Advice for Young Creatives in Marketing

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Part I: Q&A with our very own chief creative officer, Susan Britton

There’s a passage in Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly popular business book, Lean In, in which she writes about being invited to speak at Harvard Business School in the spring of 2011. Her on-stage interview, she recalls, ended with an impromptu Q&A session. A number of men jumped at the chance to ask Sandberg what she saw as “thoughtful, big-picture” questions. “What did you learn at Google that you are applying at Facebook?” “How do you run a platform company and ensure stability for your developers?” Then, Sandberg recalls, a woman took the microphone. “How can I get a mentor?” Sandberg says at that moment, her heart sank. All of the men were asking about how to manage a business, and the women were focusing on how to run a career. The men wanted answers; the women wanted advice.

Right or wrong, sometimes the road to success isn’t marked so clearly for women.

As a marketer, and a mom of two young children, I can’t blame them. Right or wrong, sometimes the road to success isn’t marked so clearly for women. It’s probably because in our minds (our always-multitasking, always “on” minds), success isn’t one thing or one end goal. It’s not a certain title or a position or a number on the pay scale. It’s much more than that. It’s a balance, an experience, a life.

That said, I decided to ask some of my mentors here at Britton Marketing & Design Group a few questions of my own with this new series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” I figured it was an amazing place to start. After all, we have four female creative directors (pretty impressive given the fact that nationwide only 3 percent of creative directors are women).

I’m starting with our very own chief creative officer, Susan Britton. Some of my questions are definitely more business-focused, but I know that others are looking for that real-life advice you can only really get from someone who’s been there. But after hearing some of Susan’s answers, I think young women like me might just find their greatest strengths, their greatest potential, in that diversity of experience.

Susan Britton

Here’s part one of three of my interview with Susan, in which she talks about her career path and what she’s learned along the way. Check back later in the week for more on her advice for young creatives and how she herself has balanced it all.

Q: How did you get into marketing? How did your path affect the kind of leader you are today?

A: I was very naive growing up. I didn’t know how one even decided on a career or what college to attend. When I was a teenager, I decided, somewhat randomly, that I was going to be a nurse. But sometimes life has a way of sorting us out, if we look for that direction, and eventually a high school art teacher saw something in my effort and moved me from a practical- to a fine-art class. I became one of her best students because she took an interest in me, and mentored me, and I didn’t want to let her down.

“This is a time to just ‘lean in,’ be a little miserable, listen and learn, and let yourself be pruned to grow.”

I think it was my empathic nature that told me I should be a nurse, and that has probably helped me be a better marketer, as I put myself in the client’s “brand shoes” and try to understand what inspires their audience. It’s also helped me be a mentor to others, particularly the creative team in our company today. I like to coach creatives to think more like marketers, and take on the end-consumer’s persona. They need to add empathy and emotional intelligence to their skill sets to be extraordinary, but unsurprisingly, many designers have that already. It just needs to be encouraged.

Often right out of college, young creatives have spent the last four years focused on themselves, so it’s often difficult for them to realize that their new work is not about them now, but about what the client wants. They aspire to hit the stage as a star and hope that every piece of their work is respected. In reality, the first five versions of a project (they work hours on) may be trashed by their creative director or the client. This is a time to just “lean in,” be a little miserable, listen and learn, and let yourself be pruned to grow. While it can feel like too strong a vertical, your work can become remarkable, but this is the new level set, the real world, and you have to find the strength of spirit to get up each day and go at it with new enthusiasm and not let discouragement best you. Everyone goes through some of this.

Q: Tell me about how you got your start.

A: I started out in fine art, which led to a summer job doing business illustrations and layouts for a small local printer. I met and married my creative collaborator (now business partner), Jeff Britton, in college, when we were in our 20s. We started a family a year later (a little sooner than planned), and I wanted a job that I could do out of my home. It was pretty tough in the early years. Being artists and pragmatic idealists, neither Jeff nor I had any business experience, nor had our families. Jeff, always an idea man (and the reason I was attracted to him), suggested I send a postcard to each new business listed in the newspaper, advertising design services, because they would all need a new business identity. At the time, you couldn’t just go online and order up a cheap one. So my small business promised a right-scaled pricing approach for small businesses like mine. With virtually no overhead, it worked for a time, plus I learned the layout, design and print business.

“Do what no one else is willing to do. Find a need and fill it, as they say.”

You have to start somewhere, no matter how “low” on the scale you think it is. Just “get that boat out of the harbor.” You’ll gain critical experience no matter what you are doing, especially when it comes to service. Every job includes that. Do what no one else is willing to do. Find a need and fill it, as they say.

I also decided to use my illustration skills to design greeting cards and sell them at local craft fairs (today’s Etsy). I have always loved paper products. That’s where I learned you have to sell a lot of paper to make any reasonable profit. It was fun, but I didn’t have a business model to take it further, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry who could help me. Networking was harder in those days. Coincidentally we still design paper goods at Britton (via our sister company, 3 Blue Eggs). We’ve designed pieces for the Chicago Art Museum, the Met, and we have also designed complete lines for Vera Bradley and Lilly Pulitzer in the past.

Eventually Jeff started building furniture, to help pay some bills, at a commercial seating company that one of our friends and his family owned. He then began reading up on sales strategy during deliveries. This led to selling furniture, and then Jeff convinced the owner to make him the sales manager, and he eventually became the head of sales as the company grew. My junior design skills eventually landed me a job doing their corporate newsletter and sales materials, working closely with Jeff.

“The lesson here is, if you wait for life to serve it up to you on a silver platter, that will never, ever happen. You might be sitting there five years from now with the same skill set.”

Macs were still pretty new in 1984, and there weren’t any gurus or teachers at that time. We had to learn how to use and maintain them ourselves, but it was still revolutionary for the design world at that time and pretty exciting. I remember waiting five to 10 minutes for a high-resolution image scan to load, but it was still amazing! Keeping up on technology, learning how to run your equipment, and teaching yourself software was pretty much the norm then. Sometimes young designers want someone to teach them everything, and we do bring in training on really new software or updates to remain efficient, but for the young designers who really want to grow their skill sets, it can all be found in online tutorials.

Advice for creatives table layout

The lesson here is, if you wait for life to serve it up to you on a silver platter, that will never, ever happen. You might be sitting there five years from now with the same skill set.

Always independent at heart, I stepped away after nine years in the commercial seating industry and started a small design studio again. After designing a number of pro bono event invitations for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, a local handbag manufacturer’s marketing director saw one of them and asked me to do some design work. That company was Vera Bradley, now a publicly held company.

“I saw something in the founders of this company that I had never seen before: a ‘woman-run company,’ and remarkable women at that!”

They hired me as their art director. At the time, they had $11 million in sales. It was an agonizing decision for me since my business was only 3 years old, and it was the first time Jeff and I would work apart. But … I saw something in the founders of this company that I had never seen before: a “woman-run company,” and remarkable women at that!

It was absolutely different from any other business I had worked with. We had the same universal values of home and family. We had a common language and a common cause to market the products. It was about collaboration. It was inspiring to see their pluck and ambition, because most of my life really was spent supporting men and their businesses, which was fine to a point, but this was a great balance for me. It was a demanding job for sure, as we experimented and changed our marketing tactics every few months to keep up with the growth. Women just do things differently. I have found often that Jeff and I come at problems with completely different answers. Both legitimate answers, just different. I do enjoy the shorthand that comes from working with women to market women’s products. We are unusual in that we have four female creative directors in our design group. That makes us better at what we can deliver to our clients.

Q: You started Britton Marketing & Design Group when you were 49 years old. Tell me about that decision to go out on your own. How did you know it was the right time? What fears did you have? How did you overcome them?

A: After nine amazing years at Vera Bradley, just after my 49th birthday, I felt I should either stay at Vera Bradley the rest of my life or “repot” and grow in a new way. It had been a wonderful school of marketing for me, and I Ioved, and still do, so many of the special people there, but as the company grew, things changed, which is natural and necessary. I realized two things. First, as the company soared, there was a necessity for more bureaucracy to get it all done. My personality is not a great fit for that. I lose excitement when I get bogged down. Secondly, a new team member came on board I was to work closely with, and that person turned out to be very uncollaborative. I realized immediately that collaboration was very important to the way I work, and so I decided it was a sign for me to move on.

creative kinfolk table layout

In the end, my dear friends, including the owners, were very supportive, and they chose to see Britton as a kind of business offshoot from Vera Bradley. We luckily continue to work with them to this day. Sometimes we have to make decisions that, at the time on paper, don’t make financial sense to get where we really want to go.

“Timing and experience are key. Trust that the winding road that is your work path will have unexpected turns and twists, and it will form your career in truly unexpected ways.”

I remember clearly that first day sitting at my desk, looking out the window of my new office, with no clients, and wondering what I had just done. Nine years later we have grown to just under 50 people and moved to a new location that gives us twice the space, with lots of windows (windows are so important!). We are challenged in new ways, which is not always easy, for sure, but we keep learning and growing.

I don’t want to be a giant corporation, but rather a small, nimble, high-quality strategic and creative branding firm that can jump in and “wow” quickly, before giant agencies can get their head around it. That said, all of the jobs I had up until this point led to my ability to help grow this company, or I would have failed quickly. Timing and experience are key.

Trust that the winding road that is your work path will have unexpected turns and twists, and it will form your career in truly unexpected ways.

Part 2: Creative Process and Leadership
Part 3: Finding a Balance

Photos: BMDG

Emily Richwine

Emily Richwine

A former magazine editor, Emily got her start in journalism at the age of 9, when she penned her first letter to the editor.

Meet Emily Richwine