‘You need to have a reputation that’s bigger than your geography’: Independent Insights featuring Y&L’s Carolyn Hadlock

Carolyn Hadlock

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Carolyn Hadlock, principal and executive creative director at Young & Laramore.

Carolyn Hadlock is somewhat of an anomaly in the ad world. Unlike most creatives, who tend to zip from agency to agency every few years, she’s been with Indianapolis-based Young & Laramore (Y&L) for more than 20 years, climbing the ranks from art director to principal and executive creative director.

But Hadlock doesn’t feel like she’s been at the same agency for the majority of her career. To her, it feels like Y&L has been “five different places” since she initially joined, something she attributes to the fact that the agency has gone from being a small, design-focused shop to a full-service ad agency throughout its 34-year history.

Despite the changes that Y&L has undergone over the years, Hadlock believes that the DNA of the agency has largely stayed the same, which is one of the reasons why she’s opted to stay for as long as she has.

“That stability has let me take a lot more risks than if I had gone to five different places,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to have impact and create change. As a partner and creative director, I’m able to talk about and have ideas about things that are outside the department. Having a seat at that table is what has kept me here.”

Housed within a 100-year-old school building, Y&L works with brands including KraftMaid, Louisville Slugger and Pet Supplies Plus. This year alone it’s been named agency of record for Cat Footwear, American Standard and Trane, the latter of which it recently launched its first campaign for.

Out of all the campaigns and clients Hadlock has worked on during her time at Y&L, one of her favorites continues to be Brizo, a luxury faucet brand that the agency helped Delta Faucet create and launch more than 10 years ago. The agency was instrumental in partnering the brand with fashion designer Jason Wu, who catapulted to fame just years after the partnership was established when Michelle Obama wore one of his dresses to her husband’s inaugural ball in 2009, cementing Brizo’s status as a fashion-forward brand.

The Drum caught up with Hadlock to find out more about her career arc at Y&L and how she keeps the Midwestern agency top of mind for creatives who are just starting out. See what she had to say below.

What role does independence play at Young & Laramore?

I would say it has a pivotal role in our agency. It’s interesting because we were started in 1983, so we've been around for a little while. But the independent spirit is the common thread that goes through every decision that we make. The more we’re in business, the more we embrace our independence.

The other [thing we embrace] is Indianapolis, and being in an off the beaten path advertising market. When David [Young] and Jeff [Laramore] started the agency, there was no real advertising agency around to model themselves after. And so they kind of created this space and this place where we just didn’t know any better. There was a certain intentional ignorance and naiveté that really bred this independent spirit.

That’s something that I try to preserve and I think the leadership in this agency tries to preserve and and hang onto. If anything, we’re leaning into it more now than ever.

Why is that?

I think it’s because there’s so much noise in the industry right now, and there’s a lot of people clamoring. I feel like a lot of big agencies are trying to behave as though they’re small agencies, and there’s a lot of small agencies that are trying to behave as though they’re big agencies. There seems to be a bit of an identity crisis in the industry right now. So I think being intentionally independent - and that means being independent of making decisions based on size or location or revenue - is really important.

What's it like trying to attract talent to Indianapolis since it's not a traditional advertising hub?

It’s difficult. But I would say now, I think there is momentum. I do think there comes a time when the right person is attracted to momentum more than geography. So that is helping us right now.

One of the things that I do is speak to colleges all around the country. So I’ve been to Brandcenter in Virginia, SCAD in Atlanta, Miami Ad School in Florida. Recruiting is so important that it’s something I take as one of my core objectives of my job. I go out and I talk about Young & Laramore and what we’re all about, and that helps feed the pipeline a little bit. So we are starting to get people out of those programs, and I think what that does is give a little bit of a credibility halo to the agency. And then once people get here and they find our way of working, they tend to be ambassadors for the agency.

So I think as an agency, you need to have a reputation that’s bigger than your geography. If you can do that and establish that, then you can transcend it. But it’s not easy.

What piece of work or campaign are you most proud of?

I have two. One I’m working on right now actually, which is exciting. It’s for a local art museum. It’s one of the top ten encyclopedic museums in the country. We were approached about 18 months ago by them to help them fully rebrand it. So we have been working on that, and next week are launching the very first work and first campaign for it. It’s been a really long process, but to work on something that’s so cultural and art-related [is] important to us. We named it, we designed the identity, we helped create programming, we are doing the campaign - it’s all the aspects of brand making, and I think that’s really rare to be able to get your hands on that.

The other one was Brizo, [a brand we invented] for Delta Faucet, [which] is now 11 years old. [We were] able to work with Jason Wu and really create a brand that wasn’t just borrowing interest from the fashion category, but actually integrating it as part of the heart of the brand. We’ve been with Jason 12 years now, so I think that's been a great experience for how to learn how to have big impact on a small budget.

How do you keep employees motivated and inspired on a day-to-day basis?

Radical transparency from our leadership. Personally, I find that people are more motivated when they understand the context of decisions that are being made. If people understand the bigger picture, I think they understand what we’re all working towards. So I think just being able to provide that larger picture, even inside the daily grind, is how I try to keep people engaged and motivated.

A lot of people talk about culture, and I think culture is important. But I think at the end of the day, if people understand how they’re contributing to the bigger picture on a daily basis, that’s the secret to engagement.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to women who are just starting out in advertising?

Choose your partner wisely. That may be the most important creative decision you ever make. If you are with somebody who doesn’t support a career in advertising, that’s a problem. If you’re with somebody who is just okay with and tolerates it, that’s a problem. If you’re with somebody who actively champions you and is okay with the ‘hey, it’s 3am and I'm not going to be home until later cause we don’t have it yet’ call, then that’s who you want to choose. Because that support system and how they feel about what you’re doing will make or break how you feel about your career. It won’t change your career trajectory necessarily, but it will change how you feel about it.

Independent Insights is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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