Code3's Rachel Brandt on nailing strategy, managing with empathy, and working flexibly
Code3 operates at the intersection of media, creative, and commerce. VP of creative strategy Rachel Brandt explains how that works in practice and how becoming a mother has changed her approach to managing creatives.
Code3 helps leading brands find, reach, and engage customers anywhere in the world on every digital platform. They started life as a specialist social media buying agency, then added media planning, data and analytics, creative, production and most recently, expertise on commerce platforms. As an original Facebook media partner, they have more than a decade's experience in harnessing customer behaviour data to help brands make meaningful connections.
Rachel Brandt has been at Code3 for nearly three years now, busily growing the creative discipline within the agency in her role as VP of creative strategy. She brings over a decade of integrated creative expertise, having worked with some of the largest brands in the world at agencies, including 72andSunny, Deutsch, and Saatchi & Saatchi.
Rachel recently became a mother and currently lives in Los Angeles. We chatted to her about what makes Code3 different, how she manages her team, and what motherhood has taught her about the need for empathy.
What's different about Code3?
Code3's creative team was born out of the idea that a traditional agency isn't necessarily able to provide content at the speed that the digital age requires. I think that was the genesis of how we came to be. The idea that creative is iterative: you put something out there, you get feedback on it, and you adapt and keep going. For me, that's interesting to see. That a piece of work is never finished: you put it out there, learn from it, and then keep iterating.
Our team, in general, is built differently. We're super hybrid: a creative strategy team of makers. So we can deliver high quality at the speed that's required. Especially as we're talking about social, the ability to be real-time responsive is so important. So we don't necessarily say: 'You're an account person, you're a creative, you're a strategist, you are a producer'. But rather, we embrace the strengths of the individual creative strategists and bring that to the client.
We also put strategy upfront in the client relationship. That way, when clients interact with our team, we can dive into the business, get there quickly, and then keep going.
What's also different is the way that we structure our agreements. It's not based on time spent. It's based on asset output because that's where the value is. So we ask clients: how can we create assets and put them out for you and keep that process going? That's really what we value most.
Given the importance you put on it, how would you describe 'strategy'?
There isn't one way to do 'strategy'. Strategy is a discipline, a muscle that you need to flex every day. It's making sure you understand your audience and their needs when you develop creative. It comes from many places – past performance, social channels, news... it's all helpful. All of it is strategy.
You began as a social media company, right?
Yes, we used to be called Social Code. The genesis of it all was in social; we were one of the first Facebook API partners. But over the years, we evolved way beyond social to work across all of the digital channels and platforms. And we felt like the name needed to evolve with those changes. So a couple of years ago, we rebranded as Code 3, which is the intersection of creativity, commerce and media. We have all of those disciplines happening within the organisation, and we're bringing them together.
I lead the creative team, which started about five years ago. That was because we were sitting on all of this information about what performed. Yet there's only so much you can do: a big piece of what drives performance is creativity. So having a creative arm that could keep up with the demand of our brands to deliver and drive performance is where we started. And now, today, we're doing full-service creative for our clients.
You offer a full service, but do you specialise in any way?
Our speciality is for sure in the digital space. We look at the world through a digital lens, because that's where audiences consume media today.
It's a tremendous value for us to be talking with our commerce counterparts or media counterparts while we're developing creative for our clients. Making sure it's the right message, the right place, the right time, and helping all of those pieces come together. There's a lot of synergy. It's great to sit right next to somebody and say, "How did that perform? Okay, let's update it, let's change it. Let's keep going. That performed great; let's try and beat it." That kind of mentality is where we can help our clients.
In the digital space, our team lives and breathes on platforms. We understand not only 'What is best practice for this platform?' but 'What is best practice for this brand on this platform, for this audience?'. We're able to draw those connections compellingly.
What clients have you been working with lately?
We've worked closely with Chipotle, helping them grow their digital business. That's been a huge undertaking. During the pandemic, we partnered with Meta, and some state health departments, to communicate important information about COVID-19. That's something that I'm so proud of the team for. We recently rebranded Duff & Phelps as Kroll, and have been working on all the ways their new branding shows up in the world.
We've also had opportunities to bring new brands to market. Working with these clients and helping them to navigate the complex landscape is incredibly rewarding and exciting. Working with those clients and seeing how they show up in the first, second, and third iterations of them going to market is really cool.
How do you approach managing a team?
We've doubled our creative team in the last year; it now includes 23 women. And it's an incredibly inspiring, collaborative and energetic environment to be working with.
I learn so much from the team. And I think they all feel the same. I think we bring a lot of empathy into the work, both in how we do the work with each other and how we understand audiences. It's empowering.
My philosophy on managing the team is not to be rigid with job descriptions and to lean into the individual interests of each team member. Like, what's exciting to them? How can we use that? So if you have a passion for photography but are a strategist, and there's an opportunity to go shoot something, let's have you do it.
One of our team members, an English major, loves to write. And even though your title might not be copywriter, if you're interested in that, we'll give you opportunities to write. I think that's how we've kept empathy on our team: by understanding each other, understanding what keeps us energised, and then making the most of that.
One of our team members went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and is super into styling. She's an associate director, but she styles on our shoots because she's great at it and loves it. And so that's what's kept us going during the pandemic. Our retention is very high. We've only ever lost two people, who are our clients now!
Are you fully back in the office now?
The offices are open, and it's optional. So our team tends to come in once or twice a week, and we all get together. We make it a thing. We get breakfast. We order lunch. We can sit together and collaborate. Certain meetings are more fun to have in-person and better to brainstorm with a whiteboard, you know, that sort of thing. So we're definitely using a hybrid approach.
What kind of advice would you give to creatives in the middle of their career who want to progress to that leadership role?
There's no substitute for hard work. And yes, that middle part can be tough because you've done a tremendous amount of work to get there. But you need to acknowledge there's more you need to learn. That never goes away. Embracing and accepting that is essential because you need to keep growing. You need to keep learning. You always need to push forward and raise your hand. There's no substitute for hard work.
What has maternity taught you about managing a team?
I had my baby in December. And it was a wild experience to come back. You're so focused on one being, and that being's wellbeing... and then you come back to work, and all these other people have things going on. And needs and feelings that are very important to acknowledge and address.
I do think having a child has made me more empathetic and understanding. And I think the theme of the team, and something that I've been latching on to, is bringing that empathy into the workplace.
I also find that, as a mother, I've learned to ask for what I need. Suddenly, you think: "I didn't have time before, but now I really don't have time." And you're like, "Okay, now I can't dance around things anymore," so I just say it. And I've gotten way more comfortable with that. So I think all of those things have improved my work.
And again, currently, we are a team of women. So, coming back from maternity leave, I wanted to show up in a way that sets an example for the team. It's an ongoing experiment, and I'm still figuring out how to do it. But the team has been so supportive. And I now feel like I have more of an understanding, to be more supportive to others if they go on that journey.