Matt Marcus, Leo Burnett’s first CXO

In 'new and critical role,' ID alum leverages his education in strategic design

Since graduating from ID, Matt Marcus (MDes + Foundation 1998) has sparked change and pushed some of the best and brightest organizations (Gucci, Sapient, R/GA) to leverage technology in new ways. In November 2019, he joined Leo Burnett as its first Chief Experience Officer, “a new and critical role.”

Matt attributes much of his success to his graduate education at ID: “It’s that strategic training that has given me way more opportunity than I would have had if I would have gone to a traditional design school.” In this interview, he talks with Jessica Granger DeMeester (MDes + Foundation 2020).

Matt’s ID experience

How did you find your way to ID?

I stumbled onto ID in fact. I was an artist in St. Paul, MN doing bad advertising. I was there because I could make Photoshop work and no one else could. I was there at the dawn of technology hitting the advertising industry, and I realized I needed another skill.

My father knew someone who had gone to ID way back in the day, and he introduced me. We talked about creative careers, I built my portfolio out, and I was accepted into the ​Foundation program because I really didn’t have any design training.

What ID taught me through the Foundation course was how to think about making design decisions, as opposed to being someone that just knows how to make a computer work.

What were your goals going into ID how did ID help you achieve them?

I went in wanting to be a better designer, and not really knowing what that meant. At ID, ​I realized you could be a professional designer not just focused on making pretty things, but on making strategic decisions that were driving results—and that was mind-blowing.

In my Foundation year, I just worked to keep my head above water. I didn’t know 3D composition, I didn’t know how to work in the shop, I didn’t know how to make physical things, I didn’t know color theory, so I was hit with a firehose. I learned a lot from my classmates. I quickly realized there was a real skill here and a real sensitivity to choices that I had to understand pretty quickly. A lot of my first year was understanding how to make smart choices that are reflective of what I wanted to communicate.

What I learned was that the decisions that you make in design could be based on things other than your own personal aesthetic. If you base it on objective reality, if you base it on strategic decisions pulled from insights, not only could you have a profound effect on your audience, but you could drive strategic value for your organization—and that was a revelation. ​When I realized how human behavior, ideation, communication, and business strategy intersected, I was hooked.

What are the most memorable courses you took at ID? How do you use what you learned in your job today?

I always looked forward to ​Larry Keeley's courses because they were fast, collaborative, he was ruthless in his feedback, and it was the culmination of all the things I wanted to do—define a problem, design a solution, present a business case for why that all worked together, and present it all in a 12-page brief with four other people who had competing perspectives. It was great stuff and there are still ideas I developed then that I would love to pursue today.

My photography professor, ​John Grimes​, taught me about the color of light, and I use that to this day. I never understood the world that way. I would walk the streets of downtown Chicago, take pictures, and realize the way the color of light affected the world around me.

John taught me how to present. He required that at some point during our presentation we had to walk across the stage and own it—because in doing that your audience will look at you with more authority. I have taught my creatives that for years, and it works every time.

John gave me another piece of advice that has been the basis of my career. He said: “Find an emerging field, declare yourself an expert, and by the time anyone knows you’re not, you will be.” When I was coming out of school, the internet was taking off. I went to a design consultancy where somebody asked, “Who knows how to build websites?” I remembered John’s advice and raised my hand. I had taught myself basic html. As a result I ended up running very large scale deployments for Lego.com, Staples.com, Gucci.com.

I have used the same approach with the dawn of artificial intelligence. Nobody at my old agency was taking it on and I was fascinated by it. I declared myself an expert, leaned into it, and by the time anybody knew I wasn’t, I was. This advice is not about cheating the audience, but about being a personal driver, a motivator to get smart quick and use design thinking principles to help shape emerging fields.

​If you want to be somewhere, build the house you want to live in. Assume the position, lean into it, you will be forced to bring yourself up to that level to survive. It’s enabled me to do work I never imagined I would be doing.”

A career in devising strategies that drive results

Would you speak to some of the key—and perhaps hard—decisions you made along your career path?

I’ve had a pretty eclectic career, and I came out of ID more as a strategist than a designer. ​My career has been driven more by the environment around me than my intentional decisions​. I left Sapient when the stock market crashed and the “world ended”. I was forced to build a business on my own, and I built a strategy company. I found myself having fantastic clients—Mastercard, Gucci, and Brooks Brothers—because they all wanted to leverage technology, and they didn’t understand how, and I just happened to be in the marketplace at the time and able to communicate strategically and visually to the uninitiated.

Coming out of ID I’ve have had the opportunity to play all kinds of roles—from strategist to designer to copywriter to architect, you name it.

What are the advantages of an ID education? What sets you apart?

The strategic perspective is 100 percent unique to ID. Understanding the business context in which the work is going to exist is something traditional designers don’t get. There are a lot of designers that are exceptional at their craft and can make beautiful things, but those beautiful things never see the light of day because they fail in their connection to the business that will drive it into the marketplace. Designers get very excited about the human connection, but just being great for the human doesn’t mean it’s great for the business. ​

ID set me apart and allowed me to have conversations with clients that I could have never had as a pure aesthetic designer​.​ It’s ID’s strategic training that has given me way more opportunity than I would have had if I had gone to a traditional design school​.

Huge congratulations on being named the first ever CXO at Leo Burnett. Any projects that best demonstrate what your role looks like?

My role here is to take one of the most storied agencies in the world, one that is great at telling stories, and help them tell those stories across other mediums and longer timeframes. The traditional advertising world has been very focused on linear 15-, 30-, 60-second ads. What we’re starting to recognize is that traditional advertising messaging is not getting through.

Direct-to-consumer brands are exploding because they’re connecting with people through Instagram, and then building consumer experiences. Once you hook into the brand, you’re immersed, and the whole experience from first order, to delivery, to packaging creates a virtuous circle where you want to come back and continue to engage. Those are the kinds of things that traditional agencies need to start being great at.

The other thing I am fascinated with is that Leo Burnett is probably on par with Disney, Marvel, and DC in character creations that have lasted the test of time. Among many others, we’re credited with developing The Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, The Keebler Elves, Charlie the Tuna, Mayhem for State Farm, Snap, Crackle, and Pop. Many are still relevant today, although leveraging those assets has waned a bit. In the world where I am now, especially with rise of AI, ​I am fascinated by finding ways to re-engage character and character design by leveraging AI technology and conversational interfaces to bring those brands and characters back to life.

In the gaming world, having an avatar is par for the course. Building avatars you can engage with, and can be a reflection of you in the digital world, is where I think a lot of the world is going—especially with the birth of Augmented Reality. Seeing digital characters in physical space is going to be the norm in a few years.

It seems a large part of your new CXO role is leveraging new tech for the future?

That’s been my career, ​leveraging technology in new ways for old organizations​. Gucci was a 90-year old leather company when I got there, and I remember Tom Ford telling us that he thought the Internet was a fad. Bringing eCommerce to a luxury company had never been done before, nobody believed consumers would accepted it or that it would be right for the brand. Nowadays you can’t be a luxury brand without an internet presence. At first Gucci didn’t want anything to do with social media, they didn’t think it was appropriate for their brand, and now they can credit much of their business to social media.

Nowadays every show is streamed. Commercials are a tax for those who don’t want to pay for a premium service.  It’s hard to get clients to understand that TVC and the interruption economy may be doing more harm to their brand than good.

​That’s a responsibility that I think ad agencies can take on in the new age. It’s not just about telling a brand story in 30 seconds, it’s about leveraging technology to build the connection between the business and the consumer.

How do we as strategists drive tech forward when we’re not the ones that can actually make “the thing”?

Collaborators. Befriend great engineers. Great engineers tend not to know ​what​ to build, they haven’t done the work to figure out what the user actually needs. ​The skills you build at ID make you an incredibly powerful strategic generalist, you can have all the ideas in the world but to bring them to reality you need partners​. You have to work with other people to get the job done, and the nice part about what you learn from ID is that you can position yourself in the center of that and pull those folks together. ​You’ve been trained well enough to be able to speak everyone’s language and interpret the in-between. ​That’s what has made me successful, acting as a center point for communication, and making sure everyone is driving in the same direction.

Guidance for today’s graduates

What advice would you have for current ID students looking to navigate and find a place where they can make a significant contribution in the current marketplace?

As John Grimes told me: find an emerging field, declare yourself an expert, and before anyone finds out you’re not, you will be. It’s a motivating force. ​I would also tell designers coming out of ID that leveraging their business acumen is the most important thing they can do to be successful in the business world.

Finally, timing is everything; I’ve always been accused of being ahead of my time. Designers may have a great idea, but it’s just not right, yet. There’s a great framework I learned at ID that I still use today (among many others in fact): ​What’s Possible, What’s Desirable, What’s Feasible, and at the center of that triumvirate is What’s Next. ​What’s possible is the technology. What’s desirable defines the consumer need. What’s feasible details how it fits into the business model and operating model. If you can solve all of those pieces of the puzzle you can get to What’s Next—​ID teaches you the skills to answer those three questions.

“I realized you could be a professional designer not just focused on making pretty things, but on making strategic decisions that were driving results—and that was mind-blowing.”