When she graduated from high school, native Ohioan Rachel Wilhelm knew she wanted to work in marketing. Something artsy, something musical. Something that combined marketing and arts perhaps. This was back in the mid-2000s when the internet was still in its infancy and Instagram wasn’t a thing.
She also had a passion for horses, and after her first year of college, Rachel tabled the marketing idea and changed schools, enrolling in an equestrian college three hours from home. Her parents were left scratching their heads, but - spoiler warning - it all worked out.
“I fell in love with the [equine] industry,” says Rachel. “I specialized in healthcare and traditional Chinese medicine for horses. I still do that in Tennessee as a side business. I really have five jobs.”
She isn’t kidding. After graduation, Rachel worked on a ranch near Asheville but moved on when the ranch changed ownership. On her way back home to Ohio in 2011, she passed through Knoxville and decided to stick around for a while, crashing on a friend’s couch and working for a mobile vet unit, a job that helped her get a good view of the surrounding area. One day, the vet unit went to visit a customer towards Millers Cove. They took a wrong turn and wound up at Blackberry Farm.
“I saw the horses there, so when I got home I looked them up and they’d just posted for a job on the equine team. I got the job and started at Blackberry in 2012,” she says. “Then I met a couple who had a farm down the road from Blackberry and they asked me to take photos of their horses. Their daughter was going away to college, and she always managed their social media. So, they asked me to help them out and I was willing to try. Within the first year, we really grew their social media presence. This connected all of that marketing experience from the degree I never finished.”
It was the very definition of full circle, and for Rachel, her interests and talents continued to intersect. After some master classes and online courses, she landed a job at a marketing firm while still keeping a foot on the equine team at Blackberry Farm. Rachel quickly caught up with what marketing looks like today, but she also quickly learned how dry and uninteresting some of that work could be. When the idea for her own firm started to take shape, she and her friend, Tracey Riggs, started Smoke Signal Media Production in 2019 and agreed to give the business a solid year of hard work. By the end of the summer last year, Tracey chose to return to teaching, so she signed everything over to Rachel, who became the sole proprietor of Smoke Signal MP in 2020.
Though much has changed in the field since 2007, Rachel discovered that she has a knack for going beyond the algorithms to humanize the story and create meaningful space online for clients - most of whom happen to be women.
“The funny thing is that I haven’t had to find any of my clients. They’ve all come to me by word of mouth. I do this work so they have more time to focus on the things more important to their business,” she says. “Most of my clients are women, and while I wasn’t going for that, I think women have found me because of the relationships I have in Knoxville. It’s not as crazy competitive as I thought it would be. It’s really unique, and it may not be something you see everywhere, but the community here is so closely knit.”
When Rachel accepts a new client, she starts by looking at how the business person already projects herself on social media. She breaks down the photography, the message, the image. She looks for what’s missing and discerns what’s misunderstood. It’s not about selling something but rather about humanizing the brand. You have to make it personal, she says.
“Algorithms change all the time, but humanizing a brand speaks out against the algorithm,” says Rachel. “You’ll get more organic impressions with personal stories.”
On top of her work at Smoke Signal and Blackberry Farm, Rachel is active with the Tennessee Fox Hunting Club, a photographer and writer, and someone who’s quick to throw up a hammock at Mead’s Quarry to catch up on work. Though 18-year-old Rachel might not have pieced together this specific life for herself, 32-year-old Rachel is loving every aspect of it. Full circle indeed.
Smoke Signal Media Productions