Elyse Freed interviews the woman who keeps reinventing herself. When we first interviewed Aimee Woodall in 2010, the founder and “Leader of the Flock” of The Black Sheep Agency was staging flash mobs. Four years later, she became Houston’s first “impact driven” strategic branding agency. Today, Aimee and her “publicity rebellion” firm are working with The White House on its “Better Make Room” campaign. She believes in passion, she lives her passion and, as she celebrates her seventh year in business, she has plans for more big things.
Video and Full Interview Text
Elyse: Hi, I’m Elyse Freed and this is The BusinessMakers Show. Our guest today is Aimee Woodall of the Black Sheep Agency. Thanks so much for being with us again.
Aimee: Thanks for having me; thank you.
Elyse: We want to let folks know that, of course, this is your third time on our show. You’ve been on 2010, 2014, and hey, now 2016, you might as well get back in there, and you keep challenging yourself, reinventing yourself, so that’s why we keep coming back to you to talk. So, we’re glad you’re here again, and for anyone who isn’t familiar with you, just to kind of give some of your accolades, which we’ll talk about, but just generally throughout our city, Houston Business Journal has named you 40 Under 40; Black sheep has been awarded a top agency to work by Public Relations Society of America, here in Houston, as a Best Ad Agency. Talk to me and tell us why people should be familiar with what you guys are doing, because what you are doing as a PR agency is so very different than what people might think of a typical PR agency.
Aimee: So, there are quite a few things that make us different. We try not to call ourselves, or label ourselves as a PR firm anymore. We started as a PR firm but very quickly we realized that label was pretty confining as far as who we were, what we do for our clients, and who we wanted to become. We serve three different kinds of clients, so we are Texas’s only impact driven agency. That means that we work exclusively with non-profits, civic organizations, or government organizations, and for-profit clients who are balancing purpose with profit. So, people who are really aiming to put a social good at the center of their brand story. And then occasionally we work with a for-profit organization who doesn’t necessarily lead with social impact, but they want to, so then we craft their strategy for helping to incorporate that into their day to day, and into their culture, and their values of their company.
Elyse: And I know one of the things that you sort of brand yourself with is a cause driven, that sort of term, cause driven brand strategy. How did you get into that place and just, is it wanting to make a difference, is it wanting to make sure that businesses and the people that are around us are on board with that?
Aimee: There’s a couple of things. Very early on in my establishment of the agency I started working with the non-profit Neighborhood Centers. A lot of people are familiar with them; they are the largest non-profit in Texas, in the top 1% in the nation. So, a huge non-profit making a huge difference in Houston, and I started working with them 6 years ago, very early, in the early beginnings of the agency, and we were up at the office after midnight, so inspired by the work that we were doing and the power that our work had when it was applied to the work that they were already doing. The ability to accelerate that impact was just an incredibly inspiring moment, and from that day forward, we started working toward becoming an agency that focused on that kind of work all the time. So, you know, it’s been a part of who we are since the very beginning.
In 2014 we made it official, and we let go of a couple of clients that didn’t necessarily fit with that strategy, but it’s really important to who we are, and to the work we do every day. A second really big reason for that is you hear a lot of people talk about work-life balance, and we don’t believe in work-life balance, we believe in work-life integration. You know, that’s a fancy term for just saying that my life doesn’t need to be over here and my work over here. I’m going to bring those two things together because we spend the majority of our lives at work (Elyse: That’s very true.), and so why shouldn’t those two things come together to inspire you to make that time worthwhile day in and day out?
Elyse: It’s one thing to start your own business, your own firm, and then to do something that’s such a, a left turn really. I mean, was there, sort of this, any fear there? Jumping off the cliff, just sort of seeing if people would buy into this?
Aimee: Yeah, so like I mentioned next, you know, I started that process in, I guess it was like month 6 of my business. So, just kind of quietly working towards that. When we finally made the leap, it was a juxtaposition of two things. In a sense, I was fearless because I knew this is exactly who we are, and I so firmly believe in this that there’s no way that this can be wrong, mixed with, you know, a little bit of tension and fear around the fact that this was going to define us so specifically that it wouldn’t make us the right agency for everyone. But in the end, it proved to be a really good move because who wants to be the right fit for everyone?
You know, we want to work with the people that are aligned with our values, the people who believe in creating change when they go to work every day, and getting that specific actually proved to be incredibly rewarding and totally worth the risk because it brought those people to us because they could see, they could identify with what we were saying we wanted to do and that brought them to us.
Elyse: And really, one of the really cool clients who has come your way is the White House. The First Lady of the United States of America; pretty awesome that you reinvented yourself to be able to have a client like Michelle Obama. Talk to us about the project that you worked on with her in the White House and where people may be able to, sort of, see this in action.
Aimee: It’s still in action, and we’re still working very closely with her office. We were brought in to focus on a challenge to really, America used to be the number one country in college graduates, and that’s not the case anymore, and that is a huge priority for her. With the saturation of the internet, and digital technology being in every young person’s hands, basically since birth, and the access to DIY education, and teaching yourself, students are moving more and more into the philosophy of, I can learn this on my own. Especially when you think about the mounting debt that students are accumulating. So, they have the power of the internet, and the power of kind of taking their education into their own hands, coupled with the fear of living in debt, coupled with the idea they’ve seen their older siblings go through a recession, so, you know, they’ve seen things like their older siblings go to college and then not be able to find employment right away.
That problem is getting more and more dramatic and needed to be addressed head on. So, we were asked to create a campaign that would speak directly to the youth of our nation about, to kind of try and change their perception about life after high school, and what continuing their education would look like; whether that’s college, a two-year degree, a four-year degree, community college, or even a trade school. We really just want to create a space where students can connect with each other and have a conversation about continuing to learn, with the emphasis on their path to college, and the way that they can get there. So, connecting them to the resources and the mentorship that they need to make that possibility come true.
Elyse: And what’s the campaign called?
Aimee: The campaign is called Better Make Room. We actually developed three different campaigns for her office to consider, and that was the campaign that spoke most to her heart, and her voice, and really who she is. So, she selected the Better Make Room campaign. We launched it in October of 2015; I actually got to speak in the East wing of the White House, which is really one of my coolest moments, and we got to really launch the campaign with the theme of Better Make Room in mind. The Better Make Room idea is that, this is one of the First Lady’s frustrations, that students, that the youth of America really has an idolization for celebrities and athletes. And what we want to do is flip the spotlight from the celebrity and the athlete, to the student to show the amazing things that they’re working so hard to do, by committing to their education.
And then, the things that they’re coming out of school and doing, and just are changing the world, that are so worth admiration beyond celebrity status. So, the campaign focus is on celebrities and athletes at the launch period turning the spotlight on the students and really giving them the attention. It’s not about me as the celebrity, it’s about you, the student, and what you’re capable of. And I better make, the world better make room for that, really.
Elyse: It’s really a remarkable idea and how cool that someone in Houston’s own backyard is working at such a level that is so global, you know. So, that says a lot about what you guys are up to, and of course, your decision to kind of make that left turn was certainly a good one. And obviously I know you can’t do it alone; you have a wonderful staff, and a really cool office space that’s open, and I think sort of goes with what your message is, as well. Talk to us a little bit about your space here.
Aimee: Well, I think the most important thing that’s embodied in our space and really in everything we do is collaboration and community. Those are two of our core values, and they’ve been a part of our organization since day one. So, not only do we have an environment here that you can see that’s really open and conducive to collaborative creativity, and inviting the community in, we have people coming in and out of this office all the time. You see community and collaboration in every decision that we make, and the Better Make Room campaign is a stellar example of that. Not only could I not do it alone, but this office, this team, is small and mighty, and we couldn’t have done it alone either. So, we actually had a number of other amazing friends and collaborators in other creative agencies in Houston who helped us to get the Better Make Room campaign designed and off the ground in the beginning. And we couldn’t have done it without them either.
So, and then if you look at the partners and, what’s happened with Better Make Room, the power of the White House is incredible, but really there are so many people who have played a part in (Elyse: Of course.) getting this to work, and the coolest thing is that we’ve actually turned the students into collaborators, and just built a space where they can be the ones that are leading the conversation, connecting with each other, and really kind of building this movement into a thing of their own. And that was by design; that was what we intended to do from the beginning, and it’s really, it’s been so incredible to watch that come to life. The numbers are really staggering, but the best part about it is just to see them take the torch and make things happen.
Elyse: And you had been at the White House before, correct? Had you worked with them before?
Aimee: Yeah, I had worked with them on another project last year, which is less easy to talk about.
Elyse: Well, it’s ok. We just want people to know that, you know, this wasn’t your first rodeo, so to speak.
Aimee: That’s true.
Elyse: You really had some incredible opportunities.
Aimee: And I hope it won’t be our last. You know, politics can be really intimidating to some. It was intimidating to me in my 20’s, but once I got a taste of the power of civic engagement, which I actually got through here, working in the city of Houston. We worked on four different projects with the city of Houston last year under Mayor Parker’s leadership, and that grass roots community engagement, on a creative level, and on a strategic level, really helped empower us at the national level. And, I hope that will continue because, I think every single person should think about the things that they’re passionate about and get involved with their government, and if I can inspire anyone else to do that, it’s time well spent.
Elyse: Talk to me about what’s next; what we can expect from you guys.
Aimee: That’s a really good question. We are celebrating our seventh year in business this summer, and we’ve got a few things cooking. Things that I’m not really ready to share yet, but one thing is for sure, my team is consistent in coming to work every day and feeling like every day has to be more impactful than the day before, so I don’t know where we go from here, but it will be big.
Elyse: Awesome. Aimee, thank you so much for talking with us. We really appreciate your time and seeing all of the great work that you guys are doing to make your own impact on our world.
Aimee: Thank you. It’s always so great to talk to you guys, because you’re doing amazing things in the business community, so I appreciate it.
Elyse: Well, Aimee, thanks so much. And that wraps up my interview with Aimee Woodall. This is The BusinessMakers Show.