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5 Minutes With… Carren O’Keefe

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AnalogFolk Portland’s Partner/Creative Director on the Portlandia stereotype, subconscious creativity and why people are more than just ‘resources’

5 Minutes With… Carren O’Keefe

At the heart of the creative personality there lurks a paradox. On the one hand, that drive to find better, smarter, more interesting ways to solve problems means that it never quite clocks off, always noodling, always churning, always prodding, always questioning. On the other, the biggest breakthroughs drop into the brain, seemingly out of nowhere, when it is at its stillest. That’s why Carren O’Keefe, Creative Director and Partner at AnalogFolk in Portland, is also a certified yoga instructor; in between the blasts of activity it’s important to take time to embrace the calm. And this past year and a half has seen a lot of activity – 18 months ago Carren set up the Portland office for AnalogFolk and in that time it has grown from a team of three to 20. It’s an exciting time for Carren – and with AnalogFolk she’s at a place where she gets to really play in that space where the digital and physical worlds meld seamlessly.

LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Carren to pick her brains… 

LBB> What was your vision for the Portland office of AnalogFolk and how has it evolved?

CO> We originally opened the office to be closer to our main client – this little shoe company in Beaverton. You’ve probably heard of them - but we can’t talk about them. The vision at the time was to have a small, on-the-ground team working with our larger NY team whilst being in PDX to strengthen our relationship with the brand. We quickly realised that there was a much larger opportunity than a satellite team. We decided to develop the Portland and NY offices to be stronger than the sum of our parts – serving global clients and US with complimentary teams on two coasts – meaning we could be really good at certain disciplines rather than mediocre at everything. The original three-person team has grown to almost 20 in less than a year. We’re setting our sights on new possibilities in and beyond Beaverton.

LBB> You’ve been with AnalogFolk for about a year and a half - what’s that journey been like?

CO> It’s been a roller coaster to say the least. Growing from one to about 20 staff has certainly had its ups and downs. Every day is an interesting challenge. It’s incredibly exciting, it’s very rewarding, but it’s not always pretty and it’s not always pleasant. When I take a step back and I see what this amazing team of ridiculously smart, talented and humble people have been able to accomplish, I think about what we could accomplish next and it makes me never want to get off this ride.

LBB> Where are you from originally and how do you find living and working in a city that is, in many ways, a holy grail for creative folks? How much truth is there in the ‘Portlandia’ caricature?

CO> I’m originally from a very small town in Central Pennsylvania – but I’m a city girl at heart. I lived in NYC for five years before moving to Portland. I really thought I would move here for two years, get some experience on a brand I loved and move back. After about six months I was like, “Who am I kidding? This place is amazing.” There are many reasons why, but a big part of it is the access to the outdoors and a city that thrives on being active. It’s also a place that values creativity but also work/life balance, which is something we don’t necessarily champion as an industry. Personally I don’t think you can be creative without work/life balance. No one is super creative chained to their desks.

There’s definitely truth to the ‘Portlandia’ caricature but Portland is an evolving city. With the influx of people moving here in recent years the city is transitioning. Some think it’s good, some think it’s bad. We didn’t have food delivery or Uber when I moved here… Personally, I’m thankful I can eat Pho without leaving my apartment and drink a whole lot without worrying how I’m going to get home.

LBB> Since launching the office, which projects have been most exciting and rewarding to work on and why?

CO> I love doing work that changes the way people think. Work that has an impact or value beyond innovating for the sake of it - or using technology to simply say you were the first. Currently we’re working on some things that have the potential to truly shape and shift culture. That’s incredibly exciting to me.

LBB> You got into advertising as a copywriter and now you work in this really fluid, user-focused, digital/analogue space – how relevant do you think the old creative titles are?

CO> It’s a crazy, complicated world we live in but I still think creative titles are very relevant. At least as a starting point for identifying skills and experience. I hate when people have ‘Creative’ as their title. To me, that means you can’t do anything exceedingly well or you’re trying to sound more creative than you are. Being a copywriter, art director or whatever… that doesn’t mean you’re silo’d and restricted to that creative discipline. I love that people are more multi-faceted and multi-talented these days – especially in a small shop like ours. In fact, we look for ‘unicorns’. People who can do many things beyond the typical definition of a specific role and can do it really damn well. It goes back to being mediocre at everything or really good at something. Your talent should speak for your creativity – not your title.

LBB> In your bio you talk about being right at home now that the line between the ‘real’ world and the digital world has all but disappeared. Why do you think that blurring lines freaks some people out? And what is it about that increasing fluidity that you find so cool and exciting?

CO> Things get messy and complicated when you can neatly define the roles and responsibilities of channels or executions or agencies. I love it because I don’t want to do digital. I don’t want to do traditional either. I want to do whatever makes the most sense and will have the most impact for the problem we’re trying to solve.

LBB> You also talk about user-focused ideas. From a creative point of view, do you think that being able to devise these sorts of ideas, empathising with users’ needs and experiences, necessitates a particular kind of personality or approach (compared with, say, more ‘traditional’ creative)?

CO> I don’t think so. I actually don’t think it’s that complicated. You look to solve a user’s problem – not a brand’s. It doesn’t matter if it’s traditional, digital, experiential, whatever. In the end, it’ll also benefit the brand by creating a deeper connection with their target consumer. And on a creative level – it leads to work that isn’t gimmicky.

LBB> What’s the most frustrating thing about the industry right now? And the most exciting?

CO> My biggest frustration with the industry is the fact that we essentially sell hours of people’s lives. It’s not a new thing – but it’s a systematic problem that’s not conducive to doing the best creative work. When client budgets start driving who can be in meetings, who can stay involved during execution of ideas, what level they can work on what projects and so on… It infuriates me. The word ‘resource’ is one of my biggest pet peeves. Our team members are not ‘resources’ that can be checked in and out like library books. They’re smart, passionate people who should feel valued as such and have ownership of their work. It might seem silly but we’ve changed our weekly ‘resource’ meetings to ‘time planning’ meetings.

I think the most exciting is something a lot of people would see as a frustration, but for me it’s the cluttered landscape. There’s so much shit out there now that when you do something that really breaks through – it’s even more rewarding.

LBB> I usually ask people if they always wanted to get into advertising or if it was an accident, but looking at the whirlwind of internships and education you put yourself through, it looks like you were really determined! Is that an accurate assumption? Was advertising always what you wanted to do? If so, what drew you?

CO> It was, which is unusual for me because I change my mind about everything. I went to college with the assumption I’d want to change my major but I fell in love with advertising. Which is so uncool and I’m jealous of people who have a more interesting story than mine, but it’s the truth.

I didn’t know it at the time – but it was the idea of solving a business problem with a creative solution that really drew and draws me. Every brief is a new opportunity to fail or succeed. There’s something exhilarating about getting an assignment and not knowing if you’re going to be able to come up with the answer or not. It’s scary as hell. So when you do, when the idea comes, it’s the best feeling in the world. Especially when you know it has the potential to transform your clients’ business, if not the world. It’s addictive.


LBB> You interned at Ogilvy Brasil – that must have been an awesome experience! How did that come about? What is the one memory that sums up your time there?

CO> I interned there as part of the Miami Ad School Quarter Away program. It was one of those transformational experiences that changed me personally and professionally forever. Ogilvy was great, but it was really living in the third most populated city in the world where I didn’t speak the language that impacted me. Like I mentioned, I grew up in a very, very small town. I remember standing on the roof of our apartment on the 18th floor and I couldn’t see where the city ended. Talk about culture shock. It took a different kind of creativity to figure out how to communicate and live there.  After that – I felt like there wasn’t anything in the world I couldn’t work out.

LBB> You’re a certified yoga instructor! How did you first get into yoga? And do you find the practice helps you creatively?

CO> I got into yoga when I still lived in NY as a way to workout. The more I did it, the more I realised what all the fuss was about from a mental and spiritual standpoint as well as physical.

A lot of creativity is subconscious. Problems figure themselves out while you’re not thinking about them. The problem is – I don’t know how to turn my brain off. When I’m trying to figure something out I won’t stop thinking about it. Yoga forces me to focus on something else. You can’t think about work problems and balance on one foot while engaging your core, and squaring your hips to the floor as you control your breathing - all at the same time. You’d fall on your face. So it obviously helps with stress, but it also gives my subconscious some space to step in.

Learning to teach yoga also really helped hone my writing skills. You have to be concise. You have to be clear. You have to take people on a journey knowing when to amp things up and dial things down. And in the end – it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you make them feel

LBB> I’ve got to ask - what have you got against rotary phones?

CO> They’re incredibly inefficient. Nostalgically cool – like a record player, but let’s be honest – streaming music is better 99.9% of the time. And I don’t like to be tied down – especially to a wall.

LBB> And what advice would you give to any young person thinking about getting into advertising as a creative?

CO> Just do it.

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Genres: People

AnalogFolk London, Tue, 04 Oct 2016 14:29:50 GMT