Three years ago or so I was a high flying adored, agency-entrenched brand strategist. My life looked a bit like this:
Sleep was the enemy.
80 hour weeks were the norm.
It was never too late or too early to answer an email.
You could put me on a plane to go anywhere, anytime.
I lived for the next brief, the next meeting, the next assignment.
All I wanted was more responsibility, more challenges, more on my plate.
I was a “yes girl”.
Until I wasn’t.
Until I was totally burned out.
Until my thinking turned to mush.
One day, an idea slammed into my head: buy a truck and drive around America. So I did. I packed a duffle bag of clothes, bought camping gear and slept in the back of a Ford F150 on and off for two years.
Along the way I saw rattlesnakes and wolves and eagles and moose, befriended Tea Party members, hung out with the Sioux, learned to ride motorcycles, regularly froze my ass off, and disappeared into the desert for weeks at a time. Lots of it is documented here.
I left without knowing what was going to happen to my life. I left thinking I may never return to my career, my city, my world again. I left and threw myself into the universe and said, “Okay. I give up. Your call.”
It was fucking terrifying.
It was fucking awesome.
I realized a lot of things in those two years. But let’s stick to the professional ones today.
First of all, I was willing to walk away and never do brand strategy again. So it was a neat “aha moment” for me when I realized that I actually do love brand strategy. And I love delivering kick-ass work.
But despite that, something was stopping me from fully “going back in”. So instead, when I ran out of gas money, I’d freelance. And through passing through many top tier shops and meeting a lot of really wonderful people, I realized what was keeping me out of the industry. Here’s the list:
- Creativity is how we’ll survive as an industry. Yet, the norms of our industry completely contradict the conditions necessary for creativity. Creativity requires space, new inputs, rest, time off, pointed timeframes and goals. Our industry is pretty crap at all those things.
- A lot of times, we put whoever is available on an account rather than who is right for it. And furthermore, that not-quite-right person is more often than not working on two other accounts that they’re not quite right for. That causes stress for everyone.
- The talents of the entrenched creative departments often do not match the real needs of the client or brand.
- AOR is more often than not inhumane to all parties involved. Eventually almost everyone behaves badly.
- A lot of the most interesting people in the industry are leaving the traditional walls of the industry, yet they’re exactly the people that the industry needs.
Net net: whereas I love brand strategy, I did not love the existing machines in which to do it.
So I did what I never, ever thought I would do: I started my own shop.
Wolf & Wilhelmine is an experiment. It’s an experiment to see if we can do the work that we love without killing ourselves.
Our purpose is “Do great work. Live great lives.”
We believe that those two things are inextricably linked and to take care of one, you need to take care of the other. So we aim to take care of both every day.
And to do that, we do a few things that might be considered a bit different:
- We have three core team members. We’re all women. We’re not the usual suspects. I’m the most usual with a linear advertising career behind me. Val is a hot shot young brand brain with endless energy and curiosity. Lauren is our ever-on-it executive producer who in her past life produced events, photo-shoots and a successful NYC restaurant.
- We keep brand strategy at the core and build out from that. We find that’s the most efficient and honest way to take on brand challenges.
- We only do projects. It’s a riskier business approach than AOR, but we find that’s the most humane way to relate to our clients.
- We mindfully build a process and team for each project.
- Our staff expands (and contracts) based on what a project needs and who the right people are to deliver it. We call that a project Dream Team. Sometimes it’s just core three. Sometimes it’s 30 of us. It’s whatever the project truly needs.
- We try to maintain a ratio of 50% “ad people”/50% non-ad people for each Dream Team — there’s nothing more boring and institutional than a group of advertising people sitting around a table.
- We love freelancers. They are the brave ones and we build our internal processes to take care of them.
- I take naps in the afternoon. Val still giggles about that. She’ll get there.
- We’re nomadic. We don’t have an office. We work in shared work spaces, we hang with our clients, we set up shop on a bench if needed. We do this because we believe offices do two things: they keep people within the same walls, which is dangerous to our thinking and creative process and they bring overhead that force client relationships that aren’t always healthy.
- There are weeks that we are straight up cranking. But because we do projects we know when those weeks will hit and we know that the crank will end. Having that knowledge turns the grind into a mission.
- After the crank we regularly close up shop for a few days or a week to recharge.
- We recognize that we’re morning people and try to stack our days accordingly.
- We minimize time at the office/working as much as possible. If it’s a non-crank week, we cut our hours back and don’t let ourselves feel guilty about that.
- We have the mentality that we have kids to go home to even though our kids are actually Beyonce dance classes, motorcycles and dinner with our girlfriends.
- We say no. We say no when we’re not confident that we can deliver a premium output, when the project is just a classic advertising blah blah project and/or when we get a bad vibe from the potential client.
So far it’s working.
(knock on wood)
So far we’re doing work that we’re feeling rather good about.
So far we don’t seem to be killing anyone to get the work done.
So far our clients seem happy.
But like I said, it’s an experiment. We’ll see how it morphs and grows as we continue to build it. The only rule is that if we turn into a classic advertising sweat shop, we close the doors. But beyond that, we’re pretty open and excited about what it’s been so far and where it can go.