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Why asking questions will make you a better creative - With Critical Mass Global CCO Valerie Carlson

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The amazingly talented Valerie Carlson joined Critical Mass early in December 2020 as their new Global Chief Creative Officer, tasked with leading a team driven by innovation, positive change and tons of creativity. But to get there, Valerie did something quite simple: keep asking questions.

When asked to become a teacher at the Art Institute at the age of 23, Valerie accepted and remained there for 7 years, teaching Graphic Design. And with the humilty and honesty of someone who knows the value of knowledge, she would occasionally admit her then inexperience and work with her students to tackle tricky questions together. That, right there, is already one of the primest examples of leadership you can find in this industry.

Today we are Getting to Know a driven leader who has been in the industry for over 20 years; someone who, we are certain, will bring Critical Mass to new and unexplored heights.

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Tell us a bit about your role! What is one typical day like?

My first few weeks here at Critical Mass have been truly delightful. My role as Chief Creative Officer is global—so in normal times, I’d be flying around the world and meeting everyone in person. Having a deep understanding of the people I work with is what feeds me creatively. While we can’t meet in person, I’ve been having invaluable one-on-ones with our people virtually. 

I’m also doing a ton of planning and meeting with teams at Critical Mass to evolve our vision. Critical Mass is in a unique position in today’s agency landscape—we build some of the most innovative work in the world. COVID has pushed brands away from traditional thinking and towards transformation, and Critical Mass is in a perfect position to help. I’m carving out time each day to think about how to communicate why we are the agency that will build the future.

What was the biggest challenge in getting to your current position?

I’ve been lucky in that my journey to CCO of Critical Mass happened sort of organically. I’m pretty much a what you see is what you get leader—I’ve been in the industry 20+ years and understand the type of work I want to be the driving force behind, how I lead teams, and the values that inspire me. I knew my new role as Chief Creative Officer at Critical Mass was for me when I felt a true sense of shared values with every person I met along the way. While I haven’t met most of my colleagues in person, I did previously work with Chief Strategy Officer Grant Owens. An agency that valued his intelligence and kindness was a place I wanted to be.  

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What is your personal background and what role did it play in your career?

I grew up in a small town in Illinois where it was easy to feel sheltered and cut off from culture. What I couldn’t pick up from my surroundings, I made up for watching music videos. MTV and Much Music exposed me to artists who used technology to create stories, and I drew inspiration from them. 

Eventually, I left my small town and headed to Chicago. I started at the Art Institute, where I quickly discovered I didn’t actually want to be a fine artist. So, I transferred to an engineering school with one of the first Mac Labs in the country. It was there that I fell in love with computers and the early internet. At 23, the school asked me to stay on after graduation to teach graphic design, and I did—for 7 years. Although I was young and inexperienced, I made it work with honesty. When a student had a question and I didn’t have the answer, I’d return the next day with a solution or we’d figure it out together. I still take this approach every day when I work with my teams and clients.

What is your biggest career-related win? What is your biggest loss?

My biggest win and loss come from the same client. From 2013-2015, I led the team building a digital ecosystem for James Cameron’s AVATAR. Initially, the client needed an approach to advertise the second instalment of AVATAR’s release. The film is one of the most popular movies in the world, with fans who had been waiting years to see the evolution of Pandora—AVATAR’s world. Rather than creating an ad or a site to promote the film, we knew the client needed an ecosystem of connected experiences which would allow fans to experience the themes of the movie in real life. As we know, AVATAR fans are still waiting for the sequel and we’re still waiting on some really amazing work to go live that is “sitting on the digital shelf” for now.

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What’s your secret to remain inspired and motivated?

Asking questions. Being a CCO allows me to deeply connect with people and understand their hopes, dreams, desires, and truths. Every day I ask questions, I get new answers to problems based on those dreams and desires. If you asked my mom, she’d say I’ve been asking questions of strangers since I was in a stroller. 

Which individuals and/or agencies do you gain inspiration from? Do you have any heroes in the industry?

There are so many individuals who inspire me—most of whom are women. Erykah Badu has built out her own digital ecosystem where she streams her shows live. She’s created immersive rooms that she performs from, uses audience polls to connect and she’s connected ecommerce in a way that’s totally delightful. I also love how Cindy Sherman has blurred the lines of fine art, fame, beauty, etc. on her Instagram–so ugly and beautiful. I also have a friend who created a spirits brand called HAUS that is brilliant; she saw a need for lower alcohol and natural ingredients and has created a brand that incorporates digital in the best ways. She’s a former photographer, so the branding is gorgeous, the product is delicious, and the experience is perfection.

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How has COVID-19 affected you?

This year has been both horrible and magical. I’m the type of person who is always walking the halls, brainstorming in war rooms, and inspiring clients in person. I’ve felt disconnected and at times it feels like the core of my job has been ripped away. But on the other hand, I feel blessed to have a partner and family that I love so deeply. It’s painful to see so many people in the world struggling to survive and stay safe. Becoming the Chief Creative Officer of Critical Mass has been an incredible highlight. In just a few short weeks, I have met some of the most talented and kind people from all 11 offices. 

What is your biggest hope for 2021?

That we, as a culture, learn from this year and find ways to make positive change every time we are given a choice. That we find new ways to connect around shared values and rise up to truly care for each other.

What is your one piece of advice to aspiring creative professionals?

Ask questions fearlessly and be truthful. It’s okay if you don’t know everything. None of us do, but collectively, we can help each other find the places and people that will help us grow and make beautiful work.

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How do you recharge away from the office?

The standards–I read voraciously, exercise, walk my dog, and connect with friends and family. I also live a few feet from the beach, so that doesn’t hurt!

If you weren’t in your current industry, what would you be doing?

Well, a friend of mine gave me a session with a futurist not too long ago (I know, very LA…) and he said that I haven’t even used a small percentage of my creative power. He believes that I am going to write “many books”, some of which will be successful and some of which will not—so, maybe that?

What’s your one big dream for the future of the industry?

That we use our collective power to build solutions that really help and empower people. Some of the world’s biggest problems can be solved if we pull together our knowledge alongside some of the world’s biggest brands. 

Do you have any websites, books or resources you would recommend?

Yes! I’m loving Mark Pollard’s book Strategy is Your Words. It’s brilliant and full of endless ways to think about the partnership between creative and strategy. Everything that Miranda July posts and says is absolutely golden–she’s so fearless and beautiful. I also really enjoy the way WeTransfer has evolved as a brand and some of their content and thought leadership is really strong. HBO has been crushing it as well—they’ve kicked off all of these deep, cultural conversations from creators like Lena Dunham, Jordan Peele, Issa Rae, Michaela Cole, and more. And Euphoria is just incredible on so many levels.

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