Leigh Browne is a Creative Director at GSD&M in Austin, Texas, and also teaches Copywriting at The University of Texas.
In 2019, she and her partner were named to AdWeek’s Creative 100. And in 2021, they were part of the team that won the Grand Effie for helping Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich break the internet. Their work has also aired during the Super Bowl, been featured in Communication Arts and honored by Cannes Lions, The Clios, The One Show, Art Directors’ Club, The Webbys, D&AD and AICP.
Leigh started her career as a newspaper reporter, making her a storyteller long before that was a buzzword. She has a Master’s in advertising from The University of Texas. And she’s passionate about DEI issues, recently helping create “&, a guide to better work through diversity, equity and inclusion” at andgsdm.com.
What’s your origin story?
I grew up in Houston as the strange hybrid of my super creative mom and uber buttoned-up dad. I am still equal parts those two things.
How did you get into advertising?
I started my career as a newspaper reporter. It wasn’t glamorous, but I learned to be scrappy, write fast and tell good stories—all skills I still use.
Journalism will always be my first love, but it’s a tough, underpaid job. When I got burnt out, I moved into an in-house marketing job, where I honed the business side of my brain and worked a lot in digital.
And then finally I got bored and went back to school to study advertising at UT’s Texas Creative. It was hard, but totally the right fit. I haven’t been bored since.
Who were your mentors?
I learned so much from GSD&M ECD Tom Hamling while we worked on Avocados from Mexico and Popeyes together—not only how to recognize and push great ideas, but also how to work as a team. His cheesy, but effective motto has always been “one team, one dream.” It’s so easy to try to be a rockstar on your own or to blame other people when things go wrong, but it doesn’t get you very far.
The best work and the most fun I’ve ever had in this business was on teams where everyone brought something to the table and we all had each other’s back. That doesn’t mean we never fought, but it was always in service of the idea. And we all still grabbed drinks after.
While there will be others, what do you consider your biggest achievement to date?
I’m really proud of the work we did making Popeyes a culture-shaping brand. When we started working on the account, they didn’t even have social media. And no one was looking at them as a creative force. Just a few years later, we’d won a Cannes Lion for one of our stunts and helped their chicken sandwich break the internet with a two-word tweet.
What drives you to create?
I’ve always loved to write. Since I was a little kid, it’s been part of who I am.
I’m also really fascinated by people. What makes us think what we think and do the things we do—and how can we change that?
Advertising scratches both those itches for me.
What shows are doing the best job of portraying strong women on TV?
I’m less interested in traditionally strong women characters. I love it when women can be as flawed and messy and complex as men—they kick butt some of the time and then trip over themselves too.
In the last few years, I’ve loved watching the women on Insecure, Maid, Hacks, Flack, Ms. America, The Chi and so many more. We’re really in a great time for women on TV.
Coffee, Lunch or Happy Hour. Name a famous woman you would like to attend each function with.
Coffee — Dolly Parton
My work partner’s name is Jon and our team nickname is JoLeighn, after one of Dolly’s best songs ever (“Jolene”). I love that she’s exactly, unapologetically who she is and that’s why people adore her. Plus, she’s a creative force — she was even at SXSW this year making NFTs and hanging in the metaverse. And she’s 76! So of course, she’s who I’d want to have a “cup of ambition” with.
Lunch — Issa Rae
She built her entire, fabulous career by making her own opportunities when she didn’t see the right one out there. So inspiring. Plus, I could be totally awkward around her, and I think she’d get it.
Happy Hour — Cindy Gallup
Another woman who is who she is and doesn’t care what you think. You know it’s gonna be fun and fascinating. Plus, we share a love of martinis.
What is the biggest challenge to women in your industry?
We’ve made huge gains since The 3% Conference first called out the ad industry, but I think the number of women creative directors is still about 17%. And that number is truly abysmal when you’re looking at Women of Color. (I just looked it up, and Black women make up 0.25% of creative directors. WTF.) So we’ve got a ways to go still.
How has having the superpower helped you?
As a woman (particularly of my generation and geography) I was socialized to be easy-going, agreeable and collaborative—like “how can I keep everyone around me happy?”
Too much of that is not ideal, but if you balance it with vision and assertiveness, it can be really disarming, especially when there’s a lot of traditionally male energy in the room.
I find this really helps me focus on figuring out solutions rather than complaining about problems or just trying to be right.
What is your kryptonite?
It’s the other side of the same superpower coin. I’m not always great at calling people out in the moment when something happens. I hate the awkwardness. I’ve been in situations where someone said something either to me or in front of me that seriously wasn’t okay, and I just froze and moved on like it was nothing. But it’s my responsibility to say something. So I’ve been working on that.
When you’re not creating, what do you do in your off time
I love to travel. It’s so energizing to be in a new place and have to figure things out. I’ve even been teaching myself Italian during the pandemic. (Non sono ancora molto bravo.)
I also read a ton (all writers should). Thank goodness I can borrow Kindle books from my local library.
Predict your future! Where are you in 5 years?
If there’s anything the last two years has taught me it’s that I have no idea what’s gonna happen or how things will change. So I’m actually working on not trying to map it all out and just being open to the opportunities that come my way. I just want to still be making smart work and having fun doing it.