“People at work call me unicorn. Ridiculous I know, but they think it’s crazy that I’m a huge design geek while being really into business and strategy. I’ve inspired them to look for more unicorns.” Rachel Gogel is magical in many ways. In addition to being an instructor at the School of Visual Arts and founder of the newsletter Creative Jobs—The List, she is the newly appointed Creative Director of Advertising and T Brand Studio at The New York Times. Oh, and she’s 27-years-old.
“Last week in a cab I had a moment where I thought, am I going too fast? Am I going to be 30 and bored? I spoke to some girlfriends when I was thinking about leaving GQ, where I was Design Director. They didn’t understand why I wanted to rock the boat, when most people my age would be happy with that position. I wasn’t sure whether to apologize or defend myself. I wasn’t unhappy at GQ, but I wasn’t challenged and wanted more for myself. I received a message on LinkedIn about the Times, saw an opportunity, and here I am. I’ve always taken it upon myself to make things happen. I think that independence comes from growing up in a city with parents who traveled a lot. Being a kid in Paris is not like suburbia where your parents drive you everywhere—you have to make your own way around, trusting yourself because there’s no-one to follow. My parents provided this great balance of love and independence where my brothers, sister and I were encouraged to find our own self-happiness and self-support. My introduction to US culture was a summer camp in Freedom, Maine (the actual name) run by hippies where the objective was finding yourself. I ended up moving to the US at 17 to go to UPenn in Philadelphia.
My career fast-tracked after college. I went from being a Junior Designer at Travel + Leisure to Associate Art Director at GQ at 23. Although my whole team was older than me, age was never an issue. Any insecurities I had were in my own head and a product of self doubt—moments of can I do this? At both GQ and the Times, the culture has been focused on what you can contribute, not how old you are. Some people are natural leaders and some aren’t—you can be older and prefer taking direction, or younger and like giving it. My age has its advantages when speaking on panels for college graduates. Something that always comes up is how to make the right decision. There’s a mix of media and cultural influences enforcing the idea that big decisions are set in stone, when that’s not true.
Trial and error, evolution, making mistakes—they’re not as ingrained in us, but they’re the reality.
I also remind them that how you perceive yourself is how you will be perceived. It’s incredible how many powerful people there are who aren’t that good at what they do, but are able to sell themselves. I’m big on having an opinion and not saying yes to everything—negotiation will earn you respect and at a certain level is expected. No-one teaches you this when you’re young.
How to equate value to a creative service is really lacking in education within our field. I had an experience which I’ll never forget. I was at Travel + Leisure when GQ approached me for a freelance project, before I had worked with them. They asked me to quote on building a Wordpress site and I said $900, which (looking back now) was absurd considering the amount of work, but I was really eager to win the project. This woman called me back and said, “I don’t know you that well, but $900 seems really low. This is not my money, this is GQ’s money. You should have a $1000 downpayment for taking on the project, then charge an hourly rate after that. They will value your work at a more reasonable price.” She was the same woman who hired me a year later.
This was a trigger to start taking myself more seriously. I now increase my rates slightly for every freelance project I take on. Clearly now I have the background which allows me to do that, but having a benchmark for my self-worth to start with was so important. Another piece of advice that has stuck with me is:
If you’re embarrassed about the amount you’re asking for, you’re not asking for enough.
It really comes down to what you think the work deserves and being brave enough to ask for it. You feel guilty and make up excuses in your head for why you can’t, but it’s most likely the average rate of what you should be earning. Money is such a weird taboo thing, especially in this realm of work. The creative industries can be dumbed down in comparison to the corporate world—but is that really fair? You’re in a field where all of these artists are competing with one another and making less money off the bat. We should be encouraging everyone to talk more openly about money, not just women.
The discussion around women’s roles is interesting to me, because I’m very conscious of the fact that I’ve sacrificed elements of my personal life for my career. I do fear being 45 and single, and having a family is important to me. I have no desire to be queen of corporate America or on some list of women to watch. When I find the right person, family and quality of life will become more of a priority. Something I do make time for is travel—it keeps me inspired and culturally engaged, as well as letting me zen out a bit. I was in Cuba for 20 days last year with no internet reception. Being completely disconnected from the world forces self-awareness and reflection—it gave me such peace that I experienced a kind of culture shock coming back to NYC.
Similar to the city, my new role comes with a lot of pressure. All I can do is ride the wave. There’s a grandiose nature to the job and I’ve been overwhelmed several times. My responsibilities grow every day and on a few occasions I haven’t been able to deliver, which I hate. I try to make it clear that I don’t know everything—I learn just as much from my team as they learn from me.
I’m confident but constantly questioning myself—I think it’s healthy to keep yourself in check.
When managing others, my philosophy is that if everyone on the team feels valued and is happy, great work will naturally come from that. I like to give people ownership of projects regardless of their level. You’re more likely to invest in something that you’re responsible for and it accelerates your learning. I attribute credit wherever I can and am always telling people I’m proud of them. It’s something that’s so easy to forget yet so easy to do—and such a small thing that can make such a big difference.
I like building a community where everyone feels empowered. Being able to take charge of your life is a feeling that everyone should have. At 23, I woke up one morning with the sudden awareness that no-one was telling me what to do next, that only I could make that decision. I left my job and within 3 months I was in a leadership position at my dream magazine, which led me to my role at the Times. Realizing I had the control to change things scared the shit out of me—but it’s the same reason why I told myself in the cab last week that I was stupid to think I’ve hit my peak. Once I reach a goal, I’m always going to start wondering about what’s next.”
As told to Amy Woodside, June 2014
Photography by Michael Ryterband