Agency creatives: overcoming your inner “sell-out”



Painting by Shannon LeeWhen I was in art school, I majored in visual communications. However, I loved to paint and took a lot of fine art classes. Even though I was studying to be a graphic designer, I longed to be one of the fine artists. I’ll never forget a story from one classmate. A woman asked to commission an art piece from him—but it needed to match the color of her couch. He was appalled.

“I soon learned that fine artists thought
graphic designers were total sell-outs.”

I didn’t tell my artist friends, but at night I designed direct mail coupons. The deadlines were harsh—my introduction to all-nighters—but I learned a ton about design layout, print production and business. Still, all the while, I felt like a sell-out.

For my Senior Show, I had this grand idea to display a mini-gallery of my paintings on one side, and wallpaper the opposite side with those ugly direct mail coupons—my commentary on real art vs. non-art.

Colleen and Shannon at graduation

Colleen and Shannon at graduation

But my boss had become the closest thing to a mentor I’d ever had, and she was traveling a long distance to see my Senior Show. (I am still close with Colleen today and have a tremendous amount of admiration for her—she taught me what it’s like to be a female in business.) So I didn’t do it.

Today, as a director of creative work and people, I still struggle to overcome that concept—artistry on one side, advertising on the other. However, now I believe in the tremendous opportunity of being able to blend the two.



We creatives who didn’t set out to be “starving artists” often choose to do our client work during the day, and save our real artistry for nights or weekends.

But do our jobs and our art really have to be separate? When we bring our artistry to our client work, that’s where the magic happens.

One of my favorite StudioNorth projects this year was the World Relief 70th Anniversary book. Watching our Art Director, Marilyn Frank, work this project was truly seeing an artist in her element. The book could’ve been any typical hardbound book with pretty photos, trendy typography, interesting pull quotes and a clean layout.


But it was anything but typical—a concept grounded in bringing awareness to the world’s refugees and their (often) loss of identity. My favorite artistic detail is in the spine—each book was hand-stitched using threads based on the brand color palette. Her work earned a prestigious Graphis Design Annual 2016 award, was featured on the design blog Under Consideration, and showcased in a case study on Mohawk Felt & Wire.

Sound like the work of a sell-out?



There was a time when the word marketing made me cringe. A few years ago, when someone suggested we rebrand StudioNorth as a marketing company, I disagreed. I refused to think I worked for a “marketing company”—I created design and art! It was thoughtful and provocative, not collateral fluff!

But today, as I dive deeper into the complex realms of personas, content strategy and integrated channels, I’m learning that today’s personalized and sophisticated approach to marketing is not so different from artistry after all.

Art is about connecting with your audience on an emotional level—and often about inspiring action. Marketing, believe it or not, is about that too. Marketers, designers, writers, and even brands can all shift perceptions, tug at heartstrings and inspire action—and that’s a very powerful space to play in.


I’d like to encourage each of us to think beyond “creating” just to achieve a business goal. You don’t have to compromise your artistry—bring it into your work. Let your values and beliefs shine through. Embrace this new canvas. You’ll be proud of the results, I promise.

And to my past 22-year old self, I’d also like to say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be an artist after all – just not the type you expected.”


Shannon Lee

Shannon Lee

Creative Director

When StudioNorth Creative Director Shannon Lee isn't inspiring her team to create unique and memorable engagements between brands and their customers, you might find her taking in some Mozart at the Lyric Opera, cooking a Korean dinner, or just chilling at home with her husband, three children and 95-lb Golden Retriever.

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