Katie Shill
Senior Director of Marketing

How Calm Leverages Creative to Give Users a Breath of Fresh Air

From bringing mental health to the forefront of pop culture with LeBron James, Harry Styles and even their own HBO Max series, to stopping us in our tracks with their disruptive approach to social media, Calm is helping fuel the cultural shift around mental health. Senior Director of Marketing Katie Shill has been helping craft and lead the marketing at Calm for over three years and has applied her learnings from working on brands like Budweiser and Stella Artois to help people wake up to the idea that taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Here, Katie shares how she leads her team and career with a mindful approach in our current stress-filled world.

How did you get to where you are today? Any noteworthy aha-moments along the way?

Before Calm, I was at VaynerMedia in New York, working on digital strategy for Budweiser and Stella Artois Global. ABinBev is a marketing-led organization at its core, so working on Bud and Stella were crash courses in world-class global marketing. It was a dream job.

I loved it, but also found myself wishing I was on the other side of the table. I wanted to live and breathe a brand in a way that I wasn’t doing at an agency. I wanted to shift gears to go in-house with a mission-driven brand, which eventually brought me to Calm. The transition was a lesson in trusting my gut, even if that meant building an entirely new skillset.

From your prior experiences both agency and brand-side, what’s one thing you learned that you carry with you in your role today?

During my time working on ABinBev, one of the biggest lessons I learned was that if you want to create powerful creative that moves people to think or behave differently, you have to invest in learning about your consumers. If you want people to think differently, you have to understand what they’re currently thinking. It sounds simple, but it’s a step that so many of us often skip. When you invest the time to understand people, your work will be far more authentic and far more powerful.

What’s new for the brand?

We’re prepping for year two of our campaign with LeBron James, which has been one of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on at Calm to date. With this work, we’re introducing the concept of mental fitness and infiltrating sports culture by shining light on the importance of training and taking care of your mind. It’s exciting because we’re breaking ground on a topic that has only just started to be talked about in the world of sports.

How have you adjusted your strategies amid Covid-19 and what do you see as the adjustments that will stick post-pandemic?

When COVID-19 hit, we knew that we had to pivot to support the community experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, grief, loneliness, depression, etc. Within 48 hours, we spun up a free resource page for our community in the U.S. and localized the resources for our global audiences. Our team handpicked our favorite meditations, Sleep Stories, movement exercises, music, etc, and offered them for free to make our content accessible to whoever needed the support. The success of that initiative showed us the importance of evolving our content quickly to meet the moment.

Calm has noticeably stood out with its approach to paid social ads. What spurred your approach to making these ads that make us pause in our constant social consumption?

Whether it’s your social media feed or your TV, we want our content to be a breath of fresh air, and a reminder to stop scrolling. Excessive use of social media can fuel our anxiety, so we want to interrupt that behavior and offer a more productive, healthier way to use your device. We inspire people to do nothing for 30 seconds, or pause to take a few deep breaths. It’s disruptive in your feed and feels like a much-needed break. You immediately feel better after these breaks, and it’s a small taste of the benefits our full brand experience can bring into your life. It’s inspired our creative strategy across a lot of our channels—TV, paid social, and even email.


What’s currently happening in marketing or tech that most excites you and how is it changing the future of the industry? 

"I’m excited to see what brands and creators do with this new “permission” to throw out the perfection and prioritize the real."

The global pandemic changed a lot, including how brands create content. I think there’s now less of an expectation for brands to create perfect, polished content. People want to see real, relatable content, and that can mean something that’s produced on an iPhone. It’s leveled the playing field and it’s opened up so much possibility for creativity. I’m excited to see what brands and creators do with this new “permission” to throw out the perfection and prioritize the real.

How are you keeping your finger on the pulse regarding changing consumer behaviors and needs during this time?

Honestly, one of my favorite ways to keep up-to-date on how quickly everything is shifting is social, mainly Twitter, Instagram and even TikTok. There are so many phenomenal marketing leaders on Twitter who share their commentary on consumer trends, and TikTok is a fascinating tool to see what’s moving Gen Z. I’ve also been focused on diversifying the people I follow and listen to on social, which has allowed me to step outside of my echo chamber and learn from people with new perspectives, which ultimately helps me be a better marketer.

Finally, I was impressed with the Pinterest guide on how to inspire audiences through uncertainty, driven by the platform’s consumer trends. It’s been helpful in guiding the type of content we’re creating for our community and a nice reminder that the platforms themselves are often publishing free research and consumer insights.

Considering how different today’s work environment is, what do you see as the most valuable marketing skill(s) needed today and moving forward?

“The best marketers are the ones that can step into the shoes of another person.”

Empathy. The best marketers are the ones that can step into the shoes of another person, understand their perspective, and use that knowledge to inform great work. Especially in the current climate, we need to cultivate empathy and be sensitive to what people are going through. The brands that gain consumer trust during this time will be the ones that truly listen to their audience, aim to understand how they’re feeling and meet them where they are.

What advice can you offer for effectively leading and inspiring a team remotely?

Check-in on your team’s emotional and mental health. Even though it may feel like teams are starting to adjust to WFH, it can take a toll. At the start of quarantine, I remember reading a tweet from Neil Webb that clarified this whole thing for me: “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

Be clear in communicating your expectations so your team doesn’t have to read between the lines, regularly remind your team to unplug, and give them the freedom to work on their own schedules when possible. Be a good human and focus more on your team’s wellbeing than their productivity during this time.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

"It’s easy to be busy. It’s much harder to be efficient."

“Don’t mistake effort for impact.” I think about this every single day. As a small marketing team at Calm, there’s always more we could be doing, and it’s easy to get pulled in a million different directions. It’s so important that we don’t get distracted by new, shiny objects and instead prioritize the projects that will be the most impactful for the business. It’s easy to be busy. It’s much harder to be efficient.