Johannes Leonardo creative director on how connections have helped shape her career and why the industry needs to make better effort to form relationships with potential future stars from underrepresented communities
Rachel Frederick, a creative director at Johannes Leonardo, shares how important connections in the advertising industry are in building careers, and how learning this early on has helped to inform her mission for inviting underrepresented and marginalized groups into the industry.
Q> Is there one event / piece of wisdom from your career that's always stayed with you? What is it?
Rachel> The world is incredibly small. The world of advertising is even smaller. Never underestimate the power of personal connections and how important they are in current and future opportunities.
Q> Set the scene! How old were you when you learned this insight, where were you working, how long had you been there, what year was it, what was your role and how were you feeling generally about your career at this point?
Rachel> I had an inclination that connections mattered, but it wasn’t until 2010 when it really sank in. I had been working in the ad industry for a few years and I figured it was time to either commit to staying in Indiana forever or try to go to New York like I’d always wanted.
Q> Did something as a young creative happen that made you remember this? Or was there a re-connection with someone that inspired this?
Rachel> I’m from Ohio and always dreamed of moving to New York. But when it came time to apply at colleges, I ended up going to school closer to home in Indiana.
Looking back now, I was nervous stepping outside of my comfort zone.
Logically, I ended up getting an internship in Indianapolis and then worked at my first couple of advertising jobs there. It was the community I knew and where my professors had worked. I didn’t have a clue as to how one could break into the New York scene. I’m grateful for the Indy ad community and for all that I learned, but it seemed like my high school decisions and fear of the unknown had somewhat decided my future trajectory within the industry.
First job at Publicis Indiana
Cut to a few years later, I decided it was time to try to move to New York. I made a bunch of paper portfolios and dropped them off to anyone and everyone who was willing to take a look. This was around 2007, when online portfolios weren’t really a thing yet (at least not that I knew of). People were nice, especially Ari Merkin at Toy, but there were no bites or even invitations to get coffee.
In 2010 I tried again, this time with an online portfolio and a friend in NY advertising. As luck would have it I became friends with Ben Butler, a senior copywriter at BBDO, when he started to date Megan, a good friend of mine from college. Ben told me about external recruiters and how to work with them. But even then, it became apparent that I needed an additional advocate to get me in the door of some of the larger agencies. I had told the recruiters that I wanted to work in the city and that BBDO was my goal, yet they continuously directed me outside of the city at agencies that weren’t very well known. Perhaps this was because they saw that I was coming from a smaller market and maybe they didn’t think that BBDO would be interested because of this. Either way, I wasn’t getting the opportunities I wanted.
Luckily, Ben knew that there was a senior art director position open at BBDO. So, he ended up going into Esther Danzig’s office, the internal recruiter at BBDO at that time, and asking her to look at my portfolio. Turns out, none of my recruiters had even sent it to her for consideration. Long story short, she liked my book and I got hired. BBDO moved me to New York and my life completely changed.
Had I not had Ben as a friend and advocate, I don’t think I could’ve broken into the New York industry like I did. And, even though the details of my story might be slightly different, it’s not unique to many others in the industry. Ask most people how they ended up getting their first job or big break and they can likely trace it back to someone they met and formed a relationship with. Connections matter.
Q> Did you get some words of wisdom from a particular person or is there a key, influential person in this story? Tell us about them!
Rachel> One time, Juliana Cobb - a good friend, mentor and boss in NY - was judging an award show in Minneapolis, MN. She sat next to another ECD from an ad agency in Indianapolis, IN. They started talking and realised that they both knew me quite well. Good thing they both liked me! I’ve seen time and time again, it doesn’t matter where you go, your reputation within the industry will follow you.
Now that I’m on the other side of hiring, I realise how important reputation and connections are, even more. If you’re known as a nice person and a creative, hard worker, it could mean the difference between getting the job or not. And, the only way those attributes can be praised is if you have the right connections who are going to sing them to the right people.
Recommendations for people to hire, both to just get their foot in the door or tip the job in their favour, often come from the relationships we have been privileged to form throughout our time in the industry.
Q> Why do you think that struck such a chord?
Rachel> I’m glad this is something I was lucky enough to learn fairly early in my career. But it also plays a large role in creating a more just and diverse industry. There’s been a lot of talk about how important it is to do a better job at hiring underrepresented people, especially in the last couple of months.
But what is the single most important thing people from underrepresented and marginalised groups lack? Connections. We need to do better with this. Those of us who are already in the industry need to actively work on forming relationships and championing talented people who come from more nontraditional paths.
Q> How did this lesson change you as a person and in your career?
Rachel> Understanding how important relationships are has guided me in how I try to interact with others in my day to day. Even if I were to leave the agency or vice versa, I know that I’ll meet these people again someday, one way or another. So even if a situation makes me so mad I want to burn it all down, and believe me there have been a few (ha!), I try to value people and respect them no matter what.
Apart from how I conduct myself individually in the industry, I’ve also taken this to heart when I think about who we bring in to hire and how we recommend people for new opportunities. It’s important to create outreach programs within our agencies, and to also personally reach out and make ourselves available to people who might be interested in advertising but might not have the money or opportunity to pay for the connections the expensive ad schools help to supply.
Q> Is this lesson something you now share with others – if so, how do they respond to it?
Rachel> I try to remind younger creatives that the industry is small. Act in every situation the way in which you want others, even way beyond your current agency, to know and understand you. Granted, people will grow and mature throughout their career, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind even early on.
And most importantly, I think it’s important for us all to recognise that we’re certainly an industry full of talented and driven people, but nobody has gotten to where they are now without some sort of help.
We should all intentionally do our part to invite others in.