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Uprising: Helen O'Higgins’ Road to Advertising via Edible Sculptures


The art director at Folk Wunderman Thompson on the world of novelty cake sculpture, entering Cannes Young Lions and illustrating a children's book, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani

Uprising: Helen O'Higgins’ Road to Advertising via Edible Sculptures

Working and studying several disciplines such as fine art, cake sculpture and graphic design, Helen O’Higgins took a while to figure out exactly which direction she wanted her career to go in. Now at Folk Wunderman Thompson in Dublin as an art director, it’s safe to say that she’s found the career for her.

An artistic child, Helen was obsessed with the outdoors, the sea and music, but above all else, drawing. She says, “I did all kinds of creative things (I was always making) and tried any medium I could get my hands on, but drawing was so immediate.” With the ability to create without preparation, at a moment’s notice, she describes how this particular creative expression resonated best with her. “The obsession started when I was tiny — in some of my earliest memories, I’m drawing — and that obsession didn't really go away.” As someone surrounded by family and friends that were academic, Helen initially resisted the creative industries, “I thought the right thing to do was to be ‘sensible’ about my future. And that didn’t include becoming an artist.”

Inevitably, college applications caught up with Helen and she decided that the only thing that made sense to do was art and so she applied to the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin. “I’ve no idea what I’d have done without it”, she says, reflecting on her decision to leave the academics behind. As a first year, the college allows students the opportunity to try out different departments before specialising in their second year. But the decision wasn’t easy. Helen battled with the choice between the ‘sensible’ Design degree or the ‘impractical’ direction of Fine Art. She says, “And again, ‘impractical’ won out.”

Within her Fine Art specialism, Helen chose Print as her main focus, “I had clicked with this in my first year and etching, which interested me particularly felt like a natural fit for my skill set. The printing processes fascinated me: they felt like one part art, one part science experiment and a bit of magic.” She also reflected on the balance between industrial machinery, stone, metal and acid that created the atmosphere of the print studios, which piqued her interest. With a clear knack for the craft, in her graduate show she won a scholarship at the Black Church Print Studio, where she continues to practice printmaking, “but sadly not as much as I’d like,” she notes.

Finishing college, with a world of opportunities, Helen found herself in a job that she never expected, at a cake shop, where she became a designer. “This involved creating all manner of sculptures out of cake. It was hands-on and creative which suited me and I stayed there for a couple of years but it wasn’t the job I intended on doing in the long term, and I knew there was something different I wanted to do, but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.” With a honed craft in creating specialist, novelty cakes, Helen wasn’t sure of where else she would fit in the creative world. “I knew I wanted to move towards a career in design or advertising, but I didn’t know enough about either and one major flaw was that, for all intents and purposes, I didn’t know how to use a computer. I was analogue to the core.”

With an idea of the direction in which she wanted to go Helen decided to set herself up as an illustrator, create a whole new portfolio of work and open an online shop, before applying to study Graphic Design at Ballyfermot College of Further Education. Describing herself as studying ‘like a maniac’, Helen was determined to make up the lost ground of avoiding the digital aspects of creativity. Her relentless determination to learn meant that she did catch up and it became pivotal to the career that she would soon pursue.

“Up to this point, I felt like I’d been wandering around the peripheries of where I should be for years in terms of my career,” says Helen. When it came to art direction, she had no idea what the role entailed nor how to get into it, it was a job that she says would go on to satisfy her ‘variety of creative interests’ while simultaneously giving her the ability to communicate with people and hone her competitive streak. Helen says, “It was a few months after I graduated from Graphic Design that I discovered art direction was the way to go for me. It was not just exciting to have something to work towards, it was a relief to find somewhere that I felt I would fit. I just had to find a way in.” That was when she was accepted into Upstarts Graduate Programme in the advertising stream. “In this programme, you receive a weekly brief from a different Dublin creative ad agency and over the course of the week, you develop a campaign and present it to the agency, who then feed back on your ideas.” Here is where she says her career in advertising was kick-started. 

In the initial stages of getting into the industry, Helen learnt a lot about herself, namely that doubt and self-consciousness often held her back. “I know I need to push myself to be open. Share ideas, even if you’re afraid to (especially when you’re afraid to) — sometimes these turn into your best. When you share your ideas and give them space to breathe, they can become bigger and better.” She also mentions how important it is to have a creative partner that makes things easier, more fun and creates a comfortable environment (“Say the weird thing. Have fun”).

Whilst interning at Havas Dublin, Helen experienced her first professional project. “It was an exciting and meaningful one for me. We were creating a campaign for the launch of 50808, a new and innovative text-based mental health service aimed at young people. I remember feeling the pressure to prove myself in my new role at Havas, but also the pressure to truly connect with people experiencing a crisis through the campaign.” It was during this period that Helen entered Cannes Young Lions with Ben Fraser for their campaign with CyberSafe Ireland, a charity working to navigate online safety for children. Helen says, “To our great surprise and delight, our ad was selected as the winner. This felt like a significant step into the world of advertising and it was my first taste of the buzz of having our work recognised in this way. It made me hungry to make more.”

Helen also worked on a piece of work for FoodCloud, a social enterprise that connects businesses and charities to bridge the gap between surplus food wastage. “Food waste has always been one of these subjects that really riles me up, so from the get-go I was eager to create something impactful,” says Helen. With a small budget, they were able to create a campaign that linked the impact of food waste with the environment and encouraged people to join their mission. Helen says, “the resulting campaign called ‘Food waste hurts our planet’ was one that I and our clients were really proud of. It felt extra special to have it win some awards too.” Part of what she enjoys is the process of problem solving with creativity, “It’s a great feeling to present ideas to clients who get as excited by the work as you do.”

With a large variety in what she does day-to-day, Helen says, “art direction allows me to be creative every day and this is so valuable — I think I might lose my mind otherwise. It’s a job that makes you think in different ways every day, that makes you learn about things you never thought you’d be learning about. It really is different every day.” She continues with the parts of the industry that get her up in the morning. “It’s exciting to be experiencing the proliferation of new media channels and the creative opportunities that come along with these. There’s a continuous learning process in staying up-to-date with technology and finding out the best and most engaging ways to communicate through them. It’s exciting to see the innovative ways that brands and agencies around the world are utilising these.”

The advertising industry, however, is not without its challenges.  “In advertising, there can be an inherent tension between what you might think of as a great concept and the constraints of any given campaign — whether that’s budget or logistics etc.,” says Helen. But nailing the output for clients is what she finds the most rewarding. In 2020, Helen joined Concepts + Cailiní [‘girls’ in the Irish language] and explains why. “There are so few female CDs, many women in creative advertising roles, have nobody to look up to when it comes to female creative leaders in the workplace. In the absence of this, the collective connects women in creative advertising roles in Ireland and seeks to encourage and support them and ultimately make sure more women progress to CD roles.” As a ‘relative late-comer’ in the industry, Helen found solace in meeting like-minded women in similar positions.

Helen’s also a member of Illustrators Ireland, a non-profit organisation that supports the development of Illustration in Ireland. “Its members are professional illustrators from (or working in) Ireland and are an excellent source of advice, encouragement and support,” she says. 

While she’s part of groups within the industry, Helen also spends her time cooking, reading, playing music and getting outside to tear her away from the creative world of advertising. “I find it so important to create time when you can disconnect, when you’re not trying to solve work problems (or any others you may have) and exercise is one of the rare activities where you can totally tune out everything else — I always feel better after it.” 

Although she values alone time, Helen does also value being with friends and family to recharge. During the pandemic, she lived between Dublin and Schull in West Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland. “I have come to Schull every year since I was born and it’s the home of many of my happiest memories,” She says. Like many, Helen started at Folk Wunderman Thompson in 2020 during the period where lockdowns were first implemented, she says, “just two days before we were all sent to work from home for a ‘two-week period’ which we were told might be extended if necessary… we all know how that story goes.” Meeting her colleagues online, learning the ropes virtually and having little social interaction, Helen quickly missed personal interaction that she wouldn’t have otherwise craved under normal circumstances. 

When she does take time for her hobbies and side projects, Helen turns to making artwork and running her own online shop. Additionally, in 2020, she illustrated her first children’s book, Mr Spicebag by Freddie Alexander. She says, illustrating a book has always been something she wanted to do. “It was great fun bringing the Freddie’s characters and world to life visually. This was a special project for me.” And that’s not all, she plans on many more coming out soon, “although finding the time can be a challenge!”

In a competitive industry, Helen says, “it’s hard not to compare yourself with others. Seeing people’s great work really drives me, but in a way, I also feel competitive against myself. Pushing yourself to create something better every time keeps you motivated and active. 

“On off-days, I feel myself getting very frustrated and imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, I get very doubtful of my abilities. However, when this happens, I find the energy of my colleagues — and the creative team in particular — is an amazing source of inspiration and motivation. Sometimes chatting to them, often about non-work-stuff, allows me to reset my brain and get excited about the ideas again. I’m lucky to work with such a talented and enthusiastic bunch of people.”

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Folk Wunderman Thompson, Thu, 17 Feb 2022 17:30:00 GMT