Amy Vaughan: Above the Noise
I met Amy, managing creative director at Epipheo and city champion for the Cincinnati chapter of Women in Digital, at her office in Longworth Hall. She wasted no time introducing me to her friendly, easygoing team who immediately made me feel at home. It felt right to lounge on the big leather couch in the airy office space and dive deep into what drove Amy to where she is today. It was easy to sense how much her colleagues admired her as they passed by and smiled.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Cincinnati; grew up in a very small town called Williamsburg. I graduated with a class of like 99 students. All throughout school, I was pretty heavily involved in things. As far as just extracurriculars, I wasn't a mega athlete, but I was in color guard and president of student council. I was in drama club; I played softball; I played soccer. I always liked being active and being busy participating in things. I was what you might call a natural leader [laughs]. Even on my street, for the neighborhood kids, I was organizing things, getting kids together to do stuff to help, like volunteer around the neighborhood. I was a babysitter for the whole street.
I met my husband in high school, and we got married very young and moved to Chicago. I had started college pre-med, and I was kind of feeling things out, working for a pharmaceutical company. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with myself. I'd always been really creative and liked drawing and writing. I didn't see the inherent value in those things; I didn't think they were going to make me money. That's why I went pre-med. I studied for a year and then decided I didn't want to continue. I was working at different medical companies, and at a pharmaceutical research company. I fell in with their marketing director and just started talking with her. She said, "You're so creative. You should write and design things for me." And I thought, "You can make money doing this?" So I decided I was going to go back to school. We weren't even married a whole year yet. My husband was getting his PhD in applied math at Northwestern. I was working to support us both at the time, honestly, because a graduate student salary is not great. And I came home and told him I wanted to study design. I decided I’d learn about the kind of job I wanted to do while I was in school, so I applied to be an office manager for a graphic design firm.
What was that transition like?
I would work from like 8:00 until 4:00 and then drive back home, get on the train, and head down into The Loop of downtown Chicago to school. I would go to school till like 10:00 at night and then take the train back home – [it was] like that for three years. Every weekend I was doing projects for school and trying to just get my degree, really. So I kind of didn't see him for three years, which was hard. He was super supportive at the time. I worked my butt off and I started getting some internships at advertising agencies and job offers. And then he got offered a job at Oxford University. I remember just like, sitting on the other side of the door with the door closed because he was talking with them about it. I was so excited and so scared. I mean, I’d have to find a job over there. I didn’t know if I'd be qualified to work while I was there. But nonetheless, the idea of going somewhere else is obviously appealing. How do you say no to that? But we loved Chicago. He ended up getting the offer to do two years of research there, so we moved. And I remember we got there and we were so jetlagged. We didn't know where we were supposed to be going. We didn't know where our flat was. The first month there was just difficult. Everything was different.
I went out and tried freelance writing, which was a lot of creative writing, but British and American are not the same, the nuance of the language. It was hard to find work there and student loans are coming in… I'm deferring, deferring, deferring until I can't. We were starting to accrue bills.
There’s not a whole lot of times in our daily lives that we stop and think, “What do I need?” or “What can I get help with?”
I'm walking and looking in shop windows for a job. I felt like I was back at square one. I was pretty unhappy the first couple months there. I ended up deciding I was going to do some work for a family-owned and -operated coffee shop to do design. They let me do their website and logo and taught me how to work as a barista.
I just met so many amazing people. I was a supervisor by the end of it. I was one of the very first people outside of the family to get a key to the shop, which was a very, very big deal. Being able to experience that sense of belonging was so huge at the time. It was such a different experience – feeling like part of a family, almost, as opposed to just coming in, doing my job, and going home. It was an awesome two years. I literally cried the whole way home on our eight-hour flight.
I would say four or five years after that was spent kind of just ladder climbing, working ridiculous hours. I got to work on some really great stuff. I worked at an agency here in Cincinnati called Possible and got to work on a lot of P&G brands. I had started a women in leadership group at Possible to try to help alleviate some of the pressures. I had an all-female team at the time to work on beauty. It was just an interesting time: I managed a couple teams at this point, but managing that team was eye opening. I was never much of a girly girl; I was more of a tomboy. But if I ever come across a woman who doesn’t support the other women around her, I can’t be around her. So when I got to Possible, a lot of people had this outcry. There’s a lot of chauvinistic behavior or just kind of a male-dominated culture, and I could for sure see that. There’s the issue of women having to compete with other women, which is a natural tendency when you see there's only so much room at the top, because there’s really only one or two women usually being represented in leadership roles. So I started Women in Leadership, hoping to alleviate some of those things. It was hard, because it kind of detracted from my day-to-day work. I think sometimes folks thought that was more my passion and my focus than the work itself, which I would argue that my work didn't suffer at all because of it. I came to work more motivated and more inspired because of it.
How did you get involved with Women in Digital?
A stranger named Alaina Shearer reached out to me. She started an agency in her early 30s when she was a single mom; she kind of had some experiences – outright sexist behavior or sexual harassment. She had seen how all of these instances of sexual harassment or sexist behavior shaped and molded her career and drove her to start her own agency. She decided that she was going to do an open discussion, and she wanted it women-only because she only felt safe telling it to women. She made it available for like 100 people, and it sold out, and she had to actually get up in front of people and tell this story.
After that talk, she said the response from all the women in the room was tremendous. This was before “Me Too” and a lot of what we've been seeing in the mass media recently. It’s amazing seeing how far the discussion has gone in two years, but her sharing that became the catalyst for her deciding she wanted to do something like Women in Digital. She started a chapter in Columbus where women just met on a regular basis to help empower, educate, and motivate each other and share their knowledge and their power.
And so she found me on LinkedIn. I really don't even know quite how she “pegged” me or what she searched, but she reached out to me through a message. I still remember driving in my car, talking to her for the very first time, and hearing that story and thinking that I honestly have been very fortunate, because I've never experienced anything quite like that. I probably have been the victim of certain types of behaviors and tendencies, but nothing like the amount and the gravity which she had been through. She, in turn, heard so many stories, stories that were even worse than her own. It made her more motivated to want to try to do something. I was like, “I think this would be awesome. I'd love to be a part of this. I do think there's a need, and in Cincinnati we've got a large presence of agencies and marketing companies and big companies in general that have a focus in digital.” So we started the chapter last year. So I'm a city champion, and every city has that champion, and we have over 25 cities that have chapters.
We meet monthly in Union Hall, which has been very lovely. All of our events are free for members so they get the most value. We've got a Slack channel where women can basically ask and give to help each other with anything. We know women are so good at giving, but not always asking. We always open every meeting for women to just stand up and either try to give us something, like an opportunity, advice, counseling, or they've got a set of skills that they're willing to offer up. The asks are not just career opportunities; often it's personal development or growth-path asks. It’s very vulnerable, and it always starts off a little slow. And then as each person stands up and gives their ask or give, people get braver and braver and the questions get better and better. The more time you give these women, the more you realize they have a lot to ask and give each other. There’s not a whole lot of times in our daily lives that we stop and think, “What do I need?” or “What can I get help with?” I don't feel like we’ve ever had an ask that's not been answered.
Since then, I've come to Epipheo as the managing creative director, which means basically, I oversee the creative process. I also oversee the team itself. It's an interesting setup. The quality of what we produce is like, paramount. As much as I love advertising, I think the thing I've realized is sometimes we’re so busy trying to make a cool, shiny idea that didn't really help anybody understand what the hell your product does or what the service is. You're just screaming into this abyss that is like mass media, because there's so much noise out there. What I love about Epipheo is that we're all about driving clarity and understanding. The ability to create an “aha moment” for somebody – that's more powerful than any piece of flashy, inspirational marketing we probably ever create. Anything that kind of breaks down a barrier and creates some sort of empathy or understanding to change someone's mind and perspective, I think is way more motivating.
When things got bad inside, I had nowhere to go.
The things that I've seen in advertising lately that have been more effective are the things that kind of reveal some sort of bigger truth, or that show that they have an understanding of people's truth as opposed to what's true for the brand. That fundamental shift for me: getting more grounded in women in digital and understanding why… Look, at this time, women more than ever need to have each other’s backs. Men are definitely a part of that conversation, but at the same time, we're not going to get anywhere unless we're working together. I love being creative to solve people’s problems, but I never want to forsake my personal values to do that.
It shows how big the need was for something like Women in Digital if it grew that fast.
Definitely. It's one of those things that, every time we meet, you feel the sense of affirmation – it's funny: even at our board meetings… I’m blown away by their commitment. We have a very defined purpose and we're fulfilling a need that is there. Every time I leave a meeting, I feel better. I feel more fulfilled. I feel more motivated. I feel more supported.
It’s interesting how you said you were very involved when you were younger and how that translates into adulthood, how we find those things where we meet new people and develop passions outside of work.
Definitely. It's interesting how it translates. It's good advice, too, for anybody who's just starting out in their career. I was guilty of that; I was 10 years into my career. My network was so insulated to just the people that I saw and worked with every day, and that was it. When things got bad inside, I had nowhere to go. Then there’s something like Women in Digital that forces you to go outside of the internet. I would like to consider myself an introverted extrovert [laughs]. I get energy when I'm talking with people, but it takes me a minute to get there. I need my own life silence and time. But Women in Digital has been amazing for that.
Every meeting we have, I try to be candid and use humor and relatability to make sure that every woman there feels at ease and feels comfortable, because they're not going to get any value out of feeling like this is a formal setting. It's not like that at all. I’ve never been one for formalities, anyways, but I like that more kind of laid-back ease and approachability.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
There's one in particular that came to mind this morning because I think of her very often. Her name is Rene Friend Brinson. She's just a light, and her story, to me, has always been amazing. I met her through a shoot that we were doing with P&G called “Love Has No Labels.” We wanted to do this photoshoot with all these real people because we wanted to show diversity. We wanted to show interracial couples, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, and whatnot. Within that group of people with disabilities came her son Logan, and he was 19 years old at the time and had a multitude of genetic disorders. He was relatively short. He had a lot of speech issues. He just had so much going on. I tried to make everyone more comfortable and I was asking each family like, “What kind of music do you like?” and so I found out that Logan loved Elvis. I made sure when he came to the studio we turned Elvis on, and we've just met this kid, and he's having the time of his life, and his mom was in awe. You could just see how much they loved one another and the amount of strength that she had, because her days were spent raising her son relatively on her own. I was just blown away by her, and it was a privilege to get to know them. About a year after we did that shoot, Logan got sick and was in the hospital for about a month when he passed. Logan and Rene were kind of like my first dose of really authentic people to sit down with. She's just so inspiring.