feel like something’s wrong. Even speaking up and affirming when something is right – I’ll say, ‘we need to keep doing this, because it’s working’. So, I think that ability to speak up for myself and for my teammates makes me identity with the Heart of a Champion.

3. Within the agency, you’re on the board of SHADES – an ERG for Black employees. You also stated that you work with Create Greater Than and the Inclusive Product Council. Why has this work been so important and what changes do we need to see in 2021 in terms of DE&I?

I think this work is important because it’s how I connect with people. The agency life is so rooted in your team, and your day-to-day is staying really connected with your team. So, I would meet people, and I wouldn’t really have a way to continue conversations or collaborations with them. I think that the ERGs and my ability to tap in with all these different groups helped give me a perspective on other people’s work experience. So I’m talking to women to try to understand their experience and talking to the LGBTQ community to try to understand their experience. I’m talking to older coworkers and younger coworkers—people on their first day at Leo Burnett and those who have been Burnetters for years. I’m really getting that full understanding of what it means to be a Burnetter. Moving forward, I don’t want DE&I to be a goal – I want it to be a culture. So everybody comes in with diverse thinking, a diverse skill set, and an inclusive heart and mind. I think that is how we will push our group forward, and it’ll help push our work forward.

4. 2020 was a difficult year for so many reasons. How did you stay creative and allow your work to speak up last year and looking into the year ahead?

Quarantine sped up my creative process. Being at home eliminated a lot of distractions for me and made me really sit and learn things. So the thing that might have taken me six hours to learn, well, I just spent the night doing it, because I didn’t have anything else to do. I would say that it intensified the spirit of my creative process, and I’m a lot less critical. I’m still doing quality control of the things I’m coming out with, but I’m just a lot less critical on how people feel because there’s so much more content out now due to quarantine.

As far as the stress from the pandemic and the social-political climate, I can say that really didn’t affect my creativity, because that is something that has always been present. I think that for a lot of people, this was just the first time that they’ve had the time to sit and reflect. With social media, people are able to see things that happen in other people’s neighborhoods that they never saw before. If it’s not on your top priority list, it’s something that’s easy to miss. What was going on socially was more draining for me, because I felt like I had to have conversations about issues that have always existed. I don’t mind educating and having those conversations, but, like I said, that’s why we need to continue our D&I work. So creatively, that’s always been the climate; it’s always been an issue on my plate. When last year it became a bigger issue, it was literally on everybody else’s plate, also. So I think the biggest change is showing up to work and having these conversations.

5. What changes do you think the industry can make to stop relying the people of color to distribute this information? How can companies better help their employees educate themselves on these issues?

I think that people will have to take the risk. Somebody is going to have to say, ‘this team is all white, and now I’m going to make it more diverse.’ Everybody’s been qualified to do this stuff at the same time, because we’re just people. It’s about taking the risk and doing something that nobody else is doing. I think that’s the next step. We’re in a tough spot, but the only way to pivot out of it is to make a big move, not just for representation, but because this person is qualified.

6. Even though you are a copywriter at Leo Burnett, it is clear that you are very active creatively outside of work. You are a creative director and producer for many side projects. How do you take what you learn at LB and use it in these projects and vice versa?

Leo is such a big company. I’m learning organization, I’m learning management, I’m learning timelines, I’m learning how to work as a team. I can take those learnings and apply it to the work I do outside, and likewise, I can bring some of the more organic process of my outside work into Leo too.

7. One of your side projects is writing music. How does this differ from writing ads at Leo Burnett?

Writing music is a lot more expressive. Writing for a brand, you have a business goal in mind. You don’t write music with a business goal in mind; you write music to show emotion or express a feeling. The music has given me the ability to think outside the box.

8. What are some of your favorite side projects you have worked on recently?

I recently started my website, BigESCO.com. Big ESCO is my new creative moniker. I’ve been working on creating content products, and music. I’m in the process of scaling things up, being able to release more than one product at a time, being able to consistently put out content and upgrading my ability to produce.

I just stopped limiting myself to only writing. I picked up a camera recently, I’ve been shooting a lot of stuff on my 35 millimeter. My show ‘Watching While Black’, is me finding interesting stuff and recounting it as being Black. So that is something that just keeps my days light, because we’re all going through so much tough stuff. I’m trying to bring a little bit of levity and comic relief to the situation that we’re in. Like I said, I’m using all the information and knowledge I learned at Leo and I’m applying it to my other work.

9. A lot of the work you do (inside and outside of LB) has been about bringing Black voices to the forefront. What are some of your favorite projects at LB and outside of LB that have helped you accomplish this?

With Shades, we did an event called ‘Sudden Friends’ that was focused on bringing in Black creatives and ad people from outside into our building, so we could start that network because the industry is so small. We have a lot of stuff that we’re working on to try to help bridge that gap and create a bigger platform for us inside of Leo and for people in the industry at large.

Outside of that, I’ve been able to profile some Black women in the cannabis industry. One of them is a childhood friend and she’s become an entrepreneur and is spearheading a lot of stuff in the city. And then there is a young woman that I was introduced to who started off as an activist in the Ferguson protest. She started by going out making her voice known and now she’s transitioning into the cannabis business. Since that is a new industry, it’s an industry that has a lack of representation.

10. One project that you created at Leo Burnett is Naomi. Tell me why you and your co-workers created this agency and what work you all accomplished. Why was Naomi necessary for LB?

The whole purpose of Chillin’ with Naomi was to expose people who weren’t privy to what goes on in ad agencies to join us and just build an experience. Chicago is a very segregated city. People who live on the south side, just don’t go to the north side, if you don’t have to, and vice versa. So it was Chillin’ with Naomi was to expose everybody and say, ‘hey, you hear us talking about x, y, z, or see the clothes that we wear, come listen to Sheila Rashid, who is involved in this stuff. Come listen to a young musician, talk about his process, that’s related to how we do advertising here.’ So I think that was the main purpose; we have people who normally wouldn’t stay after work to hang out and people who just were unaware to come to an event they will enjoy in this new type of environment. So I think from that standpoint, it was ultra-successful.

11. Three things people may not know about you:

  1. I was a four-sport athlete in high school. I played basketball for four years, cross country for three years, tennis for one year and track for two years.
  2. I’m a part of a group called Souls of Liberty. We’ve opened up for Kendrick Lamar and Jhené Aiko. I started this group in 2009 with my best friend – we’re more like brothers than friends. I did this throughout college and my first job in 2013. During one of my internships, I told them I would have to miss a few days to open up for Wale in Times Square. Now, we’re actually in the process of making a new album.
  3. I’m addicted to peanut butter on waffles.