“I’m pretty sure my dream was to become a Ninja Turtle when I grew up, but I watched ‘What Women Want’ when I was 14 and from that point forward I wanted to be Helen Hunt - she was a creative director working on Nike in the flick - talk about manifesting destiny!”
It seems Conscious Minds’ associate creative director Alicia Bee certainly spoke her career into existence, but she’s come a long way since the days of creating movies behind the lens of a Sony Handycam. As well as a passion for storytelling, something that she developed early was a strong work ethic. “I was definitely a handful! I have ADHD, so my parents put me in sports as a kid to channel some of the energy, which I was really grateful for and ended up having a lot of impact on my life,” she says. During high school, she trained full time as a figure skater and even spent summers boarding at training centres. As she missed so much time at school to train, she subsequently developed a deep yearning and love for academia and independent learning.
Alicia grew up in rural Canada with a Jamaican father and her Scottish/Irish/French Métis mother - a background that has shaped her life in several ways. “As a woman of colour in advertising, my background definitely influenced my outlook, especially the way I understand power in representation. I grew up in a tiny farm town in south western Ontario and couldn’t escape quick enough.” Her small town unfortunately lacked exposure to a lot of career paths and, assuming that business school was the route into creative advertising, she worked diligently to get into the Richard Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario. After four years of business school, taking art and media electives to stay sane, and showing her resume to local agencies in London, she realised that she would need a portfolio - and that meant going to art school.
Alicia soon moved to Toronto and studied at OCAD University - her passion for art only matched by her desire for an internship at a creative agency. This opportunity would eventually arise in her third year (seventh overall) of studying, via an internship at John St. that made her cry with joy upon receiving the call. During this internship - at a time when social was still “snubbed by most creatives” - the young creative took her first professional steps in the industry, working on a social brief for Maple Leaf’s Pizza Snacks brand and collaborating with illustrator Brandon Celi.
Looking back now with her years of experience as an art director, creative director and more, a project that she highlights as a defining moment of her career is a Beats By Dre campaign featuring Naomi Osaka. She says, “I actually played a big role in writing the script and there were only eight edits in total - this is something that stays in the back of my mind as a pressure test when thinking about new ideas now.” She also mentions the Nike ‘Come Thru’ campaign that she worked on at Conscious Minds, which she commends for providing a platform for women and celebrating their accomplishments. “It was also such a powerful statement from Nike and my team was almost entirely women-led, front-to-back. It was a really impactful experience and a first for myself and my teammates. It made us feel like we were working in the future.”
Despite working her way up to intermediate levels at “some pretty great agencies” in Toronto - “a multicultural city”, according to Alicia - she couldn’t help but feel that her workplaces and the stories she was telling weren’t reflective of her. “I ended up getting really frustrated and feeling a bit lost,” she says. “My dreams of becoming Helen Hunt suddenly felt unachievable – it seemed like I needed to instead look like Mel Gibson (yikes) to be someone that could thrive in advertising.” Reaching a breaking point one day, she quit a job on the spot. She felt hopeless and her financial situation had resigned her to sharing a can of tuna with her cat for dinner when she was contacted by Canadian indie-pop artist MorMor. This unexpected meeting would lead to “one of the most fulfilling times” of Alicia’s life. “I was really involved in the music scene in Toronto at the time and I had a moment of clarity: if I can sell cars and toilet paper, I can definitely sell music. I started making calls and soon we were on a flight to LA to meet with agents and labels. Calls from artists started rolling in and snowballed into a small roster of talent and co-founding two small event production companies - ‘It’s OK*’ and ‘Pollen’.”
What Alicia loves about her job now, is the freedom her role, and the ‘come as you are’ attitude of Conscious Minds, provide for her to be unapologetically herself. She says, “I’m a really silly, romantic, doing-the-most type of person… I sign off professional emails with ‘xo’ all the time and never feel bad about it. There’s no judgement or deeper read. Little things like that can carry heavy weight.” Loving your job to this extent, however, can make it hard to set time aside for yourself outside of work and find a work-life balance. She continues, “It feels like an endless battle, but I truly believe the more time creatives spend exploring their passions outside of work, the better their ideas become.”
Besides continuing to produce excellent work and maintaining her individuality, Alicia hopes to foster and encourage the representation and voices of women in the industry, whom she says have been “ignored and pushed aside” for most of their careers. “I’m currently working amongst a creative team made up of entirely women! The majority being women of colour. And I promise you every single one takes a beat and expresses joy when they first realise. They have powerful stories to tell and I feel like the industry is beginning to take note of that.” The all-women creative team was made possible by one of Alicia’s inspirations, and her mentor in recent years, Lauren Kusmierczak - a fellow creative director at Conscious Minds and a “staunch and powerful advocate for women in advertising.”
Not only is Alicia looking forward to a more diverse and women-represented industry, but she also places emphasis on the importance that authenticity plays, regarding people’s voices and stories in advertising. “With social media garnering the most eyes and ears today, I love how much we’re looking to those who truly create culture and community to tell authentic stories. I love that we’re stepping away from glossy narratives and award culture in favour of truth. This isn’t an absolute in advertising, but it feels hopeful for what the future will hold.”
Considering the future of the industry, the creative director has several other goals. Firstly, she wants to help create more space for people without such specific backgrounds or “fancy, expensive diplomas” - which she believes often prevents talented creatives from attaining positions they aspire to. And secondly, she hopes that the work-life balance dilemma can be solved, emphasising her belief that “better ideas” come from creatives with more time to pursue external passions and hobbies. Conscious Minds, she says, is already enacting on this philosophy, “They just created the ‘Greenhouse Initiative’ which gives employees (not just creatives) grants that allow them PTO and funding to transform ideas into reality. I’ve never heard of an agency doing anything like that before and I think it’s incredible!”
As previously mentioned, Alicia can struggle with balancing her work and leisure time, “Decompression is one I’m still working on, but getting my body in motion definitely keeps me sharp,” she says. The creative enjoys hot pilates and long walks, which notably improves her mood, and she also keeps the creative juices flowing nowadays through her work on a short film about Toronto’s music scene. “I love film, music, and where they intersect. If I were to dive into one, house music is my creative soul food. I love the notion that house music is a genre born out of oppression and if you can do a two-step you’re invited - ‘this is our house’. Growing up, Alicia’s father was a house DJ, so four-on-the-floor and his selection of favourites are what “sounds like home” to her - Moodymann, Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Black Coffee, Crystal Waters, Omar S and Barbara Tucker, to name a few.
Now, Alicia is the very creative director that her younger self, dancing to her father’s house music, figure skating and making home movies, manifested into existence after watching ‘What Women Want’. She’s achieved her dreams in many ways, although she is determined to achieve much more and leave her mark on the industry through her goals with women's representation, increased opportunities for a more diverse range of people and improved work-life balance standards. When asked about what motivates her in all of these things, a lesson she learnt as a student - and has held dear ever since - comes to mind:
“I remember hearing one of my professors say, ‘tell me the truth, make my life better, or leave me the f*** alone’ and that really stuck with me. I think about that almost every day.”