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Emily Willson on Design, Star Trek, and Her Hardest Marketing Challenge

Q & A with Workhorse's Marketing Queen and Co-founder

Amidst a rush of client meetings and major projects (our clients’ Fall announcements are our Summer squeezes!), Emily took a breather with Taia, Workhorse’s Content & Media Strategist, to answer some questions about how she got into marketing, her most challenging campaign, and a surprising fact you probably don’t know.

A cartoon of Emily with pink hair and a black blazer smiles slightly. The text reads Q & A with Emily Willson

How did you get into arts marketing?

I grew up in a creative family and spent my childhood going to art museums, painting, and making ceramics with my mom. I also made a lot of terrible digital art with my dad using 90’s software staples like MacPaint and Kid Pix (click for a THROWBACK). I loved typography, branding, and color theory, so naturally I went to college for graphic design.

As a graphic designer, it’s your job to bring other people's visions to life. (I once had a local car dealer request that I photoshop him into ridiculous costumes for a series of ad campaigns). After a few years of that sort of work, I was ready to move beyond design and dig into the psychology behind successful campaigns. I could make a beautiful graphic, but I wanted to understand how to measure its impact. A design might be visually appealing, but does it serve its intended purpose? Does it drive the viewer to action? This drove me to my master’s degree in marketing, focusing on consumer behavior and strategic communications. Now I pair my strengths as a designer and creative director with my love of data-informed digital advertising.

A man's face has been badly photoshopped in a space suit against a spacey car lot. The text reads, our prices are out of this world. 0% down.

As people have started to learn in the era of Big Data, marketing can certainly have a dark side, so it’s important to me to work with arts organizations and nonprofits whose missions I believe in. I want to use what I know to make a positive impact on the world, and working with creative entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations has been a great way to do that.

What was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to market?

I had to sell a performing arts experience that didn’t have a name (and I wasn’t allowed to give it one!) It was largely a surprise for audience members, so I couldn’t talk about what people could expect. I didn’t have any imagery or photos to work with since it was a new work and highly secretive—and yet I still had to develop a full marketing campaign and sell the show to meet aggressive ticketing goals.

Arts marketing gives you the opportunity to be creative, innovative, experimental, and a little weird.

Since the mystery was part of what was getting in my way, I instead tried to use it as a selling point to drive excitement. We already had a reputation for really engaging, high-quality work, so I was able to lean on that. I created an event image that alluded to the feeling of something emerging or hatching. Incredibly, that show sold out. I ended up using the model as a blueprint for future events where I had to market without enough details, and they frequently sold out before their closing weekend.

That campaign is such a great example of how arts marketing gives you the opportunity to be creative, innovative, experimental, and a little weird.

Can you share a marketing campaign that inspires you?

My current advertising crush is IKEA. They work with many different design firms, but they deliver clever campaigns that feel consistently on-brand. IKEA has an everyman brand archetype, so they need to be accessible, functional, warm, and inviting. They sell pieces that are part of your home, so they need to be trustworthy and cozy, too. Two of their recent campaigns are a great example of highlighting functionality while making customers feel comfortable.

Design studio: TWBA/Istanbul

Why I love it: This is a fully integrated concept. They didn’t just create an interesting and engaging advertisement—the packaging itself is a functional part of the campaign that you can actually use!

Design studio: DAVID/Madrid and INGO/Hamburg

A mom lays on a bed holder her baby with a n empty crib in the background. the ikea logo, product name and price are also on the ad

Why I love it: Some companies wouldn’t want to market themselves as “second best” to anything, but here IKEA acknowledges that the best place for kids is with their parents. This appeals to their everyman brand archetype and shows that they know their customers’ priorities. Cleverly, it also removes a barrier that product marketers sometimes have—showing products in use while also giving a clear view of them.

What’s the most common marketing mistake that keeps you up at night?

There are so many! If I had to pick the worst offender it would be horrible websites. I can create a breath-taking ad campaign that sends a flood of traffic to a site, but if that site is hard to navigate, outdated, or visually cluttered and unappealing, the viewer won’t make a purchase. That’s the most frustrating experience as a marketer—almost everything we do relies on an organization’s website. It’s like your digital doorstep. Before you spend lots of money on digital marketing, you need to make sure your website is effective, accessible, and accurate! We know every dollar counts in arts and nonprofit marketing, so we frequently turn down prospective clients who want a marketing strategy before they have a website that works.

What’s a fun fact people don’t know about you?

I’m a MASSIVE Trekkie. More specifically the Original Series through Deep Space Nine. I grew up on Star Trek and it’s continued to be a slight obsession of mine as I’ve gotten older!

Photos of Emily with performers from Star Trek. Each are labeled with the performers name, Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, Nichelle Nicholls, Levar Burton


Want to ask Emily some questions of your own?

You can always book Emily for a Power Hour: a one hour session where you make the agenda and she answers as many of your marketing headscratchers as she can.



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