Why we need to destigmatize mental health in adland and hire more diverse creative leaders.
The mental health epidemic is no secret these days. Our insights from The Rosie Report found that 80% of traditional full-time marketing employees say their work affects their mental or physical health. 62% of traditional full-time marketing employees have suffered burnout in their current role, compared with only 36% of freelancers. During the COVID-19 work-from-home mandate, our research saw an increase in the percentage of employed marketers who say they are exercising and sleeping more, have been practicing better self-care, and have felt less work-related stress since working from home. This data provides insight that flexible talent models allow the space, time, and freedom for these practices to benefit our work and our overall mental health. In this episode of the Rosie Report podcast, Steph sits down with Laurel Stark Akman, a Creative Director and Copywriter – and member of the Rosie community – to discuss the importance of destigmatizing mental health in adland and why we need more diverse creative leaders.
Laurel is known for her passion for starting hard conversations and facilitating change using creativity, empathy, and honesty. This is clear in the work she does as co-founder of Next Creative Leaders, a portfolio competition through the collaboration between The 3% Conference and The One Club that identifies, celebrates and gives a global platform to talented women and non-binary creatives who are making their mark on the world with both their work and a unique point of view on creative leadership. Laurel is also co-founder of Our Silent Partner, a crowd-sourced reflection on mental health where creatives in our industry can turn their struggles with mental health into a public portfolio of creative work in order to encourage us all to talk, open and honestly.
Steph Olson: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Rosie Report Podcast where I chat with industry change makers about re-imagining a more equitable future of work in advertising and marketing. I’m your host Steph, founder of We Are Rosie. And today, I have the pleasure of welcoming our guest Laurel Stark Akman, Creative Director Writer, Co-founder of the One Club’s Next Creative Leaders which I’m probably on the jury for this year. And co-founder of Our Silent Partner, a crowd source reflection on mental health. Today, we’re going to be chatting about the importance of de-stigmatizing mental health in ad land and why we need more diverse creative leaders. Welcome Laurel, so honored to have you on the show today.
Laurel Stark: Oh my gosh. I am so excited too. I feel like I manifested this conversation. You’re one of the people that inspires me the most so I’m really excited to get some face time. I know we covet the social interplay but it’s nice to be chatting.
Steph Olson: Yeah, same. And it is so much fun I’m newer to Twitter land and I feel like I’ve really made friends on there. I feel like I live in a neighborhood on Twitter and I have my Twitter neighbors and we look out for each other and we hold each other accountable and it’s this really beautiful thing so.
Laurel Stark: It is, it’s like the nice side of Twitter.
Steph Olson: It is yeah and then you get into dumpster fire Twitter and you’re like, “Oh God, I need to let go smudge.”
Laurel Stark: Made a wrong left turn got to go back.
Steph Olson: Take me back. Get me out. I’m super happy to be talking to you. I mean, even as I am reading the intro with all of the things that you were involved in, I mean you’ve got a lot going on.
Laurel Stark: Yeah. I mean, luckily none of it is a full time job so magically it’s one of those positive things about being freelance which I have been most of my career I’d say or at least a chunk of. So it does, the magic of things falling into place and giving you the space and time to work on passion projects and start things and start conversations and roll things around in your head for a while. I think that that’s been one of the benefits for me. But yeah, I have a lot of things going on but luckily I have the space and time to work on them and a lot of amazing, amazing, amazing support and collaborators so I’m really lucky.
Steph Olson: It’s really cool to hear you say that Laurel because we hear that so much from our freelance community at We Are Rosie that once they join the freelance revolution or become entrepreneurs or however you want to think about it they finally have time to reflect. I love that you roll ideas around. To actually have time to think and absorb information without needing to react immediately and have a little bit more space like creative space, mental space, psychological space to manifest these new ideas and to get your hands in a lot of different buckets. And it’s probably not for everyone but for creatives and creative beings I think it’s such a cool thing and you’ve done it so well. And I feel like it’s all culminated in your most recent venture, Our Silent Partner. And I want to hear more about your career and everything that led you to the launch of Our Silent Partner and what was the inspiration and how did you give yourself the space to do something so bold and so needed and to breathe life into it? I want to hear more.
Laurel Stark: Yeah. Well, I will say that I have an amazing co-founder, co-creator in Our Silent Partner Victoria Rosselli. She’s an amazing art director and designer and just a generous, brave, young spirit. And she’s one of those people that I’m like, “Wow, if I had half the gumption and bravery of you 10 years ago.” She’s probably, she might even be oh God I don’t know 13 or 14 years younger than me but that point of view and she’s been such a big part in inspiring this and bringing this to life.
Laurel Stark: But yeah, my mental health journey really started a long time ago. And I’m an adopted person and so I’ve had a lot to work through emotionally even though I had a really beautiful upbringing and there’s a bit of shadow work that goes with that I think. But I think I’ve always been a really driven person who was seeking out belonging, seeking out community, that’s always been such a pivotal thing for me. Always been wildly creative and drawn to the arts and drawn to create and drawn to express myself. And I think one of the things that also came with that creative temperament and height was anxiety.
Laurel Stark: So I’d say I first started experiencing symptoms of anxiety really early like middle school. I was going to one of those Fame middle schools, schools where everything’s big stage shows and lots of competition. So I started in that kind of space early and started having symptoms of anxiety super early. And actually started, developed an eating disorder very young and that was a coping mechanism to manage my anxiety at the time. And I’ve come to have a lot of empathy for myself like I was just trying to do what was best. I thought I was coming up with a solution.
Laurel Stark: But yeah, that was a part of my journey and I continued, a pretty high achiever, lots of anxiety, and eventually hit a peak where I was having really bad panic attacks in college and actually had to take a step away a bit for my studies and get some help for that. And I had a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and then everything made sense to me. And luckily that was in my, I think I was 19 when I finally got that diagnosis and at that point already pretty sure that I wanted a creative career. I was already in college and thinking about that. But luckily had a great system in place and learned some tools for coping strategies for that.
Laurel Stark: However choosing a career that’s high powered, that’s heavy deadline driven, especially I think that our community can relate to this, with the added layer of feeling othered in a community and having aspirations for your career that you don’t see necessarily reflected back at you. Being a woman and wanting to aspire to leadership and not having that reflected or being a person of color. Which I’m not but I know that there are some feelings about that that relate that I think a lot of people can relate to if you are anything other in this community other than a white sis straight male. You have that other, that layer of feeling like you don’t belong which for me was super triggering because of my adoption.
Laurel Stark: So yeah I mean, I think that those kinds of things collided for me and definitely times in my career where I was sacrificing my mental health to do the work because that’s what I thought I needed to be doing and that’s what I thought was going to get me to where I wanted to be. And it was really, really, really hard and I never talked about it. And I think crafted out this little space in Twitter where we have our little community and the past few years really crafting this amazing community and space for more honest conversations I’ve been really feeling like it’s important for me now with a place of privilege and with a framework of leadership, to be honest about where I struggle. Because I think that’s the most generous thing you can do as a leader is to make sure people know that there’s a struggle in getting there, make sure people know that you’re human.
Laurel Stark: So that all led me here. And then with the pandemic and doing a lot of shadow work I realized that I still had so much shame around my struggles with mental health and realized we’re not really talking about that as an industry. And coming across Victoria’s beautiful piece of work that I think she wrote for Campaign magazine about the incompatibility of working in creativity and being able to care for your mental health. That really struck a nerve with me and I felt compelled to respond to it. So, I reached out to her and was like, “Hey, I align with this. I appreciate your bravery here and I feel like there’s an opportunity for a partnership and we should if you’re open to it maybe we can start a larger conversation.”
Laurel Stark: And because when Victoria and I started talking one of the things that we noticed is that in our industry leadership has no problem talking about the work. Everyone’s got an opinion about everything out there, it’s about work they’ve done they want to talk about, about work they haven’t done they want to talk about, but nobody ever talks about mental health. So we thought, “Well, if we can turn our mental health experiences into public then maybe we can start a conversation.” And that’s where things stemmed from that.
Laurel Stark: But yeah I mean, it was really us having a conversation and watching what was happening, watching the layoffs, watching the furloughs, having a small child under foot that I didn’t have before. With Victoria working for a larger corporation and feeling overworked, not necessarily overworked but feeling stressed about the amount of work that she had and stressed about holding onto her job I think these are all things that we were like, “We need to be honest about what we’re going through so we can start a conversation.” And mental health month felt like the right time to do that.
Steph Olson: Yeah. I love that. There’s so many pieces of your story that I can relate to really starting with this outsider’s mentality and feeling… I’ve described We Are Rosie in the past as the business of not belonging and really having this drive to create a home for people who feel for any number of reasons that they don’t belong in the traditional work infrastructure. And I think it takes people like you who have an outsider’s perspective and who have simultaneously existed in spaces where they didn’t feel welcome and had the self-awareness to know that perhaps these spaces weren’t meant for them, or weren’t built with them in mind to really institute the change to make more people feel welcomed. So hat tip to you for doing it and taking the courageous step of reaching out to Victoria so that you two could collaborate. Tell me more about the goals of Our Silent Partner and like how it’s come to life so far and what are your hopes for it?
Laurel Stark: Yeah. So obviously Victoria and I, we have this idea of having art be a big part of the conversation because obviously we’re speaking to the creative community and we understand the language of art. So that was always something I wanted to do but we kept on coming up against this, “Should it be more than that? Should we try to have a solution here?” And what we really decided was we’re kind of in that I guess that CTA loop where you’re like, “What’s our actual purpose and mission going to be? We want to start this conversation but do we drive them to donate? Do we try to find a partnership and a mental health professional who can help shape this?”
Laurel Stark: And what we ended up deciding was we’re speaking from our own points of view we’re not mental health professionals. We’re creative and that’s the lens by which we approached this project. And so, we decided, “Let’s start this with starting a conversation and seeing who wants to contribute to the conversation and seeing who shows up.” And just starting by being brave ourselves and saying, “Hey, this is our story and this is a lot of people’s story and it’s an important part of being creative is we’re all dealing with this silent partner in one way or another.”
Laurel Stark: So for us, it was really about starting a conversation. We decided we’re thinking of that as phase one was really just to get the art out there and to be the ones to say, “Mental health is a problem in our industry and we need to talk about it and we need to bust down the stigma around it.” And we need leadership to come to the table and say that they see that this is a problem, especially, especially in this moment or moment or journey I’d say, especially in this journey where we are right now with the pandemic and all these seismic shifts happening in our industry and in the world and this moment of cultural reckoning or awakening. There’s just so many layers of things going on. And as creative people we feel all of that. That’s part of the magic of being creative.
Laurel Stark: So, we wanted to start the conversation but one of the things that we have thought after starting this is we realized as two white women who started this while we do have black representation in our initial portfolio of artists we were like, “This is still our experience to launch this and we do not have the lens of racism as part of our mental health story.” Right now we are just about to launch a campaign where anybody that contributes art in the next 30 days is going to help us donate to the Loveland Foundation in order to support black women and girls getting the mental health support that they need. So, that’s the next phase and we have a partnership that we’re really excited about that’s going to be happening in the next month to help us make that push.
Laurel Stark: So yeah, it’s really right now about making space for other people who have different experiences. And it’s a small thing but one of the things that we decided we could do immediately was start collecting mental health resources by and for black and indigenous people. So, we do have that resource link on our current website and it’s a place where you can find different types of resources that feel like they were made for you in your space if that’s for you. So, that was a big part of us trying to acknowledge where our experience had a gap and hold space and have empathy for people that have a different experience.
Steph Olson: Yes. I love that. And I was going to ask you about that because there’s different types of mental health challenges. There are chemical, biological, genetic, and there are those that are culturally or society induced and that is certainly the experience of a lot of our black indigenous and people of color friends in this industry. And I love that you’re looking at it through both lenses. It’s such important work and I think that the work that you all are doing it’ll be fun to watch and see how it unfolds and how it grows and the lives that it touches. But I wholeheartedly agree with you that this is a conversation that is long overdue.
Steph Olson: In the advertising industry one of the observations that I had when I started We Are Rosie was we are at our core advertising is in the business of human connection yet it feels like there is this cloud of misery hanging over our industry where you talk to people and they’re bummed out, they’re burned out, they’re exhausted, they feel unwelcome, they’re mistreated. And we have to do better and I think just beginning to shine light into areas that have been kept in the darkness is a part of that. And you have found your way of shining a light and a way that is unique for you and your experiences.
Steph Olson: And I think we just need more people out there doing that. I always say like, “We have everybody doing the work that resonates with them personally to make the world a better place all of a sudden we’ll have a seismic shift.” But everybody needs to look and figure out what it is that I really care about? What is it that really will light a spark with me that I can carry forward to make things better? So I love that, I think that’s incredible.
Laurel Stark: I’m just going to say I absolutely agree with you that people need to find what feels authentic to them and show up in that way and I’m really hoping that by leaders stepping up and being generous with their stories. And when I say leaders I mean anybody who’s willing to lead in the moment and I think we absolutely need representation from people that look and experience life differently and feel differently and have a different lens, all the different things. It’s so important to speak your story because even if it’s something that you think not everyone’s going to resonate with it’s going to resonate with somebody. And it takes one brave person to start a movement. My hope is that these kinds of things, people will just find their courage and realize that by being brave literally the only thing you need to do is be brave for one other person. And that’s how we can really open up an important dialogue and make really meaningful change.
Steph Olson: Yeah. I agree. I love that. I want to dedicate a little bit of our time to Next Creative Leaders and I want to hear more about it like again your hopes and dreams for Next Creative Leaders. And I know that you’re really pushing for representation and equality within the creative space. Share more about your ideas in the organization and what’s next for Next Creative Leaders too.
Laurel Stark: Yeah. I’d love to. Next Creative Leaders is for those of you who aren’t familiar it’s a portfolio competition for women and non-binary creatives who are stepping into leadership. And it’s an opportunity basically to tell your own story and to show the world what leadership looks like from your lens. And I think for me initially the thought there was just I was tired of not seeing my brand of leadership reflected and not celebrated and not talked about. And it was so important to me that we started being really honest about the magic that happens when we have diverse voices on the work.
Laurel Stark: And I wanted to talk about that because I think a lot of the, at the time we launched in 2015 in partnership with the One Club for Creativity and the 3% Conference so it’s a pretty unique situation or a unique lens to bring to the table. But we really wanted to tell them more of the story than your traditional honor does in advertising. At the time, I was a freelance ACD working with the Google brand studio and I was so driven about where my life was going to go and excited about all the mentors that I was finding through 3%, these amazing senior women Jean and Nancy who were popping into my life and bringing so much to me.
Laurel Stark: But the dearth that I had was around peer mentors. I was like especially as a freelancer you move around from place to place, you’re not always there long enough to get the lay of the land and connect with all the people that might connect with. And for me I was like, “I want to know who I should be looking up to like who’s doing the best work of their life at my level. Who are these people that are showing up and managing up and managing down and who are these people that are pushing for diversity behind the scenes and we’re not talking about that?”
Laurel Stark: So when we craft this competition which started, like 3% with a tweet. It was literally just a DM to the One Club saying, “Hey, I think there’s an opportunity for us to partner and do something cool.” the idea there was really to see how we could tell a better story and not just say, “Oh, this is Nisha Tweed. She’s amazing, she works at Facebook. She did this one cool piece that you guys might’ve heard of so she’s 30, Under 30 this year.” I wanted to tell a bigger story. I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the story and feel like they could relate to things that these people have been through. And so for me it was giving them a platform to tell more of their story and to talk more about why the work is different because they were a part of that project.
Laurel Stark: And so that’s really where we focused the competition and this year obviously we’re in year six which is crazy to believe it’s happened that quickly. I mean, this is and it’s amazing to me that this is a thing still because it just started with something that I wished I had and saw an opportunity to partner and had a brave partner at the time. And David Jackson at the One Club he’s no longer there but he helped me get this off the ground and now I’m partnering with Kasha who’s amazing and such an insane champion for diversity and inclusion and brings so much heart and passion to the project.
Laurel Stark: But yeah I mean, it started out as a one time thing. We did it in six weeks and it got so much traction that they were like, “We need to bring this back.” And so at that point we started looking at developing the programming and figuring out what it could be. And every year we’ve been inspired and we’ve had new lessons come from the experiment. I think last year we had our first team win so that influenced how we approach that this year, “Oh, maybe there is going to be teams applying and we should figure out how to do that.” And this year it was really important, I was so moved by Winter Mendelson’s talk at 3% last year. I was like, “Oh my God.” The idea had always been inclusion and then I realized that the language that we were using was exclusionary to non binary people. And I was like, “That’s not what this is about.” So, we were able to pivot and change that.
Laurel Stark: And one of the things that I’m also really excited about in terms of the pivot this year is we’ve also expanded into doing honorable mentions for the project. And that is purely with the hope that we’ll be able to highlight amazing work that’s coming out of more emerging markets. Because every year we’ll end up with one or two people in the top 10 that may have brilliant work that was coming out of India or somewhere where people, we might in the U.S. might have not been as familiar with the work and people are just blown away. And so, it’s always been fun to spotlight them in the 3% Conference.
Laurel Stark: But we wanted to make more space for that in the competition just to really to show women and non-binary talent in emerging markets that they have the ability to change the global conversation. And so, that’s where we are right now and we’ve started also doing, doing talks with the next creative leader. So, we’re starting to do some mentoring sessions and partnerships with the Fellow app and lots of fun things like that where we’re just trying to expand the reach and make sure that people get to hear from these amazing creative leaders and get to learn from them and get to benefit from their knowledge.
Steph Olson: Yes, I loved all of this. And so, I know submissions are due August 10th. When are the winners going to be announced?
Laurel Stark: So the winners will be announced in October and normally we’ve actually set up the schedule so that we could announce at 3% but obviously this year things are a little different and so the 3% happened earlier. So we will be doing some sort of our own event to announce it. And the exciting thing about that is that we will be able to actually interview all 10 winners and show all 10 winners work. Which is not usually, I mean we do the interviews with them and there is an article posted but normally we only have the space to interview four of them at the 3% Conference. So this year, the exciting part of that is that we’ll be able to interview all 10 and so stay tuned for that. I’ll keep you guys posted when we know what that’s going to look like.
Steph Olson: For sure. We will be amplifying so keep us posted. And Laurel, I think it’s pretty motivating to hear you talk about the concrete steps that you’ve taken to build a better future. And I’m sure if you’re anything like me it doesn’t always feel brave or courageous. You’re just like, “I’m just doing the things that seem to make sense for me.” But they are making an impact and I’m sure that there are a lot of people who are going to hear your story and think about the things that you’ve done and start to question how they can do something that resonates similarly with their spirit and in creating a better world. So thank you so much for all of that.
Laurel Stark: Thank you.
Steph Olson: Yeah, I really mean it. It’s pretty awesome to hear about all of the things that you’ve been working on and juggling. And one of the things that I think about a lot lately and I ask everyone this question is like, “One, the old normal was really broken and it wasn’t in service for everyone so who wants to go back to that?” That was not good. So if we’ve learned anything collectively or we shine the light on things that we didn’t recognize or appreciate before it’s that the old normal and systems and hierarchy and all of it was not serving a large portion of our population. And I think as we move forward and create whatever the new normal is going to look like what’s something that inspires you or makes you excited or gives you hope right now?
Laurel Stark: Honestly, I know this is going to sound silly but what’s inspiring me right now are two things, one the next generation of creatives that are coming up. It actually makes me emotional to talk about them. And I’m so blown away by the truth that they’re willing to bring to the table and the vulnerability and how empowered they are to share their stories and call out things that aren’t right. And I’m humbled by them and want to do everything I can to support their growth and their continued rise up the corporate ladder however that may look to them.
Laurel Stark: And two, it’s been a hard time, it’s hard. I think change is hard and it feels like it’s not a sprint it’s a marathon. And it’s a long time of staying in this discomfort but I’m heartened by the people that are willing to learn. This is just swing and a miss and okay we’ll figure that out and people that are owning it. And I guess I would say right now I just hope that we all realize that in the name of this beautiful future that we’re all putting so much hope into that we all find both a little bit of the brave that the next generation has and find our voices a little quicker and admit when we’re wrong and admit when we need to pivot and come to the table with that.
Laurel Stark: I just think that they’re looking at us and I’m inspired by the people that are willing to change and grow and evolve. And I think we need to honor the bravery of the next generation by being just as brave and vulnerable to ourselves and saying like, “Hey, we may mess up. We know we’re going to do things wrong but we’re here to learn and please keep calling us out. Please keep with us on this journey and hopefully we’ll get there together.” And I think that that’s the moment I’m inspired by is that I guess.
Steph Olson: I love that. And I think that there is so much cross generational learning to happen for sure. I’ve got several nieces and nephews who are college age and in college and I totally know what you mean. When I’m talking to them I’m like, “Man, the future is bright.” These young people are incredibly courageous. They wear their values on their sleeves. There’s never any ambiguity with where they stand. And I totally agree that today’s leaders can learn a lot. And so, I think that’s really awesome that you touched on that. Laurel, I’m so happy to have you today and I want everybody like me, I enjoy following you on social so much and tell our listeners where they can find you and follow you on social as well.
Laurel Stark: Yes. So I’m Laurellu at Laurellu on Twitter and on Instagram. I’m not good on Facebook so I’d be boring to find there anyway, but so L-A-U-R-E-L-L-U. And for Our Silent Partner we actually do have an Instagram and a Twitter handle and so that’s to meet underscore O-S-P, so meet Our Silent Partner. And it’s the same on Instagram and Twitter. And for any of you guys that are interested it’s oursilentpartner.com and you can actually submit work there. And anybody who’s interested in applying to Next Creative Leaders or encouraging somebody else to apply it’s nextcreativeleaders.org and the both the 3% Conference and the One Club tweet about us and post about us on Instagram because it’s a shared vehicle there.
Steph Olson: Wonderful. Thank you.
Laurel Stark: Thank you so much. This has made my day.
Steph Olson: Seriously. Me too. I love it. It gives me energy. And for our audience thank you for tuning in to the Rosie Report Podcast. Subscribe if you’re watching on YouTube or follow us on whatever streaming platform you’re on to never miss future episodes. You can always head to therosiereport.com/podcast if you ever get lost and we will see you next time.