From Rule Breaker to Seamlessly Leading and Advocating for Others
Breaking the rules: We’ve all been there—jaywalking, going a few miles over the speed limit, sharing your Netflix password. But for many of us, breaking the rules doesn’t lead to an “aha” moment and a successful career. Cue: Ayla Whittington.
She always thought she wanted to be a writer. When she was growing up, she thought it was what she was best at—being uncoordinated and not the least bit graceful, sports failed her—so, in high school, she got involved. She was in journalism, yearbook, and the literary magazine—and that’s where she first discovered graphic design. “Graphic design is a thing, and you can actually make money doing it?!” She was sold.
When she was in college, Whittington decided to go the design route instead of journalism, and that’s when the rule-breaking started for her.
She discovered that the BFA program at her university wouldn’t allow her to have a minor outside of the arts, but she truly felt that communications and advertising would complement a design degree. Her advisors were insistent. There was no budging with them.
But she did it anyway.
She researched classes and what credits were needed and didn’t disclose the information to her advisors. “When I graduated, everyone complimented me for breaking the rules—even those same advisors,” she says. “Well, if rules don’t make sense, they should be broken!”
This strategy has served Whittington well. And her diverse background—she’s worked in sales, customer service, content and SEO, paid advertising, and freelance client management, in addition to design—helps her understand and collaborate seamlessly with everyone on the team. She knows how hard their jobs are, and as the Creative Director at Zen Media, she is happy to lend a hand wherever she’s needed.
At Zen, she oversees social media in addition to design and also helps with strategy and creative ideation for all of Zen’s clients and the company’s internal marketing. And her rule-breaking—albeit more intentionally, of course—persists.
“I discovered early on in my career that I wanted a seat at the table,” she says. “Even before I was a leader, I wanted to be heard.”
In previous roles, she helped initiate anonymous employee surveys and found other ways to have a line of sight to the decision-makers. But at Zen? She’s at the table and making sure others are encouraged to speak up, too.
“My favorite thing about Zen is that our executive team values ideas and change,” she says. “They recognize that good ideas can come from anywhere and therefore all of our employees can feel heard.”
At Zen Media, Whittington has morphed her rule-breaking into strategy pivoting. “Being a strategy-first agency has its challenges,” she says, “because it’s different. Our services are built around a client’s needs—they’re not cookie-cutter.”
She continues, “Service agencies tend to be more streamlined and sometimes faster—but definitely not better. That’s why we hire the best people who can pivot if a service or strategy isn’t working for a specific client. We are more agile and are constantly thinking about what will move the needle for a client beyond the services they requested.”
Whittington loves what she does, but her real passion lies in doing anything creative, really. She has a collection of desert succulents with big plans to plant a vegetable garden in the spring. She loves crafting and making things for her house. Basically, she loves working with her hands.
“My husband is pretty handy and a great woodworker, so between the two of us, we can make a lot!” she boasts proudly. “I get a lot of thrill out of finding something expensive I want and then recreating it on a budget. I can be a bit frugal, so this brings me joy.”
This joy isn’t restricted to just her hobbies, though. It stands out in how she communicates with coworkers and clients. She always has a smile on her face, and she’s always creating solutions. We chalk it up to her feeling zen every day—or maybe it’s just that passion for creating shining through.
“I feel so lucky to be able to work my creative brain every day,” she says. “My absolute favorite thing about my job is working with other creatives. I love team building, and I’m so proud of the talent we have at Zen. From designers to writers to strategists to analysts, every single person at Zen is creative, not just my team. It’s a dream to work with them every day.”