From Small-Town Girl to Globe-Trotting
Executive, Valerie Carlson has Conquered
the Digital Frontier.

Her time at Bradley — as a student and then teacher— provided the perfect foundation for success.

By Emily Potts
All photos courtesy of Valerie Carlson

At Critical Mass, Carlson
has worked on campaigns
for big brands like Nike, BMW
and Peloton, among others.
“I do this work because I love people and I learn so much from my colleagues.”
— Valerie Carlson

When Valerie Carlson ’93 studied graphic design at Bradley, technology was in its infancy. Desktop publishing was transforming the way we worked, and AOL was the dominant platform on the world wide web with its famous, “You’ve got mail,” notification. As it turns out, Bradley was also a tech innovator.

“I was interested in computers and technology, and Bradley had one of the first Mac labs in the country,” Carlson said. “It was a very progressive graphic design department when I entered it in the late ’80s.”

She quickly became adept with the digital design tools and started working as a professional graphic designer and illustrator as a student. Fast forward 30 years, and she now serves as the global chief creative officer at Critical Mass, a worldwide digital design and marketing agency with 11 offices.

Based in Los Angeles, Carlson has a team of about 400 people worldwide. She’s come a long way from her small-town roots in Varna, Ill., with a population fewer than 400.

She credits much of her success to her experience at Bradley as a student and as an instructor. Shortly after graduating, Bradley’s graphic design program director at the time urged Carlson to apply for a teaching position in his department. While initially Carlson laughed at the idea, after a little encouragement she decided to apply.

“I just thought it would be a good experience to interview,” she said. “I didn’t really expect the dean of the communications department to feel comfortable hiring a 23-year-old woman to come in and teach those classes.”

Carlson told her first class of incoming sophomores how her inexperience meant she likely wouldn’t have the answers to all their questions, but they would get to the bottom of it together, or she would figure it out on her own. Revealing her vulnerabilities actually empowered her, and it’s an approach she’s taken in every job since.

Her time at Heuser Art Center was the perfect backdrop for her professional and personal development, surrounded by daily inspiration and forging lifelong friendships.

“One of the things I really loved was walking down the hall to the painting studio. (Professor of Art, Emeritus) Ken Hoffman was the head of the painting department, and he would have me critique the work. We often disagreed about composition but we became very close friends.”

After seven years of teaching, she left Bradley to work at her first of many agency jobs as a creative director. Everything was going digital, and the timing was terrible with the dot-com crash looming.

“I left this really stable job that I loved and walked right into one of the worst economies ever for digital ad agencies.”

She survived by keeping her head down and doing great work. Through agency mergers and acquisitions, Carlson steadily advanced, working with brands like BMW, Nike and James Cameron’s “Avatar.” One of the keys to her success has been creating the right team of people.

“I always say for a successful team, you need workers, weirdos, leaders, and growers,” Carlson said. “These contradictory mindsets complement each other. That’s when you really get the magic.”

Crucial to her longevity in this highly competitive industry is her curiosity and willingness to keep learning. She’s the first to acknowledge that it’s not for the faint of heart. The driving force in most marketing campaigns is dictated by targeting and clicks — think of all the annoying ads that pop up on your social feeds.

“I hope that over time we get back to great storytelling and focus on the resilience of brands and human stories and goodness.”

Although agency life has come a long way since the “Mad Men” era, Carlson is still often the only woman in the C-suite, where diversity is lacking. She acknowledges that while challenging, her perspective as a woman from the Midwest is valuable in those instances.

“I think growing up in digital and understanding technology has given me the ability to help educate people in those rooms,” Carlson said. “I always come back to my time at Bradley, and I just thank God that it happened, because so much of my job is helping educate people and teaching them to take risks — from clients to teams and people in charge of agencies.”

"I love to be hands-on when I can because it's really hard to mentor people if you're just talking about things and not actually doing it. And I learn just as much from them as they learn from me." -Valerie Carlson

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