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Building a Creative and Diverse Company

In January 2014 we launched Wolf & Wilhelmine, a brand shop driven by our purpose of Do Great Work, Live Great Lives.

We were first focused on building an environment for sustainable creativity - i.e. a workplace where we can do the work we love without killing ourselves.

As we’ve grown over the past two years, we’ve realized that diversity is crucial to sustainable creativity and therefore we actively foster it.

Here's how we do it...

Building a Creative and Diverse Company

  1. 1. YES WE CANBuilding creative and diverse companies MAY 2016 WOLF & WILHELMINE
  2. 2. WOLF & WILHELMINE2 HALLO In January 2014 we launched Wolf & Wilhelmine, a brand shop driven by our purpose of Do Great Work, Live Great Lives. We were first focused on building an environment for sustainable creativity - i.e. a workplace where we can do the work we love without killing ourselves. As we’ve grown over the past two years, we’ve realized that diversity is crucial to sustainable creativity and therefore we actively foster it. Because to meaningfully create for the world we must understand it. And the world is a diverse place.
  3. 3. WOLF & WILHELMINE3 At W&W, when we say “creativity” we’re not just talking about making something beautiful (although that’s rad too). When we use the word “creativity” we’re referring to a holistic definition: living, making and solving in inventive ways that transcend the norm and make impact.
  4. 4. WOLF & WILHELMINE4 Creativity is a competitive necessity. Diversity is a crucial component of creativity. Building a shop that honors creativity and diversity means that you’re focusing on two things: Building an ENVIRONMENT that is conducive to creativity and filling it with a rollicking mix of PEOPLE.
  5. 5. WOLF & WILHELMINE5 We dug into what academia had to say about creativity, and learned that creativity loves nature, tough challenges, naps and sleep, time for the mind to wander, exercise, meditation, a 40-hour work week, communication, collaboration, collisions with other brains, alone time, plants and LEGOs (among other things). Astoundingly, our “creative companies” don’t build themselves in accordance with the research. In fact, our industry norms contradict the conditions necessary for creativity. In today’s competitive environment, that seemed crazy. The initial W&W experiment: could we build a sustaining business that is creativity sustainable? And then diversity quickly came in… SO FIRST WE DID OUR HOMEWORK ON BUILDING A CREATIVE ENVIRONMENT
  6. 6. WOLF & WILHELMINE6 There are people in the world that aren’t white men. Our businesses should have those people in them (along with white men). Why?
  7. 7. WOLF & WILHELMINE7 If creativity is all about inventive living, making and solving, perspectives that collide, blend with and challenge one another make that invention more robust. That’s where diversity comes in. Diversity expands our input set. Diversity makes us think harder. Diversity pressure tests. Diversity makes our output stronger. Diversity isn’t just a social good. Diversity is good business. DIVERSITY SUPERCHARGES CREATIVITY
  10. 10. WOLF & WILHELMINE10 After spending a decade in the industry, I went on a walkabout. And while on the walkabout, I realized there were things that I didn’t like about my career… which was affecting my work and life. - Didn’t feel creative anymore - Rarely felt “in flow” - Working insane hours - I was tired - Whipped around by unpredictable processes - Working on unambitious projects with scared clients - Wading through the wrong project staffing - not enough firepower and/or expertise - The best people were going freelance - demoralizing - Had to focus on advertising as output… which felt increasingly irrelevant W&W WAS BIRTHED FROM PAIN
  11. 11. WOLF & WILHELMINE11 I also realized there were things that I loved about what I did: - Brand strategy is hella interesting - Brand strategy can help companies be more powerful (if we cleanly focus there) - Helping companies behave more powerfully, both internally and externally, is very interesting and impactful - It’s fun working on different projects, different challenges - It’s great when you get client trust - There are some awesome people in (and out) of the industry W&W WAS BIRTHED FROM LOVE
  12. 12. WOLF & WILHELMINE12 Realization: I needed to build something that didn’t exactly exist yet. For this industry People-friendly Works with today’s tools and speed Embraces the modern workforce
  13. 13. WOLF & WILHELMINE13 The original guiding principle of building W&W: Take on the pain points one by one while keeping an eye on what we love.
  15. 15. WOLF & WILHELMINE15 As noted before, there is a ton of research on creativity and how to create create environments and productive teams. After doing our homework, we focused on: WE RESEARCHED CREATIVITY The 40 hour work week exists for a reason - our productivity and creativity drops off a cliff once we work more. Also, we’re better creatively when we are de- screened, have time to explore and let the brain wander. TIME SPENT WORKING vs NOT The institutionalization of the industry is real and dangerous to doing great work. We’re better creatively when we collide with other thinkers and get challenged by fresh perspectives. OXYGEN It’s really hard to do great, creative thinking when the foundations of a project are wobbly. But when the process is like butter, the thinking has all the room to be amazing. PROCESSES When people feel safe and valued, they perform better. This isn’t about coddling, but more about treating people as people, having empathy and understanding that it’s about the people… and the work follows. KINDNESS
  16. 16. WOLF & WILHELMINE16 I’m not the first person who has started a company or worked with creative talent. So I got all up on the business of wiser people who had already started businesses, both in the industry and otherwise. (I still get up in their business as much as they’ll let me) Main questions have been around: - Systems: billing, accounting, contracts, lawyers - Building out a team - Vision for the company - Growing - Mistakes I’M ALWAYS TALKING TO OTHER FOUNDERS
  17. 17. WOLF & WILHELMINE17 From Harvard Business Review to Medium to Women Who Run with the Wolves, I’m constantly taking in inputs. The topics I focus on are: - how to run a business meaningfully - creative environments and organization - burn-out - supporting a diverse workforce - supporting human beings, not just workers I’m looking for tips, not panaceas. My path is not yours and your path is not mine. But we can help and learn from one another. I’M ALWAYS READING BOOKS AND ARTICLES
  18. 18. WOLF & WILHELMINE18 I’ve spent the past two years saying “I don’t know” more than I ever have in my life. It’s allowed generosity to flow in. In addition to talking to other founders, I’ve tapped hard into my network to help wade through issues, anywhere from equity negotiation to approaching PR. But that means that I need to be generous in return and help that network when they need it. Karma, people. I’M ALWAYS ASKING PEOPLE FOR HELP
  20. 20. WOLF & WILHELMINE20 WHAT WE MEAN BY “LIVE GREAT LIVES” Real time away from work, both physical and mental. Time for yourself. Engaging meaningfully with the outside world. SPACE Getting more kick-ass at the things you care about. PROGRESS Mental, physical, emotional care. Feeling balanced, powerful, fueled. HEALTH Connection. Taking care of one another. LOVE Laughter is awesome (and essential). We don’t take ourselves too seriously. FUN Honoring “you be you.” Building a company around the people. Supporting people living a life of meaning and purpose. TRUTH
  21. 21. WOLF & WILHELMINE21 YOU CAN’T JUST TELL PEOPLE TO CREATE SPACE IN THEIR LIVES; THE COMPANY MUST HELP Pet peeve: Companies waxing on about “work/life” balance without fundamentally evolving operations to support it. Without changing the way you do business, you are putting the onus on the employees, absolving the company from doing much more than lip service (which is good PR). Reality? The company and employees must work together. Every Monday the core team meets to talk through work load and resources. If someone has too much on their plate, putting them in danger of being over 40 hours, we figure out strategies together to lessen the load. WEEKLY POW-WOW Coming up on year two, we completely close the company for a week around the 4th of July. America! SUMMER BREAK We do blackout vacations - no email, no contact when you're out. To help with that, we prep clients, divert workload and have developed an ease out and ease in system. VACATION BLACKOUTS No emails sent to anyone after 7pm, no Saturday emails and Sunday emails are optional. No workloads are agreed to with clients that would involve weekend work to get it done. 7 PM / SATURDAY RULE
  22. 22. WOLF & WILHELMINE22 ME (to a coach about a year ago): “I don’t understand why people aren’t taking time off.” COACH: “When’s the last time you took time off?” ME: (silence) When you’re leading, you need to show people that it’s okay to have a life. When you don’t, they won’t. AND I HAVE TO SET THE EXAMPLE
  23. 23. WOLF & WILHELMINE23 We are very straightforward with our policies around email, weekends and vacations with our clients. It is written into our proposals and our scope language and we communicate it clearly. Creating space means that everyone has to be a part of it. I didn’t know if clients would “tolerate” this (many people told me they wouldn’t). Learnings: - Clients don’t like surprises, so don’t surprise them. - Clients are nice human beings if you treat them as such. - Clients are often relieved that someone is being reasonable. - If the work is good, clients are all good. NONE OF THIS CAN BE A SECRET
  24. 24. WOLF & WILHELMINE24 If we want to build an environment where we can support our people and be accommodating to different life situations, we must figure out the parental leave policy. Full transparency: it’s tough. Being a small business in America and New York State at this moment and offering parental leave is not business- and profit-friendly. The system hardly helps. Especially if you’re running a business that, unlike tech, skews female. Best case scenario: growth and innovation of W&W slows. Worst case scenario: we get into financial trouble. We’re committed to offering it and getting it right, but it’s difficult. CURRENT “GIVING SPACE" CHALLENGE: PARENTAL LEAVE
  25. 25. WOLF & WILHELMINE25 MAKING SPACE HELPS WITH HEALTH, BUT WE DO A FEW OTHER THINGS TOO… Meet Missy, our Health & Wellness Wolf Missy’s job is to tend to the environmental, physical and emotional needs of the Wolves… which includes sourcing on-brand toilet paper holders for the Den and other things like: - Making sure our space is on point and a healthy environment - Helping with our weekly #mindrightmonday (optional) meditation session - Running bi-weekly (optional) morning boot camp sessions - Managing our fitness benefit - Booking travel so we don't lose our minds - Assisting on projects - Keeping the whole ship running smoothly
  26. 26. WOLF & WILHELMINE26 Holistic professional growth isn’t something that just happens. If I want a smarter team that is progressing in leadership, the company needs to invest in that. WE GIVE PEOPLE TOOLS FOR PROGRESS We regularly have coaches come into the company to work through either holistic leadership training or specific skill needs. COACHING Building on Wolf School, we have a network of properly seasoned professionals (ex- C-suite types) on call to advise on projects and push thinking forward. OG’s A part of our oxygen and education philosophy, we bring in guest teachers every two weeks to teach the Pack something new. WOLF SCHOOL Every full time Wolf has an annual allotment of money to spend on classes/books of their choosing. EDUCATION BENEFIT
  27. 27. WOLF & WILHELMINE27 Kim and Val taught a grad studio in Strategic Design and Management at Parsons this past semester, which meant changing project and travel schedules to accommodate their teaching schedule. All good. AND GIVE THEM SPACE TO GROW
  28. 28. WOLF & WILHELMINE28 About a month after most projects we do a hot wash. A hot wash is an evaluation of the project and how we did on several measures, including: - Pitch process - Legal, finance, SOW’s - Project design - Strategic approach - Deliverables - Free-range wolves - Wolf team vibe and energy - Client relationship These can be tough, but they spark course correction, learning and tremendous growth if done constructively. A PART OF PROGRESS IS ADMITTING WE CAN DO BETTER Lauren breaking it down… in a tent.
  29. 29. WOLF & WILHELMINE29 YOU BE YOU: SUPPORTING NON-TRADITIONAL TALENT Executive Producer Operations Producer Free-range Strategist Free-range Strategist We look for diversity of career background to bring in collisions and perspectives. As a result, we often find awesome people that 1) don’t come from advertising and 2) we don’t know what to do with right away. But for the right people, we train, make spaces and make it work.
  32. 32. WOLF & WILHELMINE32 Yup, people have said it. Because we didn’t have a big announcement when we started. Because we don’t have shiny offices. Because AdAge and Agency Spy doesn’t know who we are and/or care. (That’s probably because we don’t make ads) Because we work with clients differently. Because we take real vacations and take care of one another. Because we do things the way that we do. *That’s fun* “YOU’RE NOT A REAL COMPANY”
  33. 33. WOLF & WILHELMINE33 Culture, our country, our city, our industry… gives so much validation to the crazed worker. If you’re not busy, what are you doing? Sometimes, we have struggles when people start working with us or at key moments of growth. It’s like watching someone withdraw from heroin. As she rejiggers her sense of identity and worth, we have to give her space and understanding. CUE CONFIDENCE CRISIS’
  35. 35. WOLF & WILHELMINE35 When we started it, people resisted and broke the rule quite a bit. It took me enforcing it and calling people out on it to get it under control. 7 PM RULE WAS A TUSSLE I thought people would self- police their workload and raise her hand if overwhelmed. Ah sweet ignorance! We put the weekly pow-wow in place to so that people had a place to reflect on workload and speak up. WEEKLY POW-WOW To get people truly off of the system when on vacation, a person isn’t eligible for bonus unless she takes at least 10 days of black-out days a year. VACATIONS = BONUSES THERE HAVE BEEN MOMENTS OF TOUGH LOVE I personally hate policing. But I also realized that the things we do in our first two years will get powerfully woven into our DNA. If I don’t want W&W to turn into a sweatshop, I need to get ahead of sweatshop behaviors. Biggest learning: get my leadership team involved and personally responsible for all of us adhering to the rules. Make sure everyone is educated on how we roll. This can’t just be a top-down situation.
  36. 36. WOLF & WILHELMINE36 Working at W&W is like dating an older woman. Some people are ready for it, others aren’t. And that’s okay. It takes maturity, self-awareness, a comfort with risk, time management skills, a love of collaboration, the strength to ask for help and the insight of knowing when to take care of the work and when to take care of yourself. My initial mantra of W&W was: “If W&W ever turns into a sweatshop, I’m closing it down.” My new mantra is: “If W&W ever turns into a sweat-shop, I’m going to remove the people that are making it a sweat shop…with love.” BUT ALSO REALIZING THIS ISN’T FOR EVERYONE
  38. 38. WOLF & WILHELMINE38 THE W&W OXYGEN PHILOSOPHY IS ALL ABOUT DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES We built the company for collision. The company operates like a blob with a spine. The spine are the people that are in the company day in and day out. They know the W&W way and standards. They keep our output consistent and premium. But for every project we bring in people from our network, aka the blob. Crafting bespoke teams using this mix of talent ensures that each project has exactly the talent needed to powerfully solve the problem and it also guards the spine from institutionalization. Diversity of perspective? Check.
  41. 41. WOLF & WILHELMINE41 Our first three interns? White, male, privileged, connected. (My bad)
  42. 42. WOLF & WILHELMINE42 If you want a different system, a more competitive system, you have to be a part of building it. The system isn’t going to just change on its own. MY OH SHIT REALIZATIONS I grew up middle class and figuring out money for summer internships was up to me. I couldn’t have afforded to do a W&W internship as they were originally structured. REINFORCING THE BUBBLE If it weren’t for minority internship programs, Kim and Val might not be the Wolf Pack Alphas that they are. YOUNG KIM & VAL The guys that got the internships were good guys. But they had connected, well-off families who intro’ed them to me and then supported them once they were in. We were all participating in a well-off bubble reinforcing itself. YOUNG HEIDI
  43. 43. WOLF & WILHELMINE43 If we want a more diverse industry, we have to build the pipeline. Strategy change: our summer interns this year are coming from the same intern programs that Val and Kim came up through (MAIP and Prep for Prep respectively). In addition for doing work with the White House on their upcoming Women’s Summit, we also started doing pro bono work with the Lower East Side Girls Club, a local org that is all about breaking the cycle of local poverty by training the next generation of ethical, entrepreneurial and environmental leaders. Diversity isn’t difficult to support. It does take being more thoughtful about where we support and how we bring people into the company. DIVERSITY TAKES WORK
  45. 45. WOLF & WILHELMINE45 If you don’t create a narrative for your company and your people, they will get scared and create their own. Their narratives are accurate about 1% of the time and worst case scenario about 99% of the time. Therefore, we spend a lot of time communicating in the company. MANAGING A TEAM? OVER-COMMUNICATE. BUILDING SOMETHING UNKNOWN? OVER-COMMUNICATE. In addition to the core team weekly pow wow, every week, each wolf has a 30 minute 1:1 with their supervisor. WEEKLY 1:1’s Every six months, the core team does an off-site. We report back our first week back in office to the broader Pack about what was discussed and decided. BI-ANNUAL OFFSITES Every two weeks, we gather up and do an All Hands. The core team takes turns leading that. ALL HANDS
  47. 47. WOLF & WILHELMINE47 I’m pretty confident we don’t make the $$/hour off of our people that other shops do. Our hard revenue per person probably doesn’t align with industry standards because we just don’t book people out at the same capacities/percentages. Sorell would be disappointed. But… Our work is kick-ass, always premium and the talent is sustained. Yes, everyone has their days - mine happened to be a total breakdown in a rural Wyoming airport (it happens) - but people don’t feel fundamentally frayed. In two years we’ve had one person quit. The core team is still intact. Churn isn’t something that is a problem for us right now. Result? Without the distraction of churn, we can always move forward. WE’RE A WPP NIGHTMARE
  49. 49. WOLF & WILHELMINE49 The path to House of Pain - An agency starts with ambitions of doing great work and treating their people right. They PR the hell out of how they’re going to be the first to do it differently. - They do that for awhile. They get a cultural hit or two. - Bigger clients come sniffing, wanting some of their juice. - Bigger clients mean a bigger agency team to accommodate. They accommodate. - The agency is suddenly big and cumbersome with painful processes and decent work. Their reel leans heavily on year one and two. - The churn begins. I don’t want W&W to become a House of Pain, so I thought holding back a commitment to our future was the way to do it. UP UNTIL SIX MONTHS AGO I WAS ANTI-GROWTH
  50. 50. WOLF & WILHELMINE50 Common Heidi Year One refrain: “I don’t know if we’ll be around in a year. We’ll see where this goes.”
  51. 51. WOLF & WILHELMINE51 Yes, I was being realistic that young companies often fail. But more than that, I wouldn’t think meaningfully about growth because I thought that growth = sweatshop = failure. Having a “wait and see” mentality made growth decisions something that happened to W&W, distancing me from culpability. (Yes, writing this I realize how stupid that sounds). The braver path, which a coach helped me see, is to own our growth path and the ramifications of it. To create a vision where growth ≠ sweatshop ≠ failure. MY LACK OF COMMITMENT CAME FROM FEAR
  52. 52. WOLF & WILHELMINE52 The first two years we talked about W&W as an experiment. 
 We now talk about W&W as an idea. And we teach that idea to everyone that works with us. We have a way of working that we enforce. We stopped hedging about that or being scared of that. We started writing policies around it. We pointedly expect that to be in the Pack you need to be a part of that. And we opened more lines of communication so people feel supported in executing on it. We have more work and people now than we’ve ever had. And yet it still doesn’t feel like a sweatshop, because everyone knows the W&W way and lives it. STEP ONE: OWN WHAT YOU ARE
  53. 53. WOLF & WILHELMINE53 We have no aspirations of having hundreds of people, getting bought or having a car account. Success to us is about doing kick-ass work with a curated collection of kick-ass people. Success is treating people right. Success is staying nimble and highly responsive to clients. Success is believing in people, training them and then giving them autonomy to make it happen. I’ve been told that 50 people is where a company goes from nimble to heavy. We’re going to play it safe - the plan now is to cap at 25 people. And then grow in other ways. Which is another conversation for another talk. WE ARE JUSTICE LEAGUE
  55. 55. WOLF & WILHELMINE55 When you’re in leading the Pack, there really are few excuses. Can we recruit interns from a different place? Yes. Can we build teams to drive healthy collision? Yes. Can we train someone with high potential? Yes. Can we say no to this contract? (gulp) Yes. It really is up to you how you want a company to be. And that’s a lot of pressure. It take a lot of thought. It takes energy. THE BUCK STOPS HERE
  56. 56. WOLF & WILHELMINE56 The first couple of years of W&W I took vacations and didn’t work after 7 pm, but I wasn’t deeply being good to me. It might be a part of getting older, but I know I need to do the basic stuff like see friends, eat well, meditate, exercise, drink a lot of water and then do the not so basic stuff like get on my motorcycle and disappear into nature for stretches of time. We have this story of founders - of killing themselves to be successful. Of the obsession, the hours, the constant stress. I get it. A company grips hard. But I’m learning to have moments of deeply letting go or else this isn’t sustainable. TO DO THAT, I’VE LEARNED I NEED TO TAKE CARE
  58. 58. WOLF & WILHELMINE58 W&W is not the company that it was two years ago. In two years, it will probably be a different company. Knowing isn’t the most important thing.
  59. 59. WOLF & WILHELMINE59 The most important thing has been making the space to find the truth of the where we should generally be going. And then taking the first step with an open heart about where it can go.
  60. 60. WOLF & WILHELMINE60 If you keep that space to think and listen and learn… the answers more often than not come.
  62. 62. QUESTIONS?
  63. 63. THANK YOU