First, I want to clear up for those who may be thinking it. No, I am not talking about the sadistic A&E show where a person DELIBERATELY becomes an undercover inmate at “Club Fed” in Atlanta to “better understand the criminal justice system and help evoke change in the facility.” If you know me, you know I love a good social experiment say in the safety of an elevator asking strangers about whatever is on my mind and evoking my own change in the world with one random act of kindness at a time. I am NOT, however, into social experiments located inside padded walls, using metal toilets and soap-on-a-rope or alongside hardened criminals. Cause you know, I’d be allergic to the soap and have to ask for a specially prepared meal without my allergens. Wait, do they do that? And finally no, I am not 90 days into a treatment facility but rather this is my account of my first 90 days as a new Willow Shrub.

As kids, grownups taught us that no two first rodeos are ever alike and to keep on trying even when you fail or fall down. But every pivotal moment feels like a rodeo, and falling off is falling off. So how do we handle failure or falling off? Gracefully or kicking and screaming? Is this rodeo way different from my last rodeo in being the newbie? Yep. Am I in a way different space from the last time I was the newbie? You betcha – I have had two kids and have experienced mom brain & REAL sleep deprivation! So here I am, writing about what I have learned by falling off, what being a newbie is like (again) and how wonderful the Willow team has been to dust me off and help me right back up. I’ve found these to be the things that resonate with me, the newbie, above all else.

What is the job, anyway?
In a nutshell, I am here to sort out all the stuff that stops clients (and the Willow team) from forward-motion & focus. Make the processes and timelines run smooth. Make sure they find our work interesting and on fleek. Make sure the work we do for them has the biggest impact that it can. Understand who they are and what drives them (and their customers), and line that up with what the Willow team needs. Ask them (and the Willow team) “why” repeatedly and not in a naggy wife-style. Meet, strategize, research, plan, meet, execute, meet, evaluate, meet, follow-up then rinse and repeat (and not always in that order). Really, I’m here to bridge the gap, take action, and make everyone look good along the way!

During my interview process, I had two very talented, seasoned Shrubs describe exactly what I was getting myself into from “this is what I learned in your role” to the actual job description, but oh how times have changed since I last sat in this agency chair. Circa 2007-2010, technology ruled but it did not overrun everyday communication (I saw clients more than emailing them), social media was not used as a marketing tool or a tactic in a formal communication strategy, “sharing” meant taking physical documents to clients to review vs. using Google Drive or HighTail, we still used a fax machine (gasp), not everyone had a web development team, we didn’t know what UX or UI was, iCloud didn’t exist – we backed up everything on bulky machines or wait for it….CD’s, small Zoolander-style cell phones were popular (and iPhones were in their infancy and only $199), we didn’t know what the Kardashians did on a minute-by-minute basis on Snapchat (and we were ok), marketing was driven by more traditional mediums including word of mouth, and if you “worked remotely” then you might have been fired and not known it.

With so many things being different, there are some things that remained relatively the same or changed for the greater good. Hours are still logged by the hour (quarter-hour to be exact), client’s still need agencies (even more nowadays), ideas can come from anyone in the shop (not just the designers), “work hard, play hard” is still very important, I don’t punch a time clock (but want to punch a clock when my day escapes me), processes exist (and are pragmatic), branding is a moving target that evolves with the consumers behaviors (not just yep, I have one of those), two words: digital advertising – mic drop, content marketing fuels the power of all digital communications, the customer journey is real and should not be viewed as “just another chart”, successful people take action (and don’t quit), and team really means family.

Make it YOUR space!
In corporate America, freedom of expression and differentiation are not common terms thrown about. So when I was A. given a free-standing desk away from a cubicle wall, B. a door (that slides) and C. the freedom to do whatever I wanted to my space, I was bewildered, gobsmacked and geeked. I think I might have said, “are you sure?” to Erin about ten times. I did not hesitate to use my organizing, Pinterest, and interior decorating skills to good use (AT LAST) and paused before creating a full rainbow/unicorn mural on my largest wall. Instead I got to use my love for found/repurposed objects, fabrics, added kid art & family pictures (to keep my biggest inspirations top of mind), explored chalk paint with my favorite shape, went a little extra with gold (my inner Liberace came out), added only one rainbow & two small unicorns (restraint is key), and found a good use for my outdoor string lights and old Mona Lisa. Mona got a little facelift from a talented coworker and embodied my spirit exactly. #alwayslearning #thanksLuke. So now I have a space that speaks to me. Allows my personality to shine and inspires me to work hard.

I am often asked why I wanted to come back to the agency world. Three big reasons are the appreciation for individuality, imagination, and the creative environment. This was even more apparent on my first day when told to make my space my own. In a previous life, I covered my drab cubicle walls with fabric to give my space some life. When we moved, I was asked to remove it when it was just a little too different and did not conform to the new office digs. I managed around this by adding an abundance of pictures of my family, my kids and their artwork, but that experience made it hard to feel appreciated for thinking differently or wholly within the organization. So yes, culture is a huge component to my happiness. The moment I took my first step into Willow, I realized this was “my place” and they understand culture. However, that moment was not immediate due to fear of the unknown. I remember walking into the building on one of my interviews and having complete tunnel vision. I didn’t look around, I just walked in and out. I got to my car, texted my husband and he proceeded to ask me what it was like inside. I said, “I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you one detail of the space”. This is not normal for the girl who loves rainbows and gold, so I sat at the gate (praying I wouldn’t get stuck in the gate due to my fear of automatic gates) and wondered why I was so afraid to look around. Am I what they are looking for? Did they like my work? Did I talk too much? Should I not have told Brad and Kim my fear of gates and goats? All normal feelings to have, but all of that didn’t matter. Once I understood and named my fear, it went away. They liked me for me, not what I could possibly be. This is what makes Willow so inviting and warm. Immediate adoption of all things new or fascinating: clients, ideas, processes and individuals with weird fears of gates and goats.

Lastly, in February I was able to participate in my first Willow vision meeting. As a shop, we take this day to invest in ourselves and spend the time to look forward. The theme “grow” was near and dear to me on many levels. We spent the day in a secluded, quaint space with a kaleidoscope of glorious plants. I love the beauty of plants, the shades, colors and shapes of each, and how they make me feel rooted to the earth. The extra oxygen was an added bonus too! This meeting happens annually and sets the tone for the entire year. We discussed everything from AGI to how our individual growth paths weave into the landscape of a successful year. We ended the day inspired and getting our hands a little dirty in potting soil. Yeeessss! It was all about us, including moi the newbie, and how we all envision 2018.

Proof is in the pudding.
In my first 90 days, I have met so many new faces (from clients to vendors), worked on quick turn and long-term projects to help understand how we operate from start to finish, reviewed the work that Willow has created over the past few years (and why), dove head first into a few clients to better understand their pain points and needs from a marketing approach, and recently attended (the first of many) a leadership development conference. Although I have not found a solution to world peace or reversing climate change in my first 90 days, I have been able to bring an unbiased perspective, give feedback openly to better improve our processes, and gather ideas to help our team grow in 2018.

Speaking of growing, within my first 30-ish days…I was flying solo on my first national, association-based client and projects. I jumped right into the project management processes and programs Willow uses and learned by falling a few times. I have always learned best “by doing” and the team allowed me follow the path of learning that works best for me not what a manual says to do. Little background on the work. The client needed our expertise in event marketing and developing content and messaging to reach their targeted audiences. They were launching a 24/7 booking platform at their national convention that links vendors to schools (and vice versa) from across the nation. Think of a dating app for students who manage scheduling, planning and activating campus activities – minus the dating part. The client needed help cutting through the clutter of the event, distinguish this new platform – but still complementing – the current style of booking in place, and driving traffic to their kiosk for live demos. We got busy working on two overall concepts, a print ad, HTML template, two :45 videos targeting their two target audiences, and pre-post communication plans to capitalize on the momentum from the event. This project had a quick turnaround and I had little room for error. We delivered the pieces according to the timeline, including an additional POP display, and heard high praises on all fronts from the members, board of directors, and staff who attended the event. This project gave me the opportunity to demonstrate my skills, practice my craft, feel confident in what I had learned up to that point (Willow people, programs, processes, policy) and get back to feeling creative again!

If you haven’t already figured this out, I thrive on partnering with smart, interesting and curious colleagues (and clients)…aka PEOPLE. My StrengthsFinder results yielded me as a very strong Woo. No not a “woo woo girl”, ok well kinda, but it’s actually an acronym for “winning over others”. And no, not beating them to the finish line or dominating at ping pong, but meeting new people, getting to know them and winning them over. Stranger danger was not in my vocabulary as a kiddo and rarely do strangers intimidate me today. On my bio questionnaire, I was asked what is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far. With me being long winded, clearly you have read this far to understand that, I did not have a short answer. Love who you are and just be. Be present in every moment, slow down, take a break, listen, be authentic, follow your dreams, and simplify. So many people, including myself, look to love and help others way before we even begin to pay attention to our own well-being and happiness. When we love ourselves more of the time, we have that much more to give to the world, our families, and our careers.

I still have room to grow, who doesn’t? I strive to go beyond what I know today in both my professional and personal life. I am working hard to embody the mantra, “just be” and make every moment count. I tell my little girls everyday to be positive and kind to others. Positivity and kindness are infectious (and actionable) and should be sprinkled everywhere! I want to be the best mom, daughter, friend, coworker, manager, leader and person I can. I am excited to embark on new Willow challenges, pass my knowledge torch to others, freelance my decorating skills to fellow coworkers, and use the tools I have spent years “falling off” to build up.

Sue Richardson headshot

Written by Sue Richardson

“What’s important to me is showing up for our team and our clients, whatever that looks like on any given day.”