As a Founding Brand Strategist at Wolf & Wilhelmine, Valerie Nguyen balances new school thinking with rigorous brand planning and a passion for leveraging — and immersing in — the currents of culture. That passion for culture comes to life at W&W as she leads the exploration of new, interesting, co-creative and human methods for qualitative research (to hell with stuffy focus groups!). Her love of people, the world and even the weirder corners of the Internet manifests as a relentless focus on bringing it back to clients in a way that is useful.
After ditching her finance and creative copywriting degrees back in Texas, Valerie has worked as a brand strategist at Mother, Anomaly and Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects innovation group before Wolf & Wilhelmine. Some of the brands she’s worked on: Sour Patch Kids, Virgin Mobile, Microsoft, American Express, Almay, Target, Nike, Hurley and Harry’s. She was also a co-creator of the Dating Brian Project — which put the fate of an NYC newcomer’s dating life into the oh-so-trusty hands of the Internet.
Outside of the walls of advertising, Valerie can be found running on the Westside Highway, searching for authentic Tex-Mex in Manhattan and taking too long in museum exhibits.
Describe your career path up to now.
It’s been more of a wander than a path so far. In college, I originally had the idea that I was going to be a big, bad investment banker. But not only did I get bored taking portfolio management and accounting classes, but I was in school when the 2008 recession hit and I realised just how bad that big, bad wolf could be.
"I dyed my hair pink, flew back to Texas and laughed at my business school professors."
So I started taking random classes, stumbled into advertising and ended up as a copywriter in the Texas Creative program. After spending two summers interning in New York City at BBH and Mother, I was sold. I dyed my hair pink, flew back to Texas and laughed at my business school professors who warned I wouldn’t be able to interview with that hair — that was the point.
After graduating, I was a strategist at Mother New York before embedding in Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group, an innovation arm devoted to exploring the future of mobility. Let me tell you, working with literal rocket scientists will kick leaps-of-faith, its-culture-okay strategist ass. It was while I was working at ATAP with my mentor, Heidi Hackemer, that she decided to found Wolf & Wilhelmine and I was employee #1 (part of the responsibilities of employee #1 is co-building the website over Papa John’s takeout in a sad Airbnb in Silicon Valley).
Since then, I’ve helped grow W&W as I’ve worked on building my own skills as a strategist and also a manager (those are two very different things). And as much as there’s been building, there’s been also been breaking down. At W&W, we’re figuring out the intersection of work with life today. And a lot of that has been prying my Millennial, child-of-immigrants, workaholic tendencies out of my hands. Surprisingly, I’m not dead. And here we are.
What does your typical day involve?
While I don’t really have a typical day, I strive for common components. Habit gets a bad rap. In my view, having a foundation of habit ensures you the freedom and fuel to do the different and interesting and unusual. Rant over.
A good chunk of my day goes to face-to-face checking in and riffing. Whether that’s having a one-on-one with someone reporting into me or doing a riff session with a fellow strategist or collaborating with a client, we’re only as good as the conversations we’re having.
"I also like to have nerd time. I need immersion and wandering."
I also like to have nerd time. I need immersion and wandering. That can be more or less focused depending on what needs to get done.
In line with W&W’s brand purpose of Do Great Work, Live Great Lives, I try to get in something enriching on the life front. Whether that’s a run, taking some time to learn something new or catching up with someone. It always goes full circle and ends up inspiring and provoking my work.
What’s an observation vs insight?
An observation is visible. While not everyone may know to act or notice it, most people could see it if you pointed it out to them. That could be a trend, behaviour, statistic or fact. It gets more to what or how.
"An insight is what lives a couple layers down, in between the gaps."
In contrast, an insight is about the why. An insight is what lives a couple layers down, in between the gaps, woven among the trends, around the corner — surprise! It’s rooted in empathy and requires a deeper understanding. An observation, doesn’t have to be understood, it only has to be witnessed.
Both are important. Let’s get that over with. Everybody loves an insight, but sometimes the ‘Thing’ (bolded, underlined) that unlocks a brief or problem doesn’t have to be buried. It just has to lead to the answer. We like to think that insights are the ‘Thing’ and they are very hard to unearth. But an observation applied in a powerful way can be just as valuable as any insight.
How do you approach a fresh brief?
Like it’s actually fresh. It’s easy to fall into patterns of retrofitting and reusing. Not knowing what you’re doing can be a huge gift. Pretending to start with a blank slate is a huge skill.
Project wise, what’s been the most fulfilling to date?
In a weird way, Wolf & Wilhelmine has been the biggest project of my career. How do you do premium work in these hyperconnected, hypercompetitive times in a way that doesn’t mean the death and destruction of your personal life? It’s a big, tough problem. How do you build a brand with ethos and behavior at its core rather than product or service? I feel lucky that while we do crack problems for clients, we’re also cracking this problem for ourselves. And getting to do it with a group of kickass, diverse women and man? Yes, please and thank you.
Any advice for aspiring strategists?
There’s a little trifecta of aspiration, inspiration and motivation. You’ve got one of those, check, awesome. Get the other two right. Make sure you’re constantly immersing yourself in interesting, new and different inspirations and stimulus. And get your motivations right. A good strategist is motivated by empathy at the end of the day. If you just like the sexy title, get outta here.
"Find yourself a talent crush… someone who has something that you want to learn and emulate."
Also, find yourself a talent crush. This doesn’t necessarily mean a mentor (although those are just as important!). This is someone who has something that you want to learn and emulate desperately. And similar to a high school crush, this person should simultaneously scare you and excite you. This is someone whose work, actions and thinking will push yours.
What’s your favourite thing to do outside of work?
I love a good, long run. I love feeling what my body is (and on some days isn’t) capable of. I love breathing hard and feeling human. We get so locked up in our screens. It’s nice/necessary to leave that behind for awhile.
Lastly if you could share a desk with anyone from the past, present or future, who would it be?
Can I go fictional? I would share the desk of Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starfleet starship the U.S.S. Voyager. Not only would this place me in space, but next to a badass woman captain. Also, she is really into historical fiction holodeck novels which I could get down with.
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