Fuck the ping pong tables

Building a modern, creative company

What has been your path to what you’re doing now?
Stumbled into an intro to advertising class my sophomore year of college.
Thought I wanted to be a copywriter. Did internships. Put together a portfolio.
Moved to NYC after college.
Three weeks later, September 11th. Industry crashed.
Waitressed for two years.
Junior copywriter: FCB.
(I sucked at copywriting.)

Found planners. Loved planners. Wanted to be a planner.
Junior planner: FCB
Planner: Fallon London.
(I sucked at living in London. Tremendously.)
Senior Planner/Planning Director: BBH New York.
Universe smack. Buy a truck and drive across America.
Gas = $$. Freelance here and there.
Epiphany: I love planning. Advertising machines make me hurt.
Hello Wolf & Wilhelmine, my misfit-loving, freelance-loving, freedom-loving, kickass-strategy-loving brand shop.

How did get your break in the advertising industry?
Nancee Martin, the high priestess of my entry. She was the recruiter from FCB New York, met me at the finals of the National Advertising Competition after my senior year of college and after a two year, post-9/11 hiring freeze, called me up and offered me my first job. My entry into planning was shepherded by Pele Cortizo-Burgess, my mentor and high priest of planning insanity (the good kind).

How did you come to setup Wolf & Wilhelmine?
The only way we’re going to survive and thrive as an industry is through creativity. We need creativity to create the things that will break through the ba-jillion messages out there. We need creativity to make the data sing. Yet the norms of our industry completely contradict creativity.

Academia has done TONS of research about creativity. Creativity needs space, time off, boredom so the mind can wander. Creativity loves nature, sunlight and new and diverse inputs. And sleep! Creativity loves sleep!

And what do we do? We lock people into the same walls 80 hours a week. We cram ourselves into focus group back rooms and airports with people that are a lot like us. We hyper-stimulate ourselves, book ourselves solid and never put down the screens. We badge how much we don’t sleep. We breathe processed airplane air and only look at mountains from 30,000 feet. And we think we’re going to be creative.

It’s stupid. No, it’s arrogant and borderline insane. And self-destructive.

So instead getting radical about creativity (and our survival), we plonk along in agency models were built to service a 20th century economy. And to prove we’re creative, we install ping pong tables. Fuck the ping pong tables.

So W&W is an experiment:

Can we build a company that truly honors creativity and the conditions that it needs to thrive? Can we do the work we love without killing ourselves?

We believe the work and life are inextricably linked. So we take care of our lives to take care of our creativity to ensure that the work is really good. Because nothing is more soul-sucking than doing shitty work. And so far, the hypothesis is holding.

It’s hard. Every norm in both the industry and culture tells us that we should work like fanatics, be always-on and that by not doing that, we’re lazy or not serious about what we do. We were told that we should have traditional structures with a traditional workforce and bend and do business the traditional way, even when it would hurt our lives… because that’s reality and that’s what it takes. People said clients wouldn’t agree to the way we design our processes. People said we should build the company with the main goal to scale and sell and grow as quickly as possible. And when we didn’t do any of that, especially in the beginning, people would say that we didn’t have real jobs or we weren’t a real company.

But we’re doing the best work of my career. Hands down. And I say that with stuff like this in my pre-W&W history. And we’re pretty happy and healthy. Perfect? No. But trying and experimenting and iterating and doing it our way? Yes. And it feels really good.

And where does the name come from?
Wilhelmine was my grandmother, my Oma. She was a badass. She kept my dad and herself alive in a war-torn WWII Europe, got the family to America, set up life here late in life and just generally killed it.

Her name is also the name of a modeling agency and since I hire beautiful people I didn’t want there to be any confusion. So we added wolf, my family’s spirit animal.

Across all the clients/agencies you’ve worked with, which work means the most to you?

I have to find meaning in every project or else I can’t stand to do the work. But a few highlights have been:

  • Seeing our Google Chrome “It Gets Better Spot” run during Glee.
  • Showing the Axe team we don’t have to do business as usual with “Cleans Your Balls.”
  • Working with Independent Lens to help them find their brand story and voice — such good people.
  • Giving Harry’s the brand story they deserved.
  • Bringing to life an honest, human portrait of the athlete of the future for Nike.

And I’m doing some pro bono work right now that goes straight to my heart, but since it’s early I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it just yet. But stay tuned.

What’s your method for tackling a new brief?

  • Define the problem.
  • Immerse.
  • Sleep, ride motorcycle, hike/run/box/spin, drink wine with friends.
  • Post-its.

What attributes makes a great strategist?
The usual stuff: curiosity, a love of creativity, right brain/left brain… all that.
I would add deep empathy and absolute fearlessness.

This interview originally appeared on the FutureRising site in June 2015. You can see the original interview here.

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