The Code and Theory chief creative officer on getting to grips with a new role during lockdown, the creative evolution of New York City, and keeping her adventurous spirit alive during Covid-19
In March, as Covid-19 was properly taking hold in the US, Amy Carvajal began her new job as the first ever chief creative officer of Code and Theory. After a four-year stint as executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson / J. Walter Thompson, she spent an incredibly short stint at Code and Theory's World Trade Center office before having to get to grips with her new role from home. That said, she looks back on her first six months or so in the job fondly. For example, one blessing of entire teams working out of their own homes is the possibility for uninterrupted, proper one-on-one face time, something that's increasingly more difficult in hectic office environments.
Covid aside, the opportunity at Code and Theory was one that she couldn't pass up, drawn as she was to the agency's philosophy to be 'unclassifiable in a cluttered agency landscape'. "It's not about fitting into old paradigms," she adds.
Intrigued to hear more about her time at Code and Theory, life growing up in New York City and how the city has evolved since then, and how she's keeping her adventurous spirit alive during the pandemic, LBB's Addison Capper caught up with her for a chat.
LBB> You joined Code and Theory earlier this year - what was it about the agency that tempted you away from JWT / Wunderman Thompson?
Amy> The industry is going through another huge shift, so agencies have to change or they won’t make it. We need to be adept at building new capabilities and as creatives we need to make new things. In addition to admiring Code and Theory’s work, I was drawn to the agency’s philosophy to be “unclassifiable in a cluttered agency landscape”. Since Code and Theory offers a wide range of services, I was particularly drawn to their search for a creative leader that could speak the languages of the different specialties that exist under the one roof and could be a generalist guru. I typically resist labels, but I flex between what others label as ‘traditional’ and digital. Code and Theory is focused on building creative for the future. It’s not about fitting into old paradigms.
Too often, people are promoted to a leadership role because of their expertise in one area, but CCOs need a broad set of skills and background. I like to think of my brand as multifaceted and Code and Theory as dexterous. We are united in shared principles like systematic design, holistic thinking, and fostering a more flat, less layered environment to ensure we all inspire each other and that everyone has a voice. With some larger agencies, teams are created around a focus or specialty, which I believe can limit ingenuity. My teams have specialties but are skilled in many crafts, which provides enormous diversity of thought which is very inspiring.
LBB> You're the agency's first ever chief creative officer - I was wondering how that impacted your approach to the job, if at all? Why?
Amy> Code and Theory was growing and had notched some larger agency of record wins, so they needed a creative leader who understood traditional and digital platforms, could think to the future, and then ultimately develop teams to deliver on that vision. In a place where there are so many different skills and specialties, it needed a CCO that had experience in all of the different areas of expertise to navigate and conduct the orchestra. I bring a diverse background and have an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. Collectively, we are a conceptual team of makers with a deep knowledge of technology, so we solve for how brands can live in all of these new environments. So the approach doesn’t necessarily change because I’m the first in this role; rather we are all living in a world of firsts right now. So, it’s sort of perfect timing because we are building many new capabilities with new leadership and new points-of-view. I didn’t join to change the approach. I joined because it was an amazing opportunity to shape the agency’s future and create new opportunities for our clients. We aren’t expanding with one reputation or skill in mind, but rather the collective diverse whole and I find that really refreshing.
LBB> How did you wind up in this industry in the first place? I read that you wanted to be a waitress! What brought you to advertising?
Amy> Growing up we enjoyed dining out as a family. I watched as the servers helped us decide what we might best enjoy and when taking the orders they doodled on pads of paper. In a strange way, I think it connects to what I do today. We hear what people want, help guide them towards solutions and we use paper to draw out our initial ideas. But now, I can’t really see myself doing anything else. I’m grateful for the stimulating challenges we face everyday – exciting conceptual work, solving tough business problems, and doing it through flawless creative.
LBB> You grew up in the heart of NYC - what was your childhood like? Were you particularly creative as a kid?
Amy> In NYC, I had everything within reach and my parents knew a lot of people in the arts in film. My uncle was a touring musician and would come with the entire band and stay with us, so at a young age I saw a lot of rock shows. I loved music and art and the city created a lot of opportunities and exposure. There are so many great galleries and museums filled with Picassos and Rembrandts, and as a young artist the streets were always filled with people selling art, books and homemade jewellery. I could walk by the river and take in all of the cosmopolitan energy: different ethnic groups, people wearing wild costumes. All of these different experiences had a unique impact on my sensibilities, vision and tastes.
I remember we had this neighbourhood character, she was great. She wore an upside down flower pot on her head as a hat. There was no one way to dress. You dressed according to your whims and likes and no one rejected it. It was just considered part of the New York craziness and I embraced it. When I was five, Betsey Johnson gave me a pink feather boa and I decided to wear it as a belt and thread it through my jeans. Around the same time, I also started my own sign-making business. I took custom orders from neighbours and then painted rocks and scraps of wood to be placed around building entrances. It really is a privilege to grow up in a place where everyone looked different, ate differently, played different instruments, spoke different languages. If you went to sleep, it felt like you were missing something.
LBB> Creatively, how has New York City changed during your life? How do you view the city today? Does it still have that buzz that it's famous for?
Amy> I miss the grit and buzz that it had, more than there is today. You could really tell when you entered a new neighbourhood because each had its own culture. As you drove through the city, you passed through different pockets with unique vibes. It was like moving through different personalities. We always ate as a family in Chinatown for the most amazing food. Chinatown is one neighbourhood whose identity remains strong today and I’m grateful for that. In other parts of the city we lost a lot of unique culture and things started to blend together. The addition of multiple chain stores and rising cost of living took away some diversity. I miss a lot of the mom and pop shops that were interesting little pockets of wonderfulness with one-of-a-kind discoveries. But New York will always have an exciting buzz and energy that you can’t find anywhere else in the world, in part because New Yorkers are extremely resilient. The city is inherently creative and is still the most diverse and exciting city in the world.
LBB> Tell us a bit about your first six or seven months with Code and Theory. You were only able to spend a short period of time in the office with your colleagues - how did you find the experience of bedding in remotely? And what have been some of the most memorable / proudest moments of your time so far?
Amy> Covid hit all of us so suddenly and unexpectedly that none of us really had time to prepare. So just like everyone else, I developed ways to stay in touch and collaborate as a team. A surprising thing that came out of this period is that it has allowed me to get to know each individual on a different level. I get more 1:1 uninterrupted time, so I have learned more about each person and also the collective in a different, deeper way than a normal environment would allow. It’s more personal.
We were mid-workstream on a campaign for Xerox and I’m proud of how we were able to immediately shift to making work that was relevant during the pandemic. At the beginning, we were still figuring out how to do external production, but with so many diverse skills on our team, we were able to produce everything in-house from our homes with Code and Theory resources. From music and sound design, to custom illustrations, elaborate animations and remote shoots with editing, we have been able to pull off exciting, relevant and modern work.
LBB> Looking to the future, what are your main aims and ambitions for the role?
Amy> We have a knack for growing into areas that are so new that we need to make up names and descriptions to articulate them. I champion these new innovations and aim to create work that gets people talking about our uniqueness and amazing accomplishments. I want to have people recognise our work because it is so different and because we challenge conventions by always creating new solutions that you may not have even thought were possible. I want to continue to be more resourceful and innovative in ways that make people wonder, “how did they do that?”
I also want to keep our talent inspired and motivated regardless of the time, changing atmosphere, or the swings in our economy. I want people to have the freedom to explore and keep trying things together.
LBB> And looking back, is there one piece of work from your career that you're particularly proud of or that had a particularly big effect?
Amy> There was a period of time when there were so few female creative leaders in the industry that it made me even more determined to speak up and push for great work. I’ve loved challenging the norm and trying to break down the walls of taboo that have existed around us. Years ago when I worked for a previous agency, we learned of the growing number of young males with prostate cancer, which can lead to adult incontinence and shame. So, we wanted to generate awareness of how brands like Depend could help, and launched for them new products to improve confidence with added discretion. We leveraged three major NFL players to wear the product on the field during drills to help generate a sense of normalcy around the issue. Today, social networks have opened up conversations that help normalise our differences and issues. Look at all the beautiful and confident females that are speaking up and showing photos of themselves with cellulite and what their images look like without filters. It’s really amazing how people are speaking out and trying to help the young people of today learn what normal is to counter body image issues. The culture wasn’t as open as it is now and people weren’t comfortable talking about these types of personal struggles.
I mentioned Xerox above, but I’m very proud of the pivot and what we were able to accomplish over the pandemic.
LBB> I read that you're quite adventurous and happiest when exploring. How have you fed that desire during lockdown? What has kept you busy and entertained on top of work?
Amy> I never want to lose my optimism and curiosity; it’s the discovery and inventiveness that makes life interesting. Now, with less happening out there IRL, I have been exploring more on the devices that I have in front of me. New virtual experiences like museum exhibitions, live events and performances means there are so many ways to interact with the things that make us happy. Oftentimes they’re even more intimate than they were before. I continue to be inspired by how much our society has innovated — we’ve never before been faced with such challenges, so we are finding new ways to live and stay happy. This inspiration is something I bring to my work at Code and Theory every day. It’s about uncovering problems that haven’t existed before, or that others may not even see, and then using technology to design things that improve people’s lives. Even though I’m not exploring the physical world as much now, my adventurous spirit is invigorated in new ways.