Working on the floor of the UN and traveling to rural hospitals in West Africa isn’t your average marketing career path. But then, Sarah Hall doesn’t think the way most marketing and creative strategists do. As CEO of NYC agency Harley & Company, she combines a global background with concepts that take on both technology and art to create bold and lasting work, from experiential events to digital platforms. With clients ranging from the NYC Department of Education to Red Bull, Sarah Hall and her team are experts at crafting human stories with measurable results, and directing marketing projects that innovate even as they build on a legacy.
Lucky for us, Sarah Hall will take a break and visit Portland, where she’ll share with us her unique thoughts on the intermingling of art and science, the power of collaboration in achievement, and just how we can foster and enhance that ever elusive thing called creativity.
You have an incredibly diverse background. How did your previous work and life prepare you for or lead you into your current work at Harley & Co.?
I think in many ways — the short answer is that it helps me recognize patterns cross industry and think of nontraditional ways to solve them based on things I might have seen work else where. The UN for example taught me the value of using language precisely with specific meaning, which is critical when writing resolutions. Doing hospital assessments in West Africa taught me a lot about the beauty and resiliency of people and how to communicate without a shared language through emotion, signaling and empathy. I’ve been so lucky to have all these experiences and now I just really try to make them all make sense in the context of my company.
Sometimes we see creatives and analytical folks as opposites operating in different spheres. But you seem to blend the two. How do you do this? And what is the outcome?
I think blending the two is natural in many ways. The science is really a framework, it’s the rules. It’s all the things we can take from the natural world, from human discovery — intellectual exploration like psychology, neuroscience, biology etc and then use as mechanisms for interpreting, decoding and translating human experience. Then on top of it we layer the art; our designs, photos, films, writing — anything that adds additional meaning and beauty.
What was one of your favorite projects to work on? And why?
I love the Red Bull Projects. I also love working on big narrative driven projects for brands. Anything with film or photography. I love those projects because I’m really just a storyteller with a “ask” at the end of my stories. I like the idea that I can show people something fascinating or beautiful but it has a purpose.
What was one of the most challenging projects that you’ve worked on? What was the solution?
Definitely the talent development program I designed for Red Bull. It’s a combination of Michael Douglas’ The Game and Sleep No more with my own special twist. Essentially I design immersive pieces of “art” that are created using principles from science, neuroscience, organizational theory etc. I build them all over the country and soon it’s going to be international. The challenge is that they are all custom designed, they all happen once and they are “live”. As you can imagine when you kidnap 30 people and bring them into a strange location — anything can happen. The solution is to manage what you can and let go of what you can’t. Also to realize that people break things, but the way we break them is a beautiful indication of who we are and why we do what we do.
You talk about the intersection of art, ideas, and technology to really create human interaction and connection. What is it do you think that as human beings we are looking for, that most makes us engage and connect?
I think as humans we are on a certain level incredibly simple and by that I mean through most of my talent development work I’ve found a common theme. This is just that people want to be heard, they want to be accepted, they want to feel connected, they want to feel inspired and they want to live authentic lives. You can make it about a lot of things but I think if you can have that — well you have it all. As creatives and designers we can orchestrate that in some pretty profound and beautiful ways — or we can make social media campaigns.
Where do you get inspiration?
Literally everywhere — but mostly in books, films and from conversations with people. Oh and definitely through travel.
What’s your work style like? Is there one way of working you always come back to, or do you change and shift depending on the project?
I think I have a very distinct style and it’s probably how I think about projects and approach the work. It’s a little vague but if you work with me you know what I mean 🙂
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I cook because it’s a time when I don’t really think too much. I read non stop and I try to take as many trips as I possibly can.
You are going to talk with AIGA Portland about creativity. Without giving too much away, how do we keep creativity alive in our everyday busy and time-driven lives?
We build our libraries and by that I mean we can only create from what we are exposed too. The richer our experiences, loves, adventures, intellectual pursuits — the more creative we can be through what we are able to reference. And we remember that (if we are lucky) this is a long term game. The idea that everything we do has to have “a point” is bullshit, it’s also extremely hubristic. Ultimately we don’t know what will have a point and what won’t. For example I believe that simply sitting and thinking about something has tremendous value.
You started in political science and public policy. What were your goals when you started out? And how has that changed and/or transformed? (if it has?)
I think I was fascinated by the complexity of people — expressed through a lot of different things ranging from how we tried (and often failed) to create workable nation-states to the intersection between public policy and reality to just generally understanding history, politics, context etc. Then as time went on I suddenly realized I loved the creative industry and that I had a viable place in it. I think I ended up just merging the two, we often work on projects with some “larger value” and I’ve created different ways to do things that I think really emphasize people. I mean if you think about it — if a large brand isn’t the new nation-state — I don’t know what is.
What makes you rock?
“All good things are wild and free” – Thoreau
Join us for Sarah Hall’s talk Creative Collaborations on Friday, May 15. Together, we’ll explore the blend of neuroscience, art, and philosophy, and come out impassioned to begin our own creative partnerships. This event is free for members and attendees will be entered to win a skillshare membership!