Heidi Hackemer On Bravery

Heidi Hackemer is Founder at Wolf & Wilhelmine, an independent brand strategy shop, based in New York City. Her career started in advertising agencies including FCB, Fallon London and BBH NY working on projects like the global launch of Google Chrome, but after 10 years working to the bone she decided to take a time out. What followed was two years driving around the country living out of her truck and a journey of self-actualization, before returning to New York to launch her own company, her own way. 


What did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut. I asked for a telescope when I was eight and went to Space Camp when I was nine. In saying that, I wasn't one of those kids that was so obsessed with what I wanted to be, I just always had this idea in my head that I wanted my life to be really big.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
I was thinking maybe Beethoven, or Wagner, or an amazing author, but actually it needs to be some sort of spiritual guide person. If you're not constantly reaching for something more, you're going to get bored with someone, even the most brilliant person, in two months. You need somebody that creates a journey on that island where you're not reflecting on what was done in the real world but there's actually a journey happening on that island as well.

A shaman would be great because shamans understand how to use plants and they understand animals. There's a survivor thing and there's also a spiritual thing, you’d probably need some sort of meld of those two things.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
If I'm being totally brand strategist, cultural and realistic about this, it's the Bible. If you think about way that US society is structured and the way that we treat women, a lot of this comes from the tenants in the Bible. I grew up in a very religious household. We were at church sometimes three times a week and then in my twenties I walked away from organized religion, which was it’s own journey, so overall it was a hugely influential book.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I am a sleeper. This is one of the things that I love about not having kids! I'm a morning person, so I’m fast asleep by 10pm and I’m up between 5-6am. Sleep is really important and I know that without it, I suck.

Can you explain your career path to date?
I'm first generation, my dad was a refugee immigrant, there was pressure to get my shit together and not mess around too much. When I was younger education was vital. Being able to stand on your own two feet was super important.

My career started really linear. It started with me making the decision that I was going to be an advertising superstar. Which I look back on now and laugh. I went to school, found advertising, decided that’s what I wanted to do, got a portfolio together, came to New York… Three weeks after I got here September 11th happened. I couldn't get a job in advertising because all the agencies were cutting back and it was a really bad time for the industry. I didn't actually get my first job for two years.

In retrospect, that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it put things into perspective and made me realize I was going to be okay. I realized deep down that I don’t have to be on this insane path. If everything goes to shit I knew I could wait tables and be able to pay rent. I don't think I ever would have had that confidence if I hadn't been forced into that situation right after college.

After I waited tables, make no mistake, I still went super linear. I started as a copywriter, went on to be a planner, that was at FCB, then I went to Fallon in London and came back to BBH New York. Despite that fact that I was tracking against a rather traditional path, there was always this underlying confidence that I could make unusual decisions because of the waitressing years. I knew deep down that I'd be able to figure it out.

Then one day when I was at BBH I was thinking about my next move. Every other time in my career I could see the next job that I wanted, but this time I couldn't see the next step. A voice came into my head that said, "Buy a truck, drive around America." So that’s what I did. I quit my job, packed up my apartment, got a duffle bag, got a truck, and started driving.

For about two years I was emotionally detached from this idea of a career and I was certainly detached from the political machinations of companies. But I was bouncing into a lot of companies in this period as a freelancer.

I was in this liminal place between the life that I had had before and that path that I was gunning for, and this place that was something different. I had to spend two years being really comfortable with not knowing what was going to happen. It was really hard to get comfortable with sitting and breathing and just being patient and listening to myself and not having a grand plan. I still don't have a grand plan.

Those two years saw a profound change in my life. It's where I got back to who I am as a person. I call the first few months of that the Great Exorcism, where after about a decade of working like a maniac and wearing myself thin and leaving quite the wake in my path, I finally stopped and dealt with ten years of life that I hadn't really dealt with because I was moving too fast. It was in this time that I realized how powerful the world is outside of our coastal bubble of advertising. I put over thirty thousand miles on the truck driving around America, and I was by myself. I slept in the back of the truck most nights and went from National Park to National Park. I would sit in diners in small towns every day, eat lunch, talk to people and read local newspapers, and be really anonymous.

It allowed me to watch people and listen to people and think about the life I was living and what kind of life I wanted to live. Realizing that the life I had been living was fun and I had met a ton of great people and had amazing experiences and traveled the world and it was cool but at the end of the day it wasn't sustainable and it wasn't feeding my soul. My soul was withered up and limp because I wasn't using it.

I didn't realize at the time but it was a true walkabout in the sense that I literally went into the wilderness and let the wilderness strip me down to my essential self. Upon reflection those first ten years of my career are not the dead years, but they were the mindless years, and I'd rather be more awake in the way that I'm living. I wondered if I could "be awake” and still work in the industry. When I left I was really prepared that I would never go back into the city again or the industry again. It was open.

I look at life in that we have three layers of existence. We have the physical realities of being an animal and being alive. Then we have this middle layer, which I call the day-to-day intellectual busy layer - just living life and surviving - and then there's the spiritual layer. What was wonderful about those two years, is that that middle layer which had so dominated by life to the point where I was quite unhealthy when I left the industry and my soul was really shriveled, it shrunk down to be the tiniest band to the point of being almost non-existent. Then this amazing realization and communion starts to happen between your physical and your spiritual being. It was a privilege to wipe away that middle layer for awhile and letting the physical and spiritual come to the forefront and be. Everything felt a lot more balanced.

When I came back to the city and founded Wolf & Wilhelmine, the grand experiment was to understand if we could do the work we love and make an impact in the world without killing ourselves. The great tension at Wolf & Wilhelmine is this thing that we call fierce human. We are fierce about our output. If it's not premium, it does not go out this door, and we are fastidious about that. Can we do that in a way where this isn't a sweatshop, where we're not burning people out, where people have lives, where they can have room for the other two bands of their life which is the spiritual and physical? The answer is yes, but in the beginning I really didn't know if it was possible.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
There’s a cultural narrative that has prescribed the way women should live their lives and the notion of having it all. For a long time I believed in this but in reality it’s ridiculous. Someone might say I’m not living a fulfilled life. I'm single, I don't have kids. Right now I don't even have a boyfriend. I am literally the weirdest thirty-seven-year-old!

The life I'm living, even though it's not what is prescribed, is awesome. Culture just puts us in really tight boxes and it's so difficult and it has taken me a lot of time and having a really great network of supporters and believers to be like, this is it. I'm okay with this. That's what I do. This is who I am.

What motivates you?

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
You can't mess it up.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Having the confidence to step away for a couple years and hit the reset button.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Bravery. I always try and I do, I'm a doer.

What is your life motto?
Nothing to it but to do it. It comes from the Muppet Movie.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mentor, his name's Pele, once said to me, "As long as you have your shit together, you can do whatever you want." He's an insane character - his hair, his clothes, his personality. He just walks into rooms and people love him or people hate him, he's one of those. I was definitely veering towards that when I was younger. I dressed a little crazier. He said to me, "Look, you can do that, but you've got to make sure your shit is totally together. Don't be a clown. Be an artist."

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
My sister, who is nine years older than me. She's worked in the banking industry her entire career where as she progressed steadily as often the only woman in the room. She has been able to deal with the intensity of that industry and pulled it off brilliantly. I admire how she’s navigated that as a woman and while having three kids.

What do you believe is the secret to success?
Being good to people. The only reason we've gotten this far with Wolf & Wilhelmine is because people have been really generous about helping us. Whenever I've asked anyone for help or advice, they've never said no. Be good to people and it comes back to you.

I would also say, be somebody that someone else wants in the room. You want people that work hard, and aren't assholes, and get it done.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My sister and I also have a “guru” type figure in my life named Luke. It's a really hard role to explain, he's not a life coach, he's not a career coach, guru is a weird word… rather he keeps me connected to my soul while I navigate my life. He reminds me that I'm much more powerful when I'm connected to a higher energy or a higher soul space. I talk to him about once a week and I don't think I could ever do what I do if I didn't have Luke in my life. He just keeps the soul up.

I'm also really lucky that I have a wide ranging group of people I can call on depending on my issue. Pele, Emma Cookson, Johnny Vulkan... and many more. I'm really lucky with that.

What are your favorite traits you are drawn to at work?
Kindness. Openness. Punctuality. Discipline, discipline is really big.

What's next?
In some ways I don't know, and that's okay. In other ways we've spent two years figuring out how to operationalize a company that sits in the balance between humanity and work. Our operationalization has been very iterative. After almost every project we do a post mortem, where about a month after the project is over we sit and evaluate the project on several different measures, we figure out where we made mistakes and then we build the fix into our next round of processes. It's taken us awhile. I think after about two years, I'm not saying we've got it down perfect but, we've figured it out pretty well. So can we use that operationalization learnings and apply it more broadly? That's something I'm rolling around in my head right now. I think the industry and the people that work in it could definitely use it.


As told to Caroline Hugall at Wolf & Wilhelmine in Dumbo, New York on Wednesday 25th of May 2016.