Shelley Elkins joined global brand experience agency Jack Morton Worldwide in 2016 as executive creative director, following eight years at Digitas in Chicago and San Francisco, where she worked on several AOR accounts including KitchenAid, Emerson and eBay.
A writer by trade—she graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia Journalism School with an emphasis in advertising—Elkins is passionate about storytelling and helping brands prove their promise. She was elevated to global chief creative officer of Jack Morton last April.
We spent two minutes with Elkins to learn more about her background, her creative inspirations and recent work she's admired.
Shelley, tell us...
The town where you were born.
Waterloo, Iowa, and no, I did not grow up on a farm. For the record, Waterloo is the sixth largest city in Iowa, and it was generally a really nice place to grow up. Someone even wrote a song about it. Yes, that video is real, and yes, I still remember every single word to the song.
What you wanted to be when you grew up.
For me, it was less about what I wanted to be and more about what I wanted to do. I wanted to write and tell stories. I followed that passion to journalism school at the University of Missouri-Columbia. After a semester on the cops and courts beat for the Columbia Missourian, including a few weekends with a police scanner in the back of my baby blue Ford Escort, I wandered into the ad school and never looked back.
How you discovered you were creative.
When I was little, I used to line up all my books in my room, shut my door and tell stories—out loud to myself—about all the characters from all the books interacting with each other. My mom called them my "pretend stories." Between that and the neighborhood talent shows I used to direct, emcee and star in from our back porch (I roller-skated a mean Axel F), I think I just always knew.
A person you idolized creatively growing up.
My grandmothers. I know you asked for one, but how can someone possibly pick just one grandma? Grandma Holmes was a painter, and Grandma Shelley was a musician (accordion and piano). I wanted to be both of them when I grew up, but I learned pretty quickly I was not blessed with my Grandma Holmes' ability to draw or paint. Thankfully, I could sing, so hope stayed alive.
A moment from high school or college that changed your life.
In both high school and college, I had teachers/professors who made a point of telling me they believed in me. Their words spoke my dreams into existence. As creative leaders, we have the power to do the same thing for somebody. Sometimes that's all it takes—to know someone believes in you.
The first concert you saw, and your favorite band or musician today.
I'm pretty sure the first concert I saw was Glenn Yarbrough in some sort of tent with my parents. I feel like the tent was purple and it was the best part about the concert. But my parents could neither confirm nor deny this memory. So, the first concert I remember well was Nine Inch Nails with the Jim Rose Circus. I dyed my hair black and tried to pretend I fit in. Truthfully, I remember being really self-conscious the whole time. I learned a valuable lesson that day about being true to myself.
As for my favorite band or musician, a superband with Freddie Mercury and Aretha Franklin on vocals, Hendrix on guitar, Mozart composing and Dylan writing lyrics.
Your favorite visual artist.
That's tough so I'm going to go local. I'm based in Chicago and I'm a huge fan of the work of Jenna Blazevich and her studio, Vichcraft. She's a letterer, designer and calligrapher. Her work is badass.
Your favorite hero or heroine in fiction.
Without a doubt, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, we named our daughter Madeline Scout Elkins. And yes, Maddie is fiercely independent. Age 3 going on 30.
The best book you've read lately.
Despite my best intentions and my love for books, what I've mostly been reading lately are children's books. By the time I get the kids (Lincoln and Madeline) to bed, finish up some work and lie down in bed with a book, I can hardly hold it, much less read it. So my answer is Ada Twist, Scientist. I'm obsessed with all of Andrea Beaty's children's books, but this one in particular is my favorite. Everything about it—the story, the cadence of the rhyme, the illustrations by David Roberts, and especially the message—is perfect.
Your favorite movie.
I give you two truths and a lie—Parasite, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Amelie.
Your favorite Instagram follow.
@douglasemhoff, Kamala Harris's husband. I love how much he loves her and how comfortable he is with her in the spotlight.
How the Covid-19 crisis has changed your life, personally or professionally, in recent weeks.
I opened Jack Morton South in Benton, Kentucky, which is the location of my in-laws' farm. We are so grateful to be here and have help with the kids while we both work full-time jobs. We are also grateful to be employed and healthy.
Personally, this has been a reset button. I can't imagine a life now without dinner together with my family, and I plan to rethink my schedule to make it work when we're back in the city.
Professionally, it has been tough. Our entire industry has been turned upside down, but adversity can bring bursts of creativity. I've been inspired to see how our teams have come up with creative ways to recreate the culture at Jack, which is very special. One of my favorites is a virtual happy hour at "[Microsoft] Teams Tavern" with the slogan, "Where everybody knows your initials," which is what shows up when you log on.
Your favorite creative project you've ever worked on, and why.
One of the very first projects I ever worked on was for a nonprofit called PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) Chicago. They wanted us to help them create a fundraising event. We created a run/walk, and I named it the PAWS Run for Their Lives. I can still remember holding the piece of paper with that name and a dozen others, and agonizing over whether to share the others because I knew I'd found the one.
This year marks the 20th year of the run/walk. It's so neat to see work have staying power and real impact. The date for this year's run/walk has moved from May to October due to Covid-19. If you can, please support this wonderful organization that saves thousands of animals' lives every year!
Your favorite creative project from the past year, and why.
The work we did for Grow with Google for the launch of their New York learning center is my favorite. What I love most about the work, is that it's more than a piece, or pieces, of brand work. It's rooted in giving back to the community. Grow with Google is this tremendous program where Google travels to towns and cities across America and gives people access to free digital training, tools and resources. It's open to anyone who wants to learn—from teachers to small businesses, students, job seekers, etc. In New York, Google wanted to do something bigger and give back locally, particularly in the neighborhood of its Manhattan headquarters by taking over an empty storefront and opening a larger-than-life learning center.
I loved how the community was represented throughout the experience. All of the materials were sourced locally—tables, plants, snacks, cement floors and wood. Even the bricks came from a local business that reclaims them from old buildings. Traditional classroom settings and workstations were designed to be welcoming, comfortable and easy to use. We even included a wellness room. And the icing on the cake was the results. In the first 120 days, sessions were booked to capacity and thousands of people dropped in to look around and experience the goodness that Google had to offer. The community embraced the entire experience and even advocated to keep its doors open months longer than originally planned.
Someone else's creative project that inspired you years ago.
Small Business Saturday. A simple idea that made an enormous impact on the world.
Someone else's creative project that you've been envious of lately.
I love all the creativity I've been seeing from people who aren't in the business. The people who are hand-sewing masks. Hanging hearts in windows. Writing PSAs in sidewalk chalk. Starting virtual tip jars. Apple, of course, said it perfectly when they said "Creativity goes on," and I think the inspiring thing for us all is that this has shown us the true power of creativity. To bring us together. And to change the world for the better.
Your main strength as a creative person.
Your weakness or blind spot.
Finding balance. We can't be our best selves if we're looking down at a computer all day. We all need to make time to play.
One thing that always makes you happy.
Reading letters from my dad. He wrote me dozens and dozens of handwritten letters as well as hundreds upon hundreds of emails. They're filled with all kinds of advice, wisdom tips, anecdotes, musings and more.
Here's one I rediscovered recently:
"Things you ingest other than fresh fruit and raw fresh veggies have to be viewed critically. Most all of them are not what the architect planned for you to consume; and that architect certainly did not plan for you to consume the vast quantities that most of us inhale, especially after we have stimulated ourselves with caffeine."
One thing that always makes you sad.
Reading letters from my dad. We lost him in late October to colon cancer, and I miss him so much it hurts.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising
Covering the cops and courts beat. Ha. Just kidding. I like to think I'd be an opera singer. But the truth is, I probably would have followed in my father's/grandfather's/great-grandfather's footsteps and become an attorney. In my imaginary and storied law career, I would be fighting for immigrants' rights. As Warsan Shire wrote so poignantly, "You have to understand, no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."