Watching Movies and Being Ready with Karen Gereffi Goodman

Sometimes it all comes down to the movie you watch on a Saturday night. For Karen Gereffi Goodman, Creative Director at Under Armour, success in advertising started with a childhood full of art and one, key Jennifer Aniston movie. Check out how Karen started strong, followed her gut, and succeeded in (what still is) the male-dominated advertising world.

Lauren: For starters, what drew you to the world of advertising and marketing?

Karen: I was always artistic and creative as a kid. I took a lot of art classes growing up. And I had a number of really great art teachers in elementary and middle school who encouraged me to keep exploring and deepening my skills. It’s amazing how influential people from your early education days can be!  I grew up going to public school in Durham, North Carolina, and resources at my school were limited. My art teachers in particular pushed themselves to think outside the box, and in doing so, really pushed us outside our comfort zone. Their approach made a lasting impact on my creative mentality.

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Lauren: So you just always knew advertising and marketing was it for you?

Karen: No definitely not.  In fact in college, I didn’t do anything artistic.  I didn’t take a single art class.  I made a clean break, and studied sociology and public policy.

Lauren: Why the break from art?

Karen: I’ve always craved variety, so I was interested in exploring something different, but I also felt concerned that if delved too deeply into art, I would get trapped without any real versatility.

Lauren: So what brought you back?

Karen: Honestly, I owe my whole career to Jennifer Aniston!  My senior year in college I was debating next steps, and my options based on my majors seemed to be law or academia, and I wasn’t interested in either.  And then I happened to see Picture Perfect, where Aniston is working her way up at an advertising agency.  Her job looked really fun, and I knew I liked (and was good at) all the things she was doing -- the creative outputs and the strategic insights.  So the movie really gave me a springboard to start doing real research into the field.

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Lauren: Hilarious! I kind of loved that movie too!  But I’m glad to hear some real research followed, since Hollywood has been known to paint a rosy picture of things. What did your research entail?

Karen: I reached out cold to a woman in a senior role at an ad agency in Durham and had a 30-minute informational interview with her.  She talked to me about what she did on a daily basis, and what the path might be like, and she walked me around her office, and I loved every minute of it. She told me I needed a portfolio, and that grad school was a great place to develop one.  I immediately started researching grad schools and was off to the races.  

So I guess we’ve covered my cadre of influential people: elementary school art teachers, Jennifer Aniston, and a woman I met one time!  But it worked! I always suggest that people be open to random inspiration, and then back it up with thoughtful research.

Lauren: I think of advertising as the intersection of art and business.  Is that accurate, and if so, what do you love about that intersection?

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Karen: Yes, as an industry, advertising is definitely at the intersection of art and business.  But it’s not like that for each individual.  Most individuals in this industry are pretty focused on their specific craft.  It tends to be that someone is either deep into the art side, or zeroed in on the business side.  But big picture, I love solving problems, and I love being creative, so advertising allows me to solve problems through both a creative and strategic lens.

Lauren: You’re now a creative director at Under Armour, having worked at agencies in Portland, OR, NYC and DC. What led you to Under Armour?

Karen: It’s funny because working at agencies, so many of my colleagues wanted to go in-house to the brand, but I was never interested in that.  I liked the agency side.  There was a lot of variety and I loved my colleagues, and even the pace worked for me.  But after I moved to DC, one of my former bosses from R/GA, an agency in NYC where I worked, reached out. He had moved to Under Armour, and recruited me to join him and it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. So it wasn’t something I was seeking out, but it’s been an incredible learning at an incredible brand.  I have so much more respect and appreciation for the challenges on the brand side, and also more empathy for the brand’s ups and downs. And I’m flexing new muscles and learning new things, which is always so important.

Lauren:  For a long time, I thought of  Under Armour as a football player’s brand.  But it has really evolved to be quite inclusive.  It has taken bold steps, becoming a brand of empowerment for athletes of all kinds, men and women.  One particular campaign I love is the "I will what I want" campaign.  Tell me a little bit about your role with those empowerment themes.

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Karen: Yes, that’s totally true. It began as a football brand because the company really started out as a product innovation.  Our founder was a football player, and so the product was personal and relevant for him.  But from there, the company has expanded tremendously, and is redefining what “athlete” means, with products for all kinds of sports including golf and ballet.  

In terms of the different campaigns, there is a large creative group at here Under Armour that works across all the sport categories, and we also partner with world class agencies and vendors to help bring creative concepts to life. I also love the “I will what I want” campaign. It was produced before I got here and it really made the idea of going in house much more enticing, knowing I’d be working with a brand that has been so unafraid to take creative risks and so focused on empowerment and making athletes better.

Lauren: I can imagine!  I LOVED watching the Super Bowl ads this year, and honestly, the ONLY ones I remember are the ones that were political in tone: Audi, Honda, Budweiser, It’s A 10 Haircare (which I had never heard of before), and of course Coke.  What was your favorite?

Karen: Yes there was definitely a different tone this year. Budweiser went from featuring Clydesdales to showcasing an immigrant success story. Audi talked about equal pay. A lot of ads were definitely trying to make a statement. That said, I think my favorite was probably the Kia spot with Melissa McCarthy. With everything that’s going on, sometimes it’s refreshing to get a little levity.

Lauren:  Yes. The escape can definitely be a compelling option sometimes! You've both freelanced and worked at some pretty cool agencies. What key takeaways do you have from those experiences?

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Karen: Always be ready for the next job.  I know that sounds bad, but what I really mean is always be open to change.  I went to a conference once, and a senior executive of a brand was speaking, and she said she was always looking for a new job. She felt it kept her fresh and aware, and I’ve held on to that concept.  I update my portfolio every year -- when I’m proud of the updates I celebrate them, and when I’m not quite satisfied, I set out with intentionality to fix that.  It allows me to always be ready and to never feel stuck.  The agony people feel about having to update their resume with their work from the last five years is debilitating. I like to treat my careers like my friends, and check in consistently. I try to do one thing a day related to my own professional development -- email a contact, grab coffee with a colleague, read an article, etc. Just keeps me fresh and active.

Lauren: That is such an excellent practice. I also agree with the always be open.  I recommend people always keep their line in the water. You never know what might crop up. What are you most proud of in your career?

Karen: Two things.  One of the things that still makes my heart happy is the work I did for Vroom. My agency worked with the Bezos Family Foundation (BFF) to create something that would help educate low-income parents on the importance of early childhood learning. What we came up with was a brand we built from scratch, Vroom, that seeks to empower parents and caregivers to be brain builders. We worked closely with BFF and their brain trust to really understand the problem and then made it our mission to solve it with every fiber of our being. Advertising campaigns can often be short lived, but I’m so proud that this one has had successful, lasting result that lives on. And in the process of feeling empowered ourselves to create this brand, we empowered others.  

On a more personal level, I’m really proud of founding SheSaysDC. One of the things I noticed in my transition from working in the industry in NYC and here in DC is that I missed the community that exists in New York.  There was always something going on, and it was easy to stay connected with the creative community.  Here in DC, it was harder for me to find a crew of creatives, let alone a network of women.  SheSaysDC, which is the local chapter of a broader women’s networking group, has created a platform for me to connect with creatives, but also a platform that champions women and helps drive professional success for women across industries.  It’s been really rewarding.  And actually, our next event is February 22 at CrossLead. The topic is “Leading Leaders” and should be a lot of fun.

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Lauren: I can totally understand what both of those successes fill you with pride. I was really energized by the SheSaysDC group, and I’m looking forward to more events! So thinking about empowering people to go after what they want, what advice do you have for people looking to get into your field?

Karen: Diversity and inclusion have become so important for agencies and brands. Your path or story doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s.  You just have to know why your story can help the company thrive. We need to understand how your story fits with the brand’s story.  Also, if your path has been less conventional, you probably need to be open to starting a more junior position, but you will grow faster once you’re in because of all your experience. So know who you are, and be prepared to tell us how you fit. But mostly, my advice is to go for it!

Lauren: Not getting hung up on what the “right” path is is so key. If we’re always waiting for the “right” thing or “perfect” thing, we’ll never do anything. So I second that: go for it!  Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Karen.  This was fantastic.

Karen: My pleasure!  I loved it!

Lauren Laitin