Ashley Rudder equates what she does to truffle hunting. Sure, anyone can find a garden variety mushroom – any regular influencer – but she “can spot a truffle from a mile away”.
Ashley is head of creator partnerships at Whalar. Creators are the heart and soul of Whalar, and Ashley finds new ways to reach the creator economy online, offline – and “in places people don’t even think of”.
Prior to joining Whalar around a year ago, Ashley was assistant vice president of strategy and content at Lashify, where she led and managed digital content operations for print, streaming, and events. Before that, Ashley served as director, digital content and artistry, M·A·C Cosmetics, where she oversaw the brand’s global digital presence across all global social platforms. It’s a role she really pinpointed and carved out herself while travelling the world as a professional makeup artist with the brand.
Additionally, Ashley is the co-founder of Haus of SÔS, a bi-coastal creative firm specialising in digital media and visual branding.
A creative visionary at heart, Ashley’s deep understanding of market trends and buyer psychology has made her a sought-after expert in the creator economy. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with her for an engaging, sweeping chat.
LBB> You spent 16 years at MAC prior to joining Whalar (via a stint at Lashify). How did you wind up working for the brand and what did you initially join them to do?
Ashley> This story is fun…I was a client of Whalar's while I worked at M·A·C. There was a strong desire to launch a global handle on TikTok, and I had my hands quite full running the global creative strategy for IG, YouTube, Pinterest, Snap, etc., and I knew I needed a team of specialists to help the brand make a splash. Every time I met with the Whalar team, I was energised and always left our sessions empowered with new insights.
When my family and I fled from Manhattan (September of 2020) to quarantine at the base of Zion National Park, the city's grid no longer distracted me. I began to realise, on my daily three-mile hikes in the bosom of nature, that I had built an illustrious 19-year career that was no longer aligned with my purpose. So, I decided to be unwavering in my pursuit of helping others, joy, and creativity. And joined Whalar!
LBB> Your time at M·A·C eventually saw you migrate towards the digital content department, which is what took you to a company like Whalar. How did your career end up taking that direction?
Ashley> I fell into content creation when I moved to Los Angeles (2015) as a M·A·C Pro Artist. I was one of 15 global artists that worked on celebrity clientele for concerts, photo shoots, personal appearances, award shows, and fashion weeks in NY, London, Milan, and Paris. A few of my high-profile clients started noticing my social feed on Instagram and asked me to help them shoot content for their social channels. I had a ball ghost-creating for them, and I found myself loving content creation as much as I loved being a makeup artist. After building my own following and my client's following, I set my sights on doing it for M·A·C.
Mind you, I was a seasoned, 14-year ‘field executive’, and this new career endeavour would require me to overcome quite a few Spartan race-level hurdles since no one had ever been promoted from the field to work on the global creative team.
As lofty as this new goal was, I couldn't be deterred. I had identified whitespace, but there wasn't a dedicated creative social team. M·A·C’s full creative power was focused on the gorgeous and glossy campaign work. At the time, social was not a creative priority, so much that the go-to-market team was running the social channels, and the feed reflected that. I knew I could bring an artist's eye and storytelling to the brand's channels that would resonate and set the brand apart.
My first goal was to get to know the players, so I invited some go-to-market directors to coffee. It didn't take long for me to learn that they were constantly looking for great UGC to post and that it was a time-consuming struggle to find beautiful assets. So that was my moment to offer a solution, and they were eager to partner.
We decided I would start contributing to the socials during our usual month-long travel marathon to cover Fashion Week. So, I delivered IG stories and in-feed real-time posts on top of my typical day-to-day work responsibilities.
It was a ton of work, but I knew that I had to show up for myself to make my goals come to fruition, so while my colleagues were having dinner after shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, I was in my hotel room cranking out assets for the global social handles.
That sacrifice was worth it; my creativity was a huge hit, garnering top performance and engagement across multiple platforms. I built this relationship with marketing for two years, had their complete buy-in, and made a name for myself among the corporate teams. That was when I knew it was time to make my intentions for a promotion known.
My next hurdle was to navigate a very matrixed organisational structure, so I crafted a job description and presented it to my manager. After a long series of meetings presenting my concept around this new role and following all of the policies and procedures around requesting a new position, I had hit a wall.
Then fate stepped in. I heard a ‘ding’ from my phone and was pleasantly surprised to see that the global SVP of creative had sent me a lovely DM via Instagram complimenting my work during Fashion Week. I knew that was my moment! I asked if I could get some time on her calendar to discuss my thoughts on the brand's social channels, and she gave me an hour of her time. I designed a presentation around the creative social strategy that I wanted to bring to the brand and sent her my drafted job description. She loved it and immediately started the process of bringing me on. It took four months for HR to figure out how to compensate me equitably and assign my title since no one had ever been brought into corporate from the field, but she pushed to make it happen.
Breaking through these hurdles set a few new precedents, I was the first Black female executive on the global creative team, and now a new process is in place for field employees to transition into corporate positions.
Looking back on the three-year journey that it took me to step into my dream role, I would have never gotten there without an unwavering belief in myself, the willingness to be patient, and the intuition to boldly step into conversations and advocate for myself. However, it takes commitment, time, and consistency to make a dream a reality.
LBB> Tell me about Whalar. You've been at the company for a year now. What tempted you to the role and what does being 'head of creators' entail?
Ashley> The temptation to explore Whalar started with a conversation I had with one of my mentors about my aspiration to evolve my career around my purpose, and she advised me to reflect on people who seem passionate, happy, and empowered at work and to look at those companies as a starting point. I decided to contemplate this during my daily hike, and various members of the Whalar team came to mind. The memories struck me like lightning, and I scurried home to log into LinkedIn.
Within a few clicks of my trackpad, Jo Cronk's [president, Whalar] profile popped up, and I sent her a casual DM letting her know that I was looking for a new adventure and how much I enjoyed working with her and the team. I ended the message by asking her to keep me in mind if she had a position that she thought I'd be perfect for. She scheduled a talk with me a week later and told me she was creating a new role dedicated to creators. However, she disclosed that the full scope of the job hadn't been baked, and she wanted my partnership in defining the role if I was open to it.
The simple answer was yes, I was open to it. So now, a year in, this is how I describe my role: I lead a team of social anthropologists that leverage Whalar's tech, a healthy obsession with pop culture, and the art of understanding social communities of influence to match the perfect creators and their communities to brands.
LBB> At M·A·C and Lashify, your focus was 100% on one brand, whereas the task at Whalar I imagine is much broader and involved in many different industries. How have you found that aspect of your role versus your time at M·A·C and Lashify?
Ashley> Working for M·A·C. was like working for a different client every week. Every colour collection had a new feel and theme, so my stamina for developing new ideas was always high. It also didn't hurt that my Aries energy aligned with new adventures, so working for Whalar's diverse clientele is right up my alley.
I have an insatiable appetite for learning and research, and every RFP that comes in is an opportunity for me to explore, go down rabbit holes, and discover new things. Social media is fascinating, and the creators that populate the space and the communities that consume their content are endlessly inspiring. I consider myself blessed to have the opportunity to educate on the brand side, as well as the creator side. There is much work to be done at Whalar as brands come to us to develop their acumen and desire to leverage the full capability of the creator economy. Creators are so unbridled and advanced in their thinking that they need preparation to step into corporate marketing and creative spaces to aid brand teams in achieving their ultimate goals. I'm happy that my team and I are a resource for them both.
LBB> Creators are the beating heart of Whalar's business – how do you stay abreast of amazing creators across so many platforms and varying range of engagement (in terms of the amount of followers a creator has)?’
Ashley> My role at Whalar is steeped in personal passions and purpose by design. I am a social media enthusiast and creator, so I naturally stay in the mix of what's happening. Our people team helped me build my dream team of social anthropologists that bring diverse interests that lean toward specific vertices. Still, overall, they are magical, gen-z, unicorn-angel-queens that work true casting miracles. I'm obsessed with each of them. They teach me so much.
LBB> Your bio says that you find "new ways to reach the creator economy online, offline, and in places people don’t even think of". Please tell me more about this process!
Ashley> My drive is to unearth influential communities and creators that have ‘IT’. I equate what I do to truffle hunting. Anyone can find a garden variety mushroom (influencer), but I can spot a truffle from a mile away. I can confirm that I have some secret sauce to my process that I won't disclose, but I will share one of my favourite creator sourcing tips, which also makes for a fun dinner conversation. I love to ask to look at a person's FYP on TikTok. There you'll see all sorts of exciting things! Then, with their permission, I send myself things to check on later, and I see where the algorithm takes me from there.
LBB> What are some of your proudest achievements over the course of the last year at Whalar?
Ashley> I've built a dream team of women from diverse educational, cultural, and professional backgrounds who are crushing it! During their interview, I pressed them about their knowledge of creators and social and their motivation behind what they do. I shared my wild ideas, learned about their future aspirations and learning styles, and disclosed my neuro-divergent tendencies, and they agreed to step on this wild rocket ship. Working with them is such a privilege.
Being a part of Whalar is something I'm beyond pride of. Evolving beyond something I built for nearly 20 years was not easy, and I'm proud of myself for enduring the journey that led me to understand that I had built a career based on an archetype of success: a generalised barcode that left me unfulfilled. In my pursuit of purpose and joy, I have never been as transparent and pointed in an interview as I was when I spoke to Jo Cronk. I shared my aspirations for elevating underserved and marginalised communities, for evolving the way brands work with creators, my business as a co-founder of HAUS OF SÔS, and that working remotely was my love language. I asked for backstories on the leaders and the company's trajectory. I wanted to know how Jo leads, what her purpose and nothing was off limits. I'm proud to work for a leader like Jo (and so many more...you know who you are) and for a brand that supports a collective of individuals as intelligent as they are kind, and let me tell you, they are kind beyond measure.
Working with Clé de Peau and Martha Stewart
was definitely a bucket list moment for me. Martha is someone who has been an icon in my household name since the late ‘80s. As a hardcore fan and creative, that project is something I'll never forget, and to have those assets go viral (3+ billion impressions and 78 million views), beating brand lift beauty category benchmarks by 222%, and making the Clé de Peau x Martha landing page the top viewed landing page of all time was the kind of success one only dreams of. I'm insanely proud that Whalar and HAUS OF SÔS could bring that campaign to life for Clé de Peau.
LBB> In your opinion, why are independent content creators so powerful when it comes to honest brand communications?
Ashley> There is a wild synergy between the creator and their accountability to their community.
Creators are passionate about stress testing products and services they bring into their lives, be them highly curated or raw, and the commentary around that content is candid and steeped in the multifaceted social media communities they are a part of. That is why 92% of social users trust creators more than celebrities, brand advertisements, or family and friends. These creators stand on a platform of truth and community relations. There is an unspoken rule between a creator and their community, and a creator would be risking it if they chose to violate that trust.
I wrote about this in my contribution to Whalar's research study, ‘Reaching the Unreachables
’. Brands must realise that creators give access, relatability, value, and clout to brands overnight. As a result, brands can reach communities that they could never speak to on their own. Think about it - if a brand has never created ads or products with a community in mind (especially minority and marginalised communities) and decides they want to. It would take years and millions of dollars to build awareness and trust. However, if a creator gives their approval, a brand has instant awareness and trust. It's that simple. That is why our brand ambassador campaigns are so impactful. When a creator is seen month-over-month using a product and discussing the equitable partnership and creativity shared between them and the brand, their followers become invested, and that's how creators ensure that brand teams hit those KPIs.
LBB> DE&I is really important in your role – how does it impact the way that you operate and how does that play out day-to-day?
Ashley> DE&I is essential in everything we do. As a brand, we promise to deliver a 60% diverse casting. There is no deviation from that, which is exciting. I love seeing the reactions of our future and current clients when they see the multi-layered diversity we bring forth in our casting, and now that Whalar has acquired C-Talent, we have been able to elevate our casting capability exponentially to find def and disabled creators around the globe. The equity conversations are refreshing and having tech behind the team to prove the immense value and power that diverse creators and their communities have is a game changer.
LBB> Recently I've seen criticism of Instagram from a number of content creators that I know and follow with regards to dwindling views on stories and likes, etc. on posts. Thinking generally, what are your thoughts on the various platforms at a creator's disposal and the power that they offer them and the brands they are working with?
Ashley> This is an interesting question, and I'm answering it through the lens of how platforms work as a consumer product.
Every platform has two sides to its offering: organic and paid.
When a platform is emerging, the algorithm is programmed to leverage organic content and incentivise posting with rapid follower growth and high engagement, which drives more people to download the app and use it frequently. Once a platform has a sizable and active community, the paid side of its business model is activated, allowing brands and users to pay for screen time. This is when a creator has a choice: to evolve with the platform's product offering and build content that will align and win within those goals that are reflected in the algorithm or not and roll the dice.
When a creator sees a platform is allowing them to ‘promote’ their content and PAY to get it in front of more people is a significant cue that the platform's product purpose has evolved, and creators and everyone else on the app now have the opportunity to pay for screen time.
The math is simple, organic content gets buried when more people and brands pay to pop in your timeline, FYP, and stories. We will never know the formulas and ratios behind how much of the content you see is organic or has been boosted (paid). It's definitely a numbers game.
Being a creator is a highly strategic and creative job, and those who have massive and sustained followings across multiple channels should be commended. Be you an OG creator or the latest viral sensation on a singular platform, the most important thing to remember is that making meaningful connections to those who currently follow you is vital. Having a million-plus following with minimal engagement is not impressive and won't get you cast by my team and me. Our baseline is to find brilliant creators with ACTIVELY engaged communities at all follower levels who create content that educates, entertains, and adds value. That type of creator and content wins organically and breaks the internet when boosted by paid, so creators get out there and create accordingly.
LBB> As you mentioned, you're also the co-founder of Haus of SÔS. Can you tell us about that and how it fits with your role at Whalar?
Ashley> I'm not hypothesising about a creative strategy; I am actively executing it. Being a co-founder of a creative collective gives me immense insight into how the platforms work from an organic and paid perspective, how audiences react, what's trending, identify a creator's production time, and what does and doesn't feel good when you are hired to create. I bring all of that experience and insight to brands and creators so that the creator economy is an equitable and humane place for users, creators, brands, and platforms to co-exist.
LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you happy / relaxed / energised?
Ashley> My family and I are movie lovers. We enjoy watching a film during opening week and giving it our creative critique, and each of us has an eye for something different, which makes for passionate conversation. I also love a rowdy and trash-talk-filled game of UNO on a Friday night. My more chill side enjoys the simple pleasures of tending to my tribe of houseplants, being soothed by the scent of Palo Santo, and watching my Flemish Giant rabbit Playboi Pluto eat various fruits, flowers, and veggies loudly and binky throughout the house.