Season 4
37 Minutes

E127 | Ann Odell | Cultivating Meaning As We Grow

Ann Odell is a former architect turned celebrated brand strategist, futurist, and culture forecaster. She has led breakthrough creative strategies for endless Fortune 500 enterprises, working for Lippincott, CBX Worldwide, Gensler, Donovan/Green, and Estee Lauder.

Ann now operates as the head of her own firm, animated by the firm belief that for-profit enterprises have the power to be fundamental change agents. Ann resides in Manhattan, with one foot in Italy.

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Ann Odell  00:00

From there, I worked for a lot of famous firms in Boston, New York, but ultimately, for me, it was too much down the chain of the conceptual idea of the work that I was doing. It felt more like the cart than the horse for what we were trying to do, for the statement that could be made. I would just summarize it overall that I wasn’t that interested in designing or crafting or building the billboard I wanted to say I wanted to author what the billboard message actually said.

Achim Nowak  00:38

Welcome to the my fourth act podcast, I’m your host, Achim Nowak, and I have conversations with exceptional humans who have created bold and unexpected lives. If you like what you hear, please subscribe on any major podcast platform so you won’t miss a single one of my inspiring guests, and please consider posting an appreciative review. Let’s get started. I am so happy to welcome Ann Odell to the my fourth act podcast, and as a former architect turned brand strategist, futurist and culture forecaster. I love saying these things, and has led breakthrough creative strategies from many Fortune 500 enterprises. And she has worked in house for powerhouse brands such as Lippincott, CBX worldwide, Gensler, Donovan Green and Estee Lauder these days, and operates as the head of her own firm. She’s animated by the firm belief that for profit enterprises have the power to be fundamental change agents, and resides in Manhattan with one foot in Italy. Welcome Anne.

Ann Odell  02:03

Thank you so much. Achim, thank you.

Achim Nowak  02:07

Just to confess, we had a social date a few weeks ago when I was in New York, and as you were talking about your life, I was thinking, there are so many beautiful, I don’t want to say twists and turns, but evolutions in your life that I love to talk about, I always want to start with when we were growing up, and parents want us to have an idea of what we want to do with our lives. So when you were a kid or a teenager, and mom and dad wanted to know, so what are you going to do when you grow up, and what were you thinking about?

Ann Odell  02:40

First of all, I love this question, and if ever I’m in any kind of situation remotely like this, I do always try to express myself in terms of stories that happen pretty early in life, because I think those are incredibly important and powerful. You know, two things come to mind that I would love to share. One is more or less first vision, almost like a prophetic vision, that I had probably at four or five years old. Here I am outside playing, because we did that back then, and we’re in this beautiful little pine grove, like in the backyard, my friends are kind of off to the side, and I’m doing my thing, and all of a sudden I’m completely captivated, immersed by this vision of myself, same size, same age, but in a white lab coat, big white buttons, with test tubes in hand, microscope by the side and chalkboard in the back with all these formulas written on it. It was just like it really, that just came upon me in a moment of like this vision. I think what I would say is it definitely stuck with me. And as it played out, you know, I became sort of engaged with Einstein at the time. You know, these are a little bit later years, because he was still kind of front and center as the main scientist of our times. And then that kind of led to a fascination with DNA. Watson and Crick had just discovered that, and I became consumed with the idea of what’s the smartest particle in the universe. So that’s kind of the one thing it’s like, where did that vision come from? And what does it tell you? The second one that comes to mind is maybe just a year or two later, where, unlike 456, love to go again outside to play, but this time, you know, what I’m compelled to do is gather up my playmates not Andrea. Can Andrea come out and play? Can Alyssa come out like can Bobby come out and I act as the kind of head adventurer and I lead my little playmates on an adventure through the neighborhood? Can be only a block because we can’t cross streets, but there’s so many fascinating things to a. An earth in that block over and over, whether it’s sneaking behind the HVAC outdoor unit and looking at all the pipes and wires going into the house, or sitting down in a gravel driveway, which there was one gravel driveway, and sifting through the rocks and finding precious stones, thinking of fantastical stories and always culminating in going to the professor’s house, which I could only go because it was a hedgerow, and only I went through the hedgerow and had a conversation with him to share all our amazing findings and get his counsel and find out why That’s important to go back and report to the So, as Steve Jobs would say, you can’t connect the dots going forward, but you can looking back. And I think those two stories are a lot about who I am. Well, I certainly get curiosity. I get a sense of desiring to discover in that chuckle. Because I also grew up in places where we would roam the streets in the afternoon and evening, and we knew when we had to be back for dinner, but in between, we would just explore, just like you did. So you’re invoking my own childhood for me and that unsupervised adventure, I think it’s super imperative for young people. Now, I’m the son of an architect, and you became an architect. How did you go from roaming the streets and admiring Einstein to thinking, geez, let me become an architect. How did that happen? Right? Maybe my first two little vignettes helped paint the picture that I am a polymath like I’m kind of all over the place, and I have interests everywhere. If you want to make the spectrum of arts over here and sciences over there, there’s not much that I’m not interested in. So that was a real struggle for me, especially at 18 without much world experience. So it really was, I was I loved to draw. I almost drew things on paper every day and painted, and I was very good in math, and I love the natural sciences. So what to do? Like, am I a commercial graphic artist, or am I an engineer? Or am I a scientist? And I went to through freshman year, and I discovered psychology, and I loved psychology, but it was like, do I want to be a psychologist? I don’t think so, you know, and I took zoology and biology and all the diagrams of mitochondria and memorizing all the different parts. I’m like, you know how our education system can literally kill things out of you? So to make a long story short, all of this is happening while one of my most influential figures was my grandfather, who was in the construction industry, but he was actually the treasurer of the kind of famous one and only Lumber Company in our small, little town, and he’s underwriting my tuition. So I’m putting all this together, and I’m saying, How can I combine all this to make sense? I mean, it took a couple of years, but then I declared architecture as my major. And as it turns out, it really was kind of what I needed at the time, because it did combine everything in a way, academically. It was wonderful.

Achim Nowak  08:19

Again, one of my joys as a child is I grew up with studying blueprints that my dad would bring home of buildings, and when you grew up with that, that was incredibly sexy to me. My God, I love looking at every single detail. But I also knew from my dad that some of what he did as an architect was also pretty mundane and humdrum. Give us a snapshot. I mean, when you think of your career as an architect, if you think about a project, when you go, this was like a pinnacle, like that project was amazing. I love that. Maybe take us through the other and also where you win one, you go, gosh, I can’t wait for this one to be over. Yeah,

Ann Odell  08:59

really, I would just have to say again, the beauty of studying architecture was the academic for us a five year degree. Got my license. It combined the arts, art history, to take physics of all kinds, math to calculus and certainly, a lot of design psychology, sorting disparate elements into this one cohesive whole that is an expression, fundamental expression, of one big statement from a lot of different parts. I loved all that, and I love the rigor involved, because you could explore conceptual ideas a lot school. I knew it wasn’t going to be like that starting out in my professional years, and it certainly wasn’t. I was lucky enough for a firm that I started in for a guy, the head creative of this firm, split off and did his own and then he took me as lead designer and another very young person, you know, that was kind of thrilling. And for. There. I worked for a lot of famous firms in Boston and New York, but ultimately, for me, it was too much down the chain of the conceptual idea of the work that I was doing. It felt more like the cart than the horse for what we were trying to do, for the statement that could be made, I would just summarize it overall that I wasn’t that interested in designing or crafting or building the billboard I wanted to say. I wanted to author what the billboard message actually said, and I realized that kind of coincided with things in my life that I ultimately moved that way,

Achim Nowak  10:43

part of what always interests me in our life journeys. And I think you’re already alluding to it, but if you would speak to it some more, how did you know that it was time to explore something else? And I know you landed in the world of brand strategy, which I think of as a amazing world, but tough and competitive. Number one, how did you figure out that maybe it’s time before something else? And how did you land on brand strategy?

Ann Odell  11:10

Great questions, easy to answer, because one is just practical tactical, but the other is much deeper and emotional. The practical tactical was money. I By that time, I was living in Manhattan, and I could barely scrape together enough on an architect’s salary, yeah. What do I do? And then the other part was in the early 90s, which that was, there was this emergence of the importance of brand. Now, depending on the age of your listeners, they won’t have context. They may or may not have context.

Achim Nowak  11:49

Namedrop freely. Don’t worry about what our listeners understand.

Ann Odell  11:54

No, but I’m just saying like they’ll be potentially listeners out there that won’t be aware that brands were not really that many in their concept of branding wasn’t really that mainstream. And in the 90s, was generally big department stores, you know, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s sacks, and even Marcus, or like Walmart or something like that. But one of the biggest brands was the gap, for example. But what I fell into, inspired a lot by the fact that I did want to make more money, was that in Manhattan, at the time, many designers, fashion designers, were realizing, Hey, look at the gap. It’s getting all that middle income share. All we have is haute couture, and, you know, high end. How do we cross this chasm and compete. Ultimately, designers like Donna Karan and Armani Exchange I ended up working for them in terms of translating this new business strategy, of reaching a consumer that was a health coach or consumer that was a huge learning experience, which led to creating the design prototypes for their brands as a bricks and mortar store, translating architecture, liaisoning architecture to a brand language that was psychologically designed to build loyalty and try to influence preference and such as that. But then it also led me to people like Richard Hane that developed Urban Outfitters and anthropology, which I did, the early prototypes of those stores. You know, Urban Outfitters was all the recycling components, very inexpensive, but very creative and not ever experienced at the time. So you have to do you do have to give credit for that. That was a while ago, and then the apology was merely a concept to keep that consumer that shocked Urban Outfitters as they grew older and needed kind of more a higher end range of goods and a little more sophistication. And I also did American Girl, the American Girl prototype on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. So these are all like, it’s like birthing new concept.


What a cool journey. So you mentioned one brand that I absolutely loved, and I which is Armani Exchange. I loved, I was one of those people who, I think, because of the work you did, I kept going back to Armani Exchange. I love the way the clothes fit me. I could afford them if I just put you on the spot about that one brand, because I love it. So what did you learn work with Armani Exchange? What did you help them clarify and figure out so they could attract a customer like me it was very loyal to Armani Exchange. Right? Exactly

Ann Odell  14:43

what I learned, like what you learn immediately when you move from an architecture, construction environment into a branding marketing is the language, like words that are going off in your ears, which underlying that is obviously. The values and the goals and the intentions. So you’re moving from the language of execution and design and materials and things like that, to strategy, psychographics and demographics of someone that is like you. Ultimately, what I learned is that where my skills would translate is to realize that the business positioning in the business strategy requires a creative translation into a physical experience, which calls for kind of dissecting the words of a positioning strategy which is fairly dry into emotional concepts such as, should the overall ambiance of this store feel modern and progressive and edgy a little bit like Unknown, or should it feel nostalgic and traditional fuzzy. It’s almost like there’s a very high level goal, and then all the minutia of what it looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like, to ultimately orchestrate those feelings and kind of that psychographic container for you to respond, oh, you know, this is my place.


I totally get it. I mentioned in the introduction some of the bigger brands where you worked in house. I’m sure you have a gazillion stories, but if you would through, then you work with some amazing global entities that you serve. If you were to just want to ask you the impossible, just share one client and one story. When you go, what we did here was really cool, and I’m glad I got to do this. And what we did really impacted the trajectory of their business.

Ann Odell  16:56

I could say literally any of the ones that have already mentioned, Urban Outfitters is a trillion dollar enterprise. You know, having kicked that off, anthropology is obviously doing well as well. For Lauder, I did their first prototype, which was kind of literally copying Sephora. These are back in the days where you couldn’t access on your own wasn’t like self open cell is what they called. It, kind of transforming them into what was to be the new norm. I would say that I was fortunate to work with agencies or big corporate that where world class standards were the only accepted way of doing things. So that was a huge education for me. You just were held to that standard, and I think we delivered as far as any one particular one, I couldn’t really say, but what comes to mind is, at Lippincott, I was literally on the tail end of working with Mad Men, like original Mad Men from the 50s and the 60s. They were up in their years, but, you know, and I was in my 30s, but they passed on that knowledge. And not to say that’s so much cutting edge now, although it kind of is in ways, but certainly, you know, the brand world has evolved, but just that kind of learned, I was maybe the last generation to learn from. They had to offer, and it was very best. I will say


that learning, because I always think about this. Do you appreciate what they were giving you in the moment, or is it more like in hindsight now, as a more mature person, you go, Gosh, how lucky I was back then.

Ann Odell  18:52

Definitely both, but always the latent learning, I would say the second, the latter, what you described, is profound. The fact that they were smart enough to know that we’re only doing 2d Now, two dimensional design, you know, newspapers and magazines and the like. And bringing architects on like me to now bring their practice and their influence base into three dimensional, Big C change. And so they recognized that I knew something they didn’t. Yeah, they knew something I didn’t. So they educated me. They took the time, did lunch and learns. Basically, for almost a year or so, I got my MBA in marketing and business from original men, and that’s fairly unique,


sweet. Now what I’m thinking about also as I’m listening to you, especially when our work is on the creative side, which your work clearly was and is, we grow and change and evolve through the work that we do, and especially since you’re in. In pretty high powered environments. So how did you and as a person, evolve and change as you were doing this brand strategy work,

Ann Odell  20:10

right? Well, I’m not going to lie, it was really tough on my personal life, because that was an era still not evolved from Mad Men, where it was dog eat dog, and it was 70 hour weeks, and coming on the weekends, and I had my kids while I was at Lippincott, and there was no allowance for any time off you get six weeks after the baby. And that’s it was really tough. But what I learned in that, in that environment, that kind of world class, like fortune, 100 environment, is just a very basic process for working with people, and it really does, and it’s not difficult to understand, really, but it starts with the empathy. And when you’re trying to speak when you’re engaging with C suite level people. And really this goes for any person that you want to influence. Empathy is the starting place. And what I mean by that, of course, is that it is connection you need to find just be a personable person, but more than anything, you need to understand what their values are and what keeps them up at night like and that’s true with branding. You sit in the chair or you stand in the shoes of the person that you’re trying to connect with, right? So kind of goes for both the audience that your client is trying to reach as well, but really connection, demonstrating empathy, that you understand what they want, what their goals and intentions are, and then demonstrating your own expertise, yeah, as to how you can bring value to that and help them utilize your expertise to achieve their goals, and then it’s quite a long process, but from there, it’s like education to show them how you’re going to merge what they want and need, using your playbook and how that all integrates together. Personal investment is right in there too, and by doing a good better, best scheme, always in a presentation right like, slightly below budget, right at budget, above budget, and kind of conceptually different as well. They feel like, oh, like, I’m starting to understand this. And I’m even given the choice to finalize the choice of which one of these that I’m doing, and I’ve really collapsed it a lot, but it’s kind of this orchestration of from connection empathy and letting them invest, letting them feel empowered.


I feel like I really understood the psychological dance that’s involved. And obviously you are successful because you have expertise. You know, this dance doesn’t work if, if you don’t bring expertise to the table. Again, in the spirit of this podcast. And I think what a lot of listeners think about is, I’m really curious how, at some point you said, Well, I’m going to have my own firm. I’m not going to work with the other firms. And that’s a dream that many people have. Some people follow through, and some people don’t talk us through that. What was it like to say I’m going to do my own thing? How easy? How difficult was it? Just give us a snapshot of

Ann Odell  23:37

sure that. Well again, what came up, what emerged are both practical, emotional, emotive reasons, I would say just pre great recession. So like 2006 you know, I’m still in the corporate environment. I’m doing lots of fantastic projects. I think at that time, I was working with Lenovo on their big headquarters and Research Triangle Park. But more and more I was noticing, you know, things are really moving away from kind of the physical realm, and more and more to the digital realm, right, online and digital ecosystems of brands, and that sure enough, by the time the great recession hit and a lot of things just kind of went to a standstill, and, you know, there was a lot of layoffs and whatever, I was fortunate that didn’t happen to me, but, but When we came back from that, it was like, totally digital, like we are in this new paradigm, this huge C, C change. What I felt, what I sensed, is that I was not going to be allowed in the corporate environment to get into that quickly enough. You know, it wasn’t my expertise. They were high. Layering in people to cover that, and I would remain in my niche, you know, of doing the the more architectural design and just other parts of branding. When that happens to me, when I feel like I’m going to be denied, what the next thing is I get kind of, you know, I’m like that. I don’t like that. And also, what I was noticing is that all these startups are happening in their in every sector, but there’s some really interesting ones happening, especially in the social innovation space. I was like, You know what? I’ve been doing this a long time. I have a great kit of parts, a great toolkit, and I’m gonna I’m gonna swing for the fences and I’m gonna go for it. And I was lucky enough to get a few clients like right off the bat, which not only let me do what I really believed in, operating eight hours a day in to a lot more than that, officially, but also to learn about the new digital ecosystem that every single entity has to have now, website, myriad social profiles on different platforms, your E newsletter and blogging and everything else. So that was important.


Well, you mentioned your family earlier. Your husband is originally from Italy. You have two grown children now, and when we make a big life change like that, how did your family navigate that? Did that thing gets? Oh, cool, but so the happy mom is finally out of whatever. Or how did that play out in your family? You

Ann Odell  26:31

know it was, it was okay, it was okay. And it’s always, especially for women, it’s always, you wear myriad hats, and you really do under Labor, a lot the invisible labor. So there was that, but certainly there was more flexibility, you know, more freedom and and I felt like that. I was able to take my life back and sort of better balance than I had been. So that was a part of it that worked as well. I’ve


been a serial entrepreneur for 20 years, so I can’t imagine working for somebody else, but I’ve also been blessed to always have clients. So I have a pipeline. People call me. I never go looking for clients, because that’s one of the big fears that people have. Gosh, I have this idea for a great business, but who will hire me? And do I have to constantly hunt for clients? How is that flow of projects that interest you, work that you want to invest in, and we spoke about money before being properly compensated? How is that flow happening in your world?

Ann Odell  27:35

Right? Well, I would say that it can be a struggle, because there was a huge void gap during the pandemic where a lot of my brand clients being smaller, did have to pause. Fortunately, I still had a few. That was wonderful. We did a lot in that uncertain time, but I also took that void to add to my repertoire, and that’s when I went back and got my certification in foresight, which a lot of people aren’t terribly familiar with, enlighten

Anita Barbero  28:14

us. What is foresight. I mean,

Ann Odell  28:16

the shortcut is that it could be seen as a sixth gear for business, meaning that you’re actually afforded, if you want to look at it as practically as jumping ahead of your competition, because you are leveraging a strategy that your competitors are not. Or you can also look at it as an opportunity to change your existing culture, which will also ultimately put you ahead of the competition, because your organization will be all running all the better. The thing with foresight is is a long term strategy, and in our world today, we’re so caught up in meeting the quarterly reports, this is hard to convince a lot of people of kind of taking on, but I think more and more in the business world, corporations and even medium and small businesses are realizing that, you know, status quo, business as usual is really not it’s not that effective.


Well, as I’m listening to speak about future thinking and helping companies be more long term future thinkers. So I’m thinking of you and your own life, because you help other people strategize and think that way. One thing that struck me when we met is you live in a part of Manhattan that was probably back in the days when you were there, like, Funky. It’s not funky anymore, because Manhattan has changed so much. You mentioned that because your husband Italian, you’re maybe going back to italy more. I’m just curious, as you think of your own future, what are some things you go, oh, I want to do more of this, or maybe I want to do less of that. That. What do you think?

Ann Odell  30:00

Well, first of all, I love the term funky. That’s definitely a euphemism for stepping over people lying on the sidewalk, which was in the mid 90s. Yes, you know now we’re bumping up against Hudson Yards and the high line where hood is hot. I love that as a as a reflection or as a paradigm. Who knows what’s gonna happen, right?

Anita Barbero  30:27


Ann Odell  30:29

I’m super excited about my future and where I am right now, somewhat preparing for this, but I’ve also thought about it before. You know I am a meaning in life is primary for me. If I don’t have it, it’s really hard to wake up in the morning, and I’ve never not had it. And when I look back on my life, I feel like I’ve been a liaison for meaning in whatever it is that I’m doing. You know, I liaison the arts and the sciences. You know, when I was young, I liaisoned or alchemized architecture to brand strategy and ultimately, which involves a lot of identity, which didn’t really touch on it is about the archetypes that we all are. From there, I feel like I want to liaison news stories like new origin stories and new normative stories for society, wow, because we are continuing to under Labor to be subconsciously influenced by false normative stories that originated 400 years ago, or even before that point, to the enlightenment and the whole world of Isaac and when we said that no longer are we guided exclusively by God and the supernatural, here is science as our New Savior, and people had to choose, are you going to is religion the way, or is science the way? And we have been fractured ever since, and there’s so much fallout from that. A lot of my cultural strategy work and foresight strategy work is merely helping people realize that subconsciously we are lulled into this way of doing things that is, we are being victimized by these persistent stories that are not true. And there’s, I think we’ll run out of time before I really elaborate on that a lot, but we must recognize that, and we must unlearn those stories in order to free our minds to the deep intuition and imagination that we have. Humanity has literally everything we need, oh my gosh, to be so happy and for everything to work. But we have to unlearn first,


so beautiful everything you just said and what you did for me, it’s funny. I’m in the fourth season of this podcast. For my very first episode, I invited somebody who was an easy guest because I knew him, while I admire him. He is really a brand strategy just called Tom asacker. The he’s written multiple best selling books. I recognize his name, his and the episode title was, what if the stories you tell yourself are all wrong?

Ann Odell  33:32

We just talked about right? They are. They’re stories. They’re stories of the dominators, that’s right, who are smart enough to plant those stories to serve them, not, and we have fallen for


so I sadly, regrettably, have to start wrapping up. I’m always curious, and you’ve had such an amazing ride in life based on what you know now, if you had a chance to whisper a few words of wisdom into young Anne’s ears, or young women like young Anne, based on what you don’t know, what would you say to her or them? I

Ann Odell  34:11

definitely would say it’s going to be okay. Your sense, your concern, and overwhelming, the overwhelm, but in the end, it’ll just take you longer to figure things out, and it will be better because of that. I would call myself slow to unfold, and I didn’t step into my real, full personhood until 40s or 50s, because I’m the person that takes in so much information that it’s overwhelming, but at that point, a little bit longer, I had friends that peaked in fifth grade. But. I think that’s what probably the most salient thing I would I would tell myself


beautiful. So if any of our listeners want to learn more about you and say, Where can I go to learn more about Anne Odell? Where would you like to direct them?

Ann Odell  35:14

My site is Anne It also goes as Anne Odell dot NYC. I’m currently putting together a site called green eye dot world, which is a futures thinking world building consultancy practice. I have yet another website in the works. I won’t even tell it’s culture forward, but that won’t be available, like in my little written bio, will I be able to put a few more in there? Because I would direct people to inspiring women that I find super inspiring, that are on amazing new tracks of discovery, and I would include those as well.


Thank you so much for the gift of this conversation. There’s lots of wisdom that would that just serve you, and I’m grateful to you. Thank you so much again.

Ann Odell  36:07

Oh, thank you so much for this opportunity. I mean, I love what you are doing in this space. It’s so important. I feel like, you know we’re definitely in this era of if you’re under 30 or 40, you’re not relevant. So we have so much that we can offer all our lives at any given point. Thank you so much. Ahem, my pleasure.

Achim Nowak  36:35

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of The my for the ACT podcast. If you like what you have heard, please like us and leave a review on your preferred podcast platform. And if you would like to engage more deeply in fourth act conversations, check out the mastermind page at Achim it’s where fourth actors like you engage in riveting conversation with other fourth actors, see you there and bye for now you.


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