Small Business Profile: Tereasa Surratt of Camp Wandawega
What is your background?
I was raised 8 miles outside of a farm town of 4,000 people. We didn’t have diversity of any kind. I graduated early and went to college at 20 at SIU. I was working three jobs; I worked as a sign painter for this old man who taught me how to hand letter and I worked at the university design shop. I was trying to put myself through school, but I was also working for the college newspaper, so I got to graduate early when I was 21. Then I worked at a marketing department for a small firm, and then I ended up moving to Chicago when I was 25. I got a another job at a small agency and then went back to school, because I wanted to make Super Bowl commercials. There wasn’t a lot of money in fine arts, so I ended up doing that and got recruited right away to work at a firm and shot my first Super Bowl commercial in six months. I thought “that was easy, I can do this all the time.” It wasn’t easy. I’ve done a handful since, but they’re hard to get. So then I worked at another agency and then I went to Ogilvy, and I’ve been there for 17 years.
I met David when I was 27 at the agency. He showed me this place he used to go to when he was a kid, and it had been abandoned for a long time -- it was Wandawega. By the time he took me there it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my life. It was completely condemned. He said, “let’s do this and let’s get married and let’s get married here!” And I was like, “what”? Anyway, we did. I just left all the buildings, washed everything, and put up a tent in the green area.
The trajectory moving forward is that I was still working in advertising and I started traveling a lot. I started working on a campaign for Real Beauty, which is for Dove. I got to go to 20 countries shooting that and was working with a lot of female empowerment brands, but then also home decor brands. I think that this virtuous cycle started to happen when the things I was working on at the agency were fueling my interest for things outside of that. Camp Wandawega started to grow and we had a lot of personal retreats; we did art camp and band camp and music camp and craft camp, anything creative. We didn’t charge anything. Everyone just came together to these communal sort of things. Eventually, we thought we should really start fixing this thing up, but we needed money to do that, so maybe we should start doing events. Then we started doing corporate retreats and some weddings, but I don’t like to word corporate. We ended up doing artistic retreats, so that was fun because we got to pick which brands we to work with.
I started to do consulting on the side for the brands that I was meeting at Wandawega. It started to change the trajectory of what I was doing at Ogilvy. I started doing some really big immersive experiences. One huge project was a museum I built in New York. I’m under NDA, so I can’t give you the details of what brand it was, but it was a colossal project that was in The New York Times three times in two weeks. Once I started doing more things like that, I started realizing that it was what I wanted to do. I stepped away from doing the traditional stuff in advertising and doing more immersive, sensorial, brand experiences. Now I’m the Director of the Department of Experiential.
The worst thing that you can do in any field is just do the thing that you do in the company that you do it. It’s like living in a bubble. You don’t allow yourself to grow and you become a product of redundancy. You’re not getting inspired, so you’re not growing, so you’re not pushing yourself.
What has been one of your favorite projects to work on?
The one that I can’t tell you about. It’s a private company, but they’re one of the world’s biggest companies. It was the opportunity to create this museum in New York that was targeted to millennials, and it made them reappraise a product that they had not considered before. We got to do something completely out of the blue and create this really beautiful museum that was open for three weeks. The museum was driven by data, so it scraped social feeds for the city of New York and turned the entire museum into a mood ring. By scraping algorithms of social intent, the exterior of the building would light up and reflect how the city was feeling. That was a really rewarding project through work.
Then I’d say through Wandawega, The Land of Nod line was really fun for me because it was so huge. Having a six year old, I think it became even more emotional and important to me. The thing about The Land of Nod is that they are powered by imagination. They’re creating interactive products that a lot of folks aren’t. They make you think differently from a really young age.
My third book is coming out this year, and so all of this stuff is interconnected. The first book was Hearst Sterling. The second book was Clarkson Potter, which was part of Random House. The third book is Crown and it’s a children’s book. I just like to switch it up. I’m not an expert in anything. I’m a jack of all trades. I tell people that I think we should all be unapologetic for being hybrids. Gone are the days that just because you’re a graphic designer doesn’t mean you’re not also a writer; just because you’re a content creator doesn’t mean you’re not a producer or filmmaker or photographer. You can change your mind. We have permission at any time.
What inspires your work?
Everything. I like to travel a lot, and I know that sounds cliche, but it’s so important. In the last year, I went to Paris and London, and then we just got back a month ago from touring Italy. I get super inspired by textiles and typography, especially in other countries. Every time I got to a different country, I’ll hit a flea market and buy a trunk, fill it full of stuff, and ship it back. I have so many trunks it’s crazy.
Travel makes you think differently. If you study architecture, everywhere you go there’s different materials, different aesthetics, and different trends. I think subconsciously, as creatives, we absorb that. Sometimes it sits in the back of our heads, and we don’t know when that’s going to come back out of influence our design or our photography or the way that we look at colors. You go to Greece, you may come back and you have in your subconscious a white palette. You go to Italy, you look at the way they use brick patterns on the floor, you find different patterns and themes.
I’m an obsessive journaler when I travel. I always do a big, fat book that’s not as much about writing, but a designer’s journal. I try to glean as much as I can about local color, architecture, furniture, and textile design. I draw a lot and try to find the themes. I now have a massive collection of these journals of 20 years of going to different countries. I like to look back at them because they are timeless. The things that I’m recording aren’t what I had for breakfast, unless I’m having breakfast in the south of France and they’re doing some crazy plate of artisanal bread, in a pattern that came from someone’s third generation grandmother, and then you have to draw it because you’ll never see it again.
What brought you to Chicago?
Job. After I graduated young, I worked in Southern Illinois for a marketing company for a few years. I was lost. I was a marketing director, so I thought “oh this feels creative!” But it wasn’t. I had always wanted to get out. I bought this abandoned house that was designed in the ‘20’s and was on the historic registry. I bought it when I was 22 and then I restored it. It was such a fun process to do, but when I was done, I realized that I was living a life that I didn’t want. I broke up with my boyfriend of seven years, put my house up for sale that I just rehabbed with my soul and then moved up to Chicago. I was living in a suburb, but I was working my way into the city because I was a farm girl. It was a big, scary thing to go from a town of 4,000 to Chicago.
I lasted about a year and a half in the suburbs. It was not where I wanted to be; I wanted to be in the city. I moved into the city and kept my job in the suburbs, but then I said, “screw this,” and went back to college. I got a job at a really great firm -- a really small design boutique and advertising agency -- and then was shooting Shaquille O'Neal and doing all these crazy, fun, things and I thought “yay! This is what I wanted to do,” but I was so naive. You don’t know what you don’t know when you’re a kid. I would just stumble my way into things, but then also, I think I was trying to find a path by being curious.
Also, I attributed this to my dad, I guess, but there’s a Midwestern work ethic that I think I grew up with on the farm that I alway just assumed, no matter where I was, that everyone around me is smarter than me, and everyone else went to a better school in a cosmopolitan area, or they had better experiences, or better taste, and all the things that I found later in life just aren’t true. I think that was a gift because it made me work harder to try and catch up to this idea in my head that everyone was going to be better, faster, stronger. It made me work twice as hard.
If you could be somewhere else, where would you be?
I would still be in this house. My female hero is Jeanne Gang. She is a powerhouse of a woman. [My husband and I] built this house with her, and we came to her with no money. She hadn’t become this architect that she is now, so we literally said that she could do whatever she wanted. This [house] was an existing horse stable. The budget was pretty much the same as a Chicago condo; we didn’t have any money and that’s why everything [inside] is IKEA. What I found in this process, is that it doesn’t matter if you buy brand-named things, it just matters what you like and what you surround yourself with.
I’ve become attached to this house. I’ve owned a lot of houses, David has, too, I think that I like this house because Jeanne hasn’t designed any other houses, and she probably won’t. Moving into a neighborhood like [West Town] that was basically a crack den 20 years ago and seeing the neighborhood change as it has is great. I like it. But, what I would do is buy houses in a bunch of different places. I would buy a house in New York, and I wouldn’t want to live in just one place, but I would want to take the money that I had and just travel everywhere. I started to make that a bigger thing in my life by making a concerted effort to take more trips. I want to see Cuba before it’s totally Disneyland. There is no one place. I haven’t been to Morocco yet and it kills me.
I grew up in the sticks. The only time I remember going to a restaurant before the age of 14 was a KFC once and a Pizza Hut once, and that was it. I didn’t get on a plane until I was 18. The first time I saw an African American person was when I was in high school, and he was adopted but ended up being my best friend. I had absolutely no context or reference. I’m not knocking the town, but there was no inspiration or no diversity. Maybe that’s why, now that I’m older, I have a strong drive [to travel].
Working for Ogilvy has been great for that. We go to a dozen countries a year. I went to Hong Kong for a month when I was 30. They asked if I could go to Hong Kong, and they already bought my ticket and said I was leaving in 24 hours. I didn’t know if I was going to be gone for ten days or three weeks, but I said, “let’s do this.” There’s a time in your life when it’s good to do that.
The one piece of advice I have is live the life that your future self would regret if you didn’t try. Think about yourself when you’re 35, 40, 45, 50, and then think about what you would regret. If your future self could look back at yourself and say, “Do it. You won’t regret it,” then just fucking do it. Do it before you have roots you can’t break. Now, the roots I have are the roots that I want. If I won the lottery today, I would still live in this house. I would still have camp. I would buy every building around camp, but then I would just travel all the time. I think that is a good test. If you can’t say that about whatever you’re doing right now, then you’re not living the life you want right now. It took me a lot of years to figure it out. I by no means have it figured out. I just wish someone had told me this.
If you weren’t running camp and working in advertising, what would you be doing?
There were things like writing a book, but I wasn’t a writer. Someone told me once that I’m not a writer because I’m an art director. Take any time someone tells you that you can’t do something and then do it anyway. I maybe wouldn’t be working in advertising just because it owns me. I would still be doing marketing and advertising, but I just wouldn’t be doing it for the brands I’m told I have to do it for when you work at an agency.
What are you trying to learn right now?
Everything. The funny thing is that the older I get, the more I realize there is to learn. I still haven’t learned how to cook, I don’t play any instruments, I don’t speak any languages. This is the stuff I want for my daughter. This is the stuff I want to learn, but I want her to learn more. I think I’m more focused on that. There’s so much. I don’t want to be repeating things. I don’t want to be repeating clients, projects, experiences.
What are you most proud of?
It sounds cliche, but it’s true: Charlie. Being the mom I didn’t have. That’s the most important thing, you know? Beyond that, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve finally found out how to say no, and that I’ve finally found out how to pursue the things I want and not waste my time. I mean not wasting time on brands or clients who won’t give you their trust or let you live up to your potential and do the things that you can do. There’s so much power in saying no. And it goes back to that mentality of living in a small town and just being happy to have a job every day. You’ve just got to have confidence and learn how to say no. I’m proud that I learned how to do that, because it opened so many more doors. Then, I’m proud of the fact that every day I make that list of what I want to do and then I do it. It doesn’t matter what it is. You find creative ways around it. I’m excited that I’ve found a place of a “failure ground.” There’s all kinds of shit I do at camp that fails. So many things don’t turn out as planned, and that’s okay. You just have to own it.
How do you take time for yourself?
I’m doing yoga three days a week, and that’s just an extension of being mindful and present. I think that’s helping me be a calmer human. There’s this other thing that happens to you once you start making things, is that you become harder on yourself and everything you do, you want to do more, bigger, better. So there’s this sort of pressure and self-inflicted angst involved in that, and that is something I need to work through.
Why do you think that it’s important for creative women to come together and collaborate?
We just have to support each other. We’re stronger together. It’s true. I think that Hillary [Clinton] was a great example of that, and everything that Michelle [Obama} says, and everything that is happening with the march is all pointing to the same thing: we are stronger together. It’s important to support and it’s not about us individually, but it’s about how we’re all more successful if we support each other. I saw this Instagram post the other day, and it said, “Her success is not your failure.” That’s so powerful when you can really think about what that means and it will help you so much more karmically in life if you can support those around you. You grow, personally, so much and everyone benefits if you can shine the spotlight on what other women are doing, instead of being competitive. I’m not going to lie, advertising is competitive. It is dog-eat-dog, so I think that it is an important reminder to collaborate.
What is your advice for someone who wants a job like yours?
Specifically in advertising, it’s important to build a book and start making real work instead of waiting for a degree to tell you how to do it. Yes, you’re going to have to go to school so you can use their recruiting systems, but also, be a student of the world. If you want to be good at advertising, you need a specific type of book. Be aware of who’s out there and what their doing, and be educated and be enlightened.
For Wandawega, I can’t give anybody advice on how to do it. We just make it up as we go, and we’re just happy that people cut us a lot of slack. We have this thing called the Manifesto of Low Expectations, and every time someone books, they have to read and sign this thing. We say, “We’re an eighth of a star on a five-star scale, you’re going to hate it here for these 20 reasons. If you’re not scared away by every nasty thing that can happen, then great. You’re in. If not, there are great Holiday Inns in the neighborhood.” I can’t give a council on how to run an inn, but I can say to live a creative life, pursue everything that interests you. I don’t care if that means that you’re scattered, or if it feels like you don’t have enough time, do everything that you love, and eventually, you’ll find yourself where you should be. You’re never going to regret it. You future 45-year-old self will never regret it.
What is one thing that has surprised you in your path?
It surprised me how hard it is to get published as a children’s book author. The first two books came so easy that it inspired me to do it. The children’s book world is a very different ball game. It is infinitely harder to have a children’s book published, but what I’ve learned is that when people look at a children’s book they think it’s elementary and anyone can do it. It’s way harder than you think, because everyone thinks they can do it, so everyone does. Also, the landscape for hard books has changed. There’s a whole different way people consume information online, so there’s a much smaller market for it, and it’s a much more competitive environment.
Favorite female creatives?
There are so many people. Michelle Kohanzo from The Land of Nod started in The Land of Nod when she was a kid answering phones, and she worked her way up through every single department there until she was president and then she just quit about a month ago. Now, she is running Roman and Williams retail which is one of the most amazing retail firms in the world. She just dropped her perfect, amazing, powerful, inspiring creative life to do something else. I change my heroes every day, but she’s a great one. And Jeanne Gang. I’ve already talked about her and I love what she does.
Favorite Chicago places?
I’m partial to Chicago Athletic Association because AJ Capital Group is a partner and everything they touch is amazing. I’m also partial to my friend’s at Land and Sea, and I feel like everything they make is amazing. From Longman and Eagle, to Parsons, to Lost Lake, and the new one that they’re opening, Golden Teardrops, I love it. I’m friends with them and each one of them has a different asset and skill that came together, and each thing they make is entirely unique, which is really hard to do. As far as the boutiques, I love Humboldt House, I love Fleur, I love Sparrow for hair. They’re all different, but they’re all creating their own paths and product lines. I’ve collaborated with Tatine, which I love, I’ve collaborated with Anthropologie, which is a big chain, but I still love it because they changed the landscape of retail merchandising and the way we consume and navigate a store. Even though they’re a big brand, they’re killing it. Everyone’s chasing them, and have been for 15 years.
Favorite travel destination?
Well, I haven’t been there yet, but I’m going to say Morocco. It’s hard to narrow it down. I think that I’ve spent a lot of time in Buenos Aires, and it does feel like a mini-Paris, but it’s accessible and it has changed a lot in the past 15 years.
I get up at 3:30, because I go to bed at 8:30. I feel like the most productive time for me is between 3:30 and 6:30. The routine is I get online, make an impossible list of things that I know that I’ll never get done -- somewhere between 15 and 20 things -- and then I game-ify the day to see what I can get done.
Favorite extravagance or indulgence?
I’m kind of anti-brand. I would much rather wear something from a thrift store. I got this fantastic cashmere coat from a second-hand shop, and it’s the most gorgeous coral color. I would rather have that and be the only girl who has that than go and buy something from Gucci. I do like some Gucci shit, but it’s gotta be something from the ‘70’s that I find. I like vintage pieces, but I don’t chase the fads because it’s a losing battle. I guess I don’t like extravagance is what I’m going for. But, I’ve got this Jaguar in the garage, and someone may look at that and think that it’s the fanciest car, but we got it for a few thousand dollars. We paid for that what most people pay for a fancy city bike. We had to do a lot of work on it, but I appreciate things that are well-designed. We found it in a garage and I hadn’t started in 15 years, so I like challenges. I think it’s maybe being raised on a farm. You’ll never see me drive in a fancy, brand-new car or wearing a Cartier watch.