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Center for Professional Development
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Dartmouth College
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Alumni Stories: Kelley Fead '78

Working As A Creative Director: Making Something Out Of Nothing At All

by Alina Gonzalez '08

Even with an older brother and a father as Dartmouth alums, Kelley Fead, Class of ’78, always thought she wanted to attend an all-woman’s college.

Nonetheless, during a ‘just-in-case’ college visit, Dartmouth worked its Big Green magic and Kelley experienced a personal epiphany.

“My family and I came to Dartmouth on a college trip and my dad took me around on a guided tour saying ‘Here’s where I lived my freshman year, and here’s where I lived my sophomore year, and…you get the idea,” she says with a smile. But when Kelley found herself with some time alone, she fell in love with the college independent of her father’s enthusiastic opinion.

Growing up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Kelley says Dartmouth was “everywhere.” She remembers trips to the college as a little girl, and visits to see her older brother once he enrolled as a freshman. With a family full of alumni--and after the college opened its doors to women during Kelley’s junior year of high school--it seemed only natural that the youngest Fead child would find herself in Hanover. Still, Kelley had her heart set on attending a female college.

“It’s quite serendipitous that I ended up here,” she says over coffee at Collis, upon returning to the Big Green for the Alumni Office’s weekend-long celebration of thirty-five years of women at Dartmouth. Ironically, the girl who was determined to attend a women’s college ended up graduating with only the third class of women at a historically all-male college.

“On that final trip with my parents, I started realizing...oh wow…I really like this place. I decided right then it was the college for me. It seemed as if at Dartmouth, I could be whoever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do.”

Kelley Fead’s odyssey both at Dartmouth and since graduation has proven the wisdom of her intuition.

As an undergrad in the Upper Valley, Kelley nurtured her childhood passions. “I kept a journal as a kid, but I’ve also always liked to delve into many different areas,” she says. "In 8th grade, my creative writing teacher asked me what I wanted to be and my answer was a writer, a minister, an orchestral flautist, and an oceanographer. Oh, and I also wanted to go into politics.” She majored in English modified with creative writing, and took an environmental journalism course with Professor Noel Perrin, who she praises as “a great role model in terms of writing.”

She also freelanced for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine and worked all four years for The Dartmouth where she met her husband of twenty-seven years, Garry Slack ’76. “I worked and wrote all the time,” she says.

In her current job as creative director and partner of Slack Barshinger—a marketing and advertising agency based in Chicago and founded by her husband and their close friend—Kelley does exactly what she has always taken great pleasure in: writing and creating. “My goal has long been to be a creative director,” she says. “The person in an advertising agency who oversees the arts and graphic designers, helping them come up with the concepts, the big ideas, and then executes them in all sorts of forms whether that be posters, brochures, online ads, interactive presentations or massive events…whatever you can imagine,” she says.

“And while I’m not an oceanographer, I do know all sorts of things about various industries,” she says. “What was important to me as a child and at Dartmouth has carried me through the rest of my life. My job is a blast and I love coming to work everyday.”

The road that led from Kelley’s Dartmouth days to her current days as Slack Barshinger Creative Director included a host of fascinating turns, as she worked in various fields and took up different freelance writing and editing positions. For several years, she acted upon her 8th grade dream to go into politics: during her last year at Dartmouth, Kelley landed a public affairs internship with the New Hampshire Democratic Party working as the party’s Press Secretary. She then went on to intern for New Hampshire Democratic Senator Thomas McIntyre in Washington, D.C..

Upon graduating, Kelley gave the West Coast a shot and took a job in San Francisco with a libertarian-run magazine, Inquiry, founded by the CATO Institute. After four months, the publication offered her the job of Poetry Editor for an annual salary of $8,000, but Kelley chose to return to the nation’s capital to scout new work and opportunities.

She found a job with a publishing company in Washington that covered the happenings of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the executive branch.

“I was a daily reporter in the Capitol building and I had to write three stories a day, which makes you good at writing,” she says.

“There was a real need for precision. I would be in the sessions where the congressmen and women were marking up bills and I had to go write the stories immediately because my readers wanted to read the news right away,” she explains. “I covered health and higher education-related issues, school law and news, and major decisions of the Supreme Court that related to education. It was a great grounding in how the federal government worked.”

Kelley stayed on Capitol Hill for six years, but after having her first child in 1984, decided to take up more contract work due to the flexibility it allowed-- with writing, editing, politics, and education serving as the themes that linked all of her subsequent freelance positions.

Over the course of several years, Kelley became a stringer for minority issues in higher education in Chicago where she reported on equal opportunity concerns for the African-American community; she worked as the editor of a publication called Demonstrative Evidence, which covered the trend of using marketing in courtrooms to influence jurors; she wrote a book called “The Hows, Whats and Wows of the Sears Tower” for which she created activities for children to engage in when visiting the Sears Tower; and she  worked as a public relations and marketing consultant.

While in Chicago, Kelley also wrote speeches for the president of an urban commuter school with an average age of 32, Chicago State University.

“It was about as different from Dartmouth as you could possibly get,” Kelley says. “The President was an African American woman, Delores Cross, for whom it was terrific to write speeches because I had to figure out how to find stories through her voice”. Kelly later helped Cross with her autobiography, “Breaking Through The Wall.”

Shortly after the birth of a second child in 1988, Kelly and her husband Gary Slack, who had been by her side since Dartmouth, decided to found Slack Barshinger with a fellow entrepreneur.

“My husband had worked for a company called Porter Novelli, which had pioneered the idea of social marketing,” Kelly explains. “They applied the principles of marketing and advertising to social issues like breast exams and campaigns to stop smoking.”  So, with her husband’s experience in the field of PR and her own skills as a gifted writer, the team set out to create a business of their own.

“We used the equity from our home to start, because you really don’t need machines to do this, “ Kelley says. “All you need are smart people and a few computers. When we opened our doors, we had brainpower and some Macs that had cost us $3,000 a piece,” she adds with a laugh.

Since the project took off when the couple’s second son was six weeks old, however, Kelley’s role was limited and only gradually evolved into what it is today.

“I was involved,” she says, “but certainly not to the extent I am now.”

So while Kelley’s husband and business partner, Don Barshinger, built Slack Barshinger from the ground up, the Renaissance woman worked as a full-time mom and volunteer.

“I’ve always loved to volunteer extensively in my own community because I’ve had this interest in education that started in high school and was nurtured by the work I did as a reporter in D.C.,” she says. “I’ve always had a passion for helping in the growth and development of people.”

Now, in her town of Winnetka, Illinois, Kelley helped found a before-and-after school program, and has served as President of both the PTA and the Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood, which promotes the idea that, as Kelley puts it, “a child’s work is to play.”

Kelley also volunteers for her alma mater.

She has been the President of the Dartmouth club of Chicago, President of the Alumni Council, and President of the Association of Alumni, and has worked for the Joint Committee and Task Force on Alumni Governance.

“Volunteering for Dartmouth means a lot to me, “ she says. “It’s been very satisfying, and a great deal of fun, especially as a woman, trying to balance a job and a home life. The work has given me a lot of leadership opportunities and I recommend it highly to anybody.”

From her job to her family to her volunteer work, Kelley certainly has had her hands full over the years. What is a day in her life like?

“Pretty long,” says Kelley. “but it’s part of being a partner and liking what I do and being committed to it. Maybe it starts at 7:30 and it may end at 7:30 or 8:00. But there is just never a dull moment. There are clients calling asking for advice on issues, then I may have two art directors and a writer working on a project they want to talk to me about. There is lots of brainstorming and problem-solving involved in the creative field,” she says.”

Kelley describes Slack Barshinger’s clients as very diverse, including Google and the milk industry, and, in the past, Nabisco and NutraSweet.

“With dairy,” she explains, “we help them get big companies to use dairy ingredients in their products and keep them up on current research. With Google, we help them try to increase their world content.”

“The people who are successful in the business that I’m in have deep curiosity,” Kelley says. “An almost geeky curiosity. People get excited about new research and products. It’s a very intellectual field,” she says. “And it’s very strategic. You need to have a lot of really great insights into what the customers need. And, of course, there are lots of deadlines, but being busy is my favorite state to be in.”

Kelley also notes that the advertising/marketing field is open to any and everyone.

“You need all different perspectives to do great creative work,” she says. “People from different demographics and ages. We’ve had interns who had majored in advertising, interns who were liberal arts majors, and everything in between.”

To undergraduates who are not sure what they are going to do after graduation, Kelley wants them to know that it is a common feeling.

“First, don’t be scared,” she says. “And know that whatever decision you make, you don’t have to do it for the rest of your life. Try to find really interesting work and people that you want to learn from. It doesn’t matter where that is because by working with someone else who is good at what they do, you’ll learn a lot. But I do think you can find the seeds of the things that really interest you by thinking about what you liked when you were a kid,” she says. “I always made stuff, always designed things, and always wrote.  So I need to be in a creative field where I look at blank white boards all the time, and I work with somebody else and we make something out of nothing together,” she says.

Kelley also urges students to find balance.

“It’s a constant struggle to find the time to do everything that you want to do,” she says. “Finding balance is difficult and I can get it right for a while, but then it all goes off-center. You see in children that they are always going through periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium, and these things continue throughout your life. It is always a challenge. Sometimes I know that I am working too hard, but I also know that life will eventually re-center. I still play tennis with my friends, I am in a cooking club, I still write poetry. It’s hard to make time for things, but you have to try,” she says.

Kelley’s bottom line: “You have to do something that you enjoy. I never, ever, look at the clock.”


Last Updated: 6/21/12