“Vulnerability. Perhaps that is the magic of 40 Days, and part of the reason that Jessica Walsh is at the top of her game: She embraced it.” – Zachary Petit
Among the plethora of interviews and profiles on Jessica Walsh, founder and creative director of the New York-based creative agency &Walsh, the one in Print magazine in 2016 is one of our favorites. This thoughtful piece by writer Zachary Petit delves into an interesting stage in her life and career. Titled ‘The Evolution of Jessica Walsh’, the profile goes beyond the “invincible” professional side of Jessica to talk about her vulnerabilities and insecurities as a human – something she was just beginning to embrace and share through her work at that time. It’s interesting how over the last few years, this has become one of the key things that make Jessica so unique and even more appealing to the global creative community.
Not one to ever be content with just creating cutting-edge client work, Jessica has worked on numerous personal projects (including 40 Days of Dating, 12 Kinds of Kindness, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health) and has been feeding her learnings and insights back into the industry through various talks and conferences across the world. Through her phenomenal global initiative ‘Ladies, Wine & Design’, she has been hosting mentorship programs for creative women and will be hosting the initiative’s first ever global event in NYC in April 2020. Her wildly popular Instagram is a delicious showcase of her commercial work, collaborations, ongoing personal projects, and opinions. She has also amassed a dedicated following for her personal style and travel updates, for which she decided to create a separate Instagram account.
In July this year, Jessica finally announced the realization of her lifelong dream, the launch of an agency entirely her own – &Walsh. From being one half of Sagmeister & Walsh, where she partnered with the iconic graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister for many years, Jessica now leads an agency that has joined 0.1% of creative agencies founded by women – another issue she has consistently harped on.
Our last interview of this year marks our fourth birthday and also the fact that we will now feature visual creatives from all over the world instead of just Asia and Middle East (more on that later). For this birthday special, we talk to Jessica about a few things that we are curious about. Read more:
You’ve become a really important voice in the creative world which serves as advice/inspiration to a lot of young creatives around the world. How does it make you feel? Do you feel burdened by it in any way?
Giving talks around the world and running Ladies, Wine & Design has given me the opportunity to talk directly with many young creatives in the industry. It’s an honor that my work is admired, but it can be intimidating sometimes! I definitely had imposter syndrome as I came up in the industry and I think this is something so many young creatives struggle with. I still struggle with other types of self-doubt. I think being honest and vulnerable about these things allows other creatives to do the same, and this is how we get better together.
With &Walsh especially, you have started an important conversation about the dearth of women in creative leadership roles. You have also been running Ladies, Wine & Design for a few years now. How are you planning to take this conversation forward and what are the results/changes you have seen in this context in the last few years?
&Walsh is one of the .1% of creative agencies owned by women. This lack of representation in leadership and the pay gap for women and non-binary people has been a focus of mine through Ladies, Wine & Design. This initiative was born out of personal experiences with sexism in our industry, not only from men but from other women too. I found that sometimes women were unsupportive of one another, possibly because our chances of reaching the top are much slimmer than for men. The numbers say it all: 70% of design students are women, but only 5-11% of creative director positions are held by women. And only .1% of creative agencies are women-owned. How does this make any sense when women drive about 80% of consumer purchasing? Diversity in leadership at agencies drives profit.
Ladies, Wine & Design is now a non-profit with over 280 chapters worldwide. We offer free mentorship circles, talks, and networking events around the world. We have events on topics such as Creative Leadership, Design & Business, Diversity in Design, and more. To move the conversation forward on a global level, we are hosting the first ever LW&D global event in NYC in April 2020. We are inviting our entire community of 280+ chapters to come together for the first time. This marks a new era for Ladies, Wine & Design.
Beyond our current mission, our long-term goal is to take our initiative to underserved high schools to foster the future of women, non-binary and underrepresented people in creative communities. Our dream is to make this happen in the next five years.
It’s an honor that my work is admired, but it can be intimidating sometimes! I definitely had imposter syndrome as I came up in the industry and I think this is something so many young creatives struggle with. I still struggle with other types of self-doubt. I think being honest and vulnerable about these things allows other creatives to do the same, and this is how we get better together.
Personal projects are really important to you. Which one is your favorite so far? Also, how do you manage to allocate time for these? Does &Walsh’s work culture inspire indulging in personal projects?
Ladies, Wine & Design and Let’s Talk About Mental Health are the self-initiated projects that are most personal and special to me. The team at &Walsh is an integral part of these projects as well as our ‘Sorry I Have No Filter’ photo series. Spending time on self-initiated at the studio allows the team to create without the bounds of client asks or timelines.
I think making time for personal projects is like going to the gym. It’s hard at first to set aside time to do it, but if I do it regularly, it gives me so much more energy for life and work overall. I don’t think it distracts from the client work, in fact it fuels it. Many of the things we learn while working on passion projects feed back into the personal work. Second, many new clients find us through the personal work.
You have a highly active social media life, and a lot of creatives get to interact with you through that. While it serves as a great work tool, how do you deal with the negative aspects of social media – like trolling, for example? And how do you create a balance between online and offline?
Once I started gaining success in the design industry, I had many haters on social media. I began to notice that many of the haters were other women. It made me realize that sometimes women can be unsupportive of other women, and like I mentioned earlierm I think that’s in part because our chance of reaching the top is so much lesser than our male counterparts. This fuelled me to start Ladies, Wine & Design.
A few years ago, I decided to create my @theotherjessicawalsh account. I wanted to post more travel and life pictures just to remember the places or spaces I’ve been to. I love color and my creative work, but not every moment of my life is surrounded by color or related to the creative industry. I recommend starting a separate account if you have different kinds of content you want to share that you think will have different audiences. I know many people who have work/portfolio accounts and a separate one for their life photos.
In regards to a balance, I think it’s important to engage with social media in a way that feels comfortable to you, which varies from person to person. In today’s world, Instagram is an integral part of the creative industry, so for me, it’s a great place to find inspiration and connect with other creatives. Everything in moderation though!
You often collaborate with your husband and are now working with your sister at &Walsh. Could you tell us a bit about both these creative collaborations?
I am really grateful to have the opportunity to work with my family. My sister Lauren (Walsh) is an amazing strategist and we have worked on a few projects together over the past few years. We started working together full-time when we launched &Walsh and it’s been great to have her by my side at the beginning of this new chapter.
I also work on projects with my husband Zak (Mulligan). He is a cinematographer, so we have different creative skill sets. He has taught me a lot about light and video, and I’ve taught him about color and branding. He’s worked on a variety of video and photo projects for the studio. It’s awesome to collaborate with someone you know so well and feel comfortable around. You can let out every idea and are not afraid to tell each other when something sucks. I think the work is better when you work with people you admire and who challenge you with love.
I think making time for personal projects is like going to the gym. It’s hard at first to set aside time to do it, but if I do it regularly, it gives me so much more energy for life and work overall. I don’t think it distracts from the client work, in fact it fuels it.
Over the years, you/your studio have made a lot of important statements and expressed opinions fearlessly, even in political context. Has that always been a very conscious effort?
There are certain social and political topics that we as a studio feel are very important to talk about. We have used our skills to bring awareness to these topics through design. While I don’t think design can change the world, I do think it is a great way to communicate ideas and bring awareness to important topics.
&Walsh is a whole new chapter in your life. How have you changed/evolved as a person in the last few years? What is it that you are most excited about right now and what do you see as your biggest challenge?
This change does mark a whole new chapter in my life. Since I was very young, I always had a dream to have a studio that was entirely my own. It was my intention ten years ago to start my own company, before I met Stefan. Life takes you on unexpected paths, and mine took me towards his studio on 23rd Street on a cold day in February. That meeting turned into working on several projects together, and we became business partners a few years later. I dedicated every ounce of my time, energy and passion to Sagmeister & Walsh over the past decade, growing our two-person studio to a full-service creative agency of 25. Fast forward a few years, that dream to have a studio of my own was still there. Eventually, I woke up one morning and realized that if I didn’t take the leap, I’d always be wondering ‘what if?’.
I am beyond excited to bring &Walsh into the world. In the last few years, I’ve focused on fine-tuning our processes and strengthening our capabilities in brand identity, campaigns, commercials, and social strategy. We are moving beyond design and art direction into deeper strategy and brand development work. We work with brands in early stages, advising on products, identifying audiences and helping to shape the brand from the ground up.
As for challenges, there will be many. I’m sure I won’t do this perfectly. I’m sure I’ll make many new mistakes along the way. I hope to keep growing and learning from them. But I am on the journey and that’s what it is all about.