Inside the Studio: Utendahl Creative
by Theresa Christine Johnson on 11/02/2020 | 6 Minute Read
When it comes to design work, Madison Utendahl, founder and CCO of Utendahl Creative, believes in storytelling and connecting with people’s emotions. She believes in the power and strength of women (her entire team is made up of women). But perhaps more than anything, she is a believer in fun.
“It’s the most important part of what we do,” she admitted.
But don’t misconstrue that. Madison works hard. After studying film and art history at Brown University, she started her career in film and television. While this isn’t a typical path future design agency owners take, she believes this unconventional background works to her advantage.
Out of college, she got a job working on a new HBO show hosted by one of the former correspondents on The Daily Show. Madison was on the original team that helped create Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and she witnessed all parts of the show come together. As a production assistant, she did a little bit of everything—working with the writers or transcribing research or sitting in on meetings.
“It was single-handedly the most impactful experience I’ve had in terms of understanding the power of how to tell a story,” Madison said. “It taught me how you could take basically any subject matter, no matter how overwhelming, and find these emotional threads that human beings can all connect with. Whether that’s humor or inspiration or curiosity, you can really get through to any person if you lead with empathy.”
After a few seasons on the show, she began working for Refinery29. That, in turn, led to being a founding partner and head of content and social of the Museum of Ice Cream, the Instagram fever dream come to life.
“That’s where I came to understand the power of marketing,” Madison explained. “I translated all of my storytelling skills and applied that specifically to social media.”
While her background wasn’t specifically in design, Madison believed that, with the right team, she could have her own agency—one that could combine storytelling based on the emotional core of a client and that, visually, could make an impact. So in 2019, she started Utendahl Creative.
For Madison and the Utendahl, emotion always leads the way. Numbers matter, she admitted, but she tends to view metrics differently. For instance, with a social media campaign, they don’t focus on the likes, but rather the saves and the shares—this means it’s striking a chord while also being visually compelling.
“I don’t care if you’re selling lightbulbs,” Madison added. “You have emotional tenets that you can uncover, and you must give people the ability to have clarity and transparency and reflection.”
The studio also finds itself drawn to projects that, at first glance, might not be the most exciting ones to dive into. Take, for instance, the emergency preparedness kit JUDY. Everyone knows they should have one of these around the house, but it’s not exactly the most appealing or even pleasant subject to think about. But because of that, Madison saw a creative opportunity to turn it into something people didn’t just need to have but also wanted.
“Selling an emergency preparedness kit is an unsexy subject compared to selling a CBD balm,” she laughed. “It’s a much harder thing to make something like that sexy, and that’s all I want to do—make things that are unsexy, sexy.”
Having something like JUDY is a matter of life and death in some cases, but therein lies the challenge. How do you take something urgent and life-saving but make it fun and educational? JUDY aims to give people power in situations where they may otherwise feel powerless, so as a result, Utendahl Creative gave the brand an encouraging and relatable voice. They focus on education rather than fear. By leading with joy, they’ve opened up the conversation in a new way for consumers to reconsider what an emergency preparedness kit could be—and by fostering that dialogue, they’ve built trust.
Being a young design agency, Utendahl Creative has dealt with the challenges of 2020 in stride. Before the pandemic, they gathered office in Dumbo, Brooklyn, but most employees came in two days a week and worked the rest from home. Shifting to fully remote this year was easy since they already had the system in place.
“I’m the number one distractor for my team,” Madison joked. “I’m constantly cracking jokes. I’m a big talker, and I love being around people.”
She recognizes that everyone needs different working environments, and she respects that everyone on her team comes from creative backgrounds like art or writing. She hopes in the spring of 2021 to make office time an option again and dreams of having an artist studio set up for employees to use and express their creativity away from home.
As a Black woman in design, a predominantly white and male-dominated industry when it comes to leadership roles, Madison is an inspiration. She confessed it's hard, but she is thrilled to see so many boundaries being broken. And her own advice to other creatives of color? Don’t look at the statistics or numbers.
Madison admitted that, while she may have the title of founder and CCO of Utendahl Creative, she knows the people by her side are just as critical to her success. They’re an all-female team, and she puts her faith in them without question. Too often, entrepreneurs want to tackle everything themselves, but that ambition can ultimately be their downfall.
“Entrepreneurs have to have a certain level of belief in their own capabilities to start a company, but they often say ‘I’ll do it myself,’” Madison said. “But there’s so much more you gain and learn when you say that you don’t actually say that you can do it, but instead trust other people to do it.
“We’re a team of six women who show up for each other every single day. Having a team that is so close and that trusts each other has been the greatest gift.”