Tamara Birdsall, Simply Divine

SAN FRANCISCO Tamara Birdsall is getting a taste of startup life as co-founder and CCO of Real Girls Media, a San Francisco-based online publisher targeting women.

A copywriter by trade, Birdsall, 48, worked at Saatchi and McCann before going digital as cd at Carat Fusion. Now she’s designing Real Girls’ 6-month-old DivineCaroline site for women 28-54 and overseeing creative and marketing content for the “media empire in the making,” as she calls it, which is planning sites for younger women.

Birdsall says attitudes about reaching Web users are different in publishing, and explains how her work reflects that.

Q: Why make the leap from advertising into a risky digital media startup?
A: As a creative director in a strictly digital shop, I had to deal with these crazy standards and a complex industry. It was interesting and exciting and taught me a new way of thinking-an incredible experience. But after six years it was exhausting. I had 10 clients, and I had to ask myself, How much am I able to do for their brands when I’m moving so quickly and almost mindlessly? I was hungry to use everything I’ve learned on a single brand.

Your job is multifaceted. Which part do you consider the most important?
I write everything on our Web site, and I need to get the experience of the user just right, including how they get around the site, and give the site a single voice and tone. It’s very holistic. We’re inventing a brand from scratch, and I’m trying to make it a very transparent, honest brand. I’m not hiding behind anything. I want to make our brand simple and clear. My work has never been purer.

Was it less pure when you worked in an ad agency?
Yes. I’ve worked on brands like Kodak, Adidas and others, and there was a lot of complexity around how the brands were built with retail, PR, events, Web people-so many decision makers at the table. As a result of that process, many brands get big and complex, and companies don’t know how to make the brand meaning clear. I think [that’s one reason why] it’s a gray brand world. Also, with so much parity among products, it’s hard to find ideas that stand out. Everything is mushy. Some brands manage to have a clear voice, but it’s not easy to do.

How is online design different for women than for a general audience?
How people behave online is always evolving, but what we know about women online at this time is that they do a lot of research and e-mail; there is purposefulness to what they do on the Web. So the design needs to have an amount of efficiency and empathy for their situation. Rather than cram a lot of features on our site, we are trying to give women a break in their day. Our design gives them a place to take a breath and gives them a little pleasure so they want to come back. So much online content aimed at the general audience is a visual assault with so many options. We’re offering a little calmness.

Who’s had the greatest influence on your career?
It wasn’t a person. The biggest influence was the sea change of the marketing industry going digital. I had to rethink my craft-what it meant to be a creative director, how to solve problems, how to talk to clients. TV and other traditional advertising can offer brevity and drive awareness, but now brands have to find a way to worm their way into a bigger experience for the consumer. Brands need to do big, round experiences to make people like them in a noisy world. For instance, [many] people don’t give a shit about [an automaker’s] newest model, so you need to get into their head by associating it with film or literature.

What are the biggest surprises, good and bad, in the transition from advertising to online publishing?
The most pleasant surprise is that while our work is culturally fascinating and we’re trying to build a media empire, what matters most is the people around me and creating a place where they can do their best work. The hardest surprise was learning that nothing is simple and engineers rule the world. Online experiences, with all the interdependencies and ramifications with the technology, are complicated to build. I’m always toiling to understand that.

What is the biggest digital opportunity out there?
Loyalty. We are all faced with so many options and good content, the opportunity for digital media is to find a way to make people want to spend a significant amount of time with your content. No one has figured that out yet.

What’s the next big app?
Well, it’s not mobile. There is only so much you want to see on a little screen in your hand. It will be when your TV and computer converge. People are hungry for beautiful visual experiences, and they also want to do things like pay their bills during the commercials. They are already spending a lot of time online, and they will never give up their TVs.

What’s your advice for someone moving into digital content design?
Watch people who are doing it well. The trick is that there is so much out there, you forget to look at who is doing really interesting stuff. Find your gurus, and watch what they’re doing.

Who is your guru?
He’s an intellectual designer who has a wicked-ass blog. His name is Nathan Shedroff. I know of him through his Web site. His work is crazy and mind blowing, and I need that. I go to his site, and that’s my little college.

What’s your dream assignment?
Giving shortwave radios to women in Third World countries so they can make their voices heard and they can connect with other women.

What three word describe you?
Communicative, inventive, animal lover.

What three words would others use to describe you?
Compassionate, positive, hostess.

What’s your favorite Web site these days?
The Utne Reader site, Utne.com. It’s a compilation of news and feature articles from the alternative media. Plus, I give most of my conscious spare seconds to Commarts.com, the site for Communication Arts magazine.

What’s the last movie you watched?
The Painted Veil. I found it fascinating to see how the British built an empire by exporting their lifestyle to other places, in this case China.

What’s the last thing you did for fun?
Last night I played the piano and sang. Currently I’m into Irish folk songs. It’s something I sometimes have to make myself do at least once a week. But when I do, I love it and think, “God, I’m great.”