Story by Jeff Collet
When Jen Luecht, MS ’16, and her two partners opened their communication shop Narrative Northwest (NNW) in 2017, they didn’t just want to make a profit. They wanted to make a difference.
“We founded NNW on the principle that female leadership and strategic business can shape our communities,” Luecht said. “Our work, goals and partnerships are deeply rooted in lifting up females in the industry.”
Based in Portland, Oregon, NNW has a business plan as well. The small agency specializes in helping other small businesses and nonprofits make their mark in the food and beverage, travel and tourism, and conservation industries.
Luecht acknowledges that she wouldn’t have been able to achieve her goal of going out on her own without first taking time to earn a master’s in strategic communication through the UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC).
“I tell people I’ve always been an instigator — someone bent on helping others understand how to achieve the good and tasty things in life,” said Luecht. “The program allowed me to study how to understand an individual or business’s interests, identify goals and plan how to achieve them. It’s instigation at its finest.”
As Luecht continues to grow as a professional communicator and now as a small business owner, she is also learning how to take the time to enjoy the journey. We sat down with her as she reflected on the key stops in her career up to this point.
Tell us about Narrative Northwest.
We consider Narrative Northwest an “un-agency.” When leaving the traditional agency world to set out on our own, we took a lot of the things we loved about agencies and decided to evolve the things we thought were dusty.
Our communication shop doesn’t rely on a traditional agency model when it comes to billable hours, employees and structuring projects. Instead we use value-based pricing and a unique scoping approach to structure relationships with our clients. Both are highly strategic and adaptive in nature. Our business relies on a deep network of contractors, and we build teams from this network based on each project scope. These contractors are not paid on rates we set, but instead on fair-market-value rates they set with us.
We like to think we’re also scrappy. If something isn’t working, we’re not afraid to rethink things and take a new, inspired approach.
What were your goals when you graduated with your bachelor’s degree?
I left undergraduate school hell-bent on paving my own way with a career in political communication or international business. But I quickly realized my career goals were not specific enough. Plus, I was trying to balance my interests in business and political communication with those in the food and beverage industry. I discovered that if I didn’t see how my food-related passions could fit in, I would always be left wondering, “What if…?” So I decided to explore the edible side of my interests and helped open a bakery and cafe with Sisters Coffee.
What did you learn from that first position with Sisters Coffee?
I was working for a management team that was incredibly trusting of their leaders. The position allowed me to truly explore the risks I was willing to take to accomplish what needed to get done, and to go above and beyond what was expected. Overall, I learned that my intuition for communication and marketing was strong, but I had a lot more left to learn if I was going to master this as my art form.
Why did you choose the UO SOJC to pursue your master’s degree in strategic communication?
I actually didn’t choose strategic communication — it chose me! While I was searching for master’s programs, three different people told me about the UO’s strategic communication program. When I researched the program, I realized that studying strategic communication would allow me to incorporate many different interests into one craft.
Was there a faculty member in the program who inspired you?
I had many valuable relationships with incredible faculty leaders at the SOJC. However, the one that stands out, without a doubt, is Donna Davis. Her professional work and depth of knowledge in world-bending technology greatly inspired me, and she supported me through the intense undertaking that was my thesis.
Did you have any “aha!” moment while working on your degree?
The big “aha!” moment for me was in the day-to-day, while balancing graduate school with a full-time job working for an ad agency. There were days when there wasn’t enough time to get everything done, so I had to identify the priorities and communicate to my respective teams if something couldn’t be finished. This experience emphasized the importance of honesty and asking for what you need. It also taught me that self-forgiveness is necessary to being human.
What are your thoughts, as a communicator, on being honest about who you are and what you want to say?
There is definitely an art to winning someone over, but if you’re after a real connection, you’ll only be able to relate and achieve success by using the truth. One of the best ways to win trust is to open up and honestly express who you are and what you want. This also demonstrates bravery and soul — who you are and why you’re different.
What would you say to other communications professionals who are considering a graduate degree?
What is necessary is mastering the art of understanding people and our systems, and not being afraid to stick your neck out and recommend how things should be done. A degree allows you to grow your network, build on your gaps and understand more about yourself and what you need to do to be your best and create a satisfying career.
How did you know when it was time to open your own communications shop?
I had always wondered what it would be like to own my own business, but I wasn’t actively pursuing the possibility before starting NNW. A unique combination of unrelated events led me to quit my cushy agency job and set off on my own — that and an outpouring of overwhelming support. Things started happening that kept pointing me in the direction of doing my own thing. Plus, I was getting a little too comfortable in my career.
When I was almost ready to make the jump, I asked myself what I was most afraid of. The only answer was: “Trying and then failing.” Being afraid of failure is the worst reason not to do something. So I had to listen and give it a try, and here we are today.
Jeff Collet is in his second year as a graduate student in the SOJC’s Portland-based Multimedia Journalism Master’s program. He has been a content creator for the SOJC Communication Office in Portland since November 2017. Jeff studied visual communication design as an undergraduate at Western Oregon University. Prior to that, he served over nine years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves as a combat photographer/videographer and multimedia illustrator. See more of his work at jeffcollet.com and follow him on Instagram @colletasyouseeit.