That's What He Said: Lessons in Self-Branding From Michael Scott

Infinite wisdom on the art of standing out

I recently did two things—rebuilt my personal website and rewatched one of my favorite episodes of The Office. 

It's the one where Michael mistakenly thinks he needs to make a commercial for his Dunder Mifflin branch. He quickly finds out that he's wrong—he doesn't need to come up with or make anything on his own—but he does so anyway, and stakes his entire reputation on its success. 

It's funny, because … well, almost every episode of The Office is funny, but more specifically, the ad he winds up making is good. I know it's a fake commercial on a sitcom and includes the tagline, "Dunder Mifflin. Unlimited paper for a paperless world," but I still say it's one of the better commercials I've seen. It draws you in, makes you pay attention, and you'd want to see it again. That's one thing about advertising that is easily overlooked: Not all ads need to do everything, but if it's entertaining and gets people's attention, you're in a great spot.

Like Michael, I also did some self-promotion recently in the form of rebuilding my personal website. I wanted to showcase myself in four parts: as an advertising creative director, an artist, a side-hustler, and a family man. To add more personality, I made video headers for each of these sections. Granted, the videos are a far cry from the magnum-opus Michael Scott ad, but the videos and the website are amusing for visitors and accurately reflect who I am and what I do. The whole exercise of putting a finer point on who I am was a good thing to do, and wound up being fun.

But back to Michael Scott. He always came off as pretty unaware just how difficult he was as a boss, friend, boyfriend and general person to be around. On the other hand, he was acutely aware of his own hobbies/interests, his style of humor, his delivery, and his overall brand (that's not always a great pairing, but for this point it is, so stay with me). He was constantly scanning conversations, looking for the perfect pause to blurt out, "That's what she said," which would often be followed with a deliberate look to someone in the conversation or directly at the camera, assuring the joke didn't pass by without his much-earned credit. Moreover, he wasn't afraid to grab the spotlight whenever possible. When it comes to branding, you need to make the product the hero. And if self-promotion is the objective, despite his failings, we should all be a little more like Michael Scott.

Admittedly, I'm no Michael Scott. But I have been a creative in advertising for the better part of two decades, and with each passing year I put more importance on my own personal brand. One would think pretty much all people working in advertising would be great at branding and promoting themselves, but … not really. It's not even that we're bad at it; it's more that we tend to look like everyone else in the same pool we're swimming in. Which can be fine, but my question is: Why not take a harder look, treat yourself like a client, do whatever you can to stand out and set yourself apart?

So, with the infinite wisdom of our sherpa Michael Scott, I invite you to dive into the world of self-branding.

Know who you are.

"I'm an early bird and I'm a night owl. So, I'm wise and I have worms." —Michael Scott

Some of us know ourselves better than others. Those who have a better grasp might head to Spencer Gifts and buy themselves a "World's Best Boss" mug. Others of us don't have as much clarity on what we uniquely offer to the world. But here's the thing: When it comes to self-branding, you've got to know who you are and what you're about.

For instance, I've eaten an entire bag of Doritos as a meal on multiple occasions, I was a late bedwetter, half of my childhood was spent watching syndicated sitcoms, and over the years I've learned to mold the brand/voice of many companies. Of these facts, the last one seems most pertinent for what we're doing, but don't discount the first three, because that's what starts making your brand yours.

So grab a notepad and start answering these questions to the best of your ability:

• Who am I?
• What do I like doing?
• What do I like about myself?
• What do others like about me?

Then, let's get more specific about what exactly you're attempting to brand. For these questions, the more specific answers the better. Try to get down to something more pointed, whether it's one sentence or even one word.

• What is it that I want to offer the world?
• What is my branding objective?
• How do I want to put this image out onto the world?

It's helpful to repeat some of these questions to colleagues, friends and family, and see how well the answers line up. At this point, it's important to establish north on your compass, in order to get everything else going. You can look back to these answers not only as you start your branding, but at any point, to make sure things continue to line up.

Once you've established exactly who/what you are, it's time to own it. Like Michael says, "I am Beyoncé, always."

Survey the landscape.

"There are four kinds of business: Tourism, food service, railroads and sales. And hospitals slash manufacturing, and air travel." —Michael Scott

You are special and unique. Congratulations! So is everyone else. This is why you need to have a sense of what's going on in your industry, who's doing what, and why you matter within it. Say you're a puzzle piece. You might be an edge piece, or even a corner piece, in which case you have a pretty good idea where you belong. But maybe you're one of those nondescript pieces that's weird and small, the top is solid blue, and you're starting to wonder if the piece snuck out of a Frosty the Snowman puzzle and doesn't belong here at all. In this case, it's even more important to have a lay of the land, because finding where you fit is going to be a bigger challenge.

The landscape around you will vary quite a bit from person to person and industry to industry. You might be in a management position where knowing the desires, quirks and personalities of the people who work in your office is of interest. You may want to move up to a corporate level, in which case you'll definitely want to get an idea of how that works and potentially reconsider any flings with your newly divorced boss that escalated into a Sandals Jamaican Resort vacation. You may work in an industry like paper sales, where the entire world around you is going paperless; in that case, you'll definitely want to have a decent idea of what opportunities lie within and outside your industry.

Talk to colleagues, read trade publications, search job postings, inquire for informational interviews, seek out a mentor, or not. If you have this info, you can find ways to glean parts that build your reputation and give you something to talk about, but also find areas where there is an opening to be different and stand out in the right ways.

Play the part of your audience.

"We're all homos. Homo sapiens." —Michael Scott

You know that first day of Spanish class in middle school/high school when the teacher shows you a list of Spanish words you already sort of know the meaning of? Words like "interesente." The teacher then would say there are hundreds of words like this in the Spanish language. The same idea applies when considering who you are speaking to, and how you might grab their attention.

There is a lot you can put together by putting yourself in the seat of whoever you're trying to talk to. If it's a consumer of a product you're selling, strip away the deeper-level stuff you've learned being a part of the product and go back to square one. Think how you would react to what you're putting out there. Would you be more interested in this product if they demonstrated how it works? Would it need something more, like a rap video or a video dropped from a plane, to get you to care at all? Poo-Pourri did a great job of this by embracing toilet humor to both entertain and educate viewers on what their product is.

Maybe your audience is a little more narrow than, say, any human being who takes a dump. Maybe it's a potential boss. There are certain things about this person you just don't know, but that's OK. Take the things you do know, things you've heard about this person, read in articles or seen in social media, be a stalker (in a legal and not-too-creepy sort of way). Then take the intel you've gained into account.

If you have any insight to what their motivation is within their job, that's valuable, too. This person might be a bottom-line person, where they just want to make money, and if you can help them make money, that's all they care about. They could be big on culture, so you can play up your personality, interests and teamwork. Or maybe they just want to be liked, admired and thought of as a best friend all at the same time, like Michael. In which case, in your first conversation with him, you could spontaneously bust into, "I want my baby back, baby back, baby back, I want my baby back, baby back, baby back…" and suggest the interview take place over a Bloomin' Onion at Chili's. As long as you have some idea of what their greater motivator is, just put yourself in their shoes.

If you have a good sales record, play that up. If you're more unproven but willing to put in the hours and go above and beyond, then say that. Better yet, show that. Make something specifically for this person (again, not too creepy) that illustrates areas of this job that you want to be doing more of. It probably won't be perfect, but it shows effort and that you mean business.

Just because this person is in a higher-level position doesn't mean they are going to be all that different than you. As Michael points out, "You may look around you and see two different groups of people. White-collar. Blue-collar. But I don't see it that way. You know why not? Because I am 'collar blind.' "

Make a process.

"And I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do." —Michael Scott

Not knowing where to start is normal when it comes to many things. You can learn a lot about process by seeing how other people have done it. Take what you can find online, then fill in the gaps with your own knowledge of where you are and where you want to go and you'll be able to come up with something. In fact, the process is usually within your own head. Searching other processes just helps get you in that headspace.

I want to lay out two different versions of a process. The first is from Michael Scott. The second is the basic flow of any advertising campaign I've worked on.

a) Michael's winning process for paper sales success:

• Make friends first.
• Make sales second.
• Make love third.
In no particular order.

b) General process of creating an advertising campaign by an agency.

• Starting point. Work with client to establish scope and objective of campaign.
• Research. Hold focus groups, pull research, get an idea of what the consumers of this product are like, and how they feel about this category, and your brand.
• Briefing. Take the information and brief teams to start solving for a solution.
• Present ads. Creative ideas are presented and chosen.
• Production. Bring the chosen campaign to life.
• Media plan. Map out how, where and when these ads will get out into the world.
• Launch campaign. Put the ads into the world as planned.
• Evaluate. See how the ads are doing and optimize where needed.

If you're doing something yourself, you can probably delete certain sections of that process, like a media plan or even making love. Regardless, pay attention to the flow and implement for your specific use. You have to start somewhere, establish a goal, research, come up with a briefing document (or something to aim toward), bring ideas to execute (be choosy), pick one, make that into reality, put it into use, track how it's doing, and iterate on that if need be.

The process doesn't have to be perfect; it just has to give you a roadmap from beginning to end.

Do it yourself.

"Number 8. Learn how to take off a woman's bra: You just twist your hand until something breaks." —Michael Scott

Learning how to unlatch a bra can be both unnatural and humiliating for a young man. But you know what? It's one of those things you learn how to do, dammit.

Doing things yourself often means doing things poorly. At first. It can be a pain, not to mention it takes away from your Netflix intake. Believe me, I have great sympathy for that. But getting more things done yourself is a superpower. It allows you to not have to rely on others as much, which is especially important when your next option is calling in favors that can slow you down and turn friends into former friends. You don't have to do it all yourself forever, of course. Hopefully you get to a point where you can hire out others to help, and you'll be able to provide better and more productive feedback since you've done it.

Take Michael, for example. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with the employees in the warehouse, but he thought he was always able to connect with them because he, too, had his roots in a warehouse. Not that warehouse, but he reminds us all that he was once a greeter at Men's Wearhouse.

In redoing my portfolio site, I went through a whole process I created. It took me a while, mostly because I did as much of it myself that I could. I'm a creative director with a copywriting background, but I've always had interest and opinions in design, art direction and digital and video production. While making the website, I wore many hats and was able to hit on all those things. I built it through Squarespace, which made it way easier than any website I'd built before. That doesn't mean you won't get caught on little details that will drive you crazy, but with a Google search you can usually figure it out. I designed everything myself just by messing around and trusting my taste. I was lucky to enlist a very talented friend to help shoot and edit the videos. I could have done that myself, too, but he was willing to help and it made a difference in quality.

I was happy with where the website landed, and I feel even more confident in doing more things like this again in the future, now that I've done it. Bottom line, the more you can do (or get done) on your own, the better.

Your best client is you. Or at least, it should be.

"You should never settle for who you are." —Michael Scott

Presenting creative work for other people to judge is not always fun. It's easy to get defensive when not everything is received with roaring applause. Michael once said, "Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it's not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised."

Whether you're Michael or not, it can be easy to sour on a client if your ideas keep getting shot down again and again. But often there is more to that story. They usually have a point in what they're saying (or attempting to say), and if you're not going in with thick skin and keeping an open mind, you'll miss what they're actually looking for. It's really not that different when the subject of your branding assignment is you. Things can get a little awkward if you let them. But here's a piece of advice: Don't let them.

Your self-branding assignment should be no different than any client job—you want to produce something really good. And on the other side, you want to greenlight something really good. Just do that, then, right?

Well, yes and no. It's good to look at things this way, and of course you should be striving to make the coolest thing you can. But that thing needs to meet your objectives as well. There can be a temptation to make something amazing, which can keep you stuck in a place of not making anything at all. This goes back to the process, giving yourself deadlines and sticking to those. We need to know when to actually pick something and get on with it already.

It's OK to make a decision and trust in it. Like Michael, in reflecting on his feelings toward Toby: "If I had a gun with two bullets, and if I was in a room with Hitler, Bin Laden and Toby, I would shoot Toby twice." It starts and ends with a mindset of trusting your own taste of how things should and shouldn't be, how things ought to look and sound. Act like your brand depends on making the right choices.

Take risks.

"There is no such thing as an appropriate joke, that's why it's a joke." —Michael Scott

The brands that break through do so by standing out. They took risks that paid off. Most brands point to others brands they want to be like—often, Nike and Apple. Both amazing brands, undoubtedly, but both brands that avoided copycatting and blazed new trails to forge their own unique brands in the process. These brands are juggernauts, much like Michael's personal heroes: Bob Hope, Abraham Lincoln, Bono and God.

Forget legendary brands for a minute, though, and let's back things up to smaller stakes. Taking risks doesn't require having big production budgets or even nice products like shoes and electronics; there are many other ways to stick out. Bandini was selling fertilizer in the '80s and they were looking for an ad campaign but didn't have much money. They used the little money they had to rent a helicopter—specifically, to lift a snow skier to the top of a giant mound of fertilizer to ski down, all for the purpose of being filmed and used as a TV commercial. Needless to say, it got them some attention.

But taking risks doesn't even have to be that creative; it could just be looking at the core message you need to get across and leaning into that. Like really leaning into it. In the early 2000s, there was a product that claimed to relieve headaches called "Head On." The infomercial was 15 seconds, most of which was filled with the announcer repeating, "Head On. Apply directly to the forehead." To my knowledge, those ads failed to win any sort of creative awards, but people sure did remember them. Sometimes it's the visual, sometimes it's the words; either way, you want the audience to feel like Michael after he met a special someone.

"Well, it's love at first sight. Actually, it was ... No, it was when I heard her voice. It was love at first see with my ears."

Doing is greater than planning.

"Sometimes I'll start a sentence and I don't even know where it's going. I just hope I find it along the way." —Michael Scott

You can have all the gear, the prep, the outline, the plan, the backup plan, all of the things you think you need, but if you never jump off the diving board then what's the point?

I don't undervalue the skills of planning, producing or crafting at all. But if any of those things are standing in the way of you getting your self-promotion out into the world, just pick and choose what works for you. Making something and putting it out into the world is the No. 1 objective here, and if that's only possible without the extensive planning (and whatever else may be getting in your way), then that's fine. Forget those things for now. Because ultimately, doing is greater than planning.

We all have different mindsets, distractions and motivations. Michael once said, "I guess I've been working so hard, I forgot what it's like to be hardly working." I've made a lot of TV commercials for different ad agencies. Soup to nuts, the process usually takes anywhere from a month to over a year. When I make stuff on my own with friends and colleagues, that process looks more like a couple weeks to a couple hours. The goal with projects on our own is to make sure we make something, so the planning can take various forms, but you gotta do what you gotta do to make things happen.

Alright, let's tie a ribbon on today's lesson.

"Sometimes you have to take a break from being the kind of boss that's always trying to teach people things. Sometimes you just have to be the boss of dancing." —Michael Scott

We can't all be like Michael, nor would many of us want to be. He loved nothing more than standing in front of a room with all eyes on him, no matter what he was doing at the time. For most people, that sounds like a nightmare.

Self-promotion can be awkward. It takes effort that you have to carve out in addition to your regular life, and it can be thankless since it's pretty much only for you. Also, we're not going to get all of it right. But it's worth trying. And if you're going to try, you might as well try to do it well. For Michael, when it comes to expectations, he tells us: "The only time I set the bar low is for limbo."

Do a little homework, and don't be afraid to take the leap. One more thought of encouragement from our boy Mr. Scott: "May your hats fly as high as your dreams."

Exactly.

Profile picture for user Jeffrey Butterworth
Jeffrey Butterworth
Jeffrey Butterworth is a creative director at GSD&M.

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