Uberblond has left the building: An interview with Heidi Hackemer

Tuesday March 4, 2014

written by Mark Fairbanks

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Heidi Hackemer sensed she was in danger of becoming a fraud.

Despite leading up strategy on Google Chrome for BBH NY and sitting on panels at SXSW, her gut told her something was off. Realizing an invisible dust was beginning to settle over her and her work, she decided to shake it off and replace it with the real McCoy—from the Black Hills, Yellowstone, and the deserts of the Southwest.

On Thursday evening, March 6th, Translator welcomes Heidi Hackemer (a.k.a. @uberblond on The Twitter) to kick off the first of our evening lab sessions. She’s currently Director of Brand and embedded with the engineering pirate crew otherwise known as Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group. But don’t expect her to talk tech. Instead Heidi will unfold The American Dream Project, synthesized from her travels across the country in a Ford F150 pick-up truck.

Unconventional and brave, Heidi lays down an unvarnished view of the creative industry, relates her conversations with Americans, and professes her love of a certain Milwaukee export.

MF: In the Summer of 2011, you’re working as Lead Strategist at BBH NY on the Google Chrome account, a pretty sweet gig. And then suddenly you decide to quit your job, buy a black pick-up truck, and travel across the country. What drove you to do that?

HH: You sound like my mother.

MF: Heh. I prefer older brother, but go on…

HH: The only way I can explain it is that my soul bucked.

On the surface I was having a grand old time. Great friends, great life, exciting account, an agency that I loved. Now, truth be told, I had been at BBH for awhile and it was time to think about my next move. But that’s normal in our industry.

What wasn’t normal was that I couldn’t find my next move, which had never happened to me before. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect I see now that I was so worn out and so lacking oxygen in my life that it would have been impossible for me to really go for another big job.

Then one day it hit me: buy a truck and drive across America. It was literally a moment like WHAM – powerful, deep, cosmic. I had no choice but to say yes. And a month later I was on the road.

MF: How did that experience help to reframe how you approach the work you do now?

HH: It made me realize that my planning process was dangerously close to becoming full of shit.

I genuinely love what I do. I love creating the stories of brands, I love finding what makes people tick, I love bringing new perspectives into an agency or client. But I wasn’t doing that anymore. I was reading my Twitter feed and Mintel reports and not talking to people. You can’t do my discipline well if you’re stuck in a building, on the coasts.

Here’s the thing: the system we operate in is all about sucking as many hours and as much output out of a worker as possible. We keep our strategists tucked into the walls, pounding away on our computers 16 hours a day. It’s a very 20th century, “the man” approach.

It’s the antithesis to bringing a fresh perspective and being true to the creative process. Fresh perspective needs, well, different experiences. (duh) Read any study on creativity and it’s proven that creativity needs quiet and time and rest.

Just about every brand/creative shop seems to start with the best intentions and then— somehow, somewhere—turns into a sweat shop. I’m guessing it’s because we need to keep the lights on, the kitchen stocked and the shareholders happy, which are all good things and squeezing the employees hard is how we do it.

The thing I find funny is that we are a creative messaging industry in an incredibly crowded creative messaging landscape. Fresh perspective and creativity is how we win. Yet agencies can rarely create or sustain the conditions for those things to thrive.

I fear our industry is starting to descend into a dangerous spiral: margins are getting smaller, so therefore the people in an agency have to do more more more, which burns them out and/or makes the best ones go freelance. It’s impossible to create great work if the best talent aren’t in the conditions to create. And I fear we get further and further away from those conditions every year.

I can’t shake the sense that we’re heading into a new age, one where it’s not about us being machines hooked to machines to pound out work but about connections and creativity and interplay between our personal health and a business’ health. And if we are heading into that new era, the norms of our industry are very out of touch.

Personally, I’ve kept myself out. And that’s hard. Because it’s a lot easier to go with the flow and take a head of planning job and sit on a panel at Advertising Week. And I do miss being a part of a team. But I’m doing much better work these days. I feel like I have my integrity back.

So my pet question these days is: is it possible to create a brand/advertising company (or maybe, company structure) that is for the modern age? One that is more sane, honors creativity, works with the fluid worker… and still makes money?

I don’t know the answers but these are the things I think about.

MF: I know that you were immensely respected in the industry prior to embarking on this journey. Do you have a sense of how the industry views you now? It seems as if you can almost pick your project.

HH: I think some people think I’m crazy. I’m okay with that.

I feel like I’ve found my tribe in the industry, Translator included. There are people that have supported me and sometimes even brought me on and I am very grateful to them. There are a lot of good people in the industry and by taking this personal leap, I found them.

And I deliver on my projects. So that helps. 😉

MF: In 2012, you “formalized” your journeys as The American Dream Project. Tell us about your idea for the project, and some of what you’ve found. 

HH: The project came into being because for years I had listened to the media saying how shit everything is in American these days and how much we all hate each other. And then I went out in the truck and yes, I did see economic decline but I also met a lot of really generous, wonderful people. And I got mad. Just at a moment where we need to work together and solve things, we have a relentless media and political culture pulling us apart.

So I wanted to see what was really going on and asked my friends to introduce me to their friends and family throughout country. I talked to all kinds of people. It was wonderful. It was sad. It was uplifting.

MF: What common threads did you find?

HH: Americans love this country. It is still the greatest country on Earth.

Americans are optimistic. People will say that the world is going to hell around them but are still optimistic that they’re going to be okay. That being said, there was a lot of fear about the future. I heard of a lot of “I’ll be okay but I’m not sure about what my kid’s life is going to look like” comments.

There’s a sense that the upward mobility part of the Dream might be over, but the other part of the Dream, that I have the freedom be who I want to be and live the life that I want to live (which I personally consider to be the real Dream), is stronger than ever.

Over and over there was a sense that materialism has gotten out of control, that the federal government sucks. Period.

MF: What surprised you the most?

HH: The optimism and the love of the country was surprising. People have had it with the government, the banks, the big system, but they still believe in what this country is about at its core: a place where you can be who you want to be and life your life freely. I thought the past few years would have dampened that, but it didn’t.

I loved finding the local pride and action in places. People are taking it upon themselves to do something. I was humbled by that.

MF: You’ve worked on a lot of digital technology projects over the years. Google is sprinkled like salt all over your resume. Beyond technology—and even branding for that matter—what is something you’d kill to work on?

HH: Harley-Davidson. I have so much love and so many ideas. I want there to be Harley riders when I’m old so I can ride with them. CALL ME.

Puppets. I would sweep the floor of a puppet workshop if I could learn how to build one and be a part of a production.

MF: Here is your chance to tell the Milwaukee community about your Harley-Davidson. Let’s keep it to under 4500 words, please.

HH: Hahahahaha I swear I did NOT read this question before answering the last one.

Her name is Brünnhilde. She’s a 2013 Forty-Eight with a gold flake tank. 1200 cc. Vance & Hines medium pipes, wrapped. I’m switching my seat out soon to a leather one.

I frickin’ love that bike. I’m sitting on a plane as I write this and I’m getting chills thinking about how much I want to ride right now.

There’s nothing like an open American road and a Harley. Amen.

 

For details on the American Dream Project/March 6th evening lab, click here.

Mark Fairbanks is cofounder of Translator, an experience design studio; and cofounder of Islands of Brilliance, a creative workshop for children with autism.

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