Next Creative Leaders 2018: Jessica Shriftman
Posted on Nov 06, 2018
Hometown and country:
New York, USA
Current employer, city and role:
Wieden+Kennedy, New York, Creative
How did your upbringing, family or hometown shape you as a creative?
My parents are both lawyers. They never said to me, “Hey, you should be a lawyer.” They were incredibly encouraging and supportive of my life decisions. Even when I told them I wanted to attend an “advertising grad school” and study in five different countries – one that didn’t give me a degree but gave me a creative portfolio (Miami Ad School.) Their support and belief in me was unique and I was lucky for that. I also grew up with two brothers and no sisters. My relationship with them gave me the confidence and comfort to be around dudes all the time – which helped me in the ad world, particularly when I first started.
What’s your “breaking into advertising” story?
My partner and I sent bird parts to Droga5 in the mail. Yup. First we sent a card of a majestic falcon with its wings outspread and a note that said “Meet Kiki, for each day you don’t hire us Kiki is gonna get it!” We even recorded bird sounds into the card. Then we found a taxidermy turkey on eBay in Minnesota. The seller couldn’t ship it since it was so heavy. We asked him to cut up the parts for us, and told him that’d actually be preferred. I’m sure he was thinking “What the heck am I doing?” Anyway, it sounds funny reading it, but we did eventually get our dream jobs at Droga, and I finally saw the bird parts in the box and realized how creepy it actually was.
Of course Kiki didn’t get us the job, she just helped us get their attention. We followed her up with a hand-drawn book of humorous infographics containing reasons my partner and I should be hired. One of the drawings, for instance, showed how hiring us would increase their sperm count. That book was what finally got us an interview. David told us that we did some stupid things, and some smart things to get in, but that above all, we were persistent.
What’s the piece of work you’re most proud of and why?
The pro-bono campaign for the New York City Rescue Mission called “Underheard In New York.” We set up four homeless individuals with prepaid cell phones, allowing them to tweet from the streets – giving them a voice they never had. In a few days, they amassed thousands of followers, were given job offers, and one of the men even reunited with the daughter he hadn’t seen in 11 years. It felt amazing to create something that transcended advertising and was actually tangibly meaningful for complete strangers. And having Jimmy Fallon talk about it on his show was a personal-mini-high-five-woo-hoo of sorts.
What does winning this award mean to you?
Change doesn’t happen from the top, it happens from the bottom. The creation of this award is a welcome divergence from our industry’s antiquated way of thinking. Women aren’t less talented. There are so many women out there who can be powerful creative leaders, directors, bosses, etc., but haven’t been given the opportunity to be, or feared the uphill battle. I’m honored to receive this award because it shows that change is happening. I hope it helps create an awareness that inspires all the female bad asses out there to go for it.
Who has most influenced you in your career thus far?
I’m going to say Lauren Ranke. She is the Director of Creative Recruiting at Wieden+Kennedy. She found me and brought me into the Portland office as a freelancer. After that, freelance gigs were never the same. It made me want to go full-time again. I joined the New York office thanks to her. I think Lauren saw something in my work and knew Wieden would be a place I could flourish. I’m grateful to her for finding me and exposing me to W+K. It is an amazing home for me and a place where I’ve been able to make some of my best work. Lauren, if you’re reading this – thank you!
What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing women right now (work or non work related) and how would you solve it?
Women’s equality. Full stop. A recent article written by Hanna Rosin of New York Magazine chronicles something she calls the Xerox dilemma. It’s about a study conducted by NYU professor Madeline Heilman and goes something like this: Some colleagues are about to go to an office party, when at the last hour, a junior colleague shows up panicked over a broken Xerox machine. He needs to manually staple booklets due the next day. The women who go off to the party instead of helping were deemed by the research subjects as “mean” or “unhelpful” or “unpleasant.” The men were not judged at all. This dilemma smacked me in the cerebellum and really got me stirring about inequality and the double standard applied to women. When I think about Christine Blasey Ford, if she had cried and behaved anything like Kavanaugh, she would have been deemed a crazy person. The equality issue can’t be solved overnight but I think there are actions companies and agencies could take to close the gap. To start, we can’t make it an issue about women against men. Not only does that exclude a whole group of people who don’t identify as either gender, but it fuels the he-said/she-said stalemate. If we want to get rid of a patriarchal view, we don’t do it by excluding men, we do it by excluding people with those values. I believe the female-only discussion groups popping up in agencies are crucial, but I wonder if leaving men out of the discussion entirely is right too. What could be effective is a mandated equality workshop for every employee. It would be led by an outside moderator and would expose the concept of male privilege and intersectionality. With new understandings about the issues and a shared common value around equality, every man, woman or otherwise, when presented with the opportunity to act in a female-forward manner, might make better decisions.
If you were CCO of your company, what would be the one thing you’d change (if you could just wave your magic wand?)
The four-day work week. Recently a New Zealand company’s experiment gave the concept validity. And certainly, I’ve felt its benefits myself. I think everyone would be more creatively inspired, productive and happier. Maybe even kinder.
The theme of this year’s 3% Conference is “Bring it.” What do you think you bring to the table as a creative and a leader?
I bring humanity. I’ve never been the kind of person who could write those funny Skittles commercials (which are hilarious!). It’s just not me. My style of creative comes from digging up human truths from personal experiences and observations. When your idea has an insight, it has truth. Insights get clients nodding their heads. Insights get people laughing or crying because something is relatable. The other night I saw a movie and it made me laugh and cry in the same hour. It made me wonder if we all aimed to experience both laughter and tears in one day, if we’d all feel infinitely more alive, more human. When it comes to leadership, it’s one part humanity and one part passion. I’m an approachable person paired with a point of view. Any account person, strategist, client or copywriter should feel comfortable to share thoughts and engage in a healthy discussion or debate to craft the idea into what it is and what it isn’t.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past year?
In the last year, I’ve experienced the burgeoning beast that is “content.” It seems as though there isn’t a project now that doesn’t have close to 100+ deliverables, from GIFs to stories to posts to tweets. And while that isn’t going away, I’ve learned firsthand how one simple good idea can be more effective than heaps of content. Fearless Girl was a simple good idea. OkCupid DTF was a simple good idea. Colin Kaepernick was a simple good idea. When our clients want to make 50,000 pieces of content, I wonder if another approach would be to make one great thing and watch 50,000 people post about it.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career so far and how did it pan out?
I left BBH, which was a comfy home with great people, to go freelance. I wasn’t sure if jobs and income would be steady – there was a lot of uncertainty. But in the end, it made me a more well-rounded, self-sufficient creative. I encountered so many different styles of copywriters and creative directors who I learned different skills from. I was able to peer under the hood of many agencies that I was curious about. My network expanded. I discovered I loved the high of solving a problem for someone else.
How do you “fill up your cup” creatively?
I cook a lot of Blue Aprons. Just kidding! (I do, but not that.) I fill up my cup far away from the office. Nothing too groundbreaking to share but I love going to the galleries in Chelsea, reading loads of fiction, devouring movies with wonderful cinematography, and mostly talking with friends. I can’t even tell you how many ideas were spurred by conversations and stories from friends.
What’s currently inspiring you?
I’ve been listening to this podcast called “Something You Should Know.” It’s filled with all sorts of oddball, interesting facts and human psychology findings for rainy days. I also recently went on vacation to Amsterdam and went to two modern art museums there. Walking through the Stedelijk Museum and Voorlinden, I felt really creatively alive. Look up Leandro Erlich’s “Swimming Pool” in Museum Voorlinden.
What would be your dream project and why?
It would definitely be a project to do something good in this world. I’m very environmentally conscious and it pains me right now thinking how there are top politicians questioning climate change’s legitimacy. So a campaign that could tangibly curb climate change, plastic in the ocean, or even our superfluous use of plastic bags would bring me tremendous joy. I also think it’d be cool to do a campaign for Time’s Up. My friend and I actually have a pretty neat idea for them that I’d love to bring to life – hoping they’ll see this.
How are you leaving the work, the workplace or the world a better place than you found it?
I remember being a student and how infrequently I would get responses back to emails – so I personally make it a point not only to write back, but to be generous with my time by inviting students to speak over the phone or at Wieden’s offices. I’ve also been mentoring a few young women who are starting out in the industry. I’ve been giving them advice not just about their portfolios, but about negotiating and helping them see their worth. Paying it forward is an important pillar for me.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to women embarking on a creative career?
Shift your vision to see yourself as the most powerful asset there is right now. When I first started out, I thought my gender would hinder me and that it would be easier if I were a guy. There was a period of time when I didn’t want to get my hair highlighted so as not to make myself any more feminine. Whether I was right or wrong about it then, today is a different ballgame. I can feel it. I can see it. Brands, clients and agencies are all seeking out women and recognizing their unique points of view. Women are better multitaskers, listeners, collaborators – the list goes on. So start seeing being a woman as a leg up, not a leg down.