I hadn’t registered to start until the following day. My PN colleagues who had already arrived were out and about on their own, but I had come inside to take refuge from the windy city’s blustery, rainy chill, and before I knew it I had sneaked into the first day of the HOW Design Conference. I found a seat in the Grand Ballroom joining the approximately 3000 other Creatives who had gathered in Chicago for four days of intensive learning, networking, a little inspiration and a general kick in the ass.

The speaker was Brian Collins, a designer and creative director who, over the course of his career, has won every major creative award. His work has been featured in a long list of top publications that includes The New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, and Business Week, and it was his team that had produced the international photo exhibit that helped launch Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign.

Projected on screens covering the walls were stained glass windows—the iconic images representative of the brand he referenced as providing his earliest lesson in brand identity: the Church. It’s an institution replete with brand assets: guidelines, influencers, a distinct feel, memorable story, a strong heritage, and even a few jingles. But at age 25 or so, when Collins had first moved to Chicago, the Church no longer resonated for him. He couldn’t connect—until the day he heard the gospel singing of the Chicago Mass Choir. He was, at once, inspired; this is what branding should do—inspire passion—a pivotal learning.

Suddenly the back doors of the conference auditorium opened. There was a bit of commotion, and I realized that about 50 singers and musicians had just started to parade down the aisle. Our collective jaws dropped. Here we were at a design conference and a choir of gospel singers were filling this tremendous space. It was, indeed, the same choir Collins had seen for the first time many years before. The music seemed to erupt from the very depths of their beings, bubbling over with passion. They certainly got my full attention. It was inspiring. Throughout the rest of his session he drew parallels to design, but the larger relevance to our clients’ brand communications is obvious and direct; he outlined the rules and opened up the possibilities. Go big and bold, think out of the box, but keep it authentic. They were the real deal. Point taken.
But his speech also resonated on an entirely personal level. I didn’t expect that.

I have been at Porter Novelli for 15 years now. In fact, my anniversary is in the end of May. Prior to my tenure here I had been an actress—which was the only work I’d ever envisioned for myself. But after almost 20 years, I had given so much of my livelihood to a career that—to be honest—wasn’t all that fruitful and provided nothing in the way of benefits. I worked multiple jobs to make ends meet and my social life was meagre. When I did have an acting gig, the pay was minimal and whatever routine I’d made for myself went out the window. Somewhere along the way, my passion for the work dried up. I lost my drive and had a hard time finding inspiration. I figured I might as well make a living. After a few odd jobs, I wound up at Porter Novelli through the recommendation of a friend.

It was a huge change for me. I had always identified as an artist of sorts. Before I was ever acting I was either telling stories or designing something. I’d been drawing since I could hold a pencil. I sang. I danced. I wrote. Once at Porter Novelli, however, I fell into the corporate world of “new biz,” holding the memory of my past at arm’s length. I jumped in headfirst. I learned new skills, took on growing responsibilities and enjoyed navigating the culture. But I stopped identifying as an artist. And more often than not, I found myself mostly buried under a never ending workload. For whatever reason, the conference provided a moment of separation when I could be at work but not at work. And the conference reminded me that I am, indeed, an artist.

Looking back, it’s clear that throughout my tenure at Porter Novelli I have been seeking my roots in my day-to-day work. I started “designing” RFIs in Word, I mastered PowerPoint for presentation support, I started a public speaking workshop, I tweaked case studies to better tell the stories, and literally worked beside the “Creatives” until I found myself counted among them.

I am a communicator; that is my art. There is magic when the message and the means are completely aligned and you know you are reaching your audience. The bigger and bolder, the more satisfying. The artist and the audience know when it’s authentic—both come away changed, having lived through a unique, shared encounter. Theatre or Dance or Design can’t live in a vacuum. All art needs its audience. It’s got to inspire. That’s why, 15 years ago, I had gotten lost. And that’s why brands that go awry get lost. I don’t know why it took a gospel choir at a keynote speech at a conference in Chicago for me to realize it. I guess I just needed the perspective from a distance. But I’ve returned refreshed and find myself connecting to my work the same way I did when I was acting or singing or dancing or drawing. What we do is art. And when we do it well, we can truly inspire.