Make rules — and break them. At Second Story, we live by curiosity, boldness, and trust. And our design work revolves around five design principles: consideration, restraint, refinement, elegance, and innovation. These exist not only as a guide to work within, but also as a base to challenge and push the boundaries of our creativity.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keri Elmsly, chief creative officer of Second Story (part of Publicis Sapient), a network of award-winning experience design studios that build brand and cultural stories you can step inside of. Keri leads every aspect of Second Story — overseeing business, technology and creative vision. She has spent her career developing experiential projects for the world’s leading brands, artists, and institutions. Focused on the convergence of art and emerging technologies, Keri has been a catalyst for internationally acclaimed artists and even produced the world’s first-ever live drone orchestra. She’s a mentor at New Inc, a cultural incubator that explores the intersection of art, technology, and design. And presented “Creativity in The Experience Age” on Cannes Lions 2017 main stage and was a 2016 design judge. Keri has received multiple awards for her arts and communications work.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My non-linear career has been full of unexpected twists. I was born in New Zealand and moved to London at age 13 with my family — jolting me into London’s vibrant music and subculture scene. Instead of college, I opted to live with a group of artists and sculptors, and I learned all about producing large-scale festivals (like hosting 10,000 fans in industrial warehouses). Living so closely with talented folks and observing their DIY ethic gave me enormous perspective on honing one’s craft.
Eventually I became a mom and — with a new baby in tow — simultaneously taught myself to VJ and video edit. I realized that digital literacy was critical to any 21st century career. I put myself through an intensive year of new media schooling to learn coding and design. During this year, I quickly became aware my skills were never going to go beyond average. Facing my own mediocrity was both crushing and a wake-up call.
It gave me clarity on my passion — bringing unexpected people and talents together to make experiences happen. I went back to work, specializing in large-scale immersive projects. I worked with United Visual Artists, touring the world with interactive public art and gallery installations. We designed Coachella’s main stage, opened a major new art and music institution in Paris (La Gaite Lyrique), and designed Jay-Z’s Blueprint III world tour. I produced the world’s first live drone orchestra with John Cale from the Velvet Underground and artist Liam Young.
The common thread in these roles — and now in my role as chief creative officer of Second Story — is my love for making immersive experiences that invite people to pause and step outside their day-to-day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early in my producing career, I used to think I’d be able to get people to work faster by simply telling them to speed up. At the time, I was working with a studio full of coders and designers. I earned the nickname Hurry Up. Needless to say, I was basically met with middle finger responses. I learned that being effective in my role required a lot of relationship building and trust in order to gain respect and foster a productive environment.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Second Story has been creating immersive spaces — from brand environments to museums to cultural destinations to label-defying places — for 25 years. It’s rare to find this breadth and legacy in a design studio.
We’re a mix of creative technologists, environmental designers, sound designers, experience designers, content strategists, generative animation artists, and more. Coming from diverse worlds of visual design, animation, science, engineering, acting, finance and capital management, comedy, and storytelling, we’re able to deliver the highest level of imagination with people at the story’s center — bringing environments to life in new and compelling ways.
For example, we designed a revolutionary new space for San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) called the Photography Interpretive Gallery — dubbed the museum clubhouse. We created a one-of-a-kind brand installation for Epson to stage an ethereal encounter with the natural world. We developed an immersive intervention to help Publicis Sapient employees feel unconscious bias. And we used media architecture to help root a new landmark in the public imagination. These are just a few of the projects that highlight how Second Story engages people as an interdisciplinary design studio.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just completed the experience and exhibition design for the Australian Centre for Moving Image’s renewal. The 16,000-square-foot space reimagines the future of the moving image and its role in our lives. This revamp is set to double museum visitors and drive digital literacy, which is vital for the 21st century.
And closer to home, we recently completed a large-scale media façade for a placemaking project in Charlotte. Using generative artwork called “Unify,” we visually told the building’s rich history, transforming the place into a community gathering. Creating a sense of belonging is more important than ever before — especially as everything becomes more transient with screens and subscriptions.
And at D.C.’s National Archives, we just completed the exhibit Rightfully Hers, a three-part digital activation focused on women’s voting rights to inspire the next generation of activists. Projects that inform and empower people to take action is what drives our team.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
1. Put a stake in the ground for ambition. Share your goals and then empower your team to see their unique place in that vision. Ensure everyone understands their part in making the company better.
2. Make continuous learning the norm. Invest in your team by providing training and education opportunities so they can keep learning, growing, and challenging themselves.
3. Create a culture of trust. Build an environment where vulnerability lives alongside bravery and boldness. The best way to achieve this is by actively demonstrating your own passion for the work you’re creating.
4. Tackle unconscious bias. Have active discussions with your teams around how stereotypes and prejudices can impact the workplace — and work to move beyond awareness into action.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
- Lead with a courageous heart. Your team is everything; let them know they matter. Motivate and inspire by connecting on a human level. Pay attention to emotional cues, and lead through your own actions of hard work and bravery.
- Build strong partnerships. This is especially important within your immediate leadership team, as these co-workers will be your trusted allies in growth and through challenges. You must build trust that they can (and will) excel based on the goals you created together.
- Master unitasking. Even if you have multiple locations (like Second Story with studios in Portland, New York, and Atlanta), being present is vital. Because I can’t be in three locations at once, I make a point to connect face-to-face via video calls, removing all distractions and actively listening so my team knows I’m fully there for them. These are small details that make a big impact on connection.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I was mentored by Kathleen Soriano, a director at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She taught me to trust my gut, which profoundly changed my approach to work. I’m also grateful to my son, who has always been a major instigator of big career leaps, and to my parents, who raised me to be a feminist.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think this depends on how we define “goodness.” Through my work, I hope to remind people to create space within themselves to fully absorb experiences. In our Instagram era, it feels more important than ever to slow down and ask bigger questions about the world. During my time with United Visual Artists, I produced Momentum — an immersive installation that attracted over 75,000 visitors in 10 days. You lost all sense of time in the best sense. For me, it was a defining moment to see the positive human impact of immersive work, and it’s a lesson the drives everything we create at Second Story.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Don’t underestimate team buy-in. Earlier in my career, I joined a company and immediately wanted to brighten up the space (which was decked in dark, floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtains akin to old-school cinemas). When I had the curtains taken down, it initially proved a total disaster, greatly upsetting the team. I learned it’s critical to always involve people in change through transparent discussion.
2) Learn the language of your company. Every place has its own coded language, which can be even more challenging if you accept a role in a new country (as I did, when I moved from Europe to America to lead Second Story). In particular, colloquialisms were a huge barrier for me. I’d be in the middle of a meeting and say something like “on the hoof,” thinking nothing of it. But it would interrupt the whole flow — causing confusion and blank stares.
3) Make rules — and break them. At Second Story, we live by curiosity, boldness, and trust. And our design work revolves around five design principles: consideration, restraint, refinement, elegance, and innovation. These exist not only as a guide to work within, but also as a base to challenge and push the boundaries of our creativity.
4) Cultivate a culture of feedback. When you get busy, there’s a tendency to skip debriefs and seemingly less urgent discussions. But I’ve learned not to let these fall to the wayside, as they can actually lead to the greatest successes and improvements.
5) Embrace your oddities. Sure, it can be scary to show your uniqueness(like my obvious un-American qualities). But welcoming unconventional backgrounds, experiences, and career paths fosters invaluable non-linear thinking and creativity. As a leader, I prep myself to look for talents in others that I don’t possess.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Education is where opportunity starts, so I’d be most interested in driving learning inclusion to give everyone a fair start. I believe this would generate tremendous value globally, in any political context. I love that there’s always an educational component in everything we create at Second Story (like our work for NARA and the Center for Human Civil Rights that teaches tolerance, equal opportunity, activism and humane treatment for all).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Keep calm and carry on.”It’s super droll, but it’s relevant for all of us in keeping the big picture and day-to-day perspective. It’s what allows me to regularly dive into new worlds — continually taking on new challenges I never imagined would cross my threshold. I’ve wasted a lot of energy in the past on fear and worry. I refuse to do that now.
Thank you for the great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.