Sunday, April 11, 2010

When The "Going" Gets Tough... Here's The Toughest of Them All: Heidi Ehlers - One Woman Army.

If you don't know Heidi Ehlers then you likely don't know "squat." Pure and pretty simple.

Heidi has been a dominant force in the creative talent attraction industry for more then 15 years, she is truly an "One Woman Army." She is the driving force behind her firm Black Bag and over the years, she has worked with some of the world's most respected and awarded companies to enhance their agencies in the acquisition of the best creative talent available. Junior to senior, and everything in-between. An expertise in the attraction and acquisition of "best" creative talent that brings the "best of creative" to the advertising industry we know and love.

She knows of what she speaks.

Heidi is one of us. Spending 12 solid years as a creative, and making it as a Creative Director by 28 after starting out as an junior copywriter trying to break in, she has also been agency principal. No matter what stage in the life cycle of a creative person, Heidi herself has experienced the many questions, possibilities, options, and the confusion that comes up with any decision to change jobs. No matter what is behind your change.

Recently I asked Heidi about what got her to this place? The answer was overwhelming, but rings so true for many creative people. Heidi explained, "I have interviewed thousands upon thousands of creative people. I ask about their goals and plans, and the future, and all the questions someone approaching their career strategically with a long term vision should be able to answer. Too frequently, I get a blank stare. One day I realized, these people just do not know because 'NO ONE' has ever had this conversation with them."

As an ex-creative she truly understands the difficulty of creativity, but even more she truly understands the difficulty so many have in selling themselves. I chatted last year with several agency people who noted, "Interesting you spend your career selling 'brands', yet the most important 'brand', 'brand you', often comes up fail."

Heidi knows what it takes to be "creative." Always an awards show annual junkie, she’s developed a perspective and an expertise on international creativity, in all forms, which rivals that of many of the people she meets.

Her current study is that of success, and how do you make it happen.

Currently she is writing a book entitled Diary of a Creative Director. The book has become "life's project" that started back in 2005 as a series of video interviews with an eye to ultimately become a book. She wanted to know what does it take to achieve uber-success as a "creative."
 She has explored how people think and do they actually behave differently than the majority? The Diary of a Creative Director video series has featured David Droga, Ari Merkin, Tony Granger, Neil French and Erik Vervroegen to name a few.

I asked Heidi what inspired her to first start the video series and now has evolved into a book. "I thought, 'I would LOVE to ask the same questions to the world's best CD's... and I will bet you they don't answer these questions the same way,' so Diary of a Creative Director was born." It started when she interviewed David Droga and Lee Garfinkel at Second City Theatre in Toronto. "We filled the house - because I gave a LOT of free tickets to students, why? because most people expected their agency to pay the $75, and if the agency didn't pay, they didn't make the investment. How do you not invest in your own success? How much did your jeans cost?"

The series continued at Cannes. "That was different, people from all over the world were dying to hear what Marcello Serpa, Tony Granger, and Erik Vervroegen had to say. Not just because of the guests - although that was some rock star stage - it was because it was Cannes. The smart people go there to learn. Diary of a Creative was a packed house in the largest theatre in Cannes.  It was the third highest attended seminar in Cannes in 2007."

Recently Heidi has taken the interviews on road, having one-on-one visits. "I like the visits." She just returned from Boulder and San Fransisco where she sat down with Alex Bogusky and Jeff Goodby. Before she left, I asked her if there is any one creative director that stands above others, who she has found most fascinating. "There is not one Creative Director I have interviewed who was more fascinating than any other. They are all such interesting people. I learn so much from each of them. Each interview has an insight in it that comes at a question from a completely unexpected way.  Every one of them."

Personally, each time I have had the privilege to sit down with some of the industry leaders, I have walked away truly inspired. I asked Heidi what has this experience meant to her, "I find the conversations inspiring, they are all about possibility, they are so honest, real, and raw.  She added, "Every single one of them is with someone with a lot of heart. What they share is incredibly generous. That's the part I find most staggering".

So how will the book work in the long run? Heidi sees it this way, "I thought a book could get the message to the largest number of people, it will cause change at the individual level, cause a group of individuals to join excited and courageous companies, create more companies filled with intentional like minded individuals, have a bunch of companies transform an industry."

I for one await the release of Diary of a Creative.

Heidi has taken what she has learned from the interviews, coupled it with her own personal experience and observations, created through Camp BLACK BAG: The Boot Camp for Your Career. This  program helps teach creative people what most of them don’t inherently know: "How to plan and mostly implement it into a great career." After 15 years and learning from them, all these conversations have laid the foundation and is the basis for the curriculum for Camp BLACK BAG. Heidi adds, "having heard over 30,000 career stories in the past 15 years, is the basis of learning and expertise for my career consulting and talent consulting business." Heidi really loves this business, "More people making more money in an industry that has re-found it chutzpah, but it all starts with the individual. As you always tell your students Anthony, 'IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME.'"

This past fall I had the pleasure of hosting Heidi with my soon-to-be graduating class. What she brought was more than just information to my future AdLanders, she brought a dialogue. Her address was based around the concept of what it takes to be a "Rock Star" Creative Director. The class was engaged for 2 hours, searching within themselves to see if they actually have what it takes. She gave questions rather than just giving answers. Many took the insights and began to use them the following night at the Advertising and Design Club of Canada award show. Her commitment to young talent was evident that night when she recognized some of those students and asked them, "How is your evening was going... did you connect with who wanted to... did you meet who you wanted to meet?"

If you are at the crossroads in your career or just starting out, do yourself a massive favour, no, better yet, be what Heidi has been all her life, "curious," "passionate" and filled with desire to be better and check out Black Bag, subscribe to the BlackBlog, join the Facebook group and dammit, start using Twitter and follow this, "One Woman Army."

Thanks Heidi for inspiring me to do better with my future AdLanders.

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