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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.

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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. 

Be memorable. 

Speak human. 

Keep it simple.

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Between Floors

This is a personal essay recently published in the literary magazine The Rumpus.

I slam the truck into reverse. I’m small, sitting at the wheel, but I maneuver with power. The truck is menacing, large and brown, but I back it up perpendicular to the dock using the side mirrors, and I align it perfectly, centered, to the amazement of my instructor. He checks his clipboard and gives me a silent smirk. I give one, too. I’m victorious. I’m hired.

I’m a girl.

I drive home with my sack of brown shirts, brown pants, brown hat, and belt. I show the parents who sent me through four years of college the uniform I’ll be wearing to my blue-collar job. They feign excitement. My mother gives me that look she gives me when she’s trying not to say what she’s really thinking, but it’s obvious what she’s thinking because her eyes say things for her. She’s thinking, “Where did I go wrong? What the hell is my daughter doing? Where is she going?” My mother is giving me the look that says she’s disappointed, that she expected more. She’s judging me for settling for a job that’s beneath me, or beneath her. She looks to my father for backup, but he left the room five minutes ago—or was it five years?

She says my shirt needs ironing. I say no it doesn’t. She says yes it does. She says I’ll do it for you. I say okay. I say whatever. Whatever makes you feel better, I don’t say.

We’ve been tip-toeing around each other since I moved back from New York, since I gave up trying to find that Madison Avenue job, since my ex-boyfriend left me for film school. I’ve been draping my listless body over my mother’s custom-upholstered sofas, flopping myself onto pool floats and drifting, dragging myself down the stairs for breakfast, usually too groggy to acknowledge my mother’s jabs about why I’m up so early, at noon.

In orientation I sit with the other new employees, drinking coffee out of Styrofoam, and watch a video about time-saving maneuvers I’ll use for the rest of my life. The video shows us how to buckle the seatbelt and start the ignition at the same time, how to open a door with your back so you can be entering data at the same time, because every combined movement cuts time when time counts most.

When the dispatch manager issues me my route, he says I’m going to be downtown in two of their tallest buildings, 101 Ross and 500 Elm. He says I’ve probably seen 101 Ross before. It’s the one with the big hole in the middle. I know it well, I tell him.

I have a hole in the middle, too.

He says I look strong, but that 101 Ross and 500 Elm share the dock at 66 Pearl, and that those buildings are accessed through an underground tunnel that runs uphill. At the height of the season, you’ll be pushing two overstocked dollies up this hill for an entire city block, he says. “You think you can manage that?” he asks.

I sit in the chair across from his desk, littered with stacks of thin paper and a beige computer displaying tracking number upon tracking number. I blink and blink, tossing the “should-I’s” and “shouldn’t-I’s” back and forth, wishing I was the kind of person who wouldn’t settle.

But I do.

I decide that when it comes to conquering a truck, once is enough. With a nod, he demotes me to “Helper,” explaining that all I have to do is meet the driver at the dock and help him unload his route.

I weigh shame and relief in each hand, equally.

The packages have to be delivered by 9:30 a.m. No excuses. It’s up to me to foresee the obstacles and to plan for them.

I use the time-saving maneuvers the orientation video taught us to combine movements. I enter the data while walking. I push the cart into the elevator while pressing the floor button at the same time. I sort and organize the cart while the elevator moves me. The next package is always on top, the address ingrained in my head, the door codes of the mailrooms, memorized.

“Never just stand there,” the video said.