Julie Stahl, Founder and CEO of Blonde + Co, the New York-based full service creative content house known for its exquisite work for such global brands as Redken, Clarisonic, Maybelline and Palmers, clearly remembers when her creative light switch was first turned on. She was about 11 or 12, when her father introduced her to the family’s 35mm SLR camera and how to develop film.
“I would do experiments with multiple exposures and adjust the filters to create different effects,” Stahl remembers. “Then in the printing stage we would experiment with solarizing, dodging and burning. We also made pinhole cameras that created prints right onto the paper. I am so grateful to have learned at early age the principles of image manipulation and the magic inside a photography darkroom.”
Still, despite that early introduction to the wonders of photography and filmmaking, it would take the Adelaide, Australia-native many years pursuing her original passion of hair styling in Adelaide, Sydney, the United Kingdom (and later on a freelance basis in Los Angeles with some notable celeb clients including actress Angelina Jolie), before she would find her way back to the camera, only this time as the head of one New York most respected creative content boutiques.
Although her mother was a music teacher and her father a noted engineer who designed lasers would go on to impact the Australian film industry, as an audio engineer and later as a co-writer on the 1998 feature film “Dance Me To My Song,” which was nominated for the Cannes Palme D’Or in 1998, Stahl found school stifling.
Against her parent’s advice, she dropped out of school at a very young age, but used books, travel and people as her form of self education. After a couple of mundane office jobs, she found happiness behind the chair of one of Australia’s top salon chains. She quickly became one of the most in-demand stylists with appointments booked six weeks in advance. “I loved the relationships with clients, colleagues as well as the art and science of hair. And there’s nothing better to me than making someone else feel good about themselves.” Says Stahl.
Foreshadowing her current career success, Stahl remembers one client who had a son that worked as an advertising executive in New York. “I clearly remember our conversations about his work, his life and thinking how incredible it sounded,” Stahl says. “Never in a million years would I have imagined one day I would be doing the same thing.”
Chasing The American Dream:
Throughout Stahl’s career, few things have moved in a straight line, not least of which was the road that brought her to founding the production company in 2002 that would eventually become Blonde + Co. Before that would happen, she would spend much of her 20s with itchy feet and a hunger for new experiences that would take her on a yearlong trek around the world, and several trips back to the US.
It was on one of these US trips that she made a bold move. While in California, she had a meeting with the US distributor of Schwarzkopf, the global beauty company she was employed with in Australia. At the end of the meeting, she walked out with an offer to manage their US education team.
Stahl says, “I was really drawn to the US because I feel it is the one place in the world where you aren’t labeled by what you’ve done, but rather are embraced for what you can do. “
Stahl accepted the position, and with a suitcase and $500, relocated to California. It was while training top Hollywood and Beverly Hills salons that she was hired to do specialized hair work on some big name Hollywood clients.
Her success there led to a game-changing decision in her career to move to New York to take on a new role at L’Oreal USA, as part of the Global Communications team at hair care giant Redken, which was in the midst of its global rollout. It was there that she cut her teeth in content creation, followed by a position in product development marketing in the consumer products division on the L’Oreal Paris brand. It was then she got to work closely with agencies and production companies on the L’Oréal Paris advertising campaigns.
“Long before branded content was the industry buzzword, I was pitching and producing content ideas – I essentially created that part of my role at Redken thanks to very supportive and trusting management,” Stahl remembers. “The content we made then was not as agile as it is now of course -- we distributed it via VHS tape. I remember the first piece I produced was a how-to red-carpet video that we shot the day after the 2000 Academy Awards. The day before I had actually done Angelina’s hair for the awards. so it was pretty relevant.
A Company of Diversity:
All of that collective life experience – from her family’s photography darkroom, to the salons of Sydney to LA and New York’s ultra competitive beauty industry and working on a feature film in Europe — brought her to Blonde + Co. While the aftermath of 9/11 could hardly be considered an ideal time to launch a new business in New York, that tragedy reminded Stahl that life is precious and we get only one chance at it so do what you want to do, which for Stahl was combining her love of film with her experience creating and producing branded content.
“I wanted the company to reflect the world's diversity,” Stahl explains, “which is why our team runs the nationality gamut -- China, New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdon, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Mexico – are represented. Passion is our number one factor when we hire for any role here. It’s our diversity that gives Blonde the ability to communicate our work globally, which is on display in our recent work.”
At Blonde, diversity isn’t solely a matter of ethnicity, but rather in the various work backgrounds that people at the company bring to the table. Traditionally, Stahl notes, if you worked in advertising you generally didn’t work in feature film or TV. Those labels served to limit one's ability to work in multiple industries, she says, and it was hard to transfer from one to the next seamlessly. Stahl saw Blonde’s future as being a
n agency that could do multiple forms of content (shorts, features, branded content, commercials). In fact, 2017 will mark the company's entry into the world of original content with several initiatives on tap.
“For the longest time we didn’t want to be called advertising or production studio,” Stahl says. “We struggled to settle with ‘creative agency,’ but ultimately decided to go with ‘creative content house.’ I always felt it was best to avoid labels of any kind because without industry labels there are no limits to what clients think you can do.”
Working alongside her life partner and Blonde + Co Creative Director Grey Zisser, whose career in many ways mirrors Stahl in that he started out as a hair stylist before a highly successful career in photography. Together they have built a company that is equally comfortable partnering directly with brands and organizations on their creative vision as it is executing their concepts with their directors, production services and array of post production capabilities that includes editorial, design, animation/VFX, finishing and audio.
“While we are mostly known for our heritage in beauty, I think our niche is not necessarily about the visuals, but in our approach,” Stahl says. “We ask ‘why’ before we do anything, and it’s our ability to find fresh, relevant ways to present content to an ever-changing consumer audience that has that has led to our best work. Fortunately, we have been able to migrate a lot of the strengths from our beauty work to other categories. Whether it’s a music video, art film, social cause PSA or our own original content, we make sure it’s beautifully executed."
For evidence look no further then some of the company’s most recent work for Redken, which exemplifies the stylized visual design, elegant cinematography and skillful editing the company is known for. Contrast that with their hard-hitting "#NotAFan" PSA campaign for National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, featuring well-known New York athletes such as Yankees manager Joe Girardi and former Knicks star John Starks. The spots effectively grab viewers’ attention by aesthetically feeling more like a sports commercial rather than a PSA with an important message.
“This project was filled with logistical challenges. First, we were asking teams and stadiums to give us access to players and venues at the worst time imaginable, like during playoffs” Stahl explains. “When it came to shooting, we had minutes, rather than hours including relighting and shooting stills for the print component. We overcame the challenges by going with a small, talented, nimble crew that could handle the pressure of complicated set-ups. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this project, literally. But it was most certainly worth it. I am extremely proud of the results and being associated with a campaign that can help influence behaviors for the better.”
Focus On Mentoring:
Fortunately for Stahl and the Blonde + Co most days are not like that. In fact, ask Stahl what kind of boss she is and she says she’s more like a nurturing mother in the office who prefers mentoring over managing, and strives to create a non-hierarchical work environment where the best idea, no matter who comes up with it, wins the day.
“Everyone here has their specific talents and skills, which we all recognize and respect,” Stahl notes. “I believe this attitude helps create an empathetic, collaborative and passionate culture where we can celebrate everyone’s individuality. By nurturing these qualities in the office, it manifests itself in the work we do, and the relationships we’ve created with our clients.”
She adds, “Everyone at our company is aligned with our philosophy of planet conscious thinking, helping others and making a change for the betterment of others in some way. These are constant topics of conversation in every meeting or group lunch. I wish I could put out a wanted sign for brands, organizations, non-profits and others who share our values, no matter the industry or project. We want to welcome them in collaborating with us.”
From Dreamers To Doers:
Surveying the industry as a whole as it relates to women entrepreneurs, Stahl sees reason for optimism.
“I have met a lot of women who own businesses in our industry lately,” Stahl says. “I think women make brilliant leaders, but there is still a lot of gender stereotyping in our society so we have to work even harder. However, given the recent political climate, the gender conversation is gathering serious momentum... I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen surprised expressions when I’m introduced as the owner of the company.
But those surprised expressions have served to motivate Stahl to the success she and Blonde + Co have achieved -- even though success is not a word the seemingly always soul searching Stahl appropriates easily.
“I am careful about the word ‘success’ -- it’s not a word I like and not one that I would use for myself,” she says. After all what is the definition of success? If I can say I helped in some small way to make this world a more beautiful place, that to me is success and that is something I continue to aspire to more than anything.”