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YES WE CANBuilding creative and diverse companies
MAY 2016 WOLF & WILHELMINE
WOLF & WILHELMINE2
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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
TEN THINGS I’VE LEARNED
THE PAST TWO YEARS WHILE
BUILDING A CREATIVE AND
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
W&W WAS BIRTHED FROM PAIN
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
WOLF & WILHELMINE12
Realization: I needed to build something
that didn’t exactly exist yet.
For this industry
Works with today’s tools and speed
Embraces the modern workforce
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
I’M ALWAYS TALKING TO OTHER FOUNDERS
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
- 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
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
THE COMPANY & THE PEOPLE
HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER
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
Getting more kick-ass at the
things you care about.
Mental, physical, emotional
care. Feeling balanced,
Connection. Taking care of
Laughter is awesome (and
essential). We don’t take
ourselves too seriously.
Honoring “you be you.”
Building a company around
the people. Supporting
people living a life of
meaning and purpose.
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
Coming up on year two, we
completely close the
company for a week around
the 4th of July. America!
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.
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
WOLF & WILHELMINE22
ME (to a coach about a year ago):
“I don’t understand why people aren’t taking time off.”
“When’s the last time you took time off?”
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
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
- 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
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
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)
- 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
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.
Building on Wolf School, we
have a network of properly
seasoned professionals (ex-
C-suite types) on call to
advise on projects and push
A part of our oxygen and
education philosophy, we
bring in guest teachers every
two weeks to teach the Pack
Every full time Wolf has an
annual allotment of money
to spend on classes/books of
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
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
- 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.
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.
WOLF & WILHELMINE30
FINALLY, WE HAVE FUN AND TAKE CARE OF THE PACK
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.
“YOU’RE NOT A REAL COMPANY”
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’
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
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
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.
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
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.
WOLF & WILHELMINE39
GENDER AND RACIAL DIVERSITY?
WE ARE TOTES KILLING IT.
(aka the DIRE WOLVES)
WOLF & WILHELMINE40
GENDER AND RACIAL DIVERSITY?
WE ARE TOTES KILLING IT.
(aka the DIRE WOLVES)
WOLF & WILHELMINE41
Our ﬁrst three interns?
White, male, privileged, connected.
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
REINFORCING THE BUBBLE
If it weren’t for minority
Kim and Val might not be
the Wolf Pack Alphas that
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.
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
DIVERSITY TAKES WORK
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.
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.
Every two weeks, we gather
up and do an All Hands. The
core team takes turns
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
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
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
- The agency is suddenly big and cumbersome with painful
processes and decent work. Their reel leans heavily on year one
- 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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
TO DO THAT, I’VE LEARNED I NEED TO TAKE CARE
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.
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.
WOLF & WILHELMINE60
If you keep that space to think and listen and
learn… the answers more often than not come.
WOLF & WILHELMINE61
PAIN & LOVE ARE YOUR FRIENDS
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
THE COMPANY & THE PEOPLE HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER
CULTURE IS A BITCH
SOMETIMES YOU NEED TO SMACK DOWN
THE SYSTEM REINFORCES ITSELF
YOU CAN’T TALK TOO MUCH
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE
GROWTH ONLY KILLS IT IF YOU LET IT
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF