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The Work That Made Me: Emily Sander


VMLY&R's executive creative director on being raised by HBO and MTV, wanting to be part of pop culture creation and why State Farm changed her career

The Work That Made Me: Emily Sander

Emily Sander is an award-winning executive creative director for VMLY&R with two decades of experience working across various disciplines in the advertising industry, embracing brand storytelling across agencies such as Translation, MullenLowe US, 360i and Cramer-Krasselt.

Along her journey, she’s created culturally impactful work for brands such as State Farm, HBO, McDonalds and Macy’s, including brand experiences American Express. She currently leads work for the NYC Mayor’s Office, vitaminwater, Optimum and new business pursuits for the agency. 

Her curiosity and passion for mentoring young creatives also led her to serve as the Chair of the Department of Advertising at the Savannah College of Art and Design. While there, she redeveloped the advertising curriculum to bolster it for a future in innovation and technology. 

Beyond the creative, Emily is highly invested in diversity and inclusion causes, providing her voice for the 4A’s Foundation Board. And beyond advertising, she is most passionate about her dog, her time upstate and books. 

The ad/music video from my childhood that stays with me…

Wow, this is a difficult question. I was raised on HBO and MTV and a plethora of network programming in the early ‘80s. As a result, I find that much of that stayed with me. Even Natalie from 'The Facts of Life' taught me about credit card debt and the repercussions it might present in one’s life (thank goodness for Mrs. G). But ads and music videos? Not to sound like a cliché, but any Madonna or Duran Duran videos were an event in my house. Each one presented truly original storytelling and filmmaking, whether it be the Indiana Jones-esque play of 'Hungry Like the Wolf' or the glam of 'Rio' or the dark references to Mad Max in 'Wild Boys.' And Madonna could go from a Marilyn Monroe reference in 'Material Girl' to a dramatic display of religion in 'Like a Prayer.' I was in awe of each, and I could remain in front of the TV for hours waiting for another video to play — and then play again and again. 

The ad/music video/game/web platform that made me want to get into the industry…

Honestly, no platform made me want to get into advertising. There was no particular ad that propelled me — just the general idea of creating short 60- or 30-second films or the next great tagline that might get stuck in your head. I wanted to be a part of pop culture creation and write 'Where’s the Beef?' or 'Got Milk?' or maybe be a part of the filmmaking for Nike’s 'Revolution' or 'Bo Knows.' It felt out of reach at the time, but someone had to do it, and I wanted to be that person. My dad thought I was crazy, by the way. But I wanted to be the next Melanie Griffith from 'Working Girl' (only a badass in advertising and not mergers and acquisitions) or Diane Keaton from 'Baby Boom' (only in advertising and not making apple baby food alongside a horse-vet boyfriend). I wanted to be someone who would spend hours creating and puzzle-piecing campaigns while balancing it with a good Nerf football to throw (thank you for the inspiration, 'thirtysomething'). 

The creative work that I keep revisiting…

I’ve revisited so many pieces of content over the years. I must have seen 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' over 100 times. I must have listened to Radiohead on repeat annually for the last 20 years. I must have gone back to play Nike’s 'Find Your Greatness' or Puma’s 'After Hours Athlete' to the point where I can recite it and hear the sound of the VO. And the book that has moved me is George Saunders’ 'Lincoln in the Bardo.' In each case, there’s eloquently captured truth about the human experience that feels real and resonates so much that I have to close my eyes for a moment to absorb it fully. 

My first professional project…

My first project was to write bottle copy as part of Lever 2000’s '2000 Body Parts' campaign. Does that date me? Great. But the first big thing I did was the 'Right Hand Ring' campaign for the Diamond Trading Company. It was going into its second year, and for some reason, they put a fresh-out-of-school junior writer on it. And thank goodness they did. Not just because I wore a loner diamond ring on my right hand for the next two years (they made me return it in line at a Hale and Hearty when I left the agency), but because it set me on a path. I was able to work on a project that had me in direct contact with the ECDs and had me presenting to global clients. It also introduced me to the world of production. This was a great opportunity to dive into the deep end on a campaign with a spotlight and expectations, and it was just what I needed.

The piece of work that made me so angry that I vowed to never make anything like *that*…

When I was a child, car commercials made my father so angry that he made me promise never to create a 'piece of crap' that encourages people to drive at dangerously high speeds around hairpin curves. To this day, I have not. You’re welcome, Dad. But for me, I don’t think that a piece of work has made me so angry that I vowed never to make anything like that. I’d say that experiences have though. I’ve created work, early in my career, in which I allowed my insecurity to get the best of me, making me very rigid and argumentative — perhaps even defensive — about certain things. I would dig in and, honestly, it never felt good (for both myself and others, I’m sure). Over time, the spirit of collaboration and generosity and the power of everyone succeeding together made itself clear. So, to anyone who had to put up with me in some cases, my apologies. 

The piece of work that still makes me jealous…

Ok, here are some, just to name a few: Combos’ 'Man-Mom,' Ragu’s 'A Long Day of Childhood,' Nike’s 'Believe in Something,' and Snickers’ 'You’re Not You When You’re Hungry.' Each of them is just so smart in its own way. I could name way more, but I’ll keep this short for now.

The creative project that changed my career…

This question is easy. It was State Farm’s 'Born to Assist' campaign with the NBA. It was the story of real-life star point guard Chris Paul and his fictitious twin brother and State Farm agent Cliff. This aired on Christmas Day, and it actually trended higher than #MerryChristmas (as I recall, but who knows, maybe I made that up.) It quickly hit a chord with basketball fandom and even beyond, and it satisfied that dream I’d had as a child to impact pop culture. Even more, it gave me a chance to be a storyteller in the way I’d always wanted to be. In the end, this campaign helped the creative community see what I am capable of. As the creative director for its birth (no pun intended), launch and first two years, it altered my path for the better.

The work that I’m proudest of…

Well, first, please see above: State Farm’s 'Born to Assist.' But, may I veer for a moment and speak to the three years I left the industry to become the chair of advertising at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design)? Because that’s the work I’m truly proudest of. I didn’t make a campaign. I didn’t win a Cannes Lion. But I was part of creating futures. I led a department of 300-plus students with dreams of making it in advertising. Heck, they just had dreams of making it in this world, and I think I left having helped them do just that. You’d have to ask them how I truly did, but I spent three of my most valuable years there and felt the power of having a part in inspiring people and their potential.

I was involved in this and it makes me cringe…

Once I was involved in a campaign in which animals played members of a rock band. The memory of putting those sweet animals in a place that I’m sure they hated makes me cringe. We even painted a pony blue. It was all above board but, ugh, nope. Aside from that, I can find value even in the work I did that wasn’t my favorite experience or result. Even those shoots that just make you cringe for the client struggle we endured while making it, like Skinny Cow ice cream bars. Do I want to go back to the set of that shoot, even with the hot air balloon? Not really. Or, would I like to be in the video village while a bunch of elves surprise a woman in her kitchen for Keurig. Not so much. And, by the way, I also like that work. Just not the screaming match that may or may not have broken out (not from me). So, these things don’t make me cringe. They’re all part of the process we engage with in this industry, and everything becomes something you learn from and grow from. 

The recent project I was involved in that excited me the most…

I’m quite excited about a few things that I’m working on, but to call one out for excitement that hit me on a professional, personal and cultural level is the 'NYC Says Gay' out-of-home work. For this project, we put up billboards in Florida on behalf of the NYC mayor’s office that took on Florida’s 'Don’t Say Gay' law, reminding people that New York is a place of love and support for all. As a queer person myself, this was a powerful way to exercise my personal beliefs and use them to create work that pissed off Gov. DeSantis. I mean, if that’s not exciting, then I don’t know what is.


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VMLY&R North America, Tue, 22 Nov 2022 11:09:50 GMT