Dear creatives: You are a human. NOT a brand.
This post was originally published in 2017 on The 3% Movement Blog. It was most recently updated in August 2020.
Over the last several years, it’s become harder to escape the barrage of TED-style talks and social accounts touting the career-boosting benefits of creating and selling yourself through a “personal brand.” (Just take a look at Girlboss, if you need a more pop-culture-ish example than TED.) All of this content is 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 longstanding 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 or marketing here. We’re intimately familiar with the impact that powerful branding can have for our clients—companies or organizations that have tangible goods, services, and lifestyles to sell, or social and cultural impact missions to achieve. 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. Even Media Cause, as a nonprofit marketing agency, isn’t exempt from this game. It’s just the cost of doing business.
But is it really necessary for humans, too, as creative individuals, to have to develop a “brand?” Why do we feel so much pressure to cultivate that same level of manufactured personal marketing as multibillion-dollar conglomerates, rather than simply letting our work, our values, our personalities, and our contributions speak for themselves?
I have a few theories:
The external validation trap of social media
I’m not vilifying an entire genre of modern communication (or trying to date myself), but the inescapable influence of social media has definitely changed the way we perceive ourselves as individuals 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. (It’s pretty much the entire premise of TikTok: do things other people find interesting to get “famous,” then try to do more things to get famous again.)
Some might argue that there’s an potential upside to this (if we look beyond the “fame seeking” piece, that is)—that understanding other people’s perceptions of us provides an opportunity to address weaknesses or strengths that we can’t always identify on our own. Maybe there’s a modicum of truth here. When we develop new brand positioning for our nonprofit clients, understanding how current and potential audiences understand their work, and their mission, is a critical part of the puzzle. However—the key difference is that brands and organizations exist to serve the needs of their audiences. Do we, as individuals, exist to serve the needs of our followers? I sure as hell hope not.
But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we let the perceptions of others shape the very core of who we are—we’re letting our own worth be determined by external validation. I personally believe that in many ways, our media-heavy culture has made us all more insecure and ungrounded, not more aware and authentic. If we don’t get a bunch of likes or favorites or follows or shares right away, it feels as though we’ve done something wrong. We take it personally. We start comparing against others. Why did so-and-so get more attention than me? We look to see what they did, and try to replicate it. We craft our photos, our stories, our posts, and our opinions to essentially become someone else. And the next thing we know, we’ve created a manufactured persona that may look shiny from the outside, but doesn’t really resemble who we are on the inside.
The paradox of all this, of course, is that by cultivating our own “personal brands” to become what we think other people want to see and hear, we’re really becoming less of ourselves, and more of what’s already out there. And IMO, sameness isn’t any kind of “personal brand” that I want to be part of.
The competition of the global stage
Many years ago, creatives only had to worry about jockeying for for share-of-voice and bragging rights within our own agencies or organizations, and maybe with others across the local ad and marketing communities. But with massive global holding companies, cross-continent collaboration, and 24-hour industry coverage delivering praise or criticism of every piece of work we put out into the world, the opinion of our close colleagues local networks is considered small potatoes. Win a local Addy? Pshhh. Where’s your Pencil or Lion or Webby?
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 over-inflating our accomplishments, crafting bigger and bigger personalities, and ultimately end up placing more value on our public image than the reason we got into this field the first place—the work.
The uphill battle against industry “bro culture”
In the last decade, the percentage of female Creative Directors in the advertising industry has jumped from 3 percent to 12 percent. And while that’s incredible progress, it’s just the beginning. (That percentage is even smaller for BIPOC and other minorities…and the progress there isn’t happening at even close to the same rate). Before joining Media Cause, I was in a creative leadership position at a major global agency. And despite having won one of those previously-mentioned awards, and having an incredible track record with client relationships and creative success, I STILL found my work being scrutinized differently than the work of my male peers. Maybe it was because I took more time to work hand-in-hand with our planner, digest and dissect the brief, understand the consumer needs versus the brand needs, and find a real human truth; whereas I saw many colleagues jump the gun to to a catchy concept and “beautiful design” without the proper thought behind it.
I’m not saying that all men are show and all women are substance. But in the still white-male dominated culture of agency world, I saw this tableau played out more than once. When my work was questioned, my answer couldn’t (and TBH, wouldn’t) just be, “this is good work and you know it,” which I heard frequently from male counterparts without objection.
Instead, I had to sell myself doubly hard as an expert in the project or client at hand. I had to prove that I’d 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 creative” became my brand. But it was exhausting. And after proving myself time after time, should it have still been necessary?
The illusion of (and need for) stability—new for 2020!
When you create a personal brand, you’re essentially putting a stake in the ground—declaring to everyone around you that this is who you are, what you do, how you think, and what you believe in. You’re a finished product, with certain benefits, and that’s why they should buy you. (That’s branding, right?)
But there’s a problem with this kind of proposition: as humans, we are NEVER a finished product.
Think back to your 15-year-old self. Would you right now—at whatever age you are—want to be known for the same way of dressing, talking, walking, eating, as you were in high school? Of course not. You have more life experience now. You’ve learned new things. Your perspectives and ideas have changed. You know that you’re not the same as you were when you were gobbling Bugles while drowning your teenage angst in the lyrics of Alanis Morrissette (ok, maybe that was just me).
When you create a personal brand, you are cementing a snapshot of who you are at this moment in time, and everything you do and say afterwards needs to align with that snapshot, or else you run the risk of something being seen as “off brand.” You are building a rigid box that your ideas and perspectives need to fit neatly inside in order to uphold this facade. Not only does that create real barriers to openly changing your mind, or even more dramatically—changing your interests altogether—it’s also a HELL of a lot of work to maintain.
Sure, it may be comfortable inside that box. You know what’s expected of you, because after a while, everything begins to feel like you’ve gone down this road before. You can follow a routine, and as long as there’s at least a 10% difference in what you’re putting out there this week vs. last week, you can be pretty sure you’ll get the same kind of positive response. But being comfortable—and clinging to the illusion of stability—doesn’t allow us to grow. If we don’t feel like we have the latitude to explore something out of left field because we’re so tied to our center line, we’re pretty quickly going to find that the brand we’ve worked so hard to cultivate…is one that we’ve already outgrown.
To me, what all of this comes down to is this: 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’s designed for engagement over authenticity. Not the one that’s built as an armor against criticism rather than a showcase of your uniqueness. 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’s so “comfortable” that moving beyond it becomes a barrier to your own evolution.
I like to believe the reason that most of are in this business to do amazing creative work that’s personally fulfilling and rewarding. To keep learning and discovering. To invent new ideas and products and processes that not only make our own lives better, but hopefully, help make other people’s lives better, too. If one day you wake up and 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 share is the one that’s true to yourself.