How to succeed when you don’t know what you’re doing

October 8, 2019

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Scott Steele
Written By
Scott Steele

I’ve never written a blog post before. But I don’t for a second believe that I can’t do it. I’m currently doing it. I’m sitting in front of my laptop and writing words. Yes, I am doing it. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing but it’s still getting published. Let’s get started.

Okay, I’ve become pretty good at my job – well respected, well paid, and involved in the success of the company as a whole. How did I end up here? I certainly didn’t have grand ambitions of being some self-important/self-righteous Associate Creative Director, managing a bunch of employees’ workloads and schedules, and reviewing their creative work. In fact, not too long ago, I didn’t even know there was a role called an ACD. But I am doing it and apparently I'm doing a pretty damn good job.

I want to make it clear that I didn’t step on anyone to get to where I am. I didn’t grovel or beg or read a self-help book about success. I didn’t make moves, or even technically graduate from college though I have a design diploma (ask me about that sometime). And by success I don’t necessarily mean the ladder-climbing type. I’m talking about personal success and job satisfaction. Everything I’ve ever heard or read about "success" has informed me that my nonchalant and somewhat ignorant approach to my career is the exact opposite way to achieve success. But, I’ve chosen to ignore all the self-help baloney and help myself succeed.  

I’ve never been overly intelligent. People who are amaze me. Scientists and stuff. Christ. I have some undiagnosed reading issues (no fun). I have the memory of a senile old man (oh no). I’ve left the office every day and had to return (no joke) because I forgot something like my keys, wallet, laptop, cellphone, jacket, hat, backpack, or some other modern day, life-critical, return worthy thing at my desk. Retaining information is like holding on to a squirming fish covered in K-Y Jelly. I can’t take notes in meetings because I write so slow that I miss important things being said. You will tell me your name and I can literally feel it slip from ear to ear and drip casually down the side of my cheek like a sorrowful tear. And of course, I’ll smile and walk away and then lean towards someone that knows your name and ask them to tell me what it is because I truly want to know, and they do… but I will promptly forget once more.

So, how does a guy like me end up having a successful career as a creative manager in a somewhat large independent agency in this crazy industry that is advertising? Well, after some rigorous shower thinking, I’ve managed to create a list of 9 key strategies to success for people who have no right being successful – like me.


1) Be a yes kind of person

In college, I had an instructor named Joe Raffa (if you read this Joe, hello). He told our class a story about a guy who accepted an animation project even though he really wasn’t qualified for it. But, over a single weekend, he did it. He dug in. He made the decision that “I can’t” or “I don’t know how” wasn’t good enough for him. And that struck me because for the better part of my life, at least up until that point, I was most certainly saying “I can’t” or “I don’t know how”. Luckily for me, I learned quite early in my career to say yes to pretty much anything that came my way. Not only has this allowed me to become a versatile designer, animator, creative thinker, layout artist, art director, and writer of things – it has also unexpectedly changed the way people interact with me. To them, I’m a go-getter, a swing-for-the-fences kind of guy, a Mr. Reliable a “How did you make it look that good that fast” kind of person. And making a positive impression on those people has ensured that I am an indispensable asset to the company I work for.

Before we move on, I must thank my lack of self-control and my crippling need to please everyone for this level of success. Thank you, anxiety-riddled me.


2) Be a person kind of person

I’ve met a lot of titles in my time in this industry and not all of them are people. Sure, they might be people at home, or with their side hustle or something, but a lot of them just don’t feel like people. I’ve met Art Directors who act like Art Directors, I’ve met Copywriters who act like Copywriters, and CEO’s who act like CEO’s, and a bunch of Creative Directors who act like dicks. But, nobody has to act the part. You don’t have to follow the convention. You can be a human being in this industry. You don’t have to take part in the after-work drink-a-thon. You can be a parent. You can live in the suburbs if you like. You can do whatever makes you, you. The best-of-the-best in our industry are like this. The top people. The rest just kind of follow suit and act like they think a person with their title is supposed to act. Here’s a tip: Be honest and humble, be kind, don’t start industry cliques, have lunch with your co-workers around a big table, talk about mundane crap, have lunch with your industry competitors, don’t be afraid to show weakness and humanity, and please for the love of all that is holy don’t act like you're special because you work in advertising. Just be who you are and try not to get swayed into the façade.


3) Aim to please, shoot to thrill

Being a yes person is great and a person person is even better. But, you could say yes to every project and be the nicest guy and still under-deliver. The key is to make sure that for any project, (and I do mean any) aim to please. That might seem a wee bit obvious. Like, who wants to do a project that sucks. But it will suck if you don’t put in the effort. The jam. It’s the above and beyond approach. That extra mile. The mind-blower. After you’ve said yes to a project you have no idea how to do, it’s imperative that you figure out how to do it as good – or better – than those who do it on a regular basis. YouTube is a great place to start making headway on this point.


4) Your work isn’t precious

I am not a sentimental person by nature. I forget to take pictures at family events. I don’t collect anything except major debt. I don’t have possessions that carry a deep and profound meaning to me. I don’t keep a tally of the awards I’ve won (I really should update my LinkedIn profile someday). People have talked to me about work that that I’ve done and I don’t even remember doing that work. How awkward. That doesn’t happen too often, but it happens often enough to prove that I don’t consider my work to be precious to me. The work I do doesn’t define me. I define me. I also define my work. That’s not to say I’m not proud of the work I’ve done in my career. It has crafted the creative person I am today. What I mean is that I’d rather be talking about what I’m working on right now than the work I’ve done in the past. When it’s done, it’s done, and it’s time to move on. Sure, I want the awards and I want the spectacle and all that. It’s a fun time. But the real benefit isn’t bragging's a means to get more creative work in the shop. I’ve seen what happens when a person uses their previous work or accolades as a crutch. It stagnates creativity, it doesn’t allow for fresh or inventive thinking, and it’s a career killer. You can only ride that train for so long before it gets old, and trust me, everything gets old eventually. Even Keanu Reeves.

“I’d rather be talking about what I’m working on right now than work I’ve done in the past.”


5) Never do the same thing twice

Whether it was on purpose or pure laziness, I never really developed a creative style. That always seemed boring to me. I don’t have 100,000 hours to spend on becoming a master of something. I’m a dabbler. I like to try a little bit of everything. I like things to be consistently different. In the span of a week, I’ve jumped from a suicide prevention campaign to a brand for a food accelerator program to ads for a liquor store to reviewing logo designs from our YYC team to doing type treatments for a cannabis social responsibility campaign. That’s partly to do with ZGM being great at diversifying its client portfolio but it also has to do with me just being me and forcing my way into all kinds of different projects and never saying no to a job. I have never wanted my work to look like other work that I’ve done, either. Sometimes, it looks like stuff other people have done, but that’s a different story altogether and the downside of my industry ignorance every once in a while. Every project I work on has its own creative problem to solve. So, I approach each one without reusing things I’ve done in the past. It’s always a blank slate and it’s more fun that way. I refuse to paint by numbers. I can’t paint by numbers because I’ll have lost the paints somewhere in the office.


6) Status quo is failure, always

Status quo for any project is bullsh*t. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel to create something fresh. Making something just a little bit nicer, a little bit easier to use, a little bit friendlier, a little bit cooler is enough to consider a project a success. Remember that project with that horrible logo that you had to use because the client just went through a branding process and didn’t want to change it to suit your creative vanity? I’ve known many creatives that would purposely let that project suffer and do a lesser job because it’s not rewarding to work on. Bullsh*t again. Defeated by a f***ing drawing. What a piss poor excuse to allow yourself to fail. What if instead you decided to put your all into the project and make the client super happy with all the small, cool, interesting little things you put into the ask. What happens then? Maybe you start building a bit of a relationship, a rapport with this client. They think you’re the bee’s knees. They take you out for drinks and maybe somewhere at the night’s climax you end up in a back-alley brawl, back-to-back, fending off drunk ninja dudes with broken bottle nunchucks for weapons. And your new client friend goes: “If we get out of this alive man, it’s definitely time for that new logo. You were right, it’s kind of ugly. Hiiiyaaa”.

Small wins are still wins. Making something a little better step-by-step is something to be proud of. Because it’s not always about award-worthy work or the portfolio piece; sometimes it’s about making something a little bit more special than it was before and making a new client friend in the process.


7) Underdog mentality, always

They say you should dress for success but I’ve never really been able to achieve that. I just present myself as I am (which I know to some, leaves something to be desired). When we pitched our first campaign for a large new client, I was brought in to present the campaign creative. I didn’t know this at the time but our client leaned in to Ric, our managing director and said, “So you brought the b-team, eh?”. We blew him away. And it got me thinking about false perception and the underdog theory. I’ve come to the realization that my strategy in this regard is to be the dumbest looking smartest person in the room in any given situation. Have you ever watched a movie with low-expectations and that movie just ended up blowing your brains out the back of your head because of its sheer awesomeness (Bone Tomahawk anyone)? I love walking into a client meeting or pitch knowing they are going to look at me and go, “ohhh sh*t, who did we hire?”. And then just nonchalantly melt their faces with some fantastic thing that completely solves all their problems and goes above and beyond what they asked for.

But the underdog mentality isn’t just about client presentations. If I’m the best at anything it’s realizing that I’m not the best at anything. I’m my own underdog. I’m constantly underestimating myself. Which, for some people, that would be a negative (it was to me for years and still is sometimes). I’ve worked extremely hard to try and turn a negative self-view into a positive. Instead of trying to rid myself of the feeling, I use it as a fuel to inspire myself over and over and over again. When I feel like I’m not doing a good job or that nobody appreciates my work, I just f***ing try harder and harder and harder until I can validate my efforts to myself, and by that time I’ve usually over-delivered immensely and everyone (including myself) is satisfied with the result.


8) Inspiration Overload

I make a point in my career to be mindfully ignorant of the industry I work in. I know that sounds completely counterintuitive...but hear me out. In this day and age, it’s extremely easy to get overwhelmed with ideas, inspiration, and creative “genius”. It’s everywhere you look. There’s this phenomenon I refer to as “inspiration overload”. It’s when a person is overly inspired by every single trend, every popular designer, every new piece of tech, every new way of doing things, until there is no room to have a single original thought of your own. Now, I’m not a “the old days were the good days” kind of dinosaur, but I don’t want to be overloaded with so much content that I can’t see the difference between good ideas and ideas that are temporarily on-trend. There’s a clarity to remaining ignorant until it’s absolutely necessary to not be ignorant any longer. If I get stumped or hit a creative roadblock, I’ll dip my cup in that good ol’ 'inspo-well' and take a drink of lovely Behance or Communication Arts or Strategy Magazine or Under Consideration etc. I’ll find a few snippets that help me with the project I’m working on and then leave the rest up to my brain to inform what his hopefully a unique and thoughtful approach to whatever the problem is. I’ve been known to fake my inspiration to follow industry presentation conventions from time to time, when in reality, I just came up with it all on my own. I’d rather be the person doing the inspiring to be completely honest.


9) Be your f***ing self

It’s the thing I’m most proud of about in my career. I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not. Forgetfulness be damned. I’m not better or worse than anyone in or out of my industry. I’m just a human being. An awkward, anxious mess with a complex and muddled mind. A little crude and a bit rough around the edges. I’m happy with that. Being true to myself at work allows me to put a little bit of my personality into everything that I’m lucky enough to be a part of. And although I have no clue what I’m doing the majority of the time, I know that if I stay true to myself and remain passionate and positive with my work and my co-workers, I will remain successful in this industry.


Congratulations! You’ve witnessed a historical event. My first blog post has come to its inevitable conclusion. And just like everything else I do, I gave it everything I had. If there is one final point to make. It’s to get help when you need it. Like how I needed an editor for this blog post because I’m not a professional writer and my grammar is atrocious. 

Journey before destination my friends.

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