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Creativity isn't, and shouldn't be, limited to those working in creative industries. Meet Nancy Poleon, founder of BrandedU, who is on a mission for more gender equality at the top of the business world. How? By making women more visible through personal branding. Before starting BrandedU in 2014, Poleon worked as a marketing manager for BMG in London, and she worked with artists such as Britney Spears, Alicia Keys, and Pink. She used her experiences and insights from the entertainment world to develop the Rock & Roll Branding method.  

Nancy’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. AmplifyHER, the Women's Visibility Conference she started on the heels of the global pandemic, has sold out 2 years in a row. And together with Women Inc, BrandedU started a social media and PR campaign. Titled 'My Name is Peter', the campaign asked women to change their names on LinkedIn to Peter, in order to increase their chances of becoming a CEO. The awareness campaign, which made smart use of influential women to get major attention with hardly any media budget, won the Grand Prix at the Dutch Creativity Awards. High time we sat with this powerhouse.  

What is your definition of creativity? 

NP: “Creativity for me is freedom. It's the freedom to explore and discover. I love history because it gives us context and shows us where we're coming from. But overall, I'm a very future-focused person, and I love the creative process of designing something new for the future. It could be a new sound in music or a new way of doing business, which I'm doing now. I built this business in a creative way. People told me that you could only be an entrepreneur when you have people working for you and follow certain rules that define entrepreneurship. But I said no, for entrepreneurship has to work for me. I was sick at the time and had to find a way to be an entrepreneur despite being ill.  

That meant not going to the office. I couldn't have the burden of constantly having to worry about paying rent or paying a fixed team of employees. I had to do it in a creative way and create as much freedom for myself as possible. And 10 years later, I'm still running this business on my terms. This creative approach also trickles down to everyday work: we just look at the problem areas and start fixing them. And that's basically what creatives do as well. If you work at an advertising agency, people come to you with a problem, and you come up with creative solutions. For me, creativity is about making yourself so free that the answers come to you." 


“Artists never conform, and that's why they're my inspiration. They refuse to conform.”

How do you do that?  

NP: "I love the quote: 'Be curious, not judgmental.' It's about thinking of what could be possible. How would things be if everything was completely different? It's the curiosity that we all have as kids. A lot of people have it knocked out of them. My parents had me when they were young, practically teenagers, and they raised me to ask questions and go against the grain. I was always asking 'why.'" 


You work with C-suite-level women, but your background is in music. 

NP: "I started out as a marketer in music. Marketing is about finding a target audience and selling a product. Branding is more about the 'why.' Why did we create this product? Looking back, we did a lot of branding in music back then; we just didn't call it that. We referred to it as marketing. But when we had a new artist we just signed, it was our job to make a connection with the audience. An emotional connection, because that's what music is. I can't sell Alicia Keys's record by running a poster campaign. You need to hear the music; you need the emotional connection. So it's nice to know the background info: why did someone write a song? It's about finding different ways of reaching our audience." 


You've also worked with international artists, and based on those experiences, you developed this Rock & Roll Branding. 

NP: "For me, Rock & Roll Branding is about showing yourself to the world and thinking about how you do it. The 'W' questions: Who am I? What do I do? Why do I do what I do? What's the value that I am bringing? And who am I doing it with? When you have answers to these five questions, you already have your story. I love storytelling, and artists are great storytellers. Why do you do what you do? And what do you want to be known for? It's about being conscious of your actions and the impact you try to make. You have to ask these difficult questions. If you are visible, then you can make it to the top. I want different kinds of leaders. If we want to turn women into the same leaders that men currently are, then what's the point? Then we might as well stick with the men. I want women to think about their leadership and know who they are. If you know who you are and why you do it, your self-confidence grows, and you are no longer afraid or embarrassed about sharing your story. Then you don't call it bragging but instead know the value of your story." 

“Music has always been my inspiration. I listen to music, and ideas come to me.”


On our site, we urge (young) creatives to share their story, process, and portfolio. Some are nervous or reluctant about tooting their own horn if you will. Seems like music artists have no problems promoting themselves and explaining their work. 

NP: "Not true. A lot of them do. Beyonce hasn't given an interview in years." 


OK, but she does know branding. And she uses it. 

NP: "Yes, because she's creative. And she figured out she didn't need journalists to tell her story. When I started in music, journalists and radio were gatekeepers. They decided who got access to their platform. Social media blew up the game. Creativity has exploded. Look at the number of TV shows, podcasts, and music. The gatekeepers are gone, so you no longer have to wait to be discovered." 


And that's a good thing? 

NP: "That's a great thing! But it also means that you must be creative in finding your audience. The true creatives will find an audience." 


Right, because while social media has enabled everybody to create a platform, the number of people vying for attention is overwhelming. How can you, as a  creative, stand out and be seen?

NP: "Stay as close to yourself as possible. When I started BrandedU 10 years ago, someone told me not to do it because there were so many similar things out there. But I knew I was creative enough to do it. Music has always been my inspiration. I listen to music, and ideas come to me. But I don't force it. I will spend three hours listening to Bob Marley songs. Artists never conform, and that's why they're my inspiration. They refuse to conform. When hip hop came up, some wanted to dictate what did and did not constitute hip hop, but artists said, '**** that,' and did their own thing. You can't compare Outkast to Eminem or Cardi B, yet it's all hip hop. That diversity and creativity are so inspiring to me. Music inspires me more than visual art because there's so much to dive into—the lyrics, the different sounds, the beats. They resonate with my soul and awaken something in me." 

You make the creative process sound incredibly fun and inspirational. So, you never have any creative struggles? 

NP: "I do, but only when I think about what others expect from me. I need to stay close to myself, and I'm good as long as I do that. I'm creative. Creating an image is about making something that people expect from you. Personal branding is about you and your core values. It's the story that you want to tell." 

By the way, those feelings of self-doubt never go away. Every new project they’re there, but I’ve learned to lean into the discomfort. Leaning into discomfort makes you more intuitive, and I have learned how to use my intuition. I also learned from working at a record label that you must stop putting things in boxes. When I first worked with Alicia Keys, people in different countries said there was no single on the album. ‘Fallin’' wasn't considered a single. I didn't agree. And in the end, we were the first country in the world with a number-one hit and album. We got a fax from Clive Davis. So it made an impact.” 


With the events you organize, you also create impact. You often do things very differently than other business events: from live music to good food and a diverse line-up. And you are very hands-on. Why is that? 

NP: "I just want to create events that I enjoy. That's it. Pretty selfish, I guess, but I don't want to conform to what everyone else is doing. I want to bring my own creativity and make a unique experience for people. It's about being intentional and making choices that align with my values and vision. And that also means that everything from the playlist to the catering to the people working the event needs to align with my vision. I had an all-female stage crew and hammered on the fact that the catering crew needed to be as diverse as possible. Authenticity is key.” 


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