Episode 286: Alanna Marshall

Alanna Marshall is an associate creative director located in Chicago, Illinois.

If you want to know what it's like working in the high-paced field of advertising, then this week's interview is for you! Meet Alanna Marshall, an associate creative director at Ten35 in Chicago. Whether she's presenting to clients or directing shoots on a set, according to Alanna there's never a dull moment.

Alanna also talked about how she first got into the field, shared a bit about her process behind her work, and gave her thoughts on the future of advertising for agencies and clients. Her advice for creatives is simple and powerful: know yourself and put yourself and your work out there for the world to see. And we couldn't agree more!

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Transcript

Maurice Cherry: Alright, so tell us who you are, and what you do?

Alanna Marshall: My name is Alanna Marshall. I am Associate Creative Director at Ten35, an agency here in Chicago. My specialty is art direction specifically.

MC: What's an average day like for you at the Ten35? I'm always curious to hear what it's like in the agency side. I've never worked on the agency side before, so I'd love to know about that.

AM: Agency side? I don't think there's an average day. There's a lot of different components to what we do. It could be anything from concepting. You're at the beginning of a project, and we're all brainstorming together, or director working with copywriters, or working with a larger group brainstorming. It could be designing sketches, or comps to bring the ideas to life, building out presentation deck, obviously presenting and selling that work into clients, which is also a whole other part of it, traveling for a shoot date.

AM: Actually going on production. It could be traveling for a shoot date actually going on production, working with photographers or directors to bring that. It could be print out of home, digital videos, TV, even a radio spot, recording radio. We don't do that as much anymore, but that was a bigger part of it when I first started reviewing edits, retouching, working with a retoucher and getting feedback, and making sure that the final product is exactly the vision that you had for that work in the first place. There's a lot of different moving parts. Every day is something different, and that's part of what I really like about working in advertising as well.

MC: Yeah, I was just saying as you were mentioning all of those, I could see how someone might be doing each of those roles individually, but it's all in one position, where you're handling all these different things. It's almost like you're herding cats in a way when it comes to these kind of things. How did you first get interested in art direction?

AM: I have always been really interested in visual art as a whole, so in secondary school, in Barbados where I'm from, you are able to choose different route as you go, so I chose visual art as one of my main subjects, and I knew when I was leaving school, I wanted to do something in that field, and initially I wanted to do architecture, and so I had done art plus math, physics, technical drawing, and I was kind of set on doing that.

AM: I had great art teachers where I went to school. She found a catalog. I think she was sent a catalog for SCAD in Atlanta, Savannah College of Art and Design, and when I looked through that, there was all these different majors that they offered, and I was interested in so many different things. I found advertising design was a balance between.

AM: There was graphic design, but I also loved creative writing, and english literature, and so I picked advertising design as my major, and you have a period there where you can choose different classes when you first go to SCAD, and so when I did my first advertising class, you create a whole campaign, and you sell it in, and look at the insights and strategies behind it, and that really captured my imagination. I think it utilizes all the different skill sets that I had, and so I was really sold on that, and looking back now I think I probably was not that interested in architecture. It just seemed like a fancy job, which would justify me going to art school, but yeah that's how I got into advertising.

MC: Well yeah I would imagine. Architecture and advertising. I mean they're both design I guess in a way, but yeah one is certainly more visual than conceptual, and architecture is kind of like you're dealing with real world structures as it relates to that.

AM: Yes. It's two different ends of it. There's the imaginative, creative part of it, and then there's very much, real world, sketching out all those interior spaces and thinking about structure, and electrical, and all that stuff, but for me one of my biggest issues, which wasn't really an issue, it was that I was interested in so many different things. I did technical drawing, which was kind of the beginning of engineering a little bit, at school as well. I liked that as well.

AM: It was just me trying to figure out what the best fit would be for a major.

MC: Yeah. Overall though, what was your time like at SCAD? Do you feel like it prepared you once you got out there in the working world?

AM: Most definitely. I loved my time at SCAD. I had really great advertising professors, and I think it did prepare you, because at the time, I don't know if the program is different now, at a time that advertising program was not the same as I think, portfolio center. I think you actually get paired up. You're going in as an art director, and you're working with a copywriter, working with a strategist and different things to put the work together. It was almost like you had to work in all these roles to create your campaign.

AM: There were very few people I think who were there specifically for copywriting, and so I ended up doing a lot of copywriting for my campaign. It's a lot of work. It's very intense, and so you come in with the understanding, this is what agency life is gonna be like. We're pulling all-nighters. We're trying to get this work right, and to feel right, and to really communicate what you're trying to communicate succinctly. It's very difficult, go through tons and tons of revisions, and refinements.

AM: I think there was a class where you did I think, 100 thumbnail sketches to get to what you're trying to get to, and so when it went out into the real world, and I did my first couple internships, people were very much like, “Oh my goodness. Thanks so much for being a trooper, and sticking around,” and I was like, “Oh, I thought this is what I was supposed to do.” This is what I was trained to do, was be prepared to work really hard to find the right solutions.

MC: Yeah. It sounds like it also prepares you to be a generalist in a way, because you're doing so many different things in one role as opposed to just being a specialist, like just a copywriter, just a designer, something like that.

AM: I think so. At least for me, that's what I took away from it. I feel like I had meetings after school where I think people didn't believe that I did all the work in my book, because usually you would write credits, right? This person was a copywriter. This person was the art director, and so on, and it was me. I wrote it, and so I feel like I had at least one meeting where they were like, “You did all of this?” “Yes?"

MC: Written by Alanna Marshall. Designed by Alanna Marshall. All of that.

AM: Absolutely.

MC: Once you left SCAD, I'm interested to know what the early moments of your career are like. What were those early work experiences like, because you said SCAD really prepped you to know that the agency world is intense. Was that what those first experiences were like?

AM: First of all, it was hard for me to crack into the agency world, and I focused more on the design site, and so I actually worked for a while at Captain Planet Foundation in Atlanta, and I don't know if you remember Captain Planet?

MC: Oh yeah.

AM: The cartoon.

MC: Let our powers combine. [crosstalk 00:08:04] Yeah.

AM: They did a lot of work giving grants to organizations who work with kids, and we're promoting being kind to the environment and all that, and that was a really great experience that got to do a lot of different things there, working on web, and digital, and they even did print presentation decks and stuff like that. Even though I was thinking I wanted to be in an agency, it does come around to contribute to what you have to offer at the end of the day. I also worked with a company that did more app design and web design, and then I went to my first internship at Mullen in Boston.

AM: They're a really great agency. They do a lot of great work, and that was a fantastic experience. It was a summer internship. A whole class of interns worked together. We did our own campaign, and we also worked with the general creative team for whatever thing you did, and it was a lot. It was intense. You worked long hours, but I think it solidified in my mind, that that was for sure what I wanted to do and pursue.

MC: I don't know if people realize how much of a, I guess, a big design city Boston is.

AM: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

MC: I mean aside from MIT is there, Harvard has their graduate school of design, etc., but even if you look at just the architecture and things like that, every time I've been to Boston, I've been surprised by just how robust the design culture is there, and it sounds like with advertising, probably plays into that probably as well.

AM: Yeah, there's some great agencies there as well.

MC: Now you've worked also at a number of other agencies before landing where you're at now at Ten35. For people out there that are listening that may want to go into the agency life, but don't know what it's like. Can you give some pros and cons? What has it been like from your experience?

AM: Usually if you have a job that has really amazing perks, there's probably a reason for that. If you go to the Facebook or Google Campus, and they have amazing food, and happy hours or whatever. It's probably because you guys are gonna be working really hard, and it's the same thing for advertising. It's fun. It's really fun. You're around really creative people. You're making work that you kind of see out in the world, as very cool to go and see like an out of home ad that you did or something pop up on your social media that you created, and to be paid to use your creative talents is very satisfying.

AM: The cons, and it would depend on your personality, and what you want. Cons would be, you have to work very hard to try to create some kind of work life balance, because it can be overtaking sometimes of your life, but you'll find a lot of different people that are in advertising, are already kind of obsessive workaholic people.

MC: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

AM: It's not necessarily a con. It's probably, health wise it might be a con.

MC: How do you find that work life balance?

AM: I don't find there's a lot of it.

MC: Okay.

AM: You have to work at it. You have to stop yourself and have a life, because that also adds to what you can deliver as a creative. If you're out in the world living, and experiencing stuff.

MC: I know this was a while ago, I interviewed Amali Laman. I wanted say this was episode 147 or 148 or something, and one of the things that she talked about that was important that's relevant to what we're talking about now, is about how designers and creatives need to find some type of a balance, a wellness balance, because it's often hard enough to be able to conjure up.

MC: It's often hard enough to be able to conjure up your creativity to be able to deliver between, I don't know, say the hours of 9:00 to 5:00 or whatever, because we know creativity strikes when it does, it's not on a time clock, that sort of thing.

MC: So it can be very strenuous physically, mentally, to kind of put all that out there. So she was talking about the importance of having some balance to that after work so you can replenish yourself. So, I totally get that. I feel like I'm starting to ... I think I was better at it a year ago. And this is not to say before I started my job, which I kind of did, but before I started where I'm at now, which is not to say we don't have a work/life balance, we do. We have a pretty good work/life balance. And they're very good about pulling you to the side if they see, like, "Hey, you might be doing a little bit too much right now, but ..."

MC: I don't know, recently I've been trying to find that balance. So it can be difficult. It's certainly something that I think we're all working at just trying to-

AM: Yeah, it's definitely important. And I am better at it than I was five years ago. It's something that you have to be aware of and know when you just need to take that time [inaudible 00:13:13] replenish, so you have something to give.

MC: Yeah. I'll tell people, before I get burned out, that I'm feeling a little crispy. And usually people know what that means, my friends know what that means. When I say that they're like, "Okay. Let's go out for a drink," or something like that. They get it when I say that. So, even I have to try to recognize that when it's coming in so I can try to do what I can in my off time to stave it off.

MC: One thing that I see designers do, and honestly, I see this from really entrepreneurs. These are not necessarily folks that work in the advertising industry. But I'll see these terms of creative director and art director used interchangeably. You being an art director specializing in art direction, what do you see as the differences between those two roles?

AM: In my experience, a creative director can either be a copywriter or a art director. So, it's just a creative that has basically moved up the ranks and is now managing the creative team. So, as a art director who's now moving into, I'm associate creative director, my specialty would be that I would be more inclined to give direction around the visual side of it, but I should also have the chops to also look at the copywriting, the headlines, and the messaging, and have an opinion on that as well.

AM: So, in advertising, the creative director could be an art director or a copywriter.

MC: So they've kind of got their hands in multiple aspects of the project.

AM: Yeah. You're just guiding the overall vision and making sure that it's on the right path to what you think it should be to sell that work.

MC: Okay. So let's say you've got a new campaign that's coming up. You don't have to mention any that you're actually working on at 10:35. But I'm curious, and I'm sure the audience wants to know as well. How do you approach a new campaign or a new project? What's your process like?

AM: If we're on a pitch for a new business, it's a pretty intensive process, researching, working with the strategy teams to find the insight to understand exactly who we're talking to, who our target is, what they need, what this project is really offering, what's special about it.

AM: So there's a lot of really wrapping your head around and understanding the need. So then you're better able to find what that solution is and to start creating that. So you really start from a very consensual space and some place of truth about what this can really offer, and then you go and create the work. And that's the longest part of it, some long nights working on pitch decks. But, yeah.

MC: So, who are some of your influences? Are there people in the industry that you look up to, that you emulate in terms of your work?

AM: I think about looking up to people and advertising my mind goes to the advertising, heavyweights, kind of Mad Men era of Lee Clow did Apple, George Lois. In terms of advertising, there is an era around the 60s where they really developed this witty, really interesting, unique ways to look at things, versus just hard sell.

AM: So, those iconic people and advertising campaigns are always a benchmark, like, "Man, I would love to make something iconic that makes this huge mark on culture." But, in general, I think, also, I'm really inspired by not even necessarily people in advertising, but just people who are able to create their own lane, build their own worlds. So they can be anybody from artists, like Kehinde Wiley, like you created your own very clear vision and space. Or somebody like George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones. You really built out this world and there's maps and languages and really intrigued and inspired by that.

MC: Okay. Do you have a dream project like that, that you would like to do one day?

AM: You know, when I was a lot younger I wanted to be an author. I wanted to write. And maybe. Maybe that would be a dream project to build some kind of fantasy world, bring that into the world, do some kind of graphic novel or novel. But I haven't been making stuff towards that. But I really appreciate it from the outside.

MC: Doing a graphic novel's on my short bucket list, too. And I'm starting to make small progress, but not enough. I told myself this year, this is gonna be the year that I try to make bigger, larger strides towards it, whether it's putting something out there publicly so just other people can keep me accountable because I've been doing so much of it just on my own offline, like scribbling in journals and stuff, but nothing that's actually out there that could get any sort of tangible feedback to improve. So I know what you mean.

MC: Sometimes you can get just so caught up with your regular work that the thought of doing an additional project on top of that is a lot to undertake.

AM: Yeah, but that's important, too. I definitely think that being accountable and starting to share it with other people can keep you on track.

MC: Yeah. What do you want to accomplish this year? Do you have any big goals for the year?

AM: I think there's more general goals for me this year. I want to ... Actually, what you just said, to hold myself accountable, create some kind of outlet, whether it's a separate Instagram to create more of my own personal work and personal projects. Like I said, I was always very interested in art growing up, so I would paint, I was really into ceramics and sculpture, jewelry-making, all these different things. And so, I really want to make space and time to create my own personal work.

MC: Was it a big culture shock coming from Barbados to the states?

AM: I don't think it was a big culture shock, because American culture is just so ubiquitous everywhere, so although you grow up with your very specific Barbadian/Caribbean culture and there's soca music and all the different types of food and all these different things, you also kind of grew up alongside American culture. So I think that all of the sitcoms and movies and music, you kind of grew up with that as well, so it wasn't a crazy culture shock.

MC: Interesting.

AM: I don't think.

MC: I feel like maybe within the past maybe 5 to 10 years I feel like the concept, at least here in the United States, the concept of blackness throughout the diaspore has become a lot more multifaceted. From people that are from outside, like people from the Caribbean, people from Europe, people from countries in Africa, their influences, all that sort of stuff. Have you started to see that?

AM: I definitely think so. I have a playlist called Faux Island. Faux island beats.

MC: Faux island beats.

AM: [crosstalk 00:21:14] afro beats. Yeah, I feel like there's a lot of different music, you see a lot of different even fabrics, African print kente cloth being incorporated more. I think maybe social media has made it a lot more visible that there's all these other facets to black girl magic or black boy joy or whatever.

MC: I definitely see that.

AM: [crosstalk 00:21:43] for people to see, too.

MC: Yeah, I definitely see that from Twitter. It's so interesting. I'll hear people talk about, "Well, South African Twitter is saying this and Nigerian Twitter is saying that." Even how they perceive memes or just different things in pop culture. It's really interesting to see how much of that has changed so recently.

AM: Yep. That's the beauty of social media.

MC: Oh, yeah. I totally agree with that.

MC: Where do you see advertising going in the future? With the work that you're doing in art direction, where do you see it going into the near future?

AM: I think it's in an interesting space right now. I think, in the past, creativity was, and these larger than life figures were dictating to the clients what they were gonna put out and what was gonna work. And, because there's so many different aspects now that I think clients have to be aware of, you need to be aware of your social media presence, you need to constantly create content. And so, there's a lot more partnerships with a lot of different media entities that are creating content. So it's a little bit different. It's kind of being a [inaudible 00:22:57] all the time, like who are the creatives and who's creating the advertising. It's not necessarily just agencies.

AM: So it'll be interesting to see even within a couple years how agencies are defined. And I think more and more agencies are trying to bring on more production capabilities, and to be able to quickly maybe build in a studio, to be able to quickly put out social media content.

AM: So, yeah, I'll be interested to see where it's going. It's constantly changing the agency models and what they offer.

MC: Have you started to see more of that reliance on popular social media trends?

AM: Not necessarily reliance, but definitely taking into consideration how you're getting this reach. You know what I mean? It might not be TV anymore, it might be you partnering and doing a online series with social media influencers that are really relevant to your product. So definitely taking more into account all these different facets that people are ...

AM: ... into account all these different facets that people are going to view your brand through. I think definitely people are looking more at, not necessarily advertising, just talking to you. Here's this TV ad and it's telling you this, and here's this print ad and it's telling you this, but more of integrating themselves into what you're already viewing and watching, and not being as obtrusive. Just kind of being ... trying to give you a reminder that this brand exists, and we support this influencer, and yeah.

MC: By chance have you seen either of the Fyre Festival documentaries?

AM: I have not, but I have heard a lot about them.

MC: Yeah. The reason I wanted to, kind of I guess, touch into that about social media is, one of the things that I think we're starting to see recently is about how there are these ... I'm loathe to call them agencies, but these social media companies or pop-ups of some sort that are managing to work with much larger brands, making thousands of dollars on social media campaigns, where they basically just lifted a meme or something from someone else.

MC: For example with the Fyre Festival documentary, both of them actually, there's a company called Jerry Media. And then with that they have I think the social media account is called Fuck Jerry. And so basically what they're doing is like, they're taking or repurposing memes or jokes, but they're slightly shifting it so it can fit it with ... Burger King or Wendy's or something like that, like a big brand.

MC: Now we started to see backlash from it, particularly from comedians who realize that oh, these people are stealing jokes, and that's not cool. So I was wondering if that sort of thing, is that something that as an art director or someone that works in advertising, that you are aware of? Is that something that clients ask about, like oh can we make this go viral, that sort of thing?

AM: Yeah, definitely aware of that account. Yeah, people always want to make things go viral, but I think we definitely always start from a place of, we have to create our own content. Like that is just, it's messed up. We're not gonna start with seeing this other video, and then either hopping onto that and trying to make the brand fit in there. I think specifically for me, it's all about creating your own content. Asking to make something go viral is, it's a little bit of a ... that's not how that works. You have no control over that.

AM: You try to make it as engaging as possible, make it as relevant as possible. Maybe work with that influencer to create content, and pay them to create that content ... yeah, not cool.

MC: And I would say even what happens at the end of the day is that company may end up getting known for that viral success, but it's never the agency. Like you'll always hear the company get lauded for oh, they're taking this particular tone on social media or something. But it's never hey, let's look at the ad agency that did that, unless you're reading Ad Age or something like that.

AM: Yeah. I think the ad people would know who did it, but maybe the outside world would never know.

MC: What keeps you motivated and inspired to continue?

AM: I think that because overall, I really love my job. I love when I'm able to just sit and create, because like you talked about earlier, you're creating this from scratch, from nothing. There's no formula for it, so every experience is different. Every assignment is a new opportunity, like this might be the next hugest thing. So yeah, that keeps me really motivated and excited about work. Just the love of creating.

MC: What advice would you give to anybody that wants to take their work to the next level like you have, what would you tell them?

AM: I would tell them to definitely ... there's portfolio reviews that happen. I think if you look around your city, you could probably find them. Look at other people's books that are higher up the chain than you in advertising, and see what about this makes this good. What I may be lacking, maybe it's presentation, maybe it's your kind of attention to detail. Really take a look at how you're presenting yourself.

AM: And also, be confident. Present yourself confidently. I think maybe 50% of it is believing that you are the 100% best ever, and presenting yourself that way.

MC: Yeah, definitely the presentation part is important. I think a lot of people have the belief down, and I'm just saying this from looking at resumes. A lot of people have the belief down. Presentation, not so much. You need to work on the presentation. And so yeah, I think those portfolio reviews are definitely a good idea. One thing that I tell designers, is that it's important for me, like if I'm a hiring manager for example, it's important for me to see what your design process is, rather than just the finished product.

MC: So like sometimes you'll go to a designer's website, and it's all like, nice pretty pictures and mock ups. And it's like okay, that's great, but you can see that anywhere. What was the process behind getting to this point. I wanna see a case study or at least a few paragraphs or some in process work, to get a sense of how you got from nothing to this. Not just here it is. Like seeing what that process is like, and how you thought about color choices or fonts, or what considerations did you have to make because of the budget or because of time to get to this end result.

MC: Because you just see the end result and it's like, that's nice, that's good. If somebody knows that you're capable of doing the work, but it's really, what I've found, it's the thought process behind it. That's what will get you hired. That's what will have people talk about you in rooms where you're not there. That's what makes people know your work, when they can see that process and know that hey, this is an Alanna Marshall campaign, can't you tell. That sort of thing.

AM: Right.

MC: What advice has stuck with you over the years? What's something that you've picked up?

AM: I think we talked earlier about work life balance, but my dad always says, everything in moderation. And I think that kind of ... it speaks to that as well, where it's just like don't go overboard in any one way. Like even with your job, you wanna do a good job, but you have to calm down. We're not doing brain surgery, it's not that deep, relax. I think sometimes it's easy to get really stressed though, and really overwrought with oh, we have to do this, we have to do that, but everything in moderation. Have a little bit of fun, do a little bit of work, do a little bit of creative exploration. Just keep working and trying to find that balance for yourself in life.

MC: Do you feel like you're satisfied creatively?

AM: I think I definitely need to make it a priority to work on my own creative pursuits. I can't remember who said this, but it was a documentary about advertising. I think maybe it was Lee Clow, but he definitely was like, don't look to your job to satisfy you creatively, because it's not for you. You know what I'm saying? You're doing this work to suit the needs of this particular client, and that's a whole other kind of process in itself.

AM: So if you wanna do work that suits your ... 'cause we're not fine artists, you know. You're not creating this work, and this is my vision and this is exactly what I want. You're creating your vision using your skills and your talent to create work that speaks to this particular target, and works for and communicates this message from this particular brand. But if you wanna do work that's all about you, and how you want to bring something to life, then you need to do that work for yourself. You need to create projects for yourself, that you have complete creative control over. So, I think that was really good advice.

MC: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

AM: I don't ... good or bad, I don't really have a mapped out five year plan. The goal for me is always to keep growing, keep evolving as a creative, adding different skill sets and experience, and to just ... I want to be making work that I'm really excited about. And so just to continue on a path where anything that you're doing, or work that you're taking on, is something that you absolutely are excited about doing. And to get to a stage where that's the only thing that you're doing, is kind of the, I think the overall goal.

MC: And just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, and about your work online?

AM: My portfolio site is alannamarshall.com. I also have a LinkedIn, Alanna Marshall, so any updates would be on the website.

MC: All right, sounds good. Well Alanna Marshall, I wanna thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for sharing, just kind of a peek at what it's like working at an agency. And I hope that for folks that are thinking about agency life, or even that are like calling themselves art directors but might not be, get a sense that there's more that goes into it than just the fancy sounding title. There's a lot of work. There's a lot of preparation, there's a lot of moving parts that you have to handle. Certainly, I think in this interview, you've been able to articulate that well and show people just, not only how much goes into it, but your passion for being an art director, and how much it influences you creatively.

MC: Thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

AM: Most definitely. Thank you so much for having me.