Nelle Thomas Dies at 100; Inspired copywriter With a Heart for the World
Nelle Thomas, an innovative and adventurous creative icon who impressively unified her peers while acting as both leader and servant, died on Saturday in Ecuador. She was 100.
Her daughter, Stella Thomas, confirmed her death and attributed it to a diving accident.
Ms. Thomas died suddenly in the middle of a scuba diving expedition to a shipwreck when a large jellyfish attacked her. An avid diver, Ms. Thomas always referred to jellyfish as one of her worst fears.
In the eighth and final season of her podcast, “Why Stories Matter,” she reached out to her listeners and the world in gratitude for helping her to create change using short form communication and advertising.
Although she labeled herself simply as “a listener,” Ms. Thomas was renowned as a copywriter, creative director, entrepreneur, adventurer, philanthropist, blogger, author, and a practiced chef (according to her friends and family). After wading through her thick sarcasm so thoroughly woven with foul language, the world found her inspirational and effective underneath.
Nelle Campbell Thomas was born on March 4, 1996, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her father was a successful financial planner and her mother an executive at IBM. Growing up with a strong respect for education and inquisition she entered college at the University of Alabama after her parents did not accept her plan to become a painter. “She was stubborn, but what was worse was that she was usually right,” her brother, former President Will Thomas said.
President Thomas went about trying to improve the world through equal rights and workplace equality in public office and largely succeeded. Ms. Thomas and her brother were always united in purpose but different in methodology.
Ms. Thomas began her career as a copywriter and immediately found success in the industry with the famous “Guacamole Is a Way of Life” campaign for Chipotle and her equally clever “Finance Faster” campaign for Morgan Stanley. Three years and four One Show Pencils later, few were surprised when she was promoted to creative director in 2021.
Engaging sharp negotiating skills learned from overhearing her mother’s work calls as a child, it was with confidence, courage, and conviction that Ms. Thomas bargained with her employers to achieve her ideal conditions for the job. She was given a salary equal to that of her male counterparts as well as four weeks of vacation.
Since she was a child, Ms. Thomas had always been a traveler. She enjoyed exploring, meeting new people, and learning about culture around the world. Her friend and mentor, Ishmail Orrie, a South African tour guide, once wrote, “Nelle has always adventured with an open heart and endless appetite.”
During the next ten years of her career, Ms. Thomas was allowed six weeks of vacation per year, and thrived. She worked on countless award-winning projects including the crowd-favorite, “It’s Not You” for Swarovski.
Her vacation time was put to use adventuring around the world and telling the stories of those she met. It was during her third trip to Cambodia that she began her podcast. In her first episode, she stated, “The kinds of stories circulated in our world directly affect its development.”
By the 2030s, Ms. Thomas was a giant of industry and began her movement for responsible advertising. Yearning for a world in which advertising always benefitted the consumer as much as the seller, she ushered in a new era of public policy focused upon responsibility. When she became the first “Ad Advocate,” the Federal Trade Commission took notice and listened to her demands.
She advocated for global storytelling as a necessary element in advertising. By her later years, her ideas had become stepping-stones to unity among many nations. President Thomas explained in a 2033 interview, “she believed fervently that telling the right story at the right time could change the way a whole generation thinks.”
At the age of 39, after a hiatus from the advertising industry which Ms. Thomas spent working on an archeological dig in Greece, she began her own agency, based in London. Notorious Co. quickly developed into one of the strongest agencies in the industry because of its fresh and inspired embrace of rapidly changing media channels.
Ms. Thomas was widely observed as one of the best creative directors in the industry for more than a decade. Her firm continued to develop around its core idea of communication that told stories and brought people together. It was this message that Ms. Thomas conveyed in her many guest lectures at advertising schools and conferences throughout the country and around the world.
Her later years were no more relaxed than her younger years. Ms. Thomas continued to inspire others with her global mindset and executive skills as she became a Twitter celebrity and part-time educator.
She never ceased to find adventures along her way. Her husband, John Finch, remarked, “the woman could handle just about anything, except for jellyfish.”