How Teaching Dog Agility Helps This Creative Director Excel

DDB New York co-CCO Lisa Topol uses outside hobbies to spark creativity

Working closely with her dogs, Schmutzy and Plop, Topol has won many gold medals. - Credit by DDB New York
Headshot of Katie Richards

Before she became a creative force in the advertising industry, Lisa Topol—now co-chief creative officer at DDB New York—was dead set on becoming a professor of religion and 19th century Victorian literature. But while the topic was fascinating to her, it became unfulfilling. “I just felt like I’d never be doing anything that engaged with culture and would just sort of be talking to myself,” she said.

While she spent time in media writing for Bon Appétit, she eventually landed where she could merge her love for critical thinking, creating and engaging with culture—advertising. Topol scored a gig at Ogilvy & Mather as a copywriter, and from there, she hopped around to a number of agencies, including Wieden + Kennedy and Grey New York.

But it was at Ogilvy where she learned the most. “I learned very quickly that it’s not just about the writing—it’s about your motivation,” she said. “It’s about how you not just present yourself, but how you present your ideas to others.”

A less traditional element that helped Topol nail the art of selling an idea and perfecting a creative concept was becoming a dog agility trainer. Working closely with her dogs, Schmutzy and Plop, Topol has won many gold medals. “I think outside interests are incredibly crucial,” she said. “It keeps your mind fresh and keeps you from wanting to shoot yourself sometimes if all you are doing is advertising.”

When Topol feels like all she’s doing is selling toilet paper to people who don’t care what kind of toilet paper they buy, she said finding a good, change-oriented project gets her fired up about her work. In fact, one of her proudest moments came when she was a group creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, and she took on a project for nonprofit Keep a Child Alive, an organization that helps provide support to communities in Africa and India impacted by HIV and AIDS. “We came up with a digital campaign that, in six days, raised $1 million,” she said. “For me, to this day, just knowing we actually raised money to help communities is a big deal for me.”

Big Mistake

Early in her career, Topol was often the only woman in the room. “Part of my response to that was to be one of the guys, rather than just being me,” she said. To avoid being pigeonholed as a woman who could only work on female-focused brands, she turned down all beauty accounts and feminine products and fought to be put on sports clients, car brands and technology accounts.

Lesson Learned

Topol now believes that women and men should be “working across everything.” Since taking that outlook, she worked on a major campaign for U by Kotex, “So Obnoxious,” that challenged the traditional tampon ad tropes of bubbly women shopping, wearing white or smiling while playing tennis.

How She Got the Gig

Topol and her creative partner Derek Barnes scored their co-CCO roles at DDB through word of mouth and connections with some people at the agency. Previously at Grey New York, the duo was managing a big group within the agency, with major clients including Best Buy and the NFL. “Some of our big clients went in-house, and we started to get the itch that we could run an agency as opposed to running a big group in an agency,” Topol said. Topol and Barnes ran the idea by connections at DDB, and the rest is history.

Pro Tip

Before you get too excited about a creative idea, Topol said creatives need to ensure that the idea actually benefits the client. “It’s not just creative for creative’s sake in advertising,” she explained. “You have to make sure that if you are passionate about something that it works, too. I’ve learned to really pinpoint that bull’s-eye where creative really meets outcome.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ktjrichards Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.