She vowed to never go back to advertising. Why she’s wrong and happy about it.
After working her way up the ladder at Leo Burnett and then launching her own successful design firm, Marian Williams never thought she would return to advertising. Then she discovered OKRP. After two years of consulting for our agency, she joined full-time in September 2017 as Group Creative Director.
In this Bar Stool Interview, Marian shares what it was like to run her own business, what drew her to OKRP, where she finds creative inspiration and why having a baby actually accelerated her work.
So, what was it like taking the leap and going out on your own?
It was terrifying. I remember December 22, 2008 — I was laying in my bed and crying because I had to figure out how to get health insurance and was like, “Oh my God, this is so expensive.”
I was just at that age where you’re like, I’m not young enough to be really young anymore and I’m old enough to know better — and I know I need to have some safety net in place that’s more than $500 in the bank.
I was scared. I was scared to go and do those basic things like get my own health insurance and figure out how to manage client relationships. I actually leaned on a lot of people I met at Leo Burnett to help me with things like my own RFI’s and RFP’s. I was leaning on my mother. I was having people from very pedigreed creatives to account people from my past to my mother looking at documents that I was cobbling together to get these larger assignments.
Tell us about some assignments you worked on.
One of the things I’m proud of was my work with Target. In 2012, Target was working with Facebook to figure out how to reward customers in a smart, almost gamified way.
Facebook Chicago was doing the concepting work with Target in Minneapolis. It just so happened that someone from [my previous job at Leo Burnett] was working at Facebook. It ends up that another agency in LA was doing all the branding work, design work and advertising for this new initiative that was called Cartwheel. Facebook and Target weren’t really feeling that this new idea was being articulated well by the agency.
They asked a few agencies and individuals, including myself, and said, “Here’s a bit of money. Given all the research documents, how would you brand this for our consumer?”
So, I did the assignment and they gave it to me. At the time it was like, “Oh my God, little old me?”
My studio was small then, I think there was only 3 or 4 of us. It was a bit of a snowball effect. By doing an ad hoc assignment for them it turned into a retainer business that turned into a 5-year relationship that included everything like logo design, tagline development, app design, app user interface design, the finalization of the app itself, the advertising for it on Facebook, Facebook video, Facebook weekly ads, style guide development, gamification of the app itself, all the design, all the illustration. It was this moment where I was pulling from everything I had ever learned how to do and was doing it all for this brand.
I was able to build out a team to help. It’s similar to OKRP, this agent in agency idea. I knew what I didn’t know how to do, and so I was constantly bringing in people who knew better how to do user interface design or who were strong copy writers. When we got into doing online video assets, I definitely partnered myself with people who were more experienced. So, it was learning and leveraging and growing and doing it all for this app.
We exceeded our goals like crazy. By the time 2016 came around, we had like 15 million users. It was one of the most used apps in America. It was so fun because I would just hear people who would be like “Oh my God, I love Cartwheel.” And I would think, “Oh cool!’”
What teaching moments did you have in your business? Any big lessons that helped you in your career so far?
I have two.
When you’re starting out, there’s a fake it ’til you make it. You take on that bigger thing, bite off more than you can chew, figure out how to do it later. That was a big learning for me because I was always super conservative and liked to play it safe in terms of how my career rolled out. I feel like the minute I took that plunge and started taking bigger assignments, I kind of just learned that, “Oh my God, this is how all business is done — it’s all risk taking.”
And so that was a wonderful learning for me. Once I understood that, it gave me the freedom to make decisions to be fearless because I realized this was actually how it was all done.
The second thing was Yoda’s — that is figuring out who can I go to for sage advice and really leaning into them. You can’t do great work on your own. You need to get inputs from other people and communicate to other people and resource out and get people to help you.
I was in business 10 years and there were a lot of different things that I came up against, and I always picked up the phone and asked people to help me. It is so wonderful because I found out that everybody is actually very gracious, and people love to talk about what they know and they’re happy to share it. I found my Yoda’s and I just kept going to them.
So, you came to OKRP in 2017?
I started working with OKRP in 2015 on ad hoc assignments here and there. I started off doing development on a holiday campaign for a few days. Then I didn’t come back until it was a design and branding assignment. I did that off and on in 2015 and 2016, then came here in September 2017.
What drew you to OKRP?
It’s really strange because I was very anti-agency — even though when things were slow at my studio, I would definitely go into agencies and do projects. So, I had relationships with ad agencies and was in and out working, but I never wanted to be inside again. I still kind of felt like what I was doing didn’t have a home inside of advertising. I had created that construct inside my brain.
But then a friend of mine connected me with OKRP and the vibe felt a lot like my own business.
It felt casual, informal and everyone was in maker mode. You could tell that the script was still being written here, and I was just attracted to it. It was currently what I knew, and it didn’t seem like it was a fully formed thing yet. I also loved the brand itself. As a person who does branding work and has done it for 15–20 years, I was just like, “Shit, this branding is better than the big agencies, that’s so cool.”
So, I came in with a, “Hey, what’s going on here?” And I just loved the vibe. It felt super different to me. At one point I remember saying to Tom, “I was never going to work in advertising, and here I am working with you guys.”
At OKRP, what do you do on a typical day?
On a typical day I can be working with graphic designers on internal branding projects, just checking in, seeing what they’re doing, kicking something off. I’ll help ladder work up to the partners and have them look at stuff. I can be meeting with any of the clients that are within my group. I kind of have a dual role here. One is I oversee design as a competency as it applies to the brand of OKRP itself or as an add-on to any of the clients that we service, in addition to running a group of brands. So, one-part design director, one-part group creative director.
Do you have a favorite thing to do?
I think that’s tough. I was very much rolling up my sleeves and doing hands-on design work until September 2017 when I came to OKRP. I do still make things here, but not as much as before. I think what’s really fun is helping other people get really sharp at what they are doing.
I’m growing into this role where I get almost more joy from watching other people develop. And now I just enjoy going home and helping my husband brand his company because he’s an architect or doing art projects at home or things with a collective of friends. It’s more of an outside of work thing.
Mentoring — you like to mentor, I assume?
I do. I haven’t always been great at that. I think it’s a skill that I picked up over time that I learned from having my own business. I was always a doer — it was easier for me to do it than it was to mentor. I feel like in the last five years I have started to enjoy it more and more and more. And I think that just comes with personal growth.
Do you have an approach that you like to use?
I do try to set a tone, but I love to set it and then step back and let people have free reign to do what they are going to do. I try not to put a whole lot of rails on things in the beginning just because I think you can make a lot of strides as a young designer, as a young creative when you’re out there figuring stuff out. I think it also emboldens people to have their ideas and do a little bit of self-editing.
One of the things I always try to do to help the creatives wherever I’m working is to feel strongly about their ideas and do the self-editing themselves. It’s hard, it’s very hard. When you can start to hone that and start to say, “Of the 10 things I just made, let me be able to look objectively at my own work and say, ‘Does it answer the brief, does it break through in a really cool way and what do I love?’”
I think when you’re young, that’s a tough thing to do. I’m a major proponent of helping people get there because I think you can make really quick strides in this industry when you can do that.
I want to switch gears a bit and talk about your inspiration outside of work.
It hurts me inside because my brain is filled with it. I love photography. I love silk screen art. I love wallpaper. I love illustration. I love interior design. I love the color wheel. I cannot get enough color in my life. When I can’t make it, I wear it.
I’m super inspired by characters like Iris Apfel. I’m inspired by people who are 90 and still skiing. I want to go to every art opening. I want to go and ski my ass off in Utah, and then I want to go down to my studio and make a collage. The thing about me is that I need to tell myself to sit down and watch a Netflix movie because I have a lot of desires and then I never find enough time in the day to relax. It’s an ongoing battle. A good one.
Didn’t you just design a house?
What was that process like?
Well shout-out to my husband, Sig, because he’s really the one that designed it, but I was lucky enough to be part of the process. It’s not for the faint of heart. I think we wanted to create the opportunity for Sig to build something from the ground up for himself. Sometimes I say that he’s the real artist in our family. I literally cried the first time I saw something he made. I did. On one of our dates he took me to a house in Lincoln Park that he did, and I started crying. It was magnificent.
The process itself was hard: money and managing it and bank loans and delays and all of that stuff. I just feel like the two of us together have such grit and we got it done. Now we sit in this beautiful house that he made us that I think is a little modern miracle, and I’m so proud of it and I’m so glad that he even trusted me to pick out the finishes. He has a very strong point of view. We were able to blend our aesthetics. I grew up in a very traditional home and he is a very modern architect, and we brought those two things together and it really does feel like a shared experience.
And you just had a daughter.
Thank you. Her name is Willa.
So how has this changed life?
Well, actually some really smart women here at OKRP who have children advised me that women who have families and are doing the job of advertising quickly learn how to prioritize and all of a sudden sort of accelerate into the badass version of themselves. I was scared. I was like, “Can I do this job and have a kid?” Because advertising is known as being a very demanding job that doesn’t have typical hours, but it all works. It’s really crazy. When you want to do something in life, you end up just finding your way.
And I feel like after she was born and I came back here, I probably have taken on more. And you know, I have times where I feel overwhelmed but again this agency is so wonderful. I just ask for help and we figure out how to get it done. For me I feel like the growth has accelerated since she was born — isn’t that crazy?
Yeah, but that makes sense actually. You get constrained and you have to find a way forward.
Yeah, then it’s 5:15 and all of a sudden, this switch flips in my brain that’s like, “Must get home to awesome baby to give her food.” And I just immediately do that. And then you tuck in a little work or emailing before you go to bed or you do it early in the morning.
I can be a little bit of a catastrophic thinker sometimes and think it can’t be done. Like, “I can’t be as devoted to my job as I used to be and have a kid.” I’m happy to say on the other side of it, it’s absolutely possible.
That’s good to hear.
I know. I needed to hear that from people before I had a kid.
What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career who wants to have the range of experiences that you’ve had?
It’s a complex one. But I would say that I came out of school and found myself in advertising and really felt like, “What am I doing here?” It wasn’t a perfect fit. I didn’t go to portfolio school, I came from a different avenue. And because I came from a different avenue, I was both a deer-in-headlights and really curious. I think I was very open to influence in the best way because I was able to take a lot in.
I think however much we study in school, it’s so important that when you do put yourself in a practical professional environment where people have spent 10, 15, 20 years honing their craft, let them help you — and be open to learning. I’m 41 years old and I’m being taught a ton here by the partners every day. So, I think it’s really important to be open. Obviously have your point of view, but also know that there’s so much to learn all the way through your career. Be open to it from the beginning because it’s never going to stop.