Professional Perspectives: Karl Sakas


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose.  By any other name would smell as sweet”.  Shakespeare may have been right when it comes to roses, but not when it comes to branding. As a designer your name and brand are vital to your career.  Brands are not reserved for major companies. Your brand will help you stand out from the crowd, shapes your persona as a designer, gets you remember and can get you hired. As we learned from Alina Wheeler during her AIGA talk in 2013, your brand needs to answer these questions:

Who are you? Who needs to know? How will they find out? Why should they care?

Having a strong brand and using it effectively can be a full time job, but if done right, it can land you a dream job/project.  Building your brand as a trustworthy designer goes past a logo and a business card.  It is also your reputation, work ethic, and who knows you.  Branding involves networking. This week we have Karl Sakas to help us understand the importance of a personal brand, how to use it and where to market your brand.

What is your background in design?
I was a web designer in high school and college but eventually transitioned to do marketing, project management, and business operations. As a PM at two web agencies, I managed designers in addition to developers and strategists. Today, I advise owners of digital marketing agencies, including design firms

How many AIGA Raleigh Portfolio Reviews have you attended and critiqued?
I’m looking forward to sharing feedback with students at my third Portfolio Review in 2014.

What is a personal brand and why is it important?
“Personal brand” is another word for your professional reputation. Having a good reputation will open doors. Having a bad reputation will close doors you don’t even realize were closed. Having no reputation is better than a bad reputation but I wouldn’t recommend keeping a low profile. People hire people they know and trust.

What key pieces make up a strong personal brand?
Your brand is a mix of what you say about yourself and what other people say about you, both in person and online. For designers, an online portfolio is a minimum. There’s no excuse for saying you don’t have an online portfolio when there are services to handle the programming for you.

To go above and beyond, use the social media tools that hiring managers use. That’s LinkedIn at a minimum, and (if you’re looking for a job in marketing) Twitter.

If you like writing, consider publishing a blog with your opinions on marketing and design. If you’re not a huge writing fan, a service like Tumblr lets you easily mix images and shorter text updates, without the writing commitment of publishing a traditional blog 2-4  times a month.

Don’t discount in-person meetings. Volunteer with industry trade associations and other groups. If someone can hire someone they’ve volunteered with, versus someone they’ve never met… they’ll typically hire the person they’ve met, or at least give them a chance at an interview.

In 2010, I did informational interviews with 75 people over nine months. I’m still in touch with many of those people. I just got a speaking opportunity through someone I met four years ago. You never know.

When you have the option of spending an extra 90 minutes tweaking a project, versus meeting someone in the industry for coffee… do coffee. You still need to get your projects done, but the potential payoff of that coffee (in building your network, meeting someone who could recommend you to others, and so on) is so much higher.

In what format should a personal brand be shared? What are your recommendations? (e.g. social media outlets, portfolio/website recommendations, physical formats — resume, business card, etc.)
Use a mix of online and offline methods. That includes an online portfolio, social media, and business cards. You probably won’t need a physical resume ’til you’re invited to an interview.

Your business card is a business “prop,” part of the social nicety of meeting someone in a business setting. Exchanging cards let you follow up. Follow up within a couple days or else people may forget you.

As a designer, when you’re designing your business card, know when enough is enough. Will it be that much better if you spend 20 hours on it versus 10 hours? It might be somewhat better but it certainly won’t be twice as good. This is a good introduction to budget management. As a designer, you’ll typically need to get things done for a set budget. Your work needs to be good enough within the budget, not perfect. Clients don’t approve unlimited budgets.

What vital information should a resume include when tailored to an entry-level designer position? What supplied information would allow a student to stand out?
If you want to stand out, make sure your resume shows how you’ve gotten results (e.g., “created digital campaign materials that produced 20% ROI”) and that you’ve done a variety of internships (ideally a mix of agency and in-house).

This shows me two things. First, it shows you understand that design is about solving business problems. Second, it shows you’ve worked in a variety of settings and I won’t have to spend as much onboarding time about what it means to work in a professional environment.

If you’re applying for a role at an agency, highlight any customer service experience, regardless of where it was. If you can deal with drunk customers while working at a bar, that’s a good indicator of being able to handle difficult clients at an agency.

A student is interested in applying for an entry-level designer position at “Example Design Firm,” what would you suggest as the method of initial contact? An email? A love letter? A reference?
The best initial contact, by far, is an introduction email sent by someone I know and trust. If someone I know and trust said I should meet you (or speak with you, or at least give their application a longer-than-usual look).

A few years ago, I introduced an agency owner to his first project manager, who turned out to be an amazing hire. If I send him a candidate again, you can be sure he’ll pay attention. This also means that I won’t send introductions unless I’m comfortable with the person I’m introducing. When someone makes an introduction, their reputation is on the line.

Assume that the person you’re contacting (e.g., the Creative Director, Marketing Director, or agency owner) gets several hundred emails a week. If you’re cold-emailing them, it better be short and 100% about how they benefit from responding to you. Otherwise, you’re just another ignorable sales pitch.

This is tough, because you want to show you spent enough time getting to know that that you think it’s a fit, but not so much time that you’re inappropriately obsessed with them. It’s like sending an online dating email; you need to find a good balance.

A student enjoys the work created by “Example Design Firm” and would love to be a part of the team. In what ways could a student develop a connection to the firm and see if they would like to apply? (e.g. networking)
Ideally, get on their radar several years before you need a job. Volunteer with AIGA Raleigh and get known as someone who gets things done. Connect with other volunteers on LinkedIn. Eventually, you’ll either volunteer with someone from the firm, or you’ll volunteer with people who know people there. Then you can ask them for an intro — not as someone they just met, but someone they’ve known for a year and have worked with on several projects.

Time-consuming? Yes. Effective? Yes.

I got hired for a job based on my trade association volunteering. An agency owner cold-emailed me one day, saying, “Karl, I don’t know if you’re looking for a job, but if you are, we could use someone like you.” He’d seen my attention to detail (as a fellow volunteer on the trade association’s board). I got an interview without anyone having seen my resume, because the agency owner had seen for himself that I’d be a great match.

After a resume submission, interview, and “Thank you” note, should a student follow up with the hiring manager about the status of the position? If so, how long should they wait?
Followup timelines will depend on the firm.

For applications, bigger firms tend to be black holes, where no one cares; the same can happen with small firms, where people might care but they’ve too busy to follow up. The ideal is asking a mutual contact to ping the hiring manager. If you don’t have a mutual contact, send a short email long the lines of, “I’m still interested in X position. Do you have a sense of timeline?” But wait at least 2-4 weeks. As management expert Alison Green notes at her excellent Ask a Manager blog, hiring managing time is a lot slower than job candidate time.

Is there an industry preferred leave-behind format?
 For me, “None.” If you want to show examples of your work, I’d do an electronic version of what you show in person. A traditional Creative Director might disagree with me, but when I’ve interviewed people as a Director of Operations at an agency, interview candidates folders and binders are just taking up space on my already-full desk.

Are leave-behinds important?
It depends on the company. You might have a leave-behind, but ask the interviewer if they want it. Don’t be offended if they decline.

Someone once FedEx-ed me a portfolio. They weren’t a particular strong candidate, so while this stood out, it didn’t get them an interview.

Stunts don’t work unless you’re truly good enough to stand out against 100 other applicants. How to know if you’re truly standout? Ask someone who hires designers that might sort of know you but that feels comfortable telling you the truth. The Portfolio Review is a great way to do this. If you want to come by my weekly Office Hours, I’ll share my opinion, too.

What other recommendations do you have for young designers seeking their first job?
All things being equal, people hire people they know and like. Get known. Volunteer with AIGA Raleigh. If you’re still in school, get off campus. Almost no one on campus can hire you (although professors and others certain can make introductions).

Getting a job isn’t free. You should be spending $100 a month on gas and coffee for networking events. Budget to buy coffee and to drive to [targeted] networking events, including some of the marketing groups I’ve identified here.

I’ve shared advice on finding a marketing job in the Triangle. Check it out; much of it’s marketing-oriented (rather than design-specific) but much of it would apply, especially at agencies or in other marketing settings.

If I use social media, should I create two accounts one personal and one professional?
Have just one set of social media accounts, not two. It’s too much work to have separate accounts. Beyond that, it forces you to think about whether it’s professional to share certain things. Designer Aaron Draplin swears on his Twitter profile, but you know what, he designed a logo for the President. He can do whatever he wants. And besides, profanity is part of his personal brand, and it works. Most people do not have the social capital to do that.

Since launching Agency Firebox, my consulting business for digital marketing agency owners, I’ve restricted posts about political views to my Facebook profile, where I don’t connect with people until I know them personally. This includes some business connections, but only ones I’m comfortable seeing such things.

In my opinion, your personal “you” should also be your “professional” you.

If there was one thing you could tell someone who is starting their career/brand, what would it be?
Give before you receive. This doesn’t mean you should neglect your own needs, but I believe that in your career, you’ll always win over the long-term by helping others first. Even if you change jobs, you’ll probably be working ’til you’re in your 60s or 70s. That’s a long time horizon.When you’re a design student or recent graduate, you might wonder how you can help people when you’re busy trying to find a job yourself. There are plenty of ways you can help others early in your career:

1) Volunteer in an industry trade association like AAF, AIGA Raleigh, TIMA, or Triangle AMA. They need help with events and programs (and volunteering gives you visibility).

2) Volunteer your design expertise (on a limited-scope basis) to a non-profit that can’t afford paid design help. There are plenty out there. Activate Good is a good source for finding them. (And you’ll build your portfolio with valuable real-world pieces.)

3) Share job leads with others. In addition to sharing things at your level that aren’t a match for you, keep an eye out for openings that are more junior or senior than what you’re targeting, since you can share those with your contacts.

4) Sign up for the free HARO PR-lead newsletter and then forward relevant PR opportunities to people you know. (HARO sends three long emails a day… don’t feel like you need to read every single one, but at least look occasionally.)

5) Pay $100/year to subscribe to the Triangle Business Journal and then send TBJ clippings to people you know when they’re featured or their company’s featured. (Plus, reading the TBJ helps you keep up with business trends in the Triangle.)

6) Share career advice from your own lessons-learned with people who are at an earlier stage in their career. You’ve learned a lot that someone who’s 2-3 years younger would love to learn.

When you have a reputation as someone who consistently helps others, people will want to help you. When a friend recently needed to find a new job on short notice, he had hundreds of people who wanted to help him… because all along, he’d always helped them first.

Featured Professional:

marketing-agency-business-consultant-karl-sakas-suit-headshot_200x200Karl Sakas is president and founder of Agency Firebox, a coaching and consulting company that works with digital marketing agency owners. Karl is known for helping his clients maximize productivity, improve business operations, and achieve their agency’s potential.
A fourth generation business owner, Karl has led the business operations team at two different digital marketing agencies and have 17+ years of consulting experience. Outside of work, he serves on the board of Triangle AMA, volunteer as a bartender on a 1930s railroad car, and blogs at

Author of this post:
Mayshanna Pandora Briscoe is a Freelance Graphic Designer, Mixed Media Artist and Aspiring Blogger. She has a B.A. in International Business and A.A.S. in Advertising and Graphic Design with a Certificate in Web Technology.  When she is not in her studio she can be found experimenting with a new recipe, posting pictures of her design life or food on Instagram, or making memories with her fan club (aka her friends, family and dogs).