BABE #231: MICHELLE SPEAR NICHOLSON - Executive Producer/Founder, FARMUSE
I first met Michelle while visiting San Francisco a little over seven years ago. I remember feeling inspired and so intrigued by her work in advertising, her all-around welcoming demeanor and her badass San Fran digs. A lot has changed since I last saw her, but her grit, kindness and cool personality remain. Last year, Michelle and her husband left Cali for simpler surroundings and landed in Nashville, TN where they opened up FARMUSE, a full-service production company specializing in branded content. By coupling her 17+ years of experience in advertising with her desire to invest in her own dreams, Michelle is creating something really special and serves as a reminder that life is ours for the taking. -Ina
Hometown: Charleston, South Carolina
Current city: Nashville, Tennessee
Alma mater: I didn’t finish college
Very first job: The Video Store in Summerville, S.C.
Hustle: Executive Producer/Founder, FARMUSE
Babe you admire and why?
Linda McCartney, for her free spirit, creativity and compassion.
Go-to coffee order and/or adult beverage?
Matcha with almond milk. Slightly obsessed.
Current power anthem?
“Fuck Committees,” by Tibor Kalman.
What would you eat for your very last meal?
A whole lot of sushi
What’s something you want to learn or master?
I’d love to master herbal medicine.
Favorite Nashville spot for newcomers?
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
David Bowie has always been my go-to answer but now, I would have to say Wes Anderson.
Tell us about your hustle.
I recently moved to Nashville after living in San Francisco for 17-plus years and started FARMUSE with my husband, Jonathan. We’re a full-service production company specializing in branded content. We partner with artists and brands to build on existing ideas, concept from scratch or simply add our production chops to an already well-oiled machine. We work direct-to-client, partner with advertising agencies and service other production companies in and outside of the US.
What does your typical workday look like?
I’m the executive producer, head of production, producer, office manager, coordinator, account manager and rep. Hah. Seriously—I do touch on all of this daily, but my main role is to vet and bid projects, setting them up for success and leading the charge from a production standpoint, from start to finish.
Have you always had a passion for creating and storytelling?
I’ve always had a passion for music and art. My dad is a music lover, so it was the backdrop to much of my childhood. Songs tend to take you right back to a certain place and time and I love that. I decided to pursue a creative career when I took a job as a receptionist at BBDO in San Francisco. I remember walking in and seeing people in jeans with cool music playing and being completely in awe. I was literally “in” from that moment on.
What inspired FARMUSE?
FARMUSE has been a moniker of mine and Jonathan’s for many years. On farms, they have a designated vehicle that takes the goods around the farm (food to the animals, supplies to the people). Jonathan used to drive a beater around Charleston, S.C. when we first started dating (20-plus years ago) and he painted FARMUSE across the back of the car in black spray paint. Of course, I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and followed suit by making stencils and screen printing T-shirts. The name became synonymous with anything we were doing creatively, from art shows to personal endeavors. For many years, we daydreamed about what FARMUSE could and would be one day. A collective, an art form, a brand that’s identity was rooted in bringing the "goods" to the people. After getting a lot of valuable experience and continually building other people’s dreams, we decided to invest in our own. The most important thing to us is to create quality work while keeping ourselves grounded and inspired.
What inspired your move from San Francisco to Nashville?
We like to joke that we left San Francisco to get a yard and a dog. It’s not far from the truth, but the main force was to be closer to our family, start our own thing and slow down a bit—although the “slow down” part has been a bit elusive. Personally, I’m surprised at how easy the transition has been. Two of our best friends moved here and we’ve made some great new friends here as well. It’s been a lot of fun exploring and getting to know a new place. Professionally, we’ve been very fortunate as well, and work has been steady. I think the main contrast work-wise has been budget levels and simply working for ourselves as opposed to working for someone else. That definitely has its pros and cons.
What types of projects do you typically take on?
We mostly take on content-related projects, so that’s photography, video, etc. In a little over a year, we’ve produced content for Constellation Brands, Google, JBL, Penguin Random House, Jameson, Relais & Châteaux, Humira, Center for Youth Wellness, Thompson Hotels, Pop Nashville and Gold Eagle. Since starting FARMUSE, we’ve had a lot of fun producing the Ramen Cookbook for Chef Sarah Gavigan of Pop Nashville. It was the first project we did here and a lot of fun to produce something outside of advertising. That included photography, illustration and original episodic content. Aside from FARMUSE, my most memorable projects were vastly different but equally rewarding. Launch campaigns for Slavery Footprint and Method cleaning products.
What’s it like running a business with your husband? How do you find a balance between your romantic and professional relationships?
It’s really great working with my husband. We compliment each other’s skill sets very well, and divide and conquer on a number of things. We like each other a lot, too, so that helps! Balance is something we are continually working at, but in general, we try to make sure we’re spending quality time together outside of work, talking about work or plotting our next moves. My advice is to keep it in the family—with clear roles and responsibilities.
What has owning a business taught you about yourself?
I’m still learning a ton about starting my own business. The first year is tough, as you’re really just trying to stay above water and apply the lessons from your past success to your own creation.
How has being a woman affected your professional experience?
Being a woman has affected my experience in many ways. First and foremost, it’s allowed me to be a really solid, active listener. I think women tend to listen more than men do. I also applied my inherent desire to grow and mentor folks, and to simply be sure those around me knew I appreciated and respected them. It also gave me the drive to rise to the challenge in a male-dominated industry. We can create more equal, spaces for women in this industry by lifting other women up, continuously. If there’s an opportunity to elevate a woman at any point throughout the process, take it. Nominate women you admire. Look for and support movements that call out inequalities and empower women. Amplify one another in meetings and help to grow and encourage junior roles to feel heard and appreciated. Call out offensive comments in the moment with the offender. Don't stew. Be brave. Discourage gender stereotypes and helplessness in general. Plan an outreach program in the community targeting young girls etc. Consider your own role in gender bias. Stay positive and lead by example. Pay inequality ... is a real thing, not just a empty gripe. I had access to specific salaries, watching as the powers that be continually and repeatedly paid men more for far less responsibility and know-how. It really had no rhyme or reason, it just was.
What’s the gender ratio like in your industry? Do you see it evolving?
Gender ratio is still heavily leaning towards men in roles of leadership in the advertising and production industries. It’s always baffled me to see male-dominated creative departments, when 80 percent of consumer spending and more than 50 percent of social media sharing is done by women. Clearly a women’s voice speaking to consumers should be a given. I definitely see this changing, with movements like the 3% Conference and Free the Bid. It’s also somewhat “in” to have women leading, which is awesome. We’ll take it.
What’s your biggest strength in your role?
My biggest strength currently is my agency experience, coupled with my ability to make a little go a long way. Budgets are increasingly challenging. Creatives are client-side. Clients have internal production arms, etc. The whole formula has shifted and my experience complements all of that. I likely need to improve my ability to simply delegate more. It’s super-hard to let go of things this early on in growing my own brand and company. I know it will happen sooner than later.
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Stay positive and lead by example.
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