2 Minutes With ... Jill Cress of National Geographic

Her love of La La Land and John Lewis, and why her creative strength can also be a weakness

Photo illustration: Ashley Epping

After almost a decade at MasterCard, Jill Cress joined National Geographic in 2016 as chief marketing and communications officer. She ushered in a major rework of the brand strategy and refocus on the brand's mission—to explore and further peoples' understanding of the world. 

For our new "2 Minutes With..." series of mini-profiles of creative executives, Jill—a member of the Brand Jury for the 2019 Clio Awards—tells us about her origin story as a creative person, some of her favorite artists and ad projects, and what she'd be doing if she weren't in advertising. 

Jill, tell us... 

The town where you were born.

I was born in the Windy City of Chicago!

What you wanted to be when you grew up.

A teacher or a doctor. 

How you discovered you were creative.

I was always making or crafting. One of my favorite things to do was to create mud balls after rainstorms and shape them into something interesting and then cover them in lots of paint! 

A person you idolized creatively growing up.

My grandfather. He was a steelworker and had a workshop in his basement. We spent hours down there making handmade trucks, repairing old bikes and once a year we would make a kite that was covered in butcher block paper and fly it until the paper broke! He was larger than life to me, and I still carry his energy and spirit with me every day! 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

I spent my junior year of college in the Netherlands, where on paper I was studying economics but I was tapping into my inner cultural explorer and discovering the passion I had for all things new—food, places, people and many other experiences. That fueled my love of travel, which led to moving our family to Europe and visiting over 70 countries to date. 

The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.

Neil Diamond! I still really have a soft spot for '70s music that used to play in the family station wagon. In the contemporary genre, I really love Coldplay. 

Your favorite artist.

Stella Vine.

Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction. 

Helen of Troy.

Best book you've read lately.

Circe by Madeline Miller.

Your favorite movie.

La La Land, which just barley inches out Moulin Rouge.

Your favorite Instagram follow.

Humans of New York.

Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.

A few years ago, I worked on a campaign with McCann to tell the MasterCard "Priceless" story from a new lens that was inspired by the insight that it is often the things we don't plan or the happy accidents when we are exploring and seeking priceless that are actually the best moments that matter and live with us. We landed on a territory of celebrating the aftermath of what happens when things fail—e.g., you are dancing and your shoe breaks, which becomes this epic moment that creates a story that grows and grows over time. We shot the anthem in Rio, which is my favorite place in the world (perhaps my bias landed us there). It was such a vibrant background with its incredible sights and rich visual landscape and people to tell the story, and everyone involved was incredibly special. From the brief to the idea to the execution, it was risky and rewarding and was pushing boundaries on many levels. That, along with working with a great and passionate group of people, made it the best project to work on. 

Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.

Our brand spot featuring an amazing young woman named Nujeen, who is a Syrian refugee who also has cerebral palsy and continues to overcome amazing obstacles and push boundaries in every way. Her personal values are totally in line with our brand values, and we celebrated her optimism and curiosity in a compelling spot that still brings tears to my eyes. I love it because it celebrates the values that matter so much today in this complicated world. 

Nujeen | National Geographic
Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.

John Lewis does beautiful work. Their Mother's Day campaign many years back set to "She's Always a Woman" is one that continues to inspire me. 

Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.

Google is doing really great work that marries their utility and function while capturing the emotional needs they fill. Their help campaign is one that keeps sticking with me. I am asking how we can take the functional role of Nat Geo, which lives across so many platforms, and thread the needle in a similarly elegant and fun way. 

Your main strength as a creative person.

Thinking big! My nickname is "MORE." My team will share an idea or campaign and I will want to make it bigger, more ambitious, solve a bigger problem. 

Your weakness or blind spot.

My MORE ambition—sometimes more is not more!

One thing that always makes you happy.

Spending time with my daughter. Cheesy but true! 

One thing that always makes you sad.

Inequity in humans. I struggle with that every day. It also makes me reflect and count my blessings. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

I would probably be in sales. I love to win, and I love the art of the deal!

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of the Clio Awards.