By Karin Eldor
Five years ago, a younger Madison Utendahl wishes she had told her then exhausted, burnt out self: “It’s okay to rest.”
In fact, not only is it okay to rest — it’s imperative.
After experiencing peak burnout at age 27, with symptoms like brain fog, memory loss, extreme exhaustion (to the point where “no amount of espressos” would keep her awake), random stomach pain, and unhappiness, Utendahl walked away from a thriving career to finally make herself — and her well-being — a priority.
Success had come at the price of her health: While Utendahl had won accolades like two Webby Awards, worked as a production assistant for HBO’s acclaimed series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and helped create viral sensations like Refinery29’s “29 Rooms” and the Museum of Ice Cream (as a founding partner), she ended up feeling depleted. (It’s worth noting that she counts R29’s cofounder, Piera Gelardi, among her mentors today.)
Utendahl took matters into her own hands and launched the branding and design agency, Utendahl Creative (UC) in 2019, and was named among the Forbes 30 Under 30 in the “Marketing & Advertising” category in 2021.
The all-female, Black-owned agency focuses on storytelling, as well as designing and creating brand identities. With successful brands such as Halsey’s about-face, Simon Huck’s JUDY and Chris Paul’s Good Eat’n in its portfolio and a company-wide “Anti-Burnout” stance that’s garnering headlines, Utendahl Creative is getting attention for all the right reasons.
UC is paving the way for the creative industry by implementing work policies to better the lives and mental health of its all-female identifying team — policies that foster rest rather than burnout. To Utendahl and the team, this is the future of work.
With policies in place such as a noon start time on Monday mornings (to prevent the Sunday scaries) and a company-wide mandatory five-week OOO policy, Utendahl Creative aims to protect its team members’ energy by ensuring they don’t burn out, and instead revel in rest.
For Utendahl, “the opposite of burnout is presence.”
In April, Utendahl and her team were listed in Inc. magazine’s list of “Female Founders 200: 2023’s Most Dynamic Women Entrepreneurs,” thanks to their trailblazing anti-burnout policy, which inspires team members to reach new heights.
To help usher in this mission, the agency created The Burnout Burner — a candle marking UC’s first-ever product and serving as a physical reminder and cue to take the time to decompress and rest (whatever rest looks like for you).
(Fun fact: Utendahl Creative originally made the candle as a holiday gift for its partners. It garnered so much praise, the team knew it signalled an opportunity to create a piece of UC that others can enjoy. The first release is a limited batch, because the other advantage to working alongside successful brands is seeing the success of a “drop model,” first-hand.)
The candle’s purpose is to create a ritualistic cue to stay present, let go of overwork, unwind, and tap into your creativity. “The team really believes in the idea of moving routines into rituals. And to do so, requires presence,” Utendahl explains.
After all, creatives have always had the reputation of burning the candle at both ends, and “burning the midnight oil.” But burnout hinders creativity, a key asset for members of the agency.
“I would love for people to check in with how they feel, because that doesn’t cost anything. To just close their eyes, light a candle, enjoy a moment of stillness, and ask themselves, how am I feeling? That’s zero dollars.”
And the effects are priceless.
“We’re trying to inspire people to practice these rituals, and in turn regain that time, power and strength within themselves — especially women,” Utendahl asserts.
This is why Utendahl Creative has become outspoken and unapologetic about the importance of rest (with its “Rest In Action” social posts) and launched social campaigns to stop glamorizing burnout.
“It doesn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be hard,” Utendahl reminds us. “We need to break free of this narrative that has been ingrained in us since childhood — the image of ‘the starving artist’ and the glamorization of the grind.”
“We live in a country and society that has made overwork seem like a badge of honor,” Utendahl continues. “And we don’t take any accountability that this person might now have a series of health problems and a dysfunctional relationship with their family or partner. Or that they’re lonely and depressed. We say, But look how hard they work. It’s an American issue across multiple fields and industries. The truth is, learning how to rest is the badge of honor. Knowing how to have a good night’s sleep and waking up refreshed. There’s no better feeling in the world. That is an accomplishment.”
When people feel fulfilled and their work sparks joy, there are no limits to the creative mind. A happy, rested team = a productive, creative team.
For Utendahl Creative, it’s also about putting their money where their mouth is, which means partnering with clients who not only understand the agency’s policy, but also embrace it and genuinely make it possible for the team to maintain it.
One of the ways they ensure this?
While on calls with prospective clients, the team members on Utendahl Creative’s end have a scorecard, where they fill out their rating on certain metrics. All team members on the call must have consensus, on whether or not to move forward with the client.
One signature, meaningful question that has made a tremendous impact, was created by UC’s partner and creative director Tori Baisden: “How would you know we were successful to you?”
The anti-burnout policy is woven into all aspects of the agency, by inspiring a set of questions to all potential team members, even freelancers.
Questions such as: “How do you protect your peace? What do you do to unwind? What are your pet peeves when it comes to communication?”
The goal is to ensure all team members are aligned with the mission: “If I bring on someone to the team who prides themselves on working 18 hour days, it actually offsets the rest of the team,” Utendahl explains. “We pride ourselves on not texting each other about work-related matters on the weekends and we pride ourselves on getting a good night’s sleep.”
It’s also critical to set ‘invisible’ boundaries with clients, in order to protect all team members’ energy and peace.
While certain companies subconsciously reward behaviors like consistently working on weekends, making team members believe that logging-on on a Sunday afternoon is a way to get ahead, Utendahl Creative is not about that. Self-worth should never be tied to sacrificing one’s self-care.
(A note about the Sunday scaries: if you’re feeling that sense of doom creep up every Sunday, it might be time to consider if you’re getting an adequate amount of time to reset.)
Two easy ways Utendahl protects her own peace? “I put my phone away. Our phones are so toxic when it comes to allowing yourself to be creative and brainstorm. If you’re constantly getting dopamine hits, it’s hard to have the capacity to think big.” She also creates meeting-free zones while time-blocking her calendar, to allow for deep, uninterrupted creative work.
The agency’s anti-burnout policy is creating all the right kind of positive waves: the team has been invited to give seminars to other brands and agencies, on how to properly implement this and what kind of positive effects it has on team members.
UC’s five-week office closure policy is spread out throughout the calendar year (the five weeks break down like this: Spring Break is in April, Summer Break is at the end of August, while Winter Break is during the holiday period in December / January), and the agency is transparent about these dates from the get-go with all partners, to ensure all planning can be done accordingly.
A key point to drive home: Utendahl Creative’s clients and partners benefit from the agency’s anti-burnout policy. When teams are well-rested and have the space to dream big and think big, it’s good for brands’ bottom line. (For example, Good Eat’n is sold-out consistently on Go Puff.)
Being able to choose the clients to move forward with is a privilege that Utendahl and her team never take lightly: “It’s an immense privilege to be able to make these types of decisions. And we haven’t always been here — we’ve gotten here and we’re proud to be here now.”
The rest is history — or better yet, the rest is the future of work.