You Are Not a Brand, You Are a Person

March 9, 2017

Amy Small

Amy Small is the EVP, Creative + Brand at Media Cause, a mission-driven digital agency that helps nonprofits grow and accelerate their impact. She also serves as Managing Director of the RiseUP Marketing Fellowship, a nonprofit-backed professional development program that provides paid training, mentorship, and hands-on client experience to diverse talent who are often overlooked by the marketing and advertising industries.

In addition to her official roles, Amy volunteers her time as a mentor, frequently speaks at conferences and webinars (including three 3% Conferences), and has been a judge for the Webbys, Effies, Anthem Awards, and CampaignUS Power of Purpose Awards. She’s currently focusing her personal efforts on breaking down the workplace stigmas surrounding mental health, and is on a journey to help create systems, policies, and workplace norms that support employees as holistic individuals, rather than just professionals.

Over the last couple of years, it’s become harder to escape the barrage of TED-style talks and blog posts touting the career-boosting benefits of creating and selling yourself through a “personal brand.” They’re rife with ideas for crafting a purposeful, professional persona that’s anchored in a unique area of expertise or POV that no one else shares, or step-by-step instructions for cultivating a strategic, multi-platform social media and leadership presence to pontificate to the world.

I have something to say about all this buzz around personal brands: I’m over it.

Actually, that would imply that I was once on board with it. So let me rephrase: It’s okay if you’re over it, too.

We’re all in advertising here. We’re intimately familiar with the impact that powerful branding can have for our clients—actual companies that have actual goods or services or lifestyles to sell. We understand on an almost fundamental level why they need to have expertly crafted messaging strategies, publish thought leadership POVs, and attract millions of loyal social media followers. These days, it’s just the cost of doing business. 

But is it really necessary for us, too, as creative individuals? Why do we feel so much pressure to cultivate that same level of manufactured personal marketing instead of letting our work and our contributions speak for themselves? I have a few theories:

Social media

I’m not vilifying an entire genre of modern communication here, but it’s definitely changed the way we perceive ourselves as people and professionals. Even more than that, it’s made us hyper-aware of how others perceive us—or how we THINK they perceive us—based on their instantaneous reactions.

Some people would argue that being able to see ourselves through other people's eyes gives us an ability to address weaknesses or strengths that we can't recognize on our own. I personally think it’s made us all more insecure. If we don’t get a bunch of likes or favorites right away, we’ve clearly done something wrong. So we’re overcorrecting by creating somewhat manufactured versions of ourselves, and becoming more of the “brand” that we think other people want us to be.

The global competitive stage

Years ago (admittedly before my time) creatives jockeyed for share-of-voice within our own agencies or companies, and maybe with others across the local ad community. But with massive global holding companies and 24-hour industry coverage delivering praise or criticism of every piece of work we put out into the world, the opinion of the local ad community is considered small potatoes. Win a local Addy? Pshhh. Where’s your Pencil or Lion?

You can’t just be a big fish in a small pond to feel successful anymore; you have to be the biggest shark in the whole damned ocean. That’s when we start overinflating our accomplishments, crafting bigger and bigger personalities, and ultimately end up placing more value on our public image than the reason we got into advertising the first place—the work.

The uphill female climb

In the last few years, the percentage of women CDs in the industry has jumped from 3 percent to 12 percent. And while that’s incredible progress, it’s just the beginning. Even as a woman in a leadership position at a major global agency, I still find my work being scrutinized differently than the work of my male peers.  Maybe it’s because I take more time than most to digest and dissect the brief, understand the consumer needs versus the brand needs, and find a real human truth; whereas many other folks jump the gun to "beautiful design” without the proper thought behind it.

I’m not saying that all men are show and all women are substance. But I have seen this tableau played out more than once. When my work is questioned, my answer can’t just be, “this is good work and you know it,” which I hear frequently from male counterparts without objection.

Rather, I have to sell myself doubly hard as an expert in the project at hand. I have to show that I’ve done the research, extracted the insights, spoken to third party contributors, gained alignment with the account team, and taken on every single step outside my role as a CD to ensure success.

I suppose, in an unintentional way, being the “thorough and logical CD” has become my brand. But it’s exhausting. And after proving myself time after time, should it still be necessary?

To me, this is what it comes down to: the only “personal brand” you need to define is the one that makes you happy. You and you alone.

Not the one that you think others expect you to cultivate. Not the one that stands as your first line of defense against criticism from those who question your talent or root for your failure. Not the one that you think is going to propel your career faster and further onto the cutthroat global stage. And not the one that stands on gender alone, because until the ratio is 50/50, that one’s going to be a losing battle every time.  

The reason we all got into this business in the first place was to do amazing creative work that’s personally fulfilling and rewarding. If that’s no longer your North Star, it’s completely okay, and maybe it’s time for a change. But if it’s still the reason you get up and go to work every day, then the only brand you need to be is the one that stands for yourself.