Michael Polsinelli & Shay Dempsey Make It Work

As Sebastian’s Global Art Directors, they are the epitome of a collaborative and creative duo. Michael Polsinelli & Shay Dempsey are continuously creating collections, working with the R&D and Marketing corporate “suits,” collaborating with the chemists in Geneva on product development and developing techniques and trends to educate and inspire thousands upon thousands of hairdressers worldwide. To say they work well with each other is a bit of an understatement. But it hasn’t always been that way…

They were a little too much alike.

They were living too far away from each other.

They didn’t have a creative space/office to collaborate in.

And more importantly, they just weren’t…communicating.

It’s hard to believe all this because what they had collectively created for the past 10 years has looked seamless. But that wasn’t the case for the first few years as Global Art Directors. Behind closed doors, one of them was ready to be done with it all and on the verge of throwing in the towel. It took an international flight and a “coming to Jesus” meeting inside a plane cabin to make it known that their collaboration may have been working for Sebastian, but it wasn’t working for them.

All this was revealed in our interview with each other in Las Vegas during Wella TrendVision Awards weekend. They had about an hour to kill before their tech rehearsal so the three of us found a quiet corner and chatted. It was refreshing for them because I didn’t want to talk about trends or get any how-tos or styling tips, and it was uplifting for me because they didn’t want to talk about trends or discuss any how-tos or share any of their styling tips. I wanted to poke around in their cohesively collaborative minds and see what it was about their relationship that worked so well so that I could go back and share all those positive insights with all of you and help you individually advance and grow from their insights and advice.

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So imagine my surprise when I found out within the first 15 minutes of our talk that their partnership wasn’t as streamlined and cohesive as it had appeared. The interview went a little as planned, but I’m glad it went a bit off course. I left a bit more inspired and full of appreciation for two men who had the ability to be open and completely honest with what their strengths and weaknesses were to make their “business marriage” work not just for them on an individual level, but for the thousands of hairdressers around the world who look up to them and who are learning from their actions.

Michael, let’s start with you. How have you grown and evolved from coming into the collaborative relationship?

It used to be just me working on my own. I would be locked up in a studio for days on end and I would just spit stuff out and give it to Sebastian. When you’re working by yourself, you tend to get a set of blinkers on and you start to think that what you’re seeing is what it is, but when you start working with someone else, it starts to open up your perspective in the sense where you might look at something in a very one or even two-dimensional way. But what I discovered from working with Shay is I never thought I could collaborate with somebody this closely, and someone who could have this much influence on my taste and my vision of what I think is beautiful.

Now having said that, it’s like a relationship, like a marriage—what you put out there is what you’ll get back. That’s something that I have discovered about myself in the sense where I never thought that having a different perspective could actually influence me in such a far greater way or in such a dynamic way. I was working alone, totally by myself for Sebastian for a little over 10 years, and this was the hardest thing for me to do—to become collaborative with another person on this level. When you’re in control of something for so long, it’s really hard to release the reigns. I really didn’t even know how to do that so I had to learn. I had to learn how to let go of something and give it to someone else. I didn’t know how to do that, and that’s how our story started.

Shay, were you also living that same kind of life?

Exactly. I was doing the very same thing—working in a studio, doing shoots on my own. I was all about how I was going to build my career, become more known and get bigger work. It was always just about me, and my career, before this collaboration came to be: to re-launch Sebastian. I was on the same flight path as Michael. When we met, it took a lot of time for it to work between us. It didn’t happen overnight. I always felt like I was great at educating my staff and helping others out in the salon. It’s something I like to do, and it’s something Michael also likes to do, but this, this relationship was a different situation. It is on a completely higher level. It’s on a creative level; there has to be trust and it has to completely start on a friendship level. I actually had to like the guy! What if I didn’t like him? How could I give over or trust somebody who’s not going to want to throw me under the bus? We had to build a friendship and thank God that happened.

Michael: There’s a story there. When you’re bringing two creative brains together and throw in a thousand other variables, along with working for something so big like Sebastian, and having a checklist of everything they want, and then the pressure of us having to build a relationship with each other on top of all that, that’s pressure and that’s not easy to handle all at once. It all came down to the fact that we were working together but not working together. He’s doing his thing, I’m doing mine, and we would just bring it into the middle and that was what was happening for the first few years. It was like, “Hey, how’s it going? What are you working on? This is what I’m doing. Oh great. Time to meet in the middle.” We were always traveling on planes together and on one trip we had the “ah-ha” moment. It was an epiphany. I wasn’t comfortable anymore; I wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to do it anymore because it was too much of a struggle trying to bring separation together. We had this conversation on the plane. We looked at each other and were like, “If we want this to work and this to be powerful and to actually be something, you and I need to just wipe the slate clean. Here are my insecurities, here are your insecurities, let’s throw it into the mix and we’re going to start from scratch and do it over.” That conversation happened about five or six years ago.

So this “moment of truth” conversation happened on an airplane? Do you recall where you two were going? Any details about the flight?

Shay: I remember it was an international flight, that I do remember. But here’s what’s interesting about us flying. Most of our deep and honest talks and moments happen while we are on a plane.

Let’s pause for a second, because I need to know this. If that “moment of clarity” and “wipe the slate clean” conversation didn’t happen on the plane, where would you be today?

Michael: Oh I would have quit. I wouldn’t be sitting here today. The type of person that I am, I can be very fickle and be an on-and-off person often, I don’t do stupid well. I just don’t. If something to me makes no sense in my life, and it’s not going to affect me in a way where I can grow from it or it is going to change my life, then I’m out. It’s that simple. I’m done and I go onto something else.  

Wow. That’s not something I would have expected. Thank God for that international flight! Since that happened, do you find yourselves coming up with your best ideas or having your best talks on planes because there’s really no distraction and you’re, for the most part, forced to sit next to each other for x amount of time?

Michael: Exactly, but here’s the thing, though. The creative stuff, that all happens in our studio. The emotional, the deep stuff and the connection of friends, that happens on the plane. We know the second we walk into the studio, it is creative and creation time. But on the plane, we know there’s nothing to do and it’s where we just talk about life, and each other, and our kids and our families. It’s more heart-to-heart time with each other. The plane is like the home, where we can decompress.

Shay: We also have a lot of creative ideas that spark on the plane. It happens often.

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With so much being discussed on the plane and in the studio, how do you keep all the ideas and whatnot organized and prioritized?

Michael: We usually shelve a lot of ideas because there’s so much that has to happen before anything else can be considered. The ideas are always there and we really never forget them. This guy is really funny and he does this to me constantly; it’s hilarious. We’ll be talking, an idea will come to him, we’ll talk about it then maybe take a nap or talk about something else, and then all of a sudden, bam! he’s back on that idea of his, picking back up on the last word he said before the conversation switched to something else or ended. It happens all the time.

Shay: [Laughing} Oh yeah, that’s my thing! I’m always starting and stopping a thought!

Walk me through your joint collaboration process? Are there a lot of whiteboards being used and mood boards created? If you’re not sitting in the same room brainstorming with each other, are their tons of texts, images, and emails exchanged? Secret Pinterest boards created?

Michael: It’s actually all of the above and more.

Shay: What usually happens is we revert back to a conversation or an idea that was put out there that was shelved, usually one that was on the plane. And we talk about it in more detail and see if there’s something there with it. We even see if that idea can go with any other ideas that have been shelved along the way as well. There’s a lot of discussion and conversation that happens in this beginning stage. It involves a lot of reflection and seeing what things can get pulled from. It can be an idea or something we’ve seen—fashion, architecture, a designer, music, a single picture, even nature. We then pull on those ideas, go for a coffee and talk about it. As for the hair, that won’t even get started for two to even three days.

Michael: Sometimes not even two weeks. We don’t do that. We don’t just sit down and start with the hair.

Shay: It is getting ourselves on track and then discussing whether or not this or that will work with a specific product that we’re are working with. We ask ourselves as to whether or not it will work with the whole story that the brand is talking about. It’s like trying to get the jigsaw to fit before we even go near any hair.

Michael: It’s discussing the bits and pieces and it’s definitely not a staged process by any means. It’s a very organic process. Almost as if we’re plucking at a little something here, and plucking a little something out of there and throwing all the ideas on the table and then we get to rearranging.

After this “coming together to discuss” do you guys have time to think and reflect on it all after meeting and start to really internally digest all of this individually?

Shay: Yes, after that meeting then the text messages start happening. For instance, I’ll go home and think about something that Michael said and send him a picture of what I think it could be. It’s like, “Hey Cheech, what do you think,” and he’ll be like, “Yeah, I like the choppiness of that and maybe we can work on that as well. Keep that. Save it.” This could be a 9 o’ clock at night.

Michael: And that’s when we start the boards.

Are these actual physical boards or are they digital boards?

Michael: They’re digital in form.

Shay: It’s a Pinterest board we share between us. We hit it hard and start putting stuff on it: from a pose to a profile to hair. And it’s not just hair; it’s anything that fits. It gets crazy [laughs].

Michael: The thing we try to do is, we don’t like to copy and paste. We just like to be inspired by it all. A lot of times, when you’re explaining the story, the story has to make sense. There has to be some kind of revelation of seeing the journey and the path of where you started and where you finish, and that’s really important to us as artists. That’s why we take just little bits and pieces. It’s a little something in the picture and not the entire picture.

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Do you two constantly send each other images of things throughout the day? Like if you’re out for a walk with your kids and you stumble upon a really interesting texture or something out of the ordinary that catches your eye?

Shay: Let me tell you a quick story. He [Michael] contacted me on a message and he sent me an image of something white that had all these little slits on them. I thought he had actually worked in the studio on creating it. And I was like, “What did you do with that? Where did you find that?” He then Facetime’d me and was like, “Check this out,” and its packing paper from his Amazon box.

Michael: My mother-in-law had bought us glasses and they were all wrapped in this amazing paper.

Shay: It looked phenomenal. Like we usually do, we’ve shelved it to use for another idea.

Michael: Yeah, I saved it. I have a whole box of this paper and its stored away. I have cabinets at home that are just stored with a ton of shit [laughs]. You have to! When you’re working at lightening speed, you don’t have time to be creative on the spot. You’ve already done the thinking for it and that’s when you go back to it, pull it out and go at it again.

What is the average amount of time being spent on this preliminary process?

Michael: For us, it’s all about a mindset. You have to stay plugged in all the time. We have to because of the pace we are constantly moving. It’s like a train. It takes a while to get going again once you totally stop. We don’t have that luxury to detach ourselves from it all. If we do have to detach ourselves from something, it’s really not even a detachment or an unplugging because it’s only for a couple days, maybe to be with our families and our kids and not talking about anything, but then we pick right back up. It really is a continuous mindset.

Shay: The business that we’re in, we can’t actually stop. We really can’t. Creative people cannot do it. It’s in your DNA and you really can’t help yourself. That is what’s great about us being able to shelve and store ideas and things away because when the pressure is on for us to create something, it’s all there. And you can’t be creative all the time. To be creative you have to be inspired. That’s the bottom line. More importantly, you can’t be inspired all the time and that’s where having shelved ideas come into play. Being able to pluck away at them because they’re there.

Michael: Because we are like-minded people, and we’ve been able to grow into that process, we have sort of developed our own methodology on how to do things and see things. We now look at things in a completely different way and our stuff tends to be a little more obscure in a way. It’s something that we gravitate towards. We kind of see things from a broader perspective and we don’t have a specific style. We jump into different areas of artistry and we don’t stay with one specific thing. It may not be for everyone, but it works for us.

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How do you stay on track? What are some effective time management strategies that you two are implementing to keep each other from going down a rabbit hole?

Shay: Honestly, it goes back to friendship and being very honest with each other about things. Also, even though we are very like-minded, we’re also slightly different which is a good thing because you need another mindset to say, “You know what, I’m not feeling that.” Often I can see something and then I’ll be like, “Hey Cheech, look at this.” I call him Cheech, he calls me Jesus [laughs].  He’ll then say, “Yeah, I like where you going with it, but maybe we should tighten it up here or clean it up there or break it down,” and then he’ll step in and start working on it and that’s when our collaboration really starts happening. Or if we’re not feeling it, one of us will say, “We’re wasting time on this.”

Michael: It’s like, “Yeah, it’s garbage. Just throw it in the fucking garbage!” [Laughs] It’s all about having effective communication and honesty. We know each other. If I show him something and he just kind of looks at it and gives it a certain look, then we’ll look at each other, laugh and say, “You feeling it? No? Yeah, garbage.” [laughs] It’s really an understanding we have. Sometimes he’ll be feeling something where I’m not and I’ll just have to walk away and let him work through it and vice versa. It’s like take the bull by the horns, I’m going to go do something else and we’ll meet back up again and discuss. We know our strengths and our weaknesses.

Shay: Sometimes you don’t have the time to talk it all out, especially when you’re under the pressure.

How does technology keep the project on course? What apps, sites and/or software do you utilize throughout the whole collection creation process?

Michael: We love 3D printing. We’re completely mesmerized by it because we think in three-dimensional. We don’t see things in one-dimensional, we see it in 360°. It is never 1D or 2D for us.

Here’s a question for both of you—what is usually your primary role during the creation of a collection?

Michael: Keep Shay happy [laughs] No, honestly, for it to be a true collaboration, it can’t just be a “this is what I do” thing because it is just not enough. For us, collaboration means we’re always wearing different hats. For it to be a healthy collaboration and a healthy outcome, it’s a thing of give and take.

What tips and advice can you provide duos and even small groups who are trying to work cohesively to bring a collection to life?

Michael: For a quick collaboration, like a group of people coming together to get something done right away, I say you first have that honest discussion and determine what everyone is good at and what their individual strengths and weaknesses are. That’s the most important thing. Hairdressers can be a bit protective and have a bit of an ego, and that needs to go away right away. You need to understand what each person can do and do well.

Shay: Most importantly, don’t work with the wrong people. I couldn’t work with him [points to Michael] if I didn’t like him. The group collaborating should want to work together and be of the same mindset. If you have that, you’re going to get places organically and you’re going to feed off one another, but you’re not going to feed off one another if there’s no connection and a bunch of egos. If that’s all not there, pass it up. Don’t do the project or job. Pass up the paycheck. You’re better off building your own team

Michael: Also make sure you want to be where you want to be. Creativity is a pain in the ass. It’s torture. It only happens when it is fluid and when it’s organic. It happens when you’re feeling it and when you love it. It’s like pulling teeth when it’s not.

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Besides being well organized and having good communication skills, what qualities do you think an effective project manager should possess?

Shay: Set yourself up for success and if you can, and put as much time as possible in the workshops and the preliminary planning before the shoot. That’s where you can make your mistakes and see if the texture of the hair is going to work and if a certain type of lighting is right. It’s all in the preparation. The actual photo shoot should be enjoyable for everybody. Yes, it will be stressful at times, but the homework should be done before going into it.

Michael: It’s also important to have someone who is experienced, someone who knows the ins and outs and what it takes to produce something. If you don’t, things will fall through the cracks and that’s when the shit will hit the fan.

Before I share with you some takeaways and things you can use and apply from this interview, I would like to say thank you to Michael and Shay for making this interview come to life. It has been one that I’ve wanted to do for years. Due to people’s schedules at shows and events, there’s really never been the right time to sit down and have an open discussion without a hair dryer blowing in the background or a model needing to be prepped minutes before a presentation. It’s as if the universe made me wait patiently because it knew that if it gave me enough time to talk about something other than trends and techniques, it would give me a bigger and more enlightening to story to share with our audience.

Quick Takeaways:

  • To collaborate effectively and efficiently you must have a foundation of trust, friendship, honesty, and similar mindsets.
  • Look closely at what is inspiring you and hone in on the bits and pieces.
  • Open your eyes and stay plugged in to what’s around you to keep your creativity thriving and evolving.
  • To have a successful end result, invest the time in presenting ideas, practicing techniques and fine-tuning outcomes.
  • Learn how and when to say no to a project. It’s okay to pass up a potential paycheck.

Read: A Lesson in Self-Expression featuring the Eclectic Collection from Sebastian Professionals.

Learn: 9 Styling How-Tos from Sebastian Professionals.

Photo Courtesy: Wella Professionals, Sebastian Professionals, Michael Polsinelli & Shay Dempsey and Nick Berardi

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