As Young & Laramore’s longtime executive creative director, Carolyn Hadlock is the driving force behind the agency’s creative department. Carolyn has spent more than 20 years at Y&L, inspiring teams to deliver original, startling, and consistently effective creative for the likes of Brizo Faucets, Goodwill, Scotts Lawn Service, Schlage, and Stanley Steemer.
Among other noteworthy efforts, Carolyn played a key role in establishing the Brizo-Jason Wu partnership, reinforcing the Brizo faucet brand’s position as a fashion label for the home. Carolyn led the charge to have the up-and-coming Brizo fashion brand partner with an up-and-coming, unheralded, young fashion designer named Jason Wu. Since 2006, she has encouraged Brizo to sponsor Jason’s shows during New York Fashion Week, exposing influential architect and interior designer bloggers to the Brizo brand. In January 2009, Carolyn’s efforts shone through as the client—and the rest of the world—watched Jason shoot to superstardom when Michelle Obama wore his gown at the Inauguration Ball.
How did you get into the advertising industry?
I started school as a nursing major, but switched to design in my third year. After a year in my new program, my professor asked me not to return the next year, saying, “You have no talent and you’re wasting your parent’s money.” Yeah.
Dejected, I started over at an art school in Indianapolis.
My plan after graduation was to head to NYC or Chicago to work with the likes of Woody Pirtle, Paula Scher and Rick Valicenti. They were my heroes. I loved the succinct power of their work.
But, life had other plans. Towards the end of my senior year we toured this agency called Young & Laramore. It was relatively new and creating quite a scene in the Midwest. I met the founders on the tour, David Young who was a philosophy major and writer, and Jeff Laramore, a designer with a fine arts background. David was flat on his back on the floor, drawing on the underside of a table during on a conference call. They were strange, but I couldn’t stop thinking about them. So, I decided to put my big city plans on hold and start my career as an Art Director at Young & Laramore. 24 years later, I’m still here.
Any emerging industry trends?
When I first started in the industry, good advertising defined culture. Brands like Nike, Apple, and Coke set the bar and other brands clamored to ascend to their iconic status.
Today, the paradigm has flipped—some of the best advertising is coming from culture and the conversation on social media. Social causes and political issues are omnipresent in our daily feeds and in our lives. The recent political work for Hillary from Droga5 is a perfect example. And it’s not a lone occurrence—Obama was Ad Age’s Marketer of the year in 2008. The Ice Bucket challenge won 2 Gold Lions with no agency involvement, just the momentum of the public.
Many would say this shift is a result of the death of mass media and the rise of social media. Of course, those things play into it. But it’s more nuanced than that. The real struggle comes down to businesses competing with causes for consumers’ attention. The good news is that advertising’s reputation can be saved: good branding is the phoenix rising from the ashes of advertising.
Any opportunities or challenges?
The challenge is that many of us have been trained in the discipline of advertising using mass media for growth, but the world has gone grassroots. The skills and stamina required to make that shift are significant. Advertising no longer creates the wave - it rides it.
Additionally, the “revolving door” CMO culture that makes it increasingly difficult to find clients who are willing to take long-term risks. As an industry, we’re struggling when it comes to balancing agility with scale and resources. Staffing for a project-based business is a challenge for agencies. Those that have alternative revenue generating businesses outside of advertising are the ones who will thrive.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for it?
Advertising can be a very insular industry, which is why the best creative leaders I know look outside of it for inspiration.
As the daughter of a stockbroker, I have been reading the Wall Street Journal Marketplace section every day since I was a child. Understanding what drives business allows me to drive brands.
My father taught me how to identify indicators of a successful business beyond their product or service. He could easily tell if a business was one-dimensional and doomed to fail. He helped me understand that a brand is what allows a business to endure the tough times. This is the foundation I set for the creative department. And it’s why at Young & Laramore, creatives participate in strategy and positioning development and the account group weighs in on creative.
What's next for Y&L's creative department in the near future?
At Y&L, we think of creative as a mindset, not a department. On our best days, we are so integrated that the work is fluid across departments. I know we’re doing well when I see an Art Director hanging out in the media department mulling over possibilities for a campaign. From an executional standpoint, I encourage invention. We start over with every project, pushing ourselves to create something people haven’t seen before.
I also encourage infusing art into the work. Too much advertising today is over-produced, polished and manufactured. Keeping a more authentic, or raw edge to it, makes it distinctive and human. Our founders were poets and painters and I aim to maintain that sensibility.
Your key initiatives for the success of Y&L?
Internally, we have to continue to recruit top talent, which isn’t always easy for an agency that’s off the beaten path of the industry. It makes us work harder to identify potential and actively develop it. We hire for what we believe we need, but we’re also not afraid to develop the agency around the skillsets we have. Passion is the heart of internal success.
Externally, the biggest challenge we face is managing our clients’ time and resources. They’re in the same boat as agencies in many ways. Facilitating growth for them through alternative means is where I spend a fair amount of my time. Recently, I worked on a project for one our clients where we brought six well-known home accent brands together to create a style alliance: ELEVATE Design Collective. Our client, Schlage needed to move in a new direction, and move the needle quickly. Though each of the brands had strong awareness with consumers, they weren’t being included in the larger design conversation among interior designers. Though only halfway through the year, the alliance has already helped forge relationships with this key audience.
At Young & Laramore we have a deep understanding of the ethos of brands, which gives us the unique ability to find compatibility between brands and help create long sustaining impact. So often, these types of alliances are superficial, and therefore fleeting. I believe advertising’s future (and to some degree, Y&L’s) lies in creating long lasting brand alliances with a common cause to keep up with the demand for accelerated growth.
Your most difficult moment at Y&L? (and what did you learn?)
Two stand out to me. On the same day I was named partner, we lost a significant client—one I had worked on. We were starting to really gain momentum and the loss stalled us out for a bit. It was gut wrenching for me, because I felt personally responsible. After that, I realized that I couldn't do my job if I allowed the agency’s failures and successes to define me. Our job is to forge a path for the agency, not ourselves.
Several years ago, we lost our biggest client. We’d kept them for 18 years, survived five management changes, and stood with them on the NY stock exchange floor when they went public. It was a Cinderella story for everyone involved. Until the client experienced a hostile takeover, and we didn’t survive the aftermath.
At Y&L we had always prided ourselves on running lean and staying whole through tough times, but this loss left us with a bigger hole than we could manage. The problem with having a client that dominated so much of our resources was that we grew according to what they needed. Because there were a few areas that they didn’t require, we ended up falling behind in some key areas, which forced up to catch up quickly. It made me realize how important it is to develop the agency proactively to stay competitive, even if our clients don’t require those skills.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
It’s simple. When a client let’s us do what we do it inevitably makes for a good experience for them. We’ve been in the business of creating, managing, and building brands for over 30 years. Our senior leadership team has been intact for the majority of that time, so our experience is deep and wide across all disciplines. When a client allows us in at the business level and is honest about their challenges, we will move mountains to make them look good.
How do you motivate others?
By being transparent. Vulnerability is a key attribute for leadership. It allows others to see the human side of you. When you are unafraid to show the struggle, others feel more confident to take risks. Of course, not every risk is a success. But I’ve learned that the worst thing that can come of an audacious ask is the answer “no.” Creating a safe culture for exploration and risk is tantamount for a creative business.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Don’t try to design your career. And don’t set goals that limit exploration. I realize I basically just told you, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” But I stand by it—cliché and all.
Because I believe there’s value in setting your compass by curiosity, not outcomes.