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Fail Faster with Mandy: Insights from an industry expert

Fail Faster

Episode 443


33 minutes

Mandy Janicki has spent her career fully in-house for the past 18 years for companies based in Michigan, California and Chicago. 

In her current role, Mandy founded the Creative Studio in 2015 to serve as UL Solutions’ first in-house agency—an innovative solution that greatly reduced UL Solutions’ dependence on external agencies and strengthened the quality of marketing collateral and brand messaging. Mandy leads a global team of writers, designers and UX experts spearheading digital content creation, brand identity development, and user experiences for global corporations. She has proven success executing an average of 1,700 projects annually, realizing cost savings of up to $4M.

Podcast transcript

Marc: How are you doing today, Mandy? 

Mandy: I’m doing great. Thank you. 

Marc: Where exactly in the world are you calling us from today? 

Mandy: Yeah, I’m calling from Chicago, Illinois. 

Marc: How’s Chicago been? 

Mandy: It’s been good. It’s really cold here and it started snowing. You know, seasons have officially changed. Oh, it started snowing already. It did on Halloween. Yeah, we had some nice snow while we trick-or-treated. 

Marc: New York, it still hasn’t snowed, but it’s pretty cold. So I definitely feel you in the cold part. I’m very excited to have you here today. You know, I know our audience will love to learn a little bit more about you. So just to kick it off, I just wanted to start off with some questions regarding your background. You know, where exactly were you born and raised? What was childhood like? What was your family dynamic? Just to get some info on you. 

Mandy: Yeah, I was born and raised in Holland, Michigan, the land of tulips. Really wonderful place to grow up. It’s right on the lakeside of Michigan. So summers are always gorgeous there. My family, I’m an only child, but that was a very big choice that my parents had to make because they’re entrepreneurs. So that was something that they just could only handle one child. I think that also has to do with kind of where my fundamentals and foundation came from as well in my career. 

Marc: That’s interesting that you said your parents were entrepreneur. How did that affect you growing up? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think it was, you know, there’s two sides of me, right? There’s the creative side and then there’s the business acumen side of me as well. And my creative side, my mom has always been creative. She always liked my pinatas as a child and drew artwork for me and I kind of just mimicked what she was doing. So that’s kind of where my creative side comes from. And then the entrepreneur side, I was almost born into it. And so I think that’s kind of where when I build a team or make process changes or efficiencies, I was almost self-taught, right? 

I didn’t have to go to a business school because I was brought up in that environment. I was brought to corporate trade shows and looked at products and met executives and seniors when I was a young age. So I was always really confident in talking business because that’s all I heard when I was a child. I was always in the back of my parents’ stores. So one of their businesses was an ice cream store. And I was in the back helping them restock shelves. And I learned how to use the credit card machine, probably younger than I should admit, and how to count tills and how to package goods. And so it was a really, really unique environment to grow up in. But I think it was a huge foundation to where a lot of my success in my career came from. 

Marc: That’s nice. And then taking out when you were just a child, how did your parents go about, you know, breaking down these concepts and bringing out the business world, showing you how to interact with executives? Like, what were their strategies in helping break down information for you? 

Mandy: Ah, that’s a really great question. I think from their side, it wasn’t really a strategy. I think it was, you know, it’s just what they did on a day to day basis. And I was just always there. So they couldn’t really, you know, at the time, really afford childcare, or, you know, we didn’t have much family or anyone. So I didn’t get turned off to say, Hey, we have to go to this, you know, meeting or meet at this trade show to review a lot of the products. They just always took me with them. I was always there almost shadowing them without them really knowing it. 

So I don’t really think they intentionally taught me, or coached me, I think it was just something that, you know, as a child, you learn from your parents, right? Like they, you know, run that he run after them. So it was kind of the same thing with my parents, like, you know, when they were speaking to some of the suppliers, I just learned what they were asking. And I almost, you know, kind of just really took everything that they said and did in. And then later on in life, I just had that in my back pocket. And it was really easy to pull out. I get it. So just being around them, you’re able to soak up information. 

And at the same time, they didn’t really even know that, you know, they was giving this information, he was just there on the side, just absorbing everything, like a spot. When you take a look at your career, what would you say inspire you to take this road? Yeah, I think when I chose what I wanted to do, I think it was probably in freshman high school, I think I made the executive decision where I wanted to pursue art. And it was something that at the time, my middle school teacher, she had already saw some really great talent in me from the conceptual and art side. 

She talked to my mom and was like, Hey, you know, I was at the time I was at a small, you know, college prep school. She’s like, I really see this talent in Mandy from the art side, conceptual side. I think you need to get her in a bigger school that has more opportunity to upskill her in this. And my mom was like, Well, how do you make money as an artist? Right? I think every parent’s like, Alright, sure, you know, art, go for it. No. So she asked that question. And our teacher was very honest, like, hey, the art field is expanding. And as long as she has the right talent, she can actually make money. 

I actually switched during high school, and started taking on a lot of my extracurricular art classes at the time. Then in my junior and senior year of high school, I was already taking college classes in art. So I was able to, if I wanted to, I could have graduated early from college. And I chose not to because I was also working full time on the side. So I was kind of finishing college as I, you know, built my resume. So I had my first paying internship as a designer my freshman year of college. So I didn’t really skip a step. I just always knew, I think from, you know, when I was a young age, that I wanted to be an artist in some way or form. 

And my mom kind of instilled, all right, if you’re gonna be an artist, that’s fine, but you need to make money. And I found the right path to do so. And with really good mentors, I kind of found that I knew how to lead design. And I also had that business acumen, where I was able to kind of sculpt, I guess, where I am now, and leading teams of creatives. 

Marc: It seems like, you know, you have some great people in your life that kind of spotted that potential within you, and then you essentially nurtured it. At any point, did you ever have any doubts that, you know, this was a career for you? Or like, ever thought about changing to another career throughout your whole time from freshman to now? 

Mandy: It’s a great question. I don’t know if I ever really questioned if this was the path for me, because design is such a passion. And to work every single day in a brand and design and influence design, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it would be really mundane and boring if I chose to do something else. 

Marc: The way you’re talking sounds very much that you’re passionate about what you do. You know, what about design makes you wake up every day and like, yeah, I love this. You know, this is for me. I’m never changing, you know? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think the strategy behind design is always solving problems. And it’s getting into whatever the end result might be or the end customer might be seeing. How do we convince them? Or how do we showcase our brand and solving for that process? And that’s what I really love to do. And I think it’s a brand in general, and the design influence is just wonderful. It’s beautiful. 

Marc: Definitely understand that. I got a chance to, you know, view your LinkedIn, take a look at your bio, and you’ve done a lot throughout your career. What would you say has been the top three, you know, key milestones or achievements that you’re particularly proud of? And what makes them your proudest moments? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think I’ve been through almost everything. I’m trying to think of one that I can really pull out. But I think when I globalized our team, we had a lot of pilots that went through and there was actually a lot of failures that went through the pilots first before it became a win. And at the beginning of it, we leaned into we had larger offices, or our core hubs of business first, and we tried to pick a few flagships like Singapore, Denmark, and Italy. 

And we’re not really finding the right talent for each of those businesses, or any of those markets that really worked. And it took us two years of hiring and hiring and retraining and retraining to really put a pause and rethink and say like, Hey, this is not working. What are we doing? That’s not right. Like there has to be a solution here. We’re just not digging deep enough to find what isn’t working. I ended up reaching out to all of our HRs at each of those local offices, and I was doing an informal interview on design talent of each of those markets, and getting a good sense of what they saw to be goodness. 

What I found is that every market has the same response of what good design really looks like versus for us as a company, like our good design was a bit different. So we found that Bain was actually a hidden gem, and they had the right talent, they had the right design strategy, and the core of what they really liked from a design perspective matched one to one. And that proved to be super successful. And I think for me, it’s, you know, a really proud moment to say like, Hey, you know, sometimes, just leaning into what the business thinks might be right, right, you have these really large, big flagships, where there’s a lot of, you know, headcount in this one core area, so you need to hire here. 

That wasn’t the solution for us, we needed to find out where that hidden gem was for that design talent. And that was actually one of our smaller offices. And then it turns out, how long did it take you, you know, to find that, that hidden gem? Yeah, so I think the pilots that we had, it probably took us two years, because right, you hire somebody, then you find out they don’t work, or you hire somebody, and they leave. Yeah. And then you decide, all right, you know, Singapore isn’t working, let’s try Denmark. All right, that’s not working. So it took a full two years before we then ended up with Spain to find out that that was our hidden gem. 

Marc: Gotcha. And you kind of touched upon this on my next question was actually, you know, this podcast is called fail faster. So, you know, we talked about failures in careers, and it’s not actually I never thought of it as a failure is more of like a lesson learned from them. So, you know, you talked about the pilots, what else would you say is, you know, you flip the pilots to success, what would you say were your top two failures in your career that you learned from and were able to learn from and were able to flip? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think that was one of them 100%. I think another failure was maybe almost my failure of a mindset, taking on a responsibility where actually ended up to be a really big success and something that I was actually really good at solving the problem for, which was translations. I’m sure you’re familiar with translations. But it was something that I had historically heard over and over and over again, how bad our process was, how bad the agencies with work were. And there’s been multiple owners of that responsibility and process within the company. And within a reorg, it landed on my plate. 

And I tried for a really long time to get off my plate. I was like, Nope, not not me, not it. Choose somebody else who listens. You know, I’m not going to be my responsibility. And I think that was kind of a failure on my end, because in the end, it ended up being a success. And I ended up solving, I think that what the core issue was, which was a lot of the processes and the quality checks and the agencies we’re currently using. So when I finally let down my walls and took on that responsibility, it really was at a crucial moment at that time where the agency that we’re working with needed to renew their contract within two weeks. So not only was it something that I didn’t want to do, it also had a huge tight deadline. So I had to decide really quickly what we’re going to do. 

Within those two weeks, I ended up pulling the plug and saying, Nope, this is not the way we’re going to do things. And we were without a translation agency for a full one, which as the company that I work for, is a really big outage. So I needed to find a solution really fast. I needed to find a process. And soon after that, once we had something up with a new agency, well as a new process, and it was a centralized model versus multiple agencies. And even with that centralized model, we were able to reduce the turnaround time by 90% and increase the quality by 85%, which is a huge one. So I think it was something on my part, being a failure, kind of turning down that opportunity in my career. And I’m glad that, you know, my boss at the time was pretty insensitive and knew that was something that I can do. And I think that’s just learning in the future for myself and for others. You know, sometimes the responsibilities that you don’t want are actually really good learning opportunities. 

Marc: Definitely is. And I like how you talk about, you know, there was essentially a shift within your mindset, you know, coming in first when they gave you that project, it was kind of like, no, I don’t want to do this, take it off my plate. But then, you know, with the right support on my side, that kind of changed. From there on, did the way you viewed opportunity and challenges switch? 

Mandy: Yeah, it definitely has. And even most recently, there have been responsibilities where I would have normally never had, like, jumped on the call to say, all right, nope, I can handle it. And you know, I’m the first one to raise my hand to say, sure, you know, I’ll give it a first crack. If I can’t solve it, you know, somebody else can give it a try. Like that, you know, switching gears here, you know, I know you handle areas like, you know, content creation, improving user experience, design, and so much more. I’d love to get your thoughts. When you hear the term digital transformation, what does that mean to you? Oh, it’s a loaded word there. I think in any company it can mean a different thing. For me, digital transformation, especially with a company that I’m at currently, means the tools that we use to help our customers succeed. So that’s kind of where it means for me. But there’s also the digital transformation, even in the design realm, right, where you’re no longer thinking print, always thinking digital first. And that mindset, I think, is continuing to evolve. 

Like even a lot of our sell sheets and our brochures, you know, do we have them be landing pages? Or do we have bookable PDFs? You know, should they be responsive? Should they not be responsive? A lot of the data out there of, you know, what do you click through to a PDF, it just gets lost. So those embedded links that are in a PDF, you can’t track them, right? You can’t track where they came from. So for us, I think there’s those two avenues of digital transformation, and we’re navigating both. 

Marc: I definitely get that. So since you work in various types of projects, build any, many impactful products and platforms in your tenure, I’d like to know your opinion on what what makes a great, you know, design? What are some of the factors that contribute to giving you essentially the product that has that wow factor? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think the hard one to crack. And we just had a project that I think was a really good example. We had three designers on a really big project, and they all presented their ideas. And you could see on that call, the wheels turning, right? One person saw another design, and the other person saw another design. And you’re able to almost riff off of each other and say, hey, you know, maybe let’s give this another try, and build something different. And with those like initial presentations, I think a lot of times, managers and leaders, like they just take that as the final output, right? 

You have an internal review, and now, all right, present the three ideas, we’re going to go with one. Well, a lot of times, if you open up that door and allow your creatives to have it be more of a initial conceptual review, it’s you get to that end all be all, like wow moment for the end product, actually having a team work together on it. And for me, I think that’s where I see a lot of magic coming through from a process standpoint, to be a really good creative. So to kind of like, take that back to your initial question, I think I see a lot of really great design and really great ideas come out of multiple individuals working on one project with different skill sets and mindsets coming in. 

I get that having that diversity, you know, when you first bought that concept, did you have any backlash with having creatives, you know, have that back and forth? Yeah, I think it also has to do with your leader, if you’re able to buy in on on the amount of resources you can have on a project. And for us, as long as we’re getting our work done, and nothing, you know, gets stolen, or more time, that’s fine. But I think when I hire and I build a team, I always ask those type of questions in an interview, if they’re comfortable working together, if they just like to work alone. 

And for me, having a team that is really a team that can work together, is just really important. Definitely is. Mandy, so I know, essentially, you kind of founded the Creative Studio in 2015, to serve as ULS Solution First, you know, in-house agency. Looking back in 2015, what were the challenges you were facing? And comparing that to now, 2023, how has that been? Yeah, I think way back then, in-house agencies were still at the cusp of being grounded, and just really carving their space within the brand. So many of our internal business partners didn’t know the value of an in-house agency. And at that time, I had already been to I think five or six in-house agencies. 

So I knew the value, and I knew what it could bring and why an in-house agency could be built. And I think that was the biggest challenge back then, is having so many stakeholders, like that was my core job, was providing the value of in-house agency, why we needed an in-house agency, and making sure that they knew that we had amazing talent. They didn’t have to go to a super expensive outside agency to get the design that we could do internally. And then how long did it take you to essentially feel like things were moving in the right direction? I would say it would probably be five years. So I think in, you know, 2020 is when we can see the shift happening. 

We had been there for five years, which is, you know, any startup’s very similar. Once you get past that five-year mark, you’re kind of golden. Well, at least you get past a lot of the big hurdles. But I think we were telling our story so often for five years that anybody knew that we had a huge portfolio of fantastic work for the company that we did internally, that there was, it was the flip side then. It was very minimal individuals saying, all right, why would we, why would we ever go out? You know, we have this amazingly talented team internally. Let’s give it to them. 

Marc: Got it. That brings me on to my next question. So you know, what does next look like for you guys? Like, what does next year look like? So let’s say 12 months from now, you’re like, oh my God, we pulled this off. You know, what, what does that look like? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think the next year is a brand new adventure for us, to say the least. I think we have a lot of really big projects that our leadership knows we can do. And we’re able to take the first stab at these really big projects that we’ve never been able to do before. So I’m really excited for the team to have a chance to show what they can do. Let me get that. What sort of projects are you guys working on? Yeah, I think, you know, larger brand campaigns, and thought leadership, some larger events and initiatives that were, we haven’t for the past few years focused on our brand, we focused a lot on our business. 

And, you know, really driving those business messages. And we’re still going to do that. But we’re bringing it up a notch in the brand level. And we’re telling that story, I think, bigger and better next year. 

Marc: I got it. It seems like you have a long career and a lot of challenges, a lot of failure, a lot of success. You know, what’s one lesson that you believe your role has taught you that you think everyone should learn at some point in life? 

Mandy: Yeah, I think there’s, there’s a few. I think that the one lesson of taking on responsibilities that you normally wouldn’t take on, just, you know, dive headfirst into something that everybody else turns a nose to, I think you’ll learn a lot. And it also helps you grow as an individual. And the next one is, empathy is huge. I think in the beginning of my career, I was, you know, you want to set a stage for yourself, and you want people to respect you and what you do. And I think at the beginning, I was always, I think, very, a little bit harder around the edges than I am now. 

And I’ve kind of softened up because I can’t create the right team and the right team dynamic if I don’t show empathy first. And I think that’s where I’ve shifted as a leader in the past five years of letting my walls down and really creating a wonderful team dynamic and leading with empathy first. 

Marc: I really do love that, Mandy, you know, putting your walls down and leading with empathy. I guess we’re approaching my final question, sadly, you know, what is one piece of advice, you know, you kind of gave some advice? What’s one piece of advice you would like to leave the audience? It could be advice, your affirmations, anything you would like to leave them with? 

Mandy: Yeah, I would say, for me on the creative side, and even from a business leader side, always think of not what is happening today, and what’s out on Google, but what can be happening next? And how can you carve your way in that market? And the answer’s not there. It’s for us to come up with and for you to come up with. 

Marc: I got it. Mandy, it’s been absolutely amazing to have you on today’s episode.

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