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Doug Finelli is a multi-talented artist, award-winning director, writer, and ECD at CrowdStrike’s in-house agency. He sat down with us to chat about diversity, creativity, and the benefits of working in-house.

It’s clear that you’re a polymath, having worked with several leading agencies, worked on some super famous campaigns, written a film, performed comedy, and made bespoke men’s shoes. Tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got started.

I went to the School of Visual Arts to be a fine art painter, and then I realised I really enjoyed eating, and needed a better income. So, I did a double major as a graphic designer and painter. I graduated, and I was up for two jobs. One was painting romance book covers and the other one was at an advertising agency. It was a unique agency at the time. It was run by four women and during the first interview, I didn’t even know I was meeting the partners, but there were these amazing dynamic women. I said, “I have no idea what advertising is, but here’s some paintings I did and some design work.”

They said, “Your paintings are conceptual, they’re not just paintings.” So, they hired me. 

Right. So, you started your career at a women-run agency. How important is diversity within creative teams?

It’s amazingly important. I mean having different points of view from age and background, to gender. I think it’s what was missing in advertising years ago. When I started it was a lot of white men and it’s changed considerably. It’s interesting to me when you have a creative assignment, you’re trying to crack something and you work on it for weeks and you’re like, “There’s no other ideas.” Then somebody walks in with a different point of view based on their background or how they grew up or where they grew up, and they have 30 more ideas that are better than yours. That’s what’s exciting to me because you could sit there and be like, “That’s it. There’s no other way to execute this idea.” And yet somebody else brings their background and their experience and they have better ideas and new ideas and stuff you never thought of.

Do you see female leadership as rendering different kinds of outcomes?

I’ve had two great bosses in my life. My current boss at CrowdStrike is amazing to work with. She’s a nurturer, she’s smart, she’s talented. My other boss was at Publicis. Now that’s two people out of a long career that I think were amazing and that I learned something from. My boss at Publicis taught me how to present, which is such a big part of moving up in this industry. Nobody else took the time, male or female.

Now the four women I worked for at my first job were amazing. They were like the characters straight out of Sex and the City before that was even in some writer’s brain. They were so dynamic and so at the cutting edge and so cool that I fell in love with all four of them. They were just great. I was too young to know how good they were and how much I could have learned from them. I was just a pup out of school.

But my current boss and my boss at Publicis, two of the best bosses I’ve ever had. One was male and the other was female.

Knowing how to manage people is not gender based. I think it’s empathy based, it’s experience based. I always try to learn from my good bosses and bad bosses, and I kind of think I learned more from the bad ones how I would never want to be as a boss. As a creative, it takes a lot of self-control not to micromanage and do it yourself, but instead give instruction to get a creative where they need to go. But that’s part of being a Creative Director. It’s not doing the job. It’s helping the people who work for you get better so they can do the job better. Everyone moves on and you want them to move on and think, “Oh, I had a great boss. He/she helped me learn X.”

Across your career, what work that you’ve done is the work that you’re most proud of?

What I’m currently working on is what I am most proud of. Honestly, I look at my portfolio and it’s like the chapters of my life and you look back on it and at the time you’re excited about the work.  But, it’s always about what I’m doing next that is the most exciting. I like the work I’ve done. I think I’ve done some good work, but I’m excited about what I’m working on now.

I never kept my paintings from art school because you look at them, it’s like, “Oh God, I have to go back and fix it.” Because you literally will never finish if you care about your work. It can always be better. So, I used to ship them to my mom, and her house was like a museum of my work. I feel the same way about my current work. I look at it and go, “Oh yeah, it’s good, but If we had only had a little more money, if I had only had a little more time.” To me, it’s a gallery of mistakes or missed opportunities. Other people don’t see it that way, but I do.

We’re excited to hear, what’s your current project?

I can’t talk about it. It’s interesting. Back when I worked on the agency side, I could freely talk about everything. But I work for the leading cybersecurity company in the world and everything we do is under a microscope because we protect tons of clients. I have to be very careful what I say about what I’m working on. But you’ll see it within the next nine months and it’s pretty cool.

You wrote and directed a film named My Best Friend’s Wife. Tell us how this came about?

Coming out of my undergraduate degree, every nerd my age who came up in the time of Star Wars and Jaws thought, “Oh, I can be a film director.” I went to grad school at ArtCenter. It’s an amazing school. I wrote a lot of scripts while I was there.

One day my buddy and I sat down and wrote this script and raised the money and shot it as an independent film. It was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

How was the reception for the film?

We won over a dozen “Best Comedy” awards at various film festivals and were picked up by an independent distribution company. We got distribution by Universal in Europe and Asia, so it went very well. 

But it was difficult. I was wearing many hats. I was the co-writer, the producer, the director. For some of the actors, I was the therapist. It’s just a lot. I mean, I think if it had been a studio film and I was working with a studio, I could do one job and do it well. But doing an independent film is hard, my hat’s off to people who continue in the independent film world. It’s really difficult.

You’re running the in-house agency at CrowdStrike. What is your perspective on how to build an in-house agency?

In the traditional agency model, the drill is to hire young people, work them to the bone, and in exchange they get some good stuff in their book, and then they move on. On the client’s side, it’s totally opposite.

When I joined CrowdStrike there were two amazing creatives already on staff. They had this institutional knowledge of the brand,  the competition, where we were, and where we were going. That’s priceless. I wouldn’t want to lose them. So unlike an agency model where you take what you can from young creatives and then they move on, I don’t want my people to move on.

The value of the creative at CrowdStrike is more than their writing, art direction, and design. Their value is the knowledge of the brand. The brand is these people. That’s the brand. It’s not a font, it’s not a color, it’s not logos, it’s not a commercial we do. It’s this group of people.

With remote work, there isn’t the age bias that I have to deal with in the agency world. If I want to bring in a writer who has grey hair, the Chief Creative Officer doesn’t say, “He’s too old. She’s too old.” In-house at a brand, it’s all about the talent of the people not what they look like or how old/young they are.

So, an in-house agency at a brand is a great place for people who are rolling out of the agency system?

Absolutely. Joining CrowdStrike, my fear was I was going to be doing incredibly boring work. The very first brief from my boss was, “We need a Super Bowl spot.” 

We worked on it for a couple months. We had a few great ideas. We had freelancers working as well and we just didn’t have it. Then I sat down with those two creatives I just mentioned and we spit-balled for 10 minutes. We had it. I said to them, “You guys go get some visual reference and I’ll write up the scripts.”

Four days later, I presented it to my boss. A week later we were in front of the CEO and he said, “I like that. What do you want to do with that?” I said, “We should run a Super Bowl spot.” He said, “Okay, find out how much. Let’s do it.” That was it. They weren’t selling it up through 14 layers on the agency side, then starting at the bottom on the client side and selling up through those various layers watching as idea change and get watered down because everyone’s got input. We filmed the spot as written in that 10-minute jam session. It was crazy fast but that is the way it should be.

So, in some ways you’re afforded more creative freedom in an in-house agency?

I think we’re afforded more trust. We’re not looked at as “those other people”, “Those agency people” or worse, as an outside vendor. Back when I first started advertising, there was this idea that there was a “magic” to what we did and clients thought, “Oh, those creatives, they’re really talented. They’re going to come up with creative magic that’s going to boost our sales.” I think now clients look at agencies like, “You guys are too slow. You’re too expensive, and what am I paying for?” I have a nephew who’s got an iPhone and he can shoot that for me.” The magic has gone out of it. But when you go client side, you’re literally part of the team, part of the company. And my primary goal is to build this brand and build this company. I don’t have 10 other accounts I’m worried about. It’s refreshing. It’s really refreshing.

What drove CrowdStrike to bring creative in-house?

When I first started at CrowdStrike we were working with an outside agency. The very first brief we gave them was a simple rewrite of a script. We sat down at the first meeting and we were 10 slides into a PowerPoint and I said, “Where’s the script? I don’t need the PowerPoint explaining the project. I know why we’re here. Go back, bring me the script”. In the next meeting we were five slides into a PowerPoint. And I was like, “Where are the scripts?” The last meeting we had with them they presented one script and it was terrible. We pulled the plug with them after that meeting.

On the client side, we move way faster than an agency can. There are no levels. I don’t have to put together storyboards and presentation materials to present an idea to my boss. We could be sitting at lunch. I’d say, “What do you think of this?” And she says, “That’s great.” Good, what’s next? “Write a script. Let’s go present it to the CMO”. That’s it. It’s so much faster than any agency can move, which is a good and a bad thing. We just don’t have the time to wait for an agency.

How do you build a badass in-house creative team?

I’ve reached a point in my career where I can smell if you’re phoning it in, and you don’t really care about the company or the work we are doing. I’ve worked on so many brands and I’ve been in meetings faking my way through it with clients. I’ve sold everything from Barbies to BMWs. I got to be honest, I never played with Barbies as a kid and I really didn’t care about that brand, but I did work for them. Now, I have zero tolerance for that. Everyone at CrowdStrike wants this brand to be great. I want your mom to say, “Oh, I’ve heard of CrowdStrike.” That’s our goal.

There was a time when Apple was this collection of nerds in Cupertino who went to the Homebrew Computer Club. Now it’s a lifestyle brand. There’s this trajectory with any brand and we want everyone to know who CrowdStrike is and know that we’re the best cybersecurity company in the world. If you’re not on the same page, there are so many jobs out there. I’ll give you a recommendation, I’ll recommend you to a friend of mine who’s a creative director. There’s zero tolerance for people who aren’t passionate about our mission.

How do you find passionate people? Does passion need to be developed?

I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a portfolio, talked to somebody, and then hired them right away. In the past I used to freelance people, but now there’s probably a dozen designers and art directors and writers that have sent me their work. I like their work. We’ve had an interview, I’ve had them walk me through their portfolio and I said, “Stay in touch. If things change and a position opens up, I’ll be in touch right away.” There are so many good and talented people who I kind of have a connection with that if I need someone, I can just reach out.

There’s a great story I heard about Lee Clow, and I don’t know how true it is. He wanted to work at Chiat and Jay Chiat didn’t want to hire him. So he started this campaign called Hire the Hairy Guy. He would inundate them with letters and ideas until they were like, “Just hire him. He’s so annoying. Hire him.” Those are the people I want to hire.

A recurring theme when speaking with ECDs is the quality of the brief, and the importance of creative freedom. Do you see that as an important aspect of an in-house agency?

Yeah, it’s interesting. Years ago I worked on the Honda account. It was very funny. Their brief was basically to sell the car. The Civic is a great car. What do you need to know about the Honda Civic to sell the car?  

The difference between an in-house agency and an external one is that we don’t need a brief. Everyone who works on the team, from our CEO & CMO down to the creatives, know the brand. We write briefs to ensure we have everything we need in one place, but we know it already. We’re not switching from BMW to Dicks Sporting Goods to 14 other accounts where we have to retrain our brains and refocus on that brand. We’re one hundred percent on this brand. We create everything from white papers to the website to national broadcasts to everything. We handle everything. This is like the largest account at an agency.

We are watching the brand evolve and we are guiding that process.