About Cassondra Bazelow, MPS: Cassondra Bazelow is a Senior Art Director at DDB, a marketing and advertising agency in New York City. As Director, she oversaw the development of artistic advertising campaigns for brands such as Dos Equis, Strongbow, Capital One, State Farm, and Purex. In addition to her role at DDB, Ms. Bazelow also teaches graduate courses as an Adjunct Professor for The City College of New York’s (CCNY) Branding and Integrated Communications (BIC) Master’s program. Prior to her position at DDB, Ms. Bazelow collaborated with copywriter Caroline Monday; together, they worked for such international brands as PUMA, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and BOTOX Cosmetic.
Ms. Bazelow earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the State University of New York at New Paltz, after which she worked as a Designer for artist Jeff Koons for seven years before returning to graduate school in branding and advertising. She received her Master of Professional Studies in Branding and Integrated Communications from CCNY Her tenure in the MPS program helped lead to her position as an Art Director at Tribal Worldwide, after which she transitioned to Senior Art Director roles at both BBDO New York and VaynerMedia.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have an overview of your professional background, and how you first got involved in the field of communication? What initially drew you to advertising and marketing, and how did you grow into your current position as Senior Art Director at DDB?
[Cassondra Bazelow] When I moved to New York City, I was interested in the fine arts, and was working professionally for a number of years for the artist Jeff Koons. That was my introduction to graphic design. He had a big studio in Chelsea, and it was amazing being able to work on numerous paintings, some of which were shown in the Whitney. However, over time I realized that the fine arts weren’t really my calling. I knew I still wanted a creative job, I just wasn’t sure what. So I started taking communication classes at the Branding and Integrated Communications (BIC) program in New York, and it was great because I could do them in the evening. Evening classes meant that I could complete my graduate degree while still working, which was crucial to me as I was supporting myself at the time. The really valuable thing about the BIC program is that I learned what an art director does at an advertising agency. Although similar to a designer, an art director is also responsible for concepting an idea, not just what it looks like. As it turns out, this was something I was both good at and enjoyed doing. During my time at the BIC program, I interned at a place called Tribal, and they hired me before the end of the internship for a mid-level position because I already had a strong design background.
I eventually moved from Tribal to Vayner, and at Vayner I met my current copywriter partner Caroline Monday, and we’ve worked together ever since. We first worked at Vayner for about a year, and then we went freelance. We both wanted more creative autonomy in the projects we completed, and doing so with a partner felt like a safer way to try that out, and it was hugely successful. We freelanced for about seven or eight months at a number of different agencies, and often got repeat calls back. We then freelanced at DDB, and they eventually gave us a full-time offer, and I’ve been there ever since, for about two years now.
In addition, she and I are now teaching a class at The City College of New York, and it’s interesting to see when we pair students up together, what goes into a good working relationship, because it is not always a given. I think what helped Caroline and me to work so well together is that we have a lot in common, with similar experiences, and a similar sensibility, in that we tend to do a lot of comedy work together.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Your consulting business with Caroline Monday sounds very interesting. Could you elaborate on the creative process you and Ms. Monday take to complete an advertising campaign for a client?
[Cassondra Bazelow] The way our projects tend to work is that we get a brief that is written up by strategists, and this brief tells you the essentials of what the client wants to say. Then the creative part is what Caroline and I handle, which is how to say what the client wants to say, which usually involves creating an engaging story around the core message. Our projects can also have parameters around the medium our clients want to use. Some really want to do Facebook ads, while others want to do television, or something more physical, like a pop-up store. Once we get the basic parameters, Caroline and I will work through the ideation process, where we do independent research on the brand, what they have done before, who their audience is and how they are talking to them. What did their last advertising campaign look like? What does their website look like? These are just a few of the questions we ask each other during this stage in the creative process.
And from our research, we get a good, overarching view of what the company is about, what their brand is about. Then we just get into a “what if” game—how about this, how about that? I think we ask more questions than we answer, during this open concepting phase. At this stage, it is really important to be open to the possibility of what an idea could be. We come up with several ideas, and our creative directors and clients give us feedback. Then we start the iterative process of creating a campaign that puts it all together—the content, graphics, and any physical or interactive elements our client wants to include in the campaign.
An example of this is the project we completed for DDB New York’s Heineken account, specifically for their Strongbow Original Dry, a cider from the U.K. that is coming back to the United States. They wanted to figure out a way to celebrate their fans, people who were super loyal to their brand. So we created a story about an English executive writing a letter to fans in America, and it was quite funny. We took the message we needed to communicate and found a compelling story to tell around it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In addition to your work as Senior Art Director, you also teach as an Adjunct Professor for The City College of New York’s Branding + Integrated Communications (BIC) program. May we have more details about the classes you have taught, and how your role as a professor and mentor has enhanced or complemented your work in industry?
[Cassondra Bazelow] Nancy Tag and the head of the larger programs at City College reached out to Caroline and me to see if we wanted to co-teach a class together. And I’ve always loved teaching and I really enjoy helping people. I owe a lot of where I am to good instructors and great leadership and being able to learn from people. So I am pretty passionate about that.
The class that Caroline and I teach is called Creative Concepts, but it is really like “Advertising 101.” In this class we teach the fundamentals of how to make a print ad, including the principles of how art and copy work together. Print may seem a little outdated, but it’s a foundation that makes creating ads in other media much easier.
[MastersinCommunications.com] In your experience, what does it take to be a good leader in the advertising and communication industries?
[Cassondra Bazelow] Somebody said this to me once, and I wholeheartedly believe it, that to be a good leader, you need to create talent that is scalabe. You need to be able to take what you’re good at and share it with other people, so that way they can be equally as good as you are at your specific skills set. In an eight-hour day, if you were doing it all by yourself, you would not be able to get as much done as you would if everybody could be equally good at the craft. Being able to help somebody take and scale the tools to be a successful creative is a very important leadership skill in this industry.
I would also say that it is important to stay consistent and to follow up, both as a leader/mentor and as a mentee. For example, one student cold-emailed me about wanting some help breaking into the copywriting industry. We stayed in touch, and she eventually got a job at a small agency. Another related piece of advice I have is to actually consider the advice you are given, and act upon it, so that when you follow up with a mentor, you can demonstrate progress in the area you sought support in. I recognize when people are working hard, and if they’re reaching out and listening to the feedback they are given, I’m going to help them as much as I can, especially if I see that their process is evolving.
In contrast, there are some students who reach out to me, and I tell them what I think, and then they reach out three months later and they haven’t done anything to progress. And in those situations, I am not sure what the students are getting from reaching out to me for help when they aren’t even listening or trying what I suggest. Finally, I would say that it is important to acknowledge that you don’t know everything, that you are not an expert in your field, and that there is always room for growth. Take the opportunity to absorb what is around you.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What have been some of the principal challenges and barriers you have encountered during your career, and how have you addressed them? What advice do you have for women in communication facing similar challenges? How would you recommend women individually and collectively address the barriers they face to career advancement in the workplace?
[Cassondra Bazelow] I’ve never considered my gender as a professional in advertising–I simply saw myself as a creative. So that is a tricky question to answer. I don’t think I have experienced overt discrimination, and I am a big believer in the idea that if you work harder, if you do it better, and push yourself more than your peers, you are going to succeed. I do think that in advertising, you really have to want it. Once I realized that advertising was something I enjoyed, I constantly set goals for myself. I wanted to do more television and more comedy, and I was constantly setting new goals and working to achieve them. Setting those concrete goals/milestones helps show clear growth along the way, which is galvanizing.
One thing I’ve noticed women speaking up about is the fact that it’s very easy for their work to be pigeonholed into products or brands that are stereotypically considered “women’s realms,” such as beauty products or clothing. That is something that I have actively tried not to get, because I am a consumer before I am a woman. I buy cars. I buy computers. I buy insurance. The consumer world is far more gender neutral than stereotypes would have you believe. I once saw a post on a social networking site looking for female creative for a tampon brand. And I got so mad because I thought, “When do you ever see something like, ‘We’re looking for female creatives for a car brand’?” You never see that. So I am very conscious of the types of projects and brands that I want to work on. I like them to be gender neutral insofar as possible.
At one time, I was working at an agency where my boss told me, “It’s a good time to be a female at this agency,” because they were promoting female leadership to address the fact that it had been a boys’ club for too long. And that was a bit of a shock for me to hear for the first time. He didn’t say it in a negative way; he said it like he was stating a fact that the agency hasn’t been as correct as it should have been.
And I didn’t know beyond this how leadership was addressing this problem at this agency or elsewhere, as I wasn’t high up in leadership there, but when he said that to me, it made me realize that, as hard as I worked, as much as I don’t identify myself as a female creative, there are people who are making decisions that I don’t get to see, determining the projects I get assigned to from the very beginning. To me, it begged the question, are there things happening that are not in my control because I am female?
So in that way I think it is very much a tale of two cities, or two art directors, more fittingly. Here on one side I worked really hard and sought to see myself as not a woman, but a creative professional. Yet on the other side, I don’t know the decisions being made behind closed doors that are helping or hindering my progression just by virtue of my gender. It’s not necessarily how hard you work—while agencies are getting better about this, there is still definitely some decision-making that is subject to gender bias.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Recent research conducted by Cornell University found that many companies hire predominantly women for social media management roles, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that women tend to dominate in public relations and marketing. However, most leadership positions in communication-related fields are still occupied by men. Based off of your professional experiences, why do you feel this incongruity exists, and what do you feel needs to happen to address these inequalities in the workplace?
[Cassondra Bazelow] I cannot speak to this personally as I do not work in social media management, but in the creative field, male leadership is pretty predominant. And that is an issue that does not just affect women. It also impacts people of color. It is a diversity issue that is much broader than a male/female problem. I think advertising agencies should teach more responsibility in hiring practices, to start hiring and mentoring both men and women of all ethnicities and cultures.
It starts at the internship level. I would argue that, from the very beginning, women and people of diversity aren’t given the same opportunities as people with more privilege. And that starts a cascade effect where, for people to take on progressively more advanced roles, they have to have prior experience. So it does make me wonder, if creative departments were more diligent about hiring diverse people for their internships, whether fast forward 15 years from now, that diversity would be reflected in the leadership. Because the people who are starting now—the interns of today—will be the leaders 15 years from now.
While large scale movement needs to be made towards more equality in this area, the women of here and now have to be more proactive in order to get ahead. One of the mottos that Caroline and I have is, “Don’t wait for somebody to ask you to be creative.” If you have to make a business card, how can you make your card more creative? What is a clever thing you can do to get your personal project in Adweek? If you want to get on a brand that you are not on, spend some time researching that brand and if you have a really good idea, take it to the creative director. Be proactive and vocal about it. And I would say that to any professional or student seeking my advice, not just for women. If you don’t like the role that you are in, make a mark on your own terms. If you’re not getting a good brief, give yourself a better brief.
For example, put something into the world with the goal of NBC News picking it up. Do you think you’ll get a good project in your agency if NBC picks up your personal project? You betcha. So I do think not waiting to be asked for something, not waiting for somebody to hand you the career you want, and to make that career, is essential. I would say that to both men and women. I think especially being in New York City, advertising is highly competitive here, and if you don’t do your job better than the next person, there is someone else out there who can do it better, who wants your job.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What communities and resources would you recommend women leverage either while in school or working in the communication industry? What have been some of the most helpful professional resources and networks for you in your professional experience?
[Cassondra Bazelow] I am a big believer in education, and depending on where you are in your professional role, I think that education is about more than just expanding your skills set; it is also about connecting with supportive and exemplar people in the industry (including both instructors and classmates). Once you have access to those people, learn as much as you can from them, collaborate with them if possible, and maintain an ongoing relationship with them.
Staying close with professors can be incredibly helpful when you need a letter of recommendation–you have an established relationship with someone whom you can ask, someone who knows your skills, creativity, and work ethic. Leveraging people while you’re in school is very important. Don’t just take a class and never communicate with the instructor again. Follow up even after you graduate. A lot of the jobs I have gotten have come through the recommendations of other people. In conjunction, putting really high quality work out there is really important—make it memorable so that people are willing to give you a chance.
I would also advise: don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the industry, because oftentimes they are much more accessible than you might think. If you like somebody’s work and want to connect with them, do so and start a conversation. For example, I’m a really big fan of GEICO’s advertising campaigns, and the Martin Agency does the majority of the campaigns for GEICO in Virginia. I happened to see a post from a copywriter at the Martin Agency on LinkedIn. He was freelancing, and I cold messaged him. I wasn’t asking for anything, but I just told him, “Hey I saw your television commercial, and want to let you know that I really loved it. It really made me laugh and I thought it was great.” And he replied back, “Oh my God, thank you so much for telling me that. I spend most of my time making things that people want to skip past or forget, you know? That really meant something that you reached out and said you liked it. It makes the 70 hour workweeks that I put into making that feel like it’s worth it.” And it was just a funny little note, and the person didn’t know me, but I ended up having this meaningful conversation with him. So I do think that you can reach out to professionals in the industry when it’s appropriate and foster a relationship. This also applies to when you are applying for jobs—it can be helpful to find out who the recruiter is for that company, and see whether you can email them or contact them directly to express your interest.
Also, I think that having a good portfolio is essential in the advertising industry. I remember Caroline telling me about an article she read once that had an argument along the lines of, “Women get hired based on what they’re already done, while men tend to get hired for their potential.” And I don’t really know why that is the case, but it emphasizes the importance of taking ownership of your own track record. If the projects you are given are not what you aspire to, and if you feel like you don’t have a clear growth pattern to do the kind of work you want to be doing, put time and energy into your portfolio, and learn how to sell yourself as a person. Even when you are just starting out, you can put together ads that are hypothetical and which are meant to show your craft, whether that is art direction, copywriting, or graphic design. Having a good portfolio is essential in getting into the creative field of advertising.
And you don’t necessarily have to go to a program for that. You can work on your portfolio independently, or take one-off classes online or at a community college so that you can get some structure around how you can build or enhance your portfolio. Building a portfolio with a class and instructor to support you is especially good because it gives you a way to understand the metrics of what makes a great idea and why. It’s also incredibly helpful to be able to talk with peers and professors to understand what makes a strong portfolio and how to illustrate your diverse skills and knowledge. And think about—what creative twist can I add to my resume and/or website? Don’t be afraid to show your personality, and to add a little humor. If you make someone laugh, they are likely to remember it.
I would also say, set structures in place for you to succeed. Map out the steps to your goal and recruit support to help you get there. Ask yourself questions such as, “What can I do to get that promotion in XYZ timeframe?” While that may seem like an overwhelming goal at first, if you break it down into concrete and consistent steps, the satisfaction of the process and seeing progress outweighs the potentially daunting nature of the ultimate goal. Ask yourself questions such as, “What can I do to check in with my supervisor and mentors more regularly? What can I do to get on that project?” And approach your supervisors and offer to help proactively.
I never settle for just what the company gives me. If there is something more that I want, I am constantly pushing for that in a way that is professional, of course, but also assertive. I think it is very important to not just settle for the goals and responsibilities that somebody gives you. Have a voice. And that also applies to negotiations for higher salary. Nobody will ever slap your fingers for asking for it, because I think it shows courage. Somebody once said to me, “Having hard conversations like this are hard for a reason, but the more you have them, the easier they are.” So that would be my advice to women—stand up and make sure that your company has a clear idea of what your personal goals are, and have a clear, concrete idea of how you can get there.
Thank you, Cassondra Bazelow, for your excellent insight into how women can advance in the fields of advertising and communication!