I'm a Writer & Creative Director and used to run a design studio — Carly AyresFeatured

Hi, I’m Carly. For most of my career, I’ve worked as a writer, using language and interaction to engage people in new or interesting ways.Up until 6 months ago, I ran a small design and technology studio in New York called HAWRAF. From sound-reactive identities to mirrored selfie posters, HAWRAF helped brands have better conversations with their audiences. In my role, I focused on new business and operations, as well as any writing-related execution work for our clients.In my role, I ran operations, solicited new business, handled account management, managed and distributed project loads, provided creative feedback, as well as created brand voices, tones & strategies for a range of clients. Prior to that, I worked as a freelancer humanizing AI and evolving the Google logo. I’ve given voices to Fortune 500 companies & chatbots alike, and write on art, design, and technology.I’m on the board of AIGA NY and the founder of 100sUnder100, a community of hundreds of creative people under a hundred years of age. It manifests in the form of a Slack group (run, in part, by a wonderful group of admins), as well as in-person events.Ask me anything about starting up and/or shutting down a small design studio, getting clients, firing clients, running an online community, creating a resonate brand voice, getting press, public speaking, and more!
Thanks so much for joining us, Carly! 👋Carly will be answering your questions before the end of the week. Please note that she may not have time to answer all your questions, so be sure to upvote the ones you most want her to answer with emojis.
Hey Carly, I checked out your old website (love the red 'corrections') and you mentioned you've learned a lot about the fine art of proposal writing. Could you share with us what you've learned? I am writing a proposal now and did an outline format...would you have time to critique it? Either way, appreciate you opening up an ama.
I love proposal writing. I enjoy the exercise of positioning ourselves, then seeing how that is received. Pitching yourself it not only is an exercise in communicating your value, but it’s an exercise in vision-setting and manifesting -- you’re putting this aspiration out into the world in hopes that it will come to fruition.Initially, we agreed to do one-page proposals. We thought it was silly that other agencies made 100+ page proposals listing awards and honors, static screenshots of interactive websites, biased testimonials (you’re not going to include a bad testimonial, right?), so on. We felt that no one read those and that we would cut through the clutter by providing something confident and to the point. We thought wrong.Our one-page proposals looked amateur compared to our competitors. Not to mention, that by removing our accolades, bios, ethos, past work -- we were left to compete on price, which didn’t set us up for a great working relationship, either.We arrived at a process where we would scale the proposal depending on the project size. If a project was below $50k, it got a two-page proposal, and beefier for the more significant projects. Those smaller budget projects tended to be more frequent, so we took more of a risk and invested less time into building out something comprehensive. Those bigger budget projects tended to be more competitive so that we would tailor something more specific. We had a generic studio deck with embedded work that we would share or duplicate then tailor pending the project. Even at its smaller scale, our proposals offered a short bio, project scope, timeline, and itemized budget.For additional reading, here's a piece we did for The Creative Independent that explains how we set up our client relationships.(Also, happy to give your proposal a gander, but will admittedly be at a disadvantage having missed what initial conversation(s) have already transpired between you and your potential client.)
@carlyayres, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I really appreciate you sharing your thought process, honestly, I was thinking the same, 'let's get right to the point!' I am jumping into your Guide now.
Wow, your work is AMAZING! I was so inspired by the creativity in which you approached interactive design. Is 100sUnder100 your full time gig? I am looking for an advisor, consultant, Head of Brand to help us launch a new women's health brand called Brazen (means to overcome something shameful with swagger) We have a unique challenge because women have been taught since the beginning of history that periods are painful and crazy making and we are must meant to deal with it. It is a kind of generational resignation that makes it challenging to change the narrative about what is possible for women, and their present and future health (especially around their periods). Any recommendations for finding someone who is doing the kind of game changing work, and thought leadership as an advisor for a young startup?Thank you so much again. The deck left me swimming with ideas alone. Kirsten
Ah, alas -- 100sUnder100 is *not* my full-time gig. It’s more of a nights and weekends kind of deal, supported by a rad group of volunteer admins and other folks who help make it happen. (Here's a recent conversation I had about the community with People & Company, if interesting!) Now with the studio wrapping up, I’m back to freelancing for the time being until I find my next move. Currently working on SPAN, Google’s annual design and technology conference, which feels like a natural extension of 100sUnder100 and my role on the board of AIGA NY. As for finding an advisor, I would recommend reaching out to folks you admire who are doing the kind of game-changing work you mention. Are there established companies that share your values? Initiatives that are paving the way? Send cold emails, tweets, Instagram DMs -- you name it, to reach out to these folks and see if they have time to connect. An advisor can be as formal as a written agreement with scheduled check-ins or a series of coffees over several years. I would use your initial meeting to test if the relationship is the right fit, as well as vet whether this individual can provide the insights and advice that you seek.
Thanks so much Carly. I'd love to explore working together. Every time I come back to your work, I think, I want that for Brazen. Would be up for a short intro call? Here is a link to an interview that will give you a good sense of our work/mission. (note-Viv is now Brazen). Thanks Kirsten
I just want to say thanks for open sourcing all of your docs after the shut down. I reference them often when building out my processes as a freelance designer / developer. Much appreciated.
Aw, shucks! Thanks for saying so. Glad to hear it.
Thanks Carly - Love the interactivity of your website. I am curious about honing in on your brand voice. Are there any examples you can give of a brand that has grown their voice in the last few years that really stand out. And what advice would you give to a new brand to make their voice authentic and unique? Thanks so much
Oo! MailChimp always one of my go-to's for strong brands with a clear voice, and they do a great job of sharing resources for how they approach it. I love Melville House on Twitter, as well as agencies ueno and R/GA. Oh, and of course, Denny's. Classic.My recommendation is to start by creating a brand strategy -- mission, manifesto, principles, values, keywords -- and then put it into action via some copywriting to see if you're hitting the right notes. Developing the right brand strategy involves a combination of internal and external research and soul-searching, asking many questions, and then testing those results. These days, every brand is "fresh" and "conversational" -- so I'd push you to dig deep and find words that are more descriptive and meaningful, that help to further differentiate what sets you apart. (Other words to avoid include: innovative, bold, trustworthy, honest, fun, quality, loyalty.) You never want to be unique for the sake of being unique, but if you examine why you truly exist as a brand, then you're likely to yield that authenticity you seek. I have more collections of brand examples at work -- including some favorite Instagram art directors, Twitter personas, style guides, content marketing, as well as those behaving badly -- over on
Hi Carly,Thanks for sharing! Seems like you’ve done a lot of awesome things. I wanted to ask you because I co-own a small company with my brother focused on branding and marketing. We started in SF but have since moved away and have been doing the digital nomad thing for about a year. I’ve been living in France and traveling around Europe and my brother has been down in South America. My question is how did you go about getting new clients or getting in the pitch arena for new projects. We feel for the first couple of years when we were in SF it was easier to find new business but now that we are both far away it's been difficult. Do you have any suggestions?Thanks!
Clients! We got this question a lot over the course of running the studio. I’ve also heard similar stories to yours -- studios who built up a network in one place, only to see that reliable stream of clients dry up once they moved. As you likely know, there’s no secret client-watering-hole where you go and find clients. (Here's where ours came from!) For a small studio, clients are primarily the people you’ve met and the relationships you’ve fostered. One of the biggest challenges is staying top of mind so that when these folks are looking for a studio with your skillset, they’d think of you.People are busy! You have to remind them that you exist. You can do this through getting press, social media, advertising, public speaking, writing a newsletter, sending out packages with printed ephemera, et cetera. If you’re not already using a CRM, I highly recommend it -- if only to remind you to send a periodic email checking in on your relationships. If you’re not there, schedule a ‘digital coffee.’ Pick up the phone. Build an ongoing relationship, so that when there’s an opportunity to support them, you can.Be intentional in your outreach. One of the things we did was great a checklist for what made a *perfect* HAWRAF client. As much as we wanted to believe that anyone who needed a website could be our client -- that wasn’t the case. It included location, scale, their customer, brand voice (did they like weird?), team size, budget, and a few other variables. Knowing that our projects would likely come out of a marketing budget (~15% of our soon-to-be clients’ gross revenue), we downloaded the Forbes 500 list and worked backward, eliminating any companies that weren't the right fit. Then we reached out to contacts to connect us at those companies who we identified as ideal clients.
I'm really curious what shutting down your studio was like, and how and why did you do it -- mostly because it's something I've never ever heard anyone talk about. That, and what have you found to be the best way to get clients?
The short answer is: Bittersweet! We knew we didn’t want to continue with the studio as it was -- nor were we interested in making the changes necessary to keep it going. Although we had built something successful together, the studio was always intended to be a vehicle to learn, and it felt that it had served that purpose. Over time, it became evident that although we had all created a list of shared values and goals for the studio from the start -- those aspirations had shifted. One of the biggest lessons we discovered was to apply learnings early and often, so when that misalignment became apparent, we agreed that we something needed to change. That soon evolved to an agreement to shut it all down. That part was scary for me -- a semi-flawed studio seemed better than none at all -- but I valued those relationships more than whatever business value we had built together. For further reading, I wrote a bit on it for It’s Nice That and 99u. As for clients! I see @KellM asked that below, so I’ll tackle it over there. :)
I'd love to hear your take on the right timing for a business to hire a copy writer, and any practical advice you can share to structure the interview?
An old coworker used to swear that every problem was a communications problem (s/o Kevin). So, it goes to say that investing in communication can help solve many problems before they start! I would argue that creating language to talk about what it is your business does, how it does it, and for who -- is one of the first things you should do when starting a business. First, however, it’s helpful to establish a brand voice and tone, as well as have internal clarity on your mission -- to make onboarding a copywriter as seamless as possible. Depending on your business, you can likely work with a freelance copywriter for an extended time until you have recurring copy needs that require full-time attention.The skills of the person tackling marketing copy for a microsite or newsletter is likely different from the individual who handles more technical copy within the product itself. So, when interviewing, you’ll want to make sure your candidate is familiar with the context of the role you’re looking to fill, as well as writing for various demographics. Ask them how they’d improve any existing copywriting, as well as what their workflow would like for a team of your scale.
I love all of this. Back in 2016, I was at the height of my career, an SVP at the fifth largest global PR agency and the head of its Consumer Practice. I was at a level I'd been busting my butt to reach my whole career and guess what? I hated it!I was removed from the work I loved; solving challenges for my clients, being part of the teams. Turns out, the higher up the ladder you get in a global agency, the less interesting work you do.Around this same time I was riding the train one day to work and heard the founder of Boston Brewing on a podcast. He said something that has stayed with me ever since and it was one of those moments of inspiration that changed everything for me. Long story short- I quit my agency job, took a leap of faith and started consulting. As my consulting work took off, I kept saying "yes" to new clients and then assembling teams behind the scenes to help work on it. I was amazed (shocked, actually) by the caliber of talent who lie me, left their last agency to strike out on their own. The only problem is that everyone seemed to be on their own island. SO I launched Spool a year ago, we're a marketing agency, fully integrated and all but one man, women run!