As a young intern at Crispin & Porter in the early ‘90s, Dawn’s first assignment was to name a retirement home. Now she hopes to pull a Benjamin Button, perhaps creating acronym-laden AR experiences targeted at Gen Z that run on platforms that haven't even been invented. Or maybe just create a tv spot they don't want to skip. Either way, she’s got the talent and the experience to do it.
During her 25-year career, Dawn has created memorable campaigns for brands like Mercedes-Benz, Lee, Miller Lite, Women & Co., DSW, Partnership for a Drugfree America, TBS, and MetLife at shops we all wish we had on our resumé: Fallon Worldwide, Merkley + Partners, Cliff Freeman & Partners, and CP+B. None of her work has ever won a Pencil, Lion or a Clio, even though people seem to think it has. (Consider us shocked). She was also one of the first female creatives recognized by the industry for her work in the automotive category.
Dawn recently added producer and professor to her list of titles. At the 2018 midterms, she wrote, art directed and produced a campaign for ACLU to help get Amendment 4 passed, giving 1.4 million disenfranchised Floridians their votes back. And this spring, she’ll be teaching at the University of Florida, as an adjunct professor in the College of Journalism and Communications.
Somehow, in between all this, Dawn found time to venture on solo photography trips to Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. She rode across the Andes Mountains on horseback for 10 days, shooting a photo essay for Big Magazine, for which Jay Russell dubbed her “The Original Millennial”. It’s also worth noting Dawn knows how to keep orchids alive, and children. And she just might know of a good solution for ageism.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
My first real job was at Fallon, back when it had the McElligott attached to it. At that time, the creative department was mostly made up of well-paid, senior creatives, who had Art Director and Copywriter on their business cards. So, I just thought creatives-in-their-40s-still-going-strong was the norm.
Working at Cliff Freeman & Partners was the first time I was part of a majority-younger department, but Cliff was still the man. He was 62 at the time, and still kicking creative ass. Yes, he wore man fanny-packs, and had his phone clipped to his belt, but the guy knew funny. I walked out of meetings with him, not thinking ‘that dude is old’, but thinking ‘that dude is genius’.
"Cliff was still the man. He was 62 at the time, and still kicking creative ass....I walked out of meetings with him, not thinking ‘that dude is old’, but thinking ‘that dude is genius’."
Is ageism something that’s affected you? What are some of the challenges you faced as a person who was getting older in the business? Do tell.
Well, I’m a freelancer, so I do a lot of my work remotely. When I do travel to work on-site, it’s too late to discriminate by the time they meet me in person. They’re stuck with my grey roots, loose neck skin, idea-generation prowess, and mad production skills. When I was 24, I was making ads for investment companies and luxury cars I couldn’t afford. So there’s no reason that now in my mid-40s, I can’t make great work for video games and shave clubs.
"When I was 24, I was making ads for investment companies and luxury cars I couldn’t afford. So there’s no reason that now in my mid-40s, I can’t make great work for video games and shave clubs."
Tell us about your own creative journey. What are your thoughts on where you are now, compared to your mindset when you were in the beginning of your career?
I think my present mindset is pretty similar to what it was when I started out. I am still more into doing big work than having big titles. I still think killer work can be done in any category and for any brand. I still prioritize working with people of the non-douchebag variety. I’m still always looking to do something I’ve never done before. My creative journey has always lived outside of advertising too. I’m a photographer and ceramicist. I also make people (2 girls to be exact).
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
Reality has never affected me much. This can sometimes be problematic, but I have just stayed positive, knowing that talent prevails.
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
I might be the baby of this talented group, at 45, but the things I took away from some of best creatives I’ve known throughout my career are: 1. Don’t present work you don’t want to produce. 2. Always ask for more time. 3. Listen. Anyone can have a great creative idea. I, myself, may have taken #1 a little too far sometimes, more than once sabotaging work that clients started pecking away at. But, for younger creatives, some of whose experiences have never included the now-luxuries of having a few weeks, or even a month, for an assignment, or not being pressured into presenting a lame ‘backup’ campaign along with their great ones, or never collaborating with a truly killer team of uber-talented account, strategy and producer peeps, I think these simple nuggets are still damn relevant. That was definitely a run-on sentence.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Back in my early 30s, when I was working at Cliff Freeman, my then-partner (also female) and I heard about a 2 for 1 special on Botox, which was still a new thing at the time. We contemplated trying it, but concluded that if we Botoxed our frown lines, we’d no longer be able to silently shoot down each other’s ideas, with facial gestures alone. We’d have been forced to resort to robotic responses to each other like “that idea is stupid.” or “nope, it still sucks.” So we decided to pass on the Botox, and continued communicating with the kindness of silent eye squints and furrowed eyebrows. You, however, may want to consider a slightly less seamless partner relationship in exchange for a few units of the liquid gold and a smooth forehead.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I can see myself doing all sorts of crazy things during the coming decade. I toy with running for public office. Shouldn’t we all be doing that? I’m working on a 21st Century high school curriculum to teach innovation through creativity. I’m hoping to have a client-side experience with a brand that I can really get behind. I’m doing whatever I can to contribute some good to this slightly-dingy feeling world right now.
"If you think about it, enabling more remote work could be just the solution. Voices don’t have wrinkles, grey hair or outdated shoes. When you’re just dealing with a voice, you’re judging based on ideas, skills and attitude."
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
If you think about it, enabling more remote work could be just the solution. Voices don’t have wrinkles, grey hair or outdated shoes. When you’re just dealing with a voice, you’re judging based on ideas, skills and attitude. In the 1970s, major orchestras started conducting ‘blind’ auditions, and with that, women went from being 5% to 30% of new hires. Maybe, as an industry it would behoove us to operate a little more blindly.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Collectedness and confidence. Other than the occasional creeper, you tend to have way less concerns about your abilities. You go into most projects without spending much time worrying about whether you’ll be able to come up with, and execute, a great idea. It used to be more of a will-I? Where now it’s more of a when-will-I, before, or after another latte?
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Recently I read a NYT article about Dr. David Vaughan, a coral researcher who, at 62, accidentally discovered a new method of rapidly regrowing and transplanting corals. I heard him speak recently, and had an embarrassing celeb-moment where I asked if I could take a selfie with him. My mom is 75, and is still publishing the magazine she founded. My dad’s 82, and still schooling me in Photoshop. Oh, and there’s Marlena Vaccaro, who runs an art gallery in Chelsea for artists over 60. She said “You can look at any of the work in this gallery and have no clue if somebody is 20 or 120. Let the prejudice go. Just look at the work.”