Nine Things I Learned in Nine Years of Running My Own Agency
Running a business was never my dream. It fell into my lap when my husband and I were both freelance writers after I left GSD&M. He had a client with a decent media budget, so I nudged him to write a TV campaign that was beyond what the client asked for. After the scripts we wrote together sold, we went into production. In our meeting with directors, a producer asked us what our agency was called. We just looked at each other and shrugged. Next thing you know, the Swizzle Collective was born. It became our third child.
Two years and several clients later, I decided to branch out and start my own firm with a focus on marketing to women. It was when I landed the Mothers’ Milk Bank account that I called Beth McConnell in to be my art director on their new marketing campaign. Again, a new agency was formed organically when it just made sense to merge my firm with her design firm and hang a shingle as Zellmer McConnell.
Being my own boss was something that worked for me when my kids were young. But they grew up. And so did I.
Here are nine things that experience taught me that I think will make me an asset to an in-house creative department:
1. Managing a team of creatives is one thing. Managing a team of account people, research consultants, media strategists, publicists, digital consultants and a roster of clients is like getting a master’s degree in multi-tasking. They say women are good at that. Whether that’s true or not, I certainly got plenty of practice trying to prove it.
2. Clients are people too and they love their business more than an agency ever could. While I lost sleep over my client’s business challenges, I could never match their level of investment in their success. As a copywriter, I didn’t always respect clients. The admiration I’ve gained for clients over the years is why I’m ready to be one myself now.
3. You don’t need a big budget to do great work.
4. Owning a business means owning every decision that’s made, good and bad. Most sentences start with “Should we…?” When you’re wrong, it’s on you. I have learned to think long and hard about big decisions, decisions that hinged on millions of dollars in business. That’s a lot of pressure. But it’s made me cautious in a way that allows me to make decisions with confidence. Because I know I’ve exhausted every possible outcome.
5. The amount of information you can find out about your target audience is creepy.
6. New business pitches can bring out the worst in people, myself included. It all boils down to fear. I learned that being kind to each other, especially under pressure, keeps the process focused and fun. As it should be.
7. Learning is endless.
8. There’s a lot of freedom to be found in admitting you just don’t know the answer. And it’s often the best way to find it.
9. We're in a world driven by technology that evolves more rapidly every day. What I know about branding is that brands need to evolve as quickly as tech, including our own personal brands. For Stefani Zellmer, the brand, it became time to evolve.
The Other Side of the Table
It's always an honor to be asked to judge the final portfolio critique at UT. As a graduate of the Texas Creative program in the College of Communications' School of Advertising, I'm met with a tsunami of nostalgia each time I step into the Grand Ballroom at the Student Union and see all those portfolios laid out on tables. What's astounding to me, even more than how young everyone looks, is the fact that nothing has changed about the critique process since I graduated. The students spray mount their ads to mat board and lay everything out on tables. Then two judges from the industry come in and go table to table, scrutinizing their work in front of everyone in the class, including their friends and lovers, while they stand on the other side of the table and take the bullets.
Last week I got to be one of those judges. I'm a copywriter by trade so they paired me with Stu Smith, an art director/designer who is now Creative Director at Cratejoy. We've had different career paths, mine more traditional, at larger agencies such as BBDO, Ogilvy, Crispin, Porter & Bogusky and GSD&M, and his at smaller, tech-ier firms such as Sputnik and Cratejoy and in-house at Able Lending, helping them fund some of the Fortune 500 companies. So we brought an array of experience that I hope was helpful to the 39 students we met that day.
We were there to judge Portfolio 2, the second of three or four semesters the students use to build their portfolios. And I have to say. I was honestly impressed. Something I wasn't able to say when I judged Portfolio 3 several years ago. Ryan Romero has done a fine job as their professor, working alongside Chad Rea, both of them ad veterans themselves.
I wish I had taken more photos of their work. I wish I had memorized more of their quippy taglines. Because there were so many good ones. Here's what I do remember. I remember a beautifully art directed campaign for Houzz that was one call-to-action short of being ready for the real world. I remember a tagline for the New York Times Crossword: Play niche. And I remember a line that I wish hadn't been buried in the description of a storyboard: The ocean yawns into the deep. I don't even know what that means but it deserves to be a headline.
More than anything, it felt nice to give back to my alma mater. I think it's important to do that and I think it's important to remember the guiding principles I learned in the beginning, the ones I don't remember until I say them out loud in the Grand Ballroom at the Student Union.
Keep it simple.
My Famous, Dead Person
This is a work of fiction that was published in The Monarch Review.
Charles Bukowski reaches into his pocket, because the first thing you want to do when you wake from the dead is smoke. Instead of cigarettes, he finds my note and manages to uncrumple it with his calloused hands. He reads 2137 Whitley Avenue, Los Angeles, written in big loopy letters, then the summons—“Come to Dinner?”—that I’d written underneath.
Because I live in Hollywood, I know he won’t need directions. He lived here, too, before retiring to San Pedro where he is now blinking against a moon too bright for eyes emerging from nine years of darkness. He brings his fingers to his face, so he can feel once again its scars and valleys. It is a sad story, told in Braille, of pointed fingers and laughing children. He’s surprised to feel his skin is warm. Working his head against the stiffness, he looks down to find himself dressed in a starched suit. The embarrassment he feels for wearing it convinces him that he is, in fact, alive.
When Charles Bukowski’s eyes scan the graveyard, suspiciously seeking the asshole who dug him up, they are stopped by the recognition of his own name, etched into a concrete slab, above the dates 1920-1994. His soul climbs back into his body when he grasps his epitaph. It reads, “Don’t try.”
While I wait for Charles to arrive, I sprawl out on the couch with a glass of ’89 Sancerre and The Night Torn With Mad Footsteps. His words never fail to make me swoon. The aggression with which he writes, the way he kicks holes in the page with his words, is both terrifying and admirable. As a writer, he is tragic and lovely. He’s an oxymoron who doesn’t fit a mold. He turns the mold inside out. Through his writing, he tells us everything that’s in him. He isn’t afraid to let it pour. With Charles Bukowski, there’s no guess what? There is no withholding. No secrets. No lies. And therefore, no apologies.
I’ve often wondered how these words would sound coming out of his mouth. I’ve wondered how he sits in a chair. What he smells like. How tall he is. While I’m waiting to find out, my mother calls from Dallas.
After about five minutes of catch up, I ask the inevitable, “How’s Dad?”
“Oh, he’s good. Not great. But good,” she says, obviously in the room with him, though he’s not in the room with himself.
“So how are things?” I say. We speak in code.
“Oh, once or twice,” she says.
“A week?” I say.
“Mmm Hmmm,” she says.
We are in one of those attempts-to-control-it phases. These tend to follow the attempt-to-quit phases that never last.
My father quits drinking like people quit smoking. In short, cowardly spurts. Last time I was home I watched him pass out in his chair night after night, lost to the world, lost to us. I try to remember the man he was before he was an alcoholic. I try to see only the father who loves to sail. Who took wood working classes and built us furniture, coffee tables and end tables, in the garage on his table saw. I try to see the glimmer in his eyes, but it is dim and increasingly so hard to find.
“I gotta go, Mom,” I say, when reality starts to itch. She doesn’t argue. We hang up. The polite conversation that we use to remove ourselves from the truth ends, as always, with nothing said, and nothing gained.