Tools of the Trade: Sarah Keats of Party Land

By Kyle O'Brien 

Tools of the Trade is an AgencySpy feature to help highlight the many tools that help make advertising and marketing folks successful. The tools can be anything that helps you perform at your top form, from your favorite drafting table to your best software program to a lucky pen, a vintage typewriter or a pair of headphones.

Next up is Sarah Keats, associate creative director at agency Party Land.

Tools of the trade

Sarah Keats of Party Land shows off her ceramics skills.

What is one tool you use all the time at work, and how does it inspire your work?

The “one tool I use all the time at work” is actually what I do when I am not working: My little side project making silly ceramics for trade only.

Throughout my career, people who are much smarter than me have often stressed the importance of having creative outputs/projects/hobbies outside of work. I think it’s a fair argument to say that expecting to be fulfilled by a job is setting yourself up for disappointment. I’ve also learned that this job doesn’t actually “teach” you creativity, but instead offers opportunities to express it. For me, having this side project has been instrumental in both smoothing out my brain and sharpening my creativity.

Why is it your favorite?

It helps me do my job better because I have created a little world to incubate and cross-pollinate some of my favorite things:

  • Ceramics, obviously: Sticking my hands into clay for no other reason than to translate an idea in my brain into a tangible object. You should try it.
  • Existential humor: I paint each pot I make with some words and ideas and pictograms and symbols that attempt to summarize my perspective as an anxious and cynical adult teenager who simply must poke fun at the void so it can’t swallow me whole. (ex. “Dumb Sluts for Abolishing Golf Courses” or “What if the Aliens are Hot?” or “Touching Grass is Not Enough: I Need to Fight God”)
  • Tax evasion: I don’t sell my pots. I only offer them up for trade and so far it’s been incredibly fruitful to connect with friends and strangers over each trade and see what delights the universe and what USPS delivers into my life—a few trades worth mentioning include heirloom seeds, small-batch perfume, legal drugs, dog sitting, out-of-print publications, mezcal, a spa gift certificate, olive oil, and poems. I even gifted a pot I made in the Party Land Secret Santa—I gave it to my boss, Matt Heath. I’m pretty sure he was deeply touched and maybe even cried about it.

How did you start with this tool?

While living in Brooklyn and cutting my teeth in advertising, I started doing ceramics at a community studio called Gasworks. Although I was just learning the ropes and hadn’t found my “voice” as a ceramicist yet, the practice was a much needed reprieve from the burnout of working in this industry. Later, during the pandemic, working remotely on the West Coast afforded me the extra hours to get my hands back into some clay, and I really started finding my groove. I could not stop making pots and painting dumb things on them. I found myself with boxes full of pots with no homes. I knew I didn’t want to sell anything (I already have a job) because it felt like adding expectations into the mix where they don’t need to be. I didn’t want to do customer service. I didn’t want to do ecommerce—I have a lot of respect for makers who do this well, but it’s just not my thing. I knew selling pots for money would ultimately cheapen the experience I was after. So, I launched an Instagram account called Keats For Trade Only (@keats_fto) which was born out of my need to make things with my hands but not without purpose and definitely not for money.

How does it help you be successful?

I’m getting what I wanted: inspiration, unhinged creative expression with no input or edits from anyone, a rejuvenated sense of excitement for making stuff, and microdosing the thrill and closure of “final deliverables” in the form of flower pots and ash trays. I’m also getting more than I could have imagined: Connections with interesting and cool people and artists, requests for very special custom pieces (I even made an urn for someone’s ashes), people mistaking me for an actual artist, a handful of semi-viral Instagram reels and a whole community of ceramicists in my new hometown of Santa Fe.

Does this make you better at your job?

Absolutely. Have I done a good job of convincing anyone reading this that this is true? Jury’s out. All I know for certain is that my work/life balance has never felt better. Having this side project outside of office hours pushes me to work smarter, not harder, to make sure I get those clay hours in. And contrary to what 25-year-old-me would have thought, pouring 100% of your creativity into your job is perhaps the quickest and most efficient way to burn yourself out. What I’ve learned is that saving about 25% of your juice for yourself is the best investment you can make and bringing what you find out there back into the job at hand will definitely help you grow as a creative.

We want to know what tools you use to make you successful. If you’d like to contribute or know someone who would want to be featured in Tools of the Trade, contact kyle.obrien@adweek.com and fill out our survey.

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