Creative career paths

Carolyn Hallowell is a designer by trade, formerly the Global Brand Director at the ONE Campaign and now the Executive Creative Director at experiential agency, ADVOC8. Carolyn has also joined Future London Academy’s Executive Programme for Design Leaders.

We caught up with Carolyn to talk to her about leadership and creativity, unconventional career paths, intergenerational wisdom and what has changed for her since joining us for the Executive Programme for Design Leaders.

FLA: There are so many things we want to talk to you about, Carolyn, but I would love to start by hearing a bit more about how you became the amazing, creative person you are today. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?

Carolyn: Well thank you, excited for the chat! I grew up in a small US town in the state of Pennsylvania called Hanover. My parents both worked full-time jobs over an hour away and as a kid, I spent quite a lot of time with my grandparents. I had a really creative childhood. My grandfather was a farmer in addition to his day job, and my grandmother looked after me, my brother, cousins, and a few other kids over the years. We were always encouraged to play outside and entertain ourselves. In the summertime, we were allowed inside for lunch, one television program of choice (Reading Rainbow was my favourite), and then back outside to play and use our imaginations. We definitely didn’t have cell phones and I never owned any kind of gaming system until I was in my late 20’s. (A good story for another time.) 

My mom, dad and grandfather had all worked for the well-known household products company, Black and Decker, and my grandfather would come home with these massive cardboard boxes from the warehouse. To us, they were solid gold. They were our building blocks that would transform into houses and forts. We even created an entire neighbourhood town in my grandparents’ basement complete with an advertising keychain store where I would make paying customers a hand-drawn keychain with their name or logo on it. So there was a constant encouragement and fostering of creativity alongside seeing and instilling the really strong work ethic from both my parents and grandparents. That ethic has followed me through my entire career.

FLA: I know growing up in a small town you don’t necessarily see lots of career paths. I can relate, when I was younger I definitely didn’t see design as a career option. Can you tell us how you came to be where you are now?

Carolyn: Totally! It’s hard to understand how to apply creativity to a career in the real world when you aren’t exposed to people or places where that is happening. More practically, I worked at my local newspaper when I was in high school where I did some sketches for stories and learned Quirk to lay out the design of the student section pages. But outside of that, I thought the only real option was to become an art teacher. To me, the idea of going to art school meant that you were going to become an artist - like a painter or sculptor. And in that context, being an “artist” wasn’t really encouraged because that wouldn't pay the bills. So when it came time to think about college, I knew I wanted to be in a city and at least be close to other “artists,” so I chose to do a Public Relations major at Columbia College Chicago thinking that could lead to a job that I could make money at.

While I adored being in the city and was in total and complete culture shock, I absolutely hated the program. I remember on my very first day the teacher came in and asked us, “what is the first thing you would do in handling the Enron scandal?” I hated that pressure. I was so naive and was really out of my depth. So I reverted to what I did know and started solving assignments from a visual perspective. It’s funny to think about now, given how strategically I operate, but for me, visual language always made primary sense to me. So long story short, I switched halfway through that very first semester to design through an Advertising Art Direction major and never looked back.

FLA: So now you’re the Executive Creative Director at ADVOC8, but before that, you were the Global Brand Director at ONE, which is an amazing global movement campaign co-founded by Bono. Can you tell us how that journey happened? It’s such an incredible progression.

Carolyn: Prior to ONE, I was working in Washington D.C. as an Art Director with a smaller PR and comms shop. Washington is a strange anomaly of a place for creatives. Being in the capital very often silos you in government relations, crisis communications, or advocacy work. You may absolutely work with some of the biggest brands in the world, but the likelihood of doing traditional B2C work that inspires a product or service to sell would likely skip your desk and get shipped to New York or LA. That is somewhat starting to shift in the environment we work in today, but that was certainly my earlier experience. 

Working in this market trains and demands you to be a highly strategic-leaning creative. You really have to understand the complexities and nuances of a challenge before arriving at a creative solution. This also means you are working with and (intimidatingly) surrounded by some incredibly smart folks. Of course I didn’t know any of this early on in my career when I was in a desperate moment of simply trying to find a job - any job - and happened to land in D.C.. The irony given my aversion to PR in my early college years is also not lost on me.

So with that context in mind, it’s a bit easier to answer the question. Ahead of moving to ONE I had PR agency, NGO, and in-house consumer brand experience. Somehow my meandering was a perfect cocktail of skills that could be applied to an organisation like ONE. At ONE, the job is to influence, educate, and persuade (Public Relations) people across the globe to advocate for the end of extreme poverty and preventable disease (nonprofit organisation addressing social and political issues) within the realities and zeitgeist of global cultures through marketing (traditional consumer brand tactics.)

I remember being quite surprised when I was given the opportunity to interview at ONE and instantly felt at home with the woman who would not only go on to become my boss, but also a lifelong friend and respected peer. Part of the remit was to grow, shape and shift the creative team, whom to this day I am incredibly proud of. Together we took on lots of creative work to support global campaigns, but most notably developed a cohesive brand that would be adapted across all countries and inspire greater cohesiveness behind campaigners’ powerful messaging. After a couple of years, I felt extremely proud of what we had built together as a team and knew that it was time for my next challenge which led me back to the creative agency world at ADVOC8. Similarly, I was brought on board to grow a creative team along with strengthening the agency’s creative work.

FLA: I think the technicalities of how someone gets promoted are very mysterious for lots of creative people, particularly if you come from a background when you don’t necessarily know all these jobs exist. How did that happen for you?

Carolyn: That’s a great question. At the risk of saying something perhaps a little controversial, I often worked to promote myself by finding a new job. Especially early on, it was hard to internally gain new opportunities and more money. And on top of that, I have always fought vicious cycles of burnout and it wasn’t until later in my career that I even recognized, let alone started to course correct that issue - and it’s something I still grapple with today. But having said that, finding new jobs and roles is also why I have had so many different experiences across different industries.

Ultimately, I’m of two minds on this. As an individual, you owe it to yourself to do some soul searching and start to carve out the space and path you want based on what you want to do and achieve. At the same time, leaders and managers have a responsibility to every single member of their team to shepherd that path. My last two promotions were into roles that were born out of dialogue with leadership and identifying what gaps and responsibilities needed to be addressed in order to better support the business or organisation. A scope of work if you will. I’ll say this again because it’s NOT at all about a title, it’s about an agreement of work. 

I often hear people say something like, “I want to be an Art Director,” but they don’t actually understand what the expectations of said position are in comparison to their current role, let alone how it might operate within a particular agency or work environment. For me, it’s not about titles. It’s about understanding the role and making sure, as an individual, it is a role you can learn and grow in. As a manager, it’s about mentoring people to help them gain the skills they are looking for as well as identify and foster things in them that they may not even recognize as a strength.

FLA: I couldn’t agree more with you on that. One job in one agency will be totally different in another.

Carolyn: This is exactly why my advice to people who want a promotion is to always ask: what do you actually want to be doing, learning or gaining in a promotion? You need those answers before you can figure out what your next role should be. This is especially true when you have only been exposed to or seen a linear progression of roles. For example, designer to art director to creative director - that’s so misleading. (And by the way, have a look at my resume, that’s what I thought you had to do!)

Firstly, a linear path of any kind shouldn't be the only way to grow in your career and make more money. But secondly and more importantly, the day-to-day execution of these roles look nothing alike. In its most basic form, you have to ask yourself, do you really want to give up being in the weeds of the work and manage people or do you want to be an expert at your craft and continue getting better at it. If your answer was the latter - that should never stunt or preclude you from growth. So when thinking about your next role, think about what you want to DO, proactively look around and identify the gaps on your team and start a conversation with your manager there.

FLA: That really is the best advice. You need to figure out what you want to be doing rather than what you want to be called. You can call yourself whatever you want.

So, we’re on the topic of leadership, can you talk to us more about what it means to you to be a woman in a leadership position?

Carolyn: Thinking back, I’ve been massively fortunate to have had a lot of strong women leaders throughout my career which is a bit of a rarity. So because of REPRESENTATION, I not only saw women kicking ass in the workplace, but could envision myself in a future leadership role too. But truly good leadership has no gender. Some of my bosses were amazing and some — not so much. Observing all of the challenges my female bosses faced was absolutely a purview into the realities that you need to be equipped with in order to navigate as a female leader in the workspace. But to me, it’s about striving to be a good leader in service to your team and advocating for creating workspaces that allow everyone to succeed.

FLA: That makes total sense. And what was the best piece of advice you were given, or what advice would you give to another woman if they want to be a successful leader?

Carolyn: Simply, my advice would be don’t try to be or act like someone you’re not. Come to the table as your authentic self along with all of the vulnerabilities and amazing experiences you can offer a team. I certainly don’t deny the realities and challenges that many women face in leadership, but I think if there’s a starting point, being your authentic self is it, because you may be offering a different perspective that no one else at the leadership table has. Just because you’re a ‘leader’ doesn’t mean you have to come equipped with all the answers. It’s your job to understand differing perspectives to make informed decisions, and that, in addition to representation, is exactly why diversity in leadership beyond gender alone matters.

FLA: That’s great advice. So again on the topic of leadership, obviously you’ve been learning from various leaders as a part of the Executive Programme for Design Leaders. Can you tell us what you’ve learnt, and anything that you’ve applied in your day-to-day work in your approach to leadership?

Carolyn: Back to my burnout. When I started the programme, I knew I was in a place of needing to figure out how to do my job better and better protect and care for myself. The programme at Future London Academy helped me to plant so many seeds which have already started to grow. It was quite simply an informed time that gave me pause to re-think, prioritise, and learn how to breathe in handling short and long-term objectives. 

When tasked with growing a team so quickly, you can often lose sight of priorities. There’s the real actual client work that has to be navigated and done well, agency and structural realities, resourcing, contracts and new business efforts, agency promotion, ensuring people have the tools they need to succeed, the list goes on and it can get incredibly overwhelming. But as I always tell my team, the work will always be there - they, as individuals, are number one. So how then, do you ensure that remains true without sacrificing yourself in the process. 

On a practical level, I learned and have started to get better at paring down, saying no, and finding efficiencies while still keeping people informed and getting things done. I really soaked up and gained so many insights from speakers on how they operationalized their day-to-day. Learning from people outside your typical space or silo of work also provides a deeper appreciation for challenges they may face. Having that better understanding and taking the time to understand, can equip you to help creatively solve challenges across agency or business operations from finance, to supply chain, to HR. Ultimately, it’s about better working with your cross-functional leaders to create a place for good work to thrive.

FLA: Amazing. I love what you said about leadership – that the key to good leadership is caring about people. It’s something you hear when you are young and you don’t realise until about twenty years later that it’s actually the best piece of advice.

Carolyn: I remember talking to my grandfather about this all the time. Being a career-driven grandchild, it was common ground and a topic that we frequently talked about together. He very fondly remembered and talked about his career and loved being a manager. When management became a larger part of my role over the years, I would ask for his advice and he would say, “You know, it’s really simple. You need to be fair and treat people with respect. Appreciate them and the work they do. And when they mess up, you talk it through with them honestly and directly, and you move on.”

It is a really simple ethos and, as best I can, have always tried to manage in that way. My grandfather never seemed to ever stress about things either, he just rolled with it. I’m really hard on myself in this area and am constantly trying to get better because I have learned that there is really no point in the stress and burnout. What’s that for? It’s a disservice to yourself, and also to your team and the people around you. I wish I could have bottled his secret sauce on how to maintain that cool.

FLA: That’s amazing advice. So, my last question, I’d love to know what your plan is for the next five, or 10 years. What’s your ambition?

Carolyn: The honest answer is that the long-term remains a question mark, but my commitment to redefining that vision is very much something that I am prioritising. There’s a bit more reflection needed on discerning what I love doing most so that I can lean into that, but for right now, I’m proud of where my path has led me, of the incredibly talented teams that I have been able to grow, and of the work that they create together every day.

Unfortunately, the browser you use is outdated and does not allow you to display the site correctly. Please install any of the modern browsers, for example:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari