Leadership Through a Pandemic: An Interview with Danone North America Creative Director Fe Amarante

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If there’s one thing that can derail an interview in these pandemic-era times, it’s the reporter’s gargantuan greyhound leaping into the Zoom frame, begging for a treat.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise that when Fe Amarante pops into the virtual room, her sizable puppy, Aspen, promptly bounds into her lap.

Amarante takes it in stride. And it’s immediately clear, with her candor, illustrative gesticulation, and the art of a well-timed swear, that Danone North America’s senior creative director and head of brand design is a different type of leader—one born into and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, emerging with a style all her own.

Hailing from southeastern Brazil, Amarante racked up significant experience in graphic design and brand strategy for various enterprises in her native country before coming to the states in 2009. Given the state of the economy and job market at the time, she figured she’d get an MBA and ride out the storm, which she did at Penn State, ultimately emerging as manager (and subsequently senior manager) of global design at Hershey. Having spent the initial part of her career in agencies and freelancing, it was her first in-house gig.

“There was a chance it was going to be royally rough, and I was going to hate it,” she recalls as Aspen demands a potty break; Amarante pops in her AirPods and rolls with it, the break evolving into a full-fledged walk.

Happily, she adored the depth that she was able to reach with Hershey’s brands and scope. “It just felt so much closer to the pulse and the heart and the soul of the brand,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting to love it so much.”

After a stop at andculture, she landed the gig at multinational CPG company Danone—her first opportunity to truly lead design at a company—and moved to Colorado. She started on January 13, 2020, just as one of her friends in Shanghai began to tell her about how they were confined to their apartment because of a virus. Soon after, Amarante went to an off-site in Los Angeles, and then New York, as the scope of the pandemic began to become clear. By the time the infamous “two weeks to flatten the curve” came to pass, she had spent a mere three weeks with her team.

“It was the equivalent of being in a boat with no North Star,” Amarante recalls. “It’s so cloudy and stormy, and you have 20-some people on your boat, and the best thing you can do is just have everyone use their safety vest and brace for impact.”

Thinking about her family in Brazil and her friends and family throughout the world, Amarante was terrified. But here’s where she diverges from the playbooks of the past: She told her team that she was terrified.

In lieu of the cheery “everything’s fine, we’ll get through this together!” narrative that many companies pedaled, Amarante sought to let her team know that she understood what they were going through. She wanted them to feel comfortable voicing if they were overwhelmed, letting them know it was all right to give themselves a break. She dropped jargon and protocol. Invariably, Amarante’s forthright efforts replaced the typical (and often empty) team-building activities native to new leadership.

Above: Amarante used to draw day in and day out, but hadn’t really drawn or illustrated anything since college. During the pandemic, she began again. “I’ve never been so much myself as I have been recently,” she says.

“I’m a human, too. I cry out of suffering for my family, and I have days that I have to go take Aspen to take a shit,” she says with a laugh. “Being unguarded and not having to follow a script or have this persona of being a creative director made a difference in the way that I think everyone else felt that they could be themselves fully and check-in.”

As for that industry persona, Amarante holds no special place in her heart for the mythologized “Mad Men” days of yesteryear, the “Era of the Creative Director.” She despises the culture that led to, among other things, rampant sexual harassment—a traumatic experience she encountered firsthand.

“The creative industry has a lot of ego. But I always thought I had imposter syndrome because I was never that person,” she says. “I just never felt safe in an environment like that. And something clicked with me—that if I never felt safe, it’s probably likely that a lot of people that would someday work for me or work with me don’t feel safe, either.” This realization informs Amarante’s leadership style: “How can I help them see that I’m here to help? That human piece is so important to me and so disregarded.”

Amarante leads from a core belief that creatives need safety and honesty to create. Amid the many other unique challenges of 2020, people were scared about losing their jobs; Amarante says she was upfront with them and told them she would fight like hell to try to make sure they wouldn’t.

As 2020 progressed, maintaining her team online wasn’t the only hurdle. There were the tech challenges—getting servers up and running; quickly getting everyone on Slack and Miro—and there were the organizational challenges, too. She says her position had been vacant for nearly three years, and there had been no central design leadership during that time. In other words, no one had been advocating for the design team or conveying the value in what they do. So, Amarante got to work.

When she joined Danone, Amarante had a hypothesis she wanted to test: that there is a better way for in-house teams to work with external agencies. “I am, and continue to be, and will forever be, hellbent on the idea that my in-house design team is not the implementation extension team,” she say

Amarante flipped the traditional model on its head and involved her team at the highest levels up front, handing off the execution to external agencies. She also began holding weekly one-on-ones, as well as instituting a weekly lead meeting and a monthly all-design-team meeting. Cumulatively, the results speak for themselves. While the sum toll of the team’s 2020 work is now in various stages of prepress and production, just take a look at the Oikos redesign.

“Every single brand is receiving the deserved, rightful amount of creative love it needed,” she says. “We’re crafting the details, we’re creating design systems that respect the equity [and] also boost it to a new era, refreshing it, dusting it off, and creating timelessness at the same time.” Perhaps vitally, Amarante says that the team is “just giving reasons for this brand to be proud of itself.”

Amarante used to ponder what type of design leader she wanted to be. But ultimately, as it turns out, she’s just been herself, “without a lot of script around it.”

“It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it might not be the right fit for everyone, but it’s who I am,” she says.“I wish all of us would have a boss who would care. You can read the books and everything, but if you don’t genuinely care—”

It all leads this writer (and his greyhound) to an obvious conclusion: She does.