Tell me a little bit about yourself, who you are, and where you are from.
My name is Shireen Jiwan. I’m founder and CEO at Sleuth, a brand consultancy. I’m also a mother, wife, culture vulture, style junkie and Nancy Drew for a new era. I’m originally from Toronto, have been a New Yorker and a Parisienne. Today I live in Seattle with my family.
How do you describe kind of work you do?
I’m in the business of persuasion. I apply a blend of psychology, commerce, creativity and cultural anthropology to help companies understand what they really want to be and how they can get there. I don’t just sit in the boardroom looking at data – I go undercover and embed myself in my clients’ work to investigate the problem from all angles.
As the founder and CEO of Sleuth, please explain what your job entails.
I help solve my clients’ business problems by using brand messaging to understand people’s ideas and behaviors. My job entails real business analysis, highly creative forms of research, practical brand strategy and creative expression. I also work with a brilliant network of Sleuth experts, ranging from well-known writers and artists to psychologists and brain scientists. I tap these experts at the outset of the process to identify the problem, or when we’re developing the solution. Often it happens at the same time.
How did you get to where you are today? What has been career path?
I was tired of the bloated beurocracy and waste found in agency life. I believed there was a smarter, more valuable and nimble way to help clients achieve real business success. So I took a chance and broke out on my own and was almost immediately overwhelmed by new business.
How did you figure out what you wanted to do?
I’ve always been interested in the intersection of ideas – the intersection of pop culture and politics for example, the intersection psychology and economics or the intersection of luxury and technology. Brand strategy is all about making connections between human behavior, psychology, culture and business. Putting these pieces together in the right order is how brand mysteries are solved.
How did you learn to do what you do?
I learned the fundamentals from some of the greatest minds in our business. I learned to quickly assess a business problem from Alison Burns. I learned how to work the room from Bill Westbrook. Cindy Gallop showed me how to stand my ground and Adam Morgan taught me how to build a challenger brand. And I learned efficiency of language from Kevin Roddy and Chuck McBride. I’m still learning. Every day’s a school day and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What is one of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?
I loved working on Viagra. My Viagra stories make me the hit of every cocktail party.
What do you love about what you do?
I love the constant discovery that comes with working with a vast array of personalities, businesses, creative styles and cultures. Even when work is a pain in the ass, it’s never, EVER boring.
What is a challenge you’ve faced and overcome?
Early in my career, negotiating was difficult. I worried I’d somehow damage the relationship if I pushed for what I knew my work was worth. Meanwhile I watched my male peers close deals without apology. These days I’m fully aware of the value of my offer. I’m direct, transparent and fair and I believe my clients appreciate and respect that. But it’s definitely a learned skill.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’m inspired by my work – every project requires a different approach, a different group of people to work with. I love having the opportunity to apply my traditional background and disruptive thinking, and extend it to what I am passionate about personally.
I’m a voracious reader and find inspiration everywhere from The New York Times to ManRepeller to the graffiti on my street. I’m style junky and closet tech head, so I love seeing the way technology is colliding with fashion. But more than anything else, my sons inspire me. Every day they remind me of the value of imagination and a good fart joke.
What is your dream project?
To work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And/or Nasty Gal.
Any interesting stories or experience you’ve had?
I’ve been working with The Breakers in Palm Beach for over ten years. In that time, I’ve conducted private interviews with many of their loyal repeat guests – many of whom make up the center of political and economic power in our country. They use pseudonyms. I know who they are and they know I know who they are but we all get on with the conversation. I also regularly write the speeches, emails and visioning documents of several iconic CEO’s. Discretion is critical in my line of work. My clients trust me because they know I’m a steel trap.
How do you define success? What has helped you become successful?
For me, success is comprised of a few key ingredients:
- Being even more excited about my job than I was ten years ago
- Having the autonomy to select those assignments that turn me on
- Having the freedom to spend my time in the most meaningful way, whether that’s going AWOL to nail a brief or play ball with my boys.
- Having assembled a wealth of amazing friends who challenge me, entertain me and enlighten me at every turn
Any advice for someone interested in following in your chosen path and learning to do what you do?
Move heaven and earth to spend your early years at one of the great strategic agencies and learn how to write a smart deck, concise brief and how to conspire with your creatives to make the work better. Do this, even if the pay is shit and you work every weekend and your dot com friends are rolling in it. You won’t regret it.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Over the years I’ve listened carefully to my mentors and peers. I stuck to the work that made me happy – even when it meant working longer and harder for my clients. I trusted my gut and took intelligent risks and have never looked back. I’m very much in love with what I do.
To learn more about Shireen Jiwan and Sleuth, please go to www.sleuthnyc.com