2 Minutes With … Laurel Stark Akman, GCD on The Sims at EA

On Google #ThisIsFamily, the Sims 'Pass the Spark,' and the pursuit of equity through action

Laurel Stark Akman's work has been called "industry bettering" by Adweek and "world changing" by Fast Company. She's been honored by the Brand Innovators 40 under 40 and named a Pitch 100 Superperson for her DEI and mental health advocacy. She excels at transforming brands and teams, championing brave, inclusive workplaces, and telling compelling stories that pierce culture and push humanity forward.

Laurel has led award-winning, global creative work at TikTok, Intel's Agency Inside, Media.Monks, the Google Brand Studio and SapientNitro. Inspired by her work with the 3% Movement, Laurel co-created several projects dedicated to building a more equitable creative industry: the One Club's gender equality boosting Next Creative Leaders, the Cannes Lions backed Mentorship Matchmaking program, and Our Silent Partner, a reflection on mental health and creativity.

She currently leads global creative efforts for The Sims marketing team at EA (Electronic Arts).

We spent two minutes with Laurel to learn more about her background, her creative inspirations, and recent work she's admired.

Laurel, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now. 

I'm a Silicon Valley native, born and raised in San Jose, California, by two nuclear engineers who ran marathons for fun. I now live in the East Bay, in Livermore, which is a cute little wine town about 50 minutes outside San Francisco. Though I've moved around quite a bit within a 40-mile radius, I've made the Bay Area home for most of my life. 

How you first realized you were creative. 

I was an extremely right-brained kid who was adopted by two extremely left-brained parents, so my creativity was always a point of amusement and discussion in our house. Whether I was building intricate dioramas out of discarded packing materials, casting my favorite stuffed animals and younger siblings in my "musicals," or compulsively filling journals with stories, my creative pursuits always got a special shout-out in my mom's annual Christmas card—validating that my creativity was worth sharing with the world. Or at the very least, our family's distro list. 

A person you idolized creatively early on. 

Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin were my first creative heroes. In 2006, when I was in advertising school, they were visibly killing it as women in the creative C suite, the Dove "Campaign for Real Beauty" was everywhere, and their best selling book, Pick Me, was practically my Bible. I didn't know them personally yet, but I was in awe of how they showed up in the world and what they stood for. I was lucky enough to meet them in 2014, and they have been a big part of my life ever since. Having mentors that demonstrate grace under pressure, fearlessness in the face of change, and a genuine love for the future of creativity has changed absolutely everything for me. Needless to say, they're still my heroes. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life. 

I met my husband, Veli, in advertising school. Before him, everything I aspired to had been a solo goal that I chipped away at on my own. But when we met, I gained a partner … not just in my creative work, but in creating a future I could be excited about. Though we ultimately decided not to be creative partners in business, the life we've co-created over the past 16 years is truly greater than the sum of our parts. Our daughter, our careers, our home, our lives, our crazy, blended, global family—it's all so much bigger and magical than I could have created on my own. 

A visual artist or band/musician you admire. 

Lisa Congdon's bold, colorful designs hang both on my wall and in my closet. The fact that she found success as a second-career, queer artist made me love her even more. It also didn't hurt that she was a dear friend of my first-ever mentor and graduate school teacher, the wonderful Marguerite Lutton. When Marg passed away unexpectedly in August 2020, Lisa created a beautiful "Marguerite" print in memory of her and kindly gifted me a copy. I own several of Lisa's prints, but this one is now my favorite. 

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring. 

Michelle Lawrence's Black Tea podcast. I'm a sucker for creative solutions that manifest through values-aligned action. Michelle is a brilliant host, who has enlightening and empowering chats with powerhouse guests, all while living her values and giving other Black women in advertising a long overdue platform. (Insert standing ovation, here.)

Your favorite fictional character. 

The brilliant Jordan Dinwiddie's brainchild, Marisole. IYKYK.

Someone or something worth following in social media. 

I'm fascinated with how Gen Z uses social media as a vehicle for storytelling and activism. Olivia Juliana could teach a master class in flipping the script on internet trolls. 

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally. 

Covid-19 was a physical, emotional and identity reckoning for me: My parents' 50-year marriage was imploding, my "dream job" disappeared, my young daughter was underfoot, my mental health was in the toilet, and my hair was falling out in clumps. But being shaken to my foundations offered up the opportunity to rebuild my life and story in ways that freed me up to be braver and more authentic. 

In 2020, I decided to take my mental health struggles public with Our Silent Partner. It was scary but incredibly exhilarating to be so honest about my truth … and it connected me to community and opportunity—including my current role on the Sims—when I felt incredibly lost and alone. But even bigger than that, the experience of being so vulnerable with my creativity has fundamentally altered how I see my true value as a creative and a leader. 

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.

In 2018, I got the opportunity to lead Google's Pride efforts. The ask started small—a hashtag and a T-shirt design—but the concept we landed on resonated so deeply with our team and client that it ended up snowballing into a global campaign, "This Is Family."

I genuinely love the people I got to work with on this project, and am proud of the "world-changing" recognition it earned, but the real reason it has such a special place in my heart is that it's also my coming-out story. By shaping a celebratory queer narrative during a devastating year for LGBTQ+ process, and finding my own "found family" in that little team that could, I finally had the space and support to embrace my queer identity in a real way. And I'm endlessly grateful for that.

A recent project you're proud of. 

The Sims' latest brand film, "Pass the Spark," is a literal love note to underrepresented creators and the profound power their creativity has to inspire other people. This film was made in collaboration with the most broadly representative and inspiringly talented team, cast and crew I've ever had the pleasure of working with. But it's also a much-needed reminder to myself that you never know who is being inspired by how you and your creativity show up. And that's something that keeps me going, as a queer woman working in gaming.

The Sims Presents "Pass the Spark"
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago. 

My career took a pivotal and powerful turn on the day I met Kat Gordon. I'm not the same person or creative I was before I stepped into her second annual 3% Conference a decade ago. I'd had two toxic jobs back to back and was on the brink of leaving the industry altogether. But after listening to some of the best women in the business talk about their (hauntingly familiar) experiences, I realized … maybe what I'd experienced was bigger than me. And maybe like Kat, I could be a part of fixing it for others. 

Kat showed me what impact and influence could look like in the creative space, and how storytelling and activism could marry to make a real difference—not just through words, but through actions. You can see so much of Kat's influence in my side projects, like Next Creative Leaders, which aims to build a more inclusive industry by broadening the type of leadership we celebrate.

Someone else's work you admired lately. 

I've admired Kaleeta McDade's work regularly, enthusiastically and loudly since becoming her friend about a decade ago. And while there's a million and one things to admire about the way she and her work manifest in the world, witnessing her many gifts collide so publicly with her values, and her personal experience on Black Madison Avenue, has been truly spectacular. 

Your main strength as a creative person. 

I often joke with young creatives that my creative "secret sauce" is really just trauma, and there's definitely some truth to that. Feeling othered in my life and career has made me a deeply empathetic person. But it's also given me X-ray vision when it comes to identifying inequitable systems, structures and stories. I think that combination is my creative superpower. Because when you care enough to challenge what is, to make room for what could be … that's when the magic happens. 

Your biggest weakness. 

My lack of patience. Blame it on my double Aries placements. Or the fact that there are so many problems worthy of creative solutions. I'm regularly reminded by colleagues and friends that change "happens slowly." But as a passionate believer in a better future for all, I have a hard time not chomping at the bit. 

One thing that always makes you happy. 

Talking to my daughter about her art. 

One thing that always makes you sad. 

The status quo. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising. 

Democracy could use a chief creative officer. Maybe that.

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a contributor for Muse by Clio. She's also a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication, and Information.

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