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Interview with Mary Anderson – Designing With A Purpose – Episode #63
“The adventure starts when things go wrong.”

Mary is a designer, brand strategist, and founder of Vitality Creative Studio. She believes in the triple bottom line (people, planet, and profit) and that creativity can be the catalyst for change. From her mobile studio, she collaborates with social and environmental change-makers on projects from sustainable design to digital media and everything in between.

Questions we covered:

  • What are the challenges that come from being a digital nomad?
  • What tools are essential to her daily work?
  • How does social impact play a role in her career?
  • What does it mean to have an ethical brand? Why is this important for a Gen Z consumer audience?
  • Why is graphic design “easy”? Why is this an under-appreciated skill?
  • What is one challenge when it comes to owning her own business that she wishes people knew about before starting?
  • Is her career path something that anyone can get into?

Full Episode Transcript:


Kenny Soto 0:00  

Hello, everyone. Welcome to the people of digital marketing with your host Kenny Soto. Today’s guest is Mary Anderson. Hi, Mary, how are you?


Mary Anderson 0:16  

Hi, Kenny. I’m great. I’m really, really happy to be here.


Kenny Soto 0:19  

So normally I start these podcast episodes by asking the same old question, which is what got you to digital marketing. But before we go into that, I have another question specifically for you. Which is, why are you taking this call outside?


Mary Anderson 0:37  

Yeah, yes. So I am extremely lucky that I have a mobile studio. So I work completely remotely. I’m a digital nomad. I live out of my Ford E 350. cargo van, and my partner and I have built out to have everything that we need to live and work out a bit. Well, we travel the country and travel the world.


Kenny Soto 0:58  

What areas have you traveled to throughout the states right now?


Mary Anderson 1:02  

So we started in Colorado, that’s where we built out the van in Idaho Springs. It’s a really small mountain town just west of Denver. And we traveled through southern Colorado, up through the southwest of the western slope, like hello ride area, and then we just this month crossed into Utah. So we’re currently in Moab and starting to experience the beautiful desert.


Kenny Soto 1:26  

Now, this is definitely an unconventional way to live your life. And I think just to add more context, we should go into the original question that I always asked. So it’s going to be in two parts. In this case, my first question is going to be what got you into marketing? And then the second would be what got you into creating this mobile home and becoming a digital nomad.


Mary Anderson 1:51  

Yes, yeah. So really how I got into marketing, I like to call it a happy accident. It was really, I went to school, and I always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a journalist and I studied journalism. 


But I was in a unique situation where I played soccer and I actually redshirted so I had a fifth year I needed to sell in that fifth year of classes. And I came in with a semester of classes already from AP. So I’m like, Okay, I have a major in journalism, I was minoring in Fashion Merchandising, and I was like, I need to fill my schedule to be a full-time student still. 


So I started taking graphic communication classes and Graphic Communication became my minor. And I just fell in love with the design, and marketing, you know, I was starting to experience some of the marketing sides of advertising and my journalism classes. 


And when it came time to do my internship, you know, I always thought I wanted to work in a magazine. I was like, Alright, I’m gonna do my internship at a magazine, I gotta do it in the editorial and design departments. And then the design department, I was designing a lot of their marketing materials. 


And I just felt the design part of a thing is what felt like not working to me, you know when I had to write it felt like it was forced a little bit whereas the design was so fluid, the marketing was so fluid. 


So I decided to completely abandon my original plan and go full force and to design and just dive into what I was passionate about. So I started exploring all the different avenues. I was freelancing, working for myself, and just exploring all that was possible with graphic design. And I really found a love for branding and marketing and digital media. So I started to hone in on that. 


That’s how I got to where I was today, it was really just a path of following and finding what I was passionate about, you know, I’ve always rejected the idea that our jobs and our work should be anything less than our greatest passion. 


You know, we spend, like, let’s think about how much time we spend working compared to our free time, you know, the conventional school of thought, you know, you work your nine to five, five days a week, and then the weekend because you really, you know, you’re working for the weekend, right? But what I really believe and I’m really passionate about is that you know, what we spend five days a week should be something that we love and something that we’re passionate about. 


So that’s kind of also how I got into this digital nomad space and traveled from my mobile studio. So it’s funny, it started with my partner, just saying, you know, I kind of want to live nowhere, I didn’t really know how, it wasn’t fully formulated what that actually meant he was like, I don’t want to be in one place. I want to live nowhere. 


And we ended up running into someone who was living out of their pack and backpacking through all the national parks and it just felt like this, this build of all those people who actually do this. It’s funny at first we wanted to live out of our Prius, which is a lot smaller but looked more into it and we really stumbled upon van life and that there are actually people that do this. 


There are people that travel around in their vehicles and are able to explore all these incredible places. And so we just kept all forced forward into, you know, what we thought was the life that we wanted to live in. I’ve always personally felt a really special connection with nature. 


You know, I love being outside, I love hiking. Even when we lived in our apartment, we joked that our backyard was this meadow that we would hike up to almost every single day. So it was a journey to get here for sure. You know, we planned for two years, researching, planning, you know, we built out this van all on our own, and neither of us have ever used a power tool before. So it was a huge learning curve. We just leaned into what we knew we wanted to do and did work to get here.


Kenny Soto 5:56  

I was a digital nomad for I think about two and a half months and 2020 before COVID ruined my plans. And aside from COVID, I noticed that there were some unique challenges to the digital nomad lifestyle. My next question for you, Mary, is what are the challenges that you’re facing on a day-to-day basis, both related to work, and also just personally when it comes to living from a mobile van?


Mary Anderson 6:28  

Yes, there’s, there’s a lot of challenges. We move around a lot. You know, it’s nice when we stay somewhere for a week, you can kind of settle in, but there’s a lot of days, you know, where I’m waking up early in the morning, and we’re driving to get somewhere that we know we have service to be able to set up my work stuff. 


So a lot of planning had to go into that as well. You know, that’s a challenge to always make sure that we have an internet connection and we have good service everywhere we’re at so we have a signal booster that helps a lot. But that’s definitely a challenge, we have to pick places that we go, that we can do all of the activities we want to do, while still making sure that I can keep up with my clients and all of my work. 


Really just the day-to-day challenges it’s a small space, you don’t have a ton of room to be doing your normal activities. I also have two dogs, a golden retriever Irish setter mix, and a cattle dog mix. So they’re not small dogs, there’s not a lot of space to move around. And it’s really just always different. You never know the challenges that you’re gonna come across, and you just have to be able to deal with them as you go.


Kenny Soto 7:42  

No, I know, as you just mentioned, sometimes you just got to figure it out day by day. But there are definitely some things that I remember from my experience that I wish I knew ahead of time. Like, for example, if you’re working with a client who’s in a different time zone, there’s this nifty tool called time and, which helps you match up the perfect and ideal set of times to schedule a meeting. 


Are there any tools, whether it mainly be software, but if you think of anything else that helps with managing your time help with client relationships help you find new clients? Are there any tools that come to mind in that regard?


Mary Anderson 8:26  

Yes, definitely, that time tool that you’re talking about is because I work with clients all over the place, including I have a couple of clients in the UK. So that’s definitely a challenge and not tools extremely important. 


I also track all of my time, I use a toggle that’s really important to me for billing and also so I can just be aware of how I’m spending my time because time is a limited resource. It’s almost my most limited resource more than money out here. 


Because I want to be doing all of these things. And I also want to be running my business. So being able to track my time is extremely important. Otherwise, video conferencing obviously is very important to be able to form connections with my clients that are from all over the place. You know, I’m not seeing these people in person ever. So zoom helps us complete sometimes both of those are really crucial tools as well.


Kenny Soto 9:22  

Now the audience knows your digital nomad and you are most likely in the service-based business doing design. Can you give a little bit more context on what specific services you give to your clients?


Mary Anderson 9:36  

Yes, so I specialize in two areas. One of those areas is branding. Developing brand systems and brand identities is something that I’m really passionate about and that is one of my main services and then I specialize in sustainable design. 


So I call it the I don’t call it it’s called the triple bottom line so people planet and profit so I wear with clients that believe in tracking all of those things, and considering all of those efforts. So for example, when I have a print project for one of my clients, I actually do a lot of research, not just the design side of it. 


So say it is a brochure that someone needs to create and print for their customers, right to be able to know about their services. So I come in, I help them with the strategy of how of what needs to be in there, I want to include all of that I work through the content when I design it for them, then when we go to print it when I’m finding a printer, I just don’t find a printer that okay, this is the cost, X amount of dollars, I do the work to figure out okay, how is this person I have a checklist designed to renourish is a really great read is the website, it’s a really great resource for kind of this criteria. 


And I asked questions like how are they treating their workers or are their workers being paid fairly? Do they have paid medical leave and maternity paternity leave? Leave all of those things? I asked them the question of how they are treating the people. How are they involved in their community? How are they in their sustainability practices? Are they using recycled paper? Are they powered by renewables kind of all of these checklist questions to give my clients the true cost and be able to then reduce waste and maximize social impact in a positive way?


Kenny Soto 11:37  

I’m really glad you mentioned social impact because that ties right into my next question, which is how does social impact play a role in your career specifically, as a digital marketer?


Mary Anderson 11:52  

Yes, social impact is where I’m most passionate, I would say social and environmental impact, but social, they’re kind of intertwined. It plays a role in the clients that I work with, you know, I only work with ethical brands. 


And I try to really make ethics an important piece of the clients that I work with, I try to have them think about these things as well. Because, you know, social impact, it’s not just for the nonprofits these days, right? Like social impact is an expectation by consumers and by growing especially, you know, as Gen Z is entering the market, and in growing influence there, no brand can market themselves without a piece of some sort of social impact. 


So people can feel good about buying from you and feel good about interacting with you as a brand.


Kenny Soto 12:47  

So you mentioned Gen Z, is having an ethical brand num, number one, like slash top of mind for Gen Z customers.


Mary Anderson 12:58  

I mean, there’s still, you know, some of the surveys are showing that there are still other factors that, you know, the cost is still a major factor. There’s still a social impact, but I don’t think it is necessarily number one yet. It is definitely in the top five, and it is growing, you know, Gen Z is really interesting there. 


And I think it’s the evolution of marketing advertising just in general, you know, with boomers, I’m a millennial who I’m kind of actually right on the bridge, I’m barely a millennial, almost a Gen v. So kind of the boomer saw the age of advertising, where you know what the company said, you just trusted there was a lot of trust and authority, trust in companies. 


And as millennials, and especially in Gen Z, you know, that trust in large corporations is way, way down. People aren’t trusting that these brands are doing what’s best for them and best for the world. But when a brand does, you know that’s, that’s something that they can jump on, and they can be on board with, and they can feel good about their purchases. 


So I think Gen Z pays a lot more attention and is a lot pickier with who they’ll buy from there. The conventional advertising techniques just don’t work on them. Work on them is, you know, giving back programs, there’s a donation that you give, if someone purchases, then they feel like they’re connected with that, you know, they want to feel good, and they care more about the social impact and the social issues.


Kenny Soto 14:28  

Now, Mary, before we go to the next question, I don’t want to forget to mention this to the listeners specifically. A great example of an ethical brand that targets Gen Z customers and is actually a competitor of the company that I’m working for. 


They’re called aspirations. They are a FinTech app. And part of why they’re really cool is like for example, I believe their referral program is for every single person you help get an account they’ll plant a tree, so I think its samples like that might become more spread out not just in FinTech, but in other industries and spaces in the future. 


So I just wanted to highlight that before I see my next question. So I’ve, felt that this is an unjust stereotype slash unjust approach to vetting marketers, especially designers, where a lot of business owners will say, why should I hire you as a designer, when I can get someone off of Fiverr, or Upwork? For 20% of the cost? So my question for you is, how do you tackle this claim? Which is unjustified? And to? What do you tell people who believe marketing is or excuse me, design is an easy thing to do? It’s nice to have.


Mary Anderson 15:54  

Yes, it’s actually funny that you asked this question and bring this up because I used to be on Fiverr. You know, I started I had no clients to start with, I didn’t take the traditional path, you know, where a lot of freelancers, they work for a company for 10 years or so they’re in an industry for 10 to 20 years. 


And then they decided to be a freelancer, I started from the very bottom, and I built my client base up, so I’m not on Fiverr anymore, but I used to be so I can say, in personal experience that you cannot get from Fiverr, what you can get from a designer hired designer independently. And the reason for that is Fiverr is the middleman you know, I can’t even video I couldn’t even video chat with the people, everything has to be tracked and in chat.


And so you’re just not getting the quality of collaboration that you can get from someone that you can actually zoom and talk with face to face and have these multiple meetings and, you know, not on Fiverr. Once you start and you start the project, the timer starts clicking. And it’s just this experience, that it’s not the experience that you can get and the level of attention and how do you go with someone when you’re working with? And I will also say that that’s how I tackle it, essentially. 


So I tell them my personal experience, this is what I’ve done before, you know, you can’t get what you can get when you’re with me. And also to answer your second part of that question, you know, with design just being a nice to have, what’s really interesting about design is that it’s not just something you see, it’s something you feel, so much of branding and design is aimed at the subconscious. 


So psychologically, when something is well put together, and it’s, you know, designed nicely clean lines, you know, it’s not all over the place, you’re automatically having a positive bias to like what you’re looking at and better receive what you’re looking at. 


So design is really the secret power to making your messaging land and making your marketing actually impactful. It’s, I would say one of the most important parts, especially nowadays, when the competition is huge, right? Like all of these, all of these industries, you’re competing with so many other different brands. So you want to be able to stand out and look put together and have your customers, your clients, and your consumers feel your brand, not just


Kenny Soto 18:29  

Now I talked about things you wish you knew. Or I guess things that it’s hard to prepare to be a digital nomad, of course, one thing I want to talk about is just starting your own business, whether that’s being a business owner of a corporation startup or being your own freelancer, where you have to do all the work, essentially, by yourself. There’s not a lot of like support in terms of how you’re tackling each day. What’s one specific challenge when it comes to owning your own business that you wish you knew about before starting?


Mary Anderson 19:05  

Good question. So one thing that I wish I knew before I started is that these things take time. I think that’s something for a lot of people, you know, it’s hard to have patience. And so even being by yourself, you don’t have anyone to, you know, encourage you on the hard days and you don’t have anyone fairly to, you know, build you out like No, it’s okay that we’re not like making the traction, we thought we would right away. 


You know, having that patience is harder when you’re by yourself. But that is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned, you know, where I thought I would be in the first year is actually where I was by year three or four, you know, so being able to just, you know, have patience and trust the process and not give up because that’s really I think that’s a common saying in the startup world in this weekend. 


In the independent contractor, the world is that the people who have success are just the ones who don’t give up the ones that keep going and trust that, you know what they’re doing is right, even if you’re not seeing instant results.


Kenny Soto 20:16  

I listened recently to a podcast where they were talking specifically about startups. And they said This is Marc Andreessen. Specifically, he said that if you could be talked out of starting your own business, then you shouldn’t start your own business. 


What is the top consideration that you would share with someone who may be considering your career path as a freelancer, business owner, digital nomad, etc, that they should think about before starting? Because there might be people out there who listen to this episode and think, oh, what she’s doing is really awesome. Maybe I should do it. How would you talk them out of it? If they could be talked out of it?


Mary Anderson 21:00  

Yes, well, there’s this pretty picture, right of a digital notepad world where you’re always in beautiful places and all of your technologies but you know, like, you have this image of a person sitting in this beauty with this beautiful back scape. 


And you know, this is a very pretty picture of what it is to be a digital nomad is hard sometimes, you know, you know, sometimes you have to sleep somewhere and just for the night, and then wake up really quickly and go, you know, you’re always on the move, there’s, there are all of these challenges to actually living it in, remotely and Mobley, and in a small space. 


So make sure that you’re passionate about what you want to do, and also that you’re passionate about the places that you’re gonna go right. Before we decided to do this, we had already done so many different camping trips, where I worked from the campsite, you know, we tested it out. And already, we just love being outside. 


So really taking kind of taking that pretty off, and you don’t see the Instagram posts and the YouTube videos of people giving their van tours, like, look at videos, there’s some on YouTube, even of people being completely brutally honest of what their daily life is like it, you know, think about whether those things are worth it to you. 


And if you’re really passionate, I’ll go back to that, that passion because I’m extremely passionate about design, and I’m extremely passionate about the outdoors. So I have no issues when you know, my daily life is hard. It’s not hard for me to get into my work. It’s not hard for me to deal with all of these things. Because I’m passionate about where I am and what I’m doing. 


So kind of taking that really hard look at why you’re doing it. Are you doing it just because it looks like a really fun life? Or are you passionate about what that life would give you?


Kenny Soto 23:02  

Or asked my next two questions I just want to add to what you said, with a little personal tidbit from my side. I guess I’m still a digital nomad. Technically, even though I’m working out of South Africa, I’m still stationed outside of America. 


So I’m kind of traveling. I’m like a pseudo digital nomad. And I would say, you want to go into this knowing full well, that it’s not going to be a comfortable journey. And you’re doing it because you want to grow, you want to challenge yourself. 


And you want to see, basically, how can you handle life, when whatever support system you think you have is constantly changing or non-existent. You have to know that that’s basically what you’re walking into. And the clients and team that you’re serving, don’t really care what’s going on outside of whatever meeting email or slack channel you’re in, you have to get the job done. 


And especially when it comes to digital marketing, you have to execute and no one cares if, for example, in South Africa, there’s this thing called load-shedding. And sometimes the power goes out, you have to figure out what to do when the power goes out. You have to find a place that has running electricity that they have a generator, even if it’s two kilometers away from where you are, and you have to get the work done because people are relying on you. 


And if you’re not comfortable navigating situations like that I would recommend reconsidering the idea of being a digital nomad COVID has put a pause on the craze of being a digital nomad. 


I suspect once it goes away, or it’s just managed better globally, people will start to travel across the globe again, going into Bali going into Thailand, you know, like the quote-unquote traditional digital nomad places, and they’ll be hit with reality just like everyone else was hit with reality in 2019 to wasn’t 18, etc, were being a digital nomad is not for everyone. So definitely do your research and make sure that you know going in, you will be challenged, and you want to be able to like say, I enjoy challenges, which is why you’re doing it in the first place. Now,


Mary Anderson 25:15  

Just to quickly add on to that, just getting me to think of this, this quote from Yvonne Shannara, who’s the founder of Patagonia, I recently watched a documentary. And he said there in the, in the documentary, you know, the adventure starts when things go wrong. 


Like, that’s really when, when the fun and the adventure and I would say that’s life on the road, like, if you’re not comfortable with things going wrong, you know, for me, that’s the perspective that I have that I take, you know, I’m expecting things are gonna go wrong. And that’s it, things aren’t gonna go wrong, and it’s not going to go as you planned. Even if you plan.


Kenny Soto 25:53  

I love quotes like that because although they sound like a cliche, it’s literally the truth, I have had a lot of great memories, after losing a cell phone or misplacing a wallet, and then trying to figure out how to navigate the day and then meeting someone, just because we just so happened to be in the same lobby with the same issue we connect, and then I just made a new friend, as a quick example. My next question for you, Mary is, what are some core skills hard or soft, that you have leveraged throughout your entire career?


Mary Anderson 26:29  

So I think the soft skills for my career, you know, the hard skills are, you know, knowing the programs, I know, knowing the design, and the principles of design and design techniques that I know anyone, anywhere can have those hard skills, I think it’s a soft skill of, first of all, passion, I’m really passionate about what I do. 


And I think that is the key to everything, and the key to even my success, as, as a digital marketer, as a brand strategist and a designer, you know, I worked 10 to 12 hour days, for a few years now, you know, I’m trying to burn out culture I want to be true about and that I was a complete part of that. And I’m trying to pull that back. So I’ll give the caveat that I’m working on that. 


But being willing to put in that much work and just being motivated and passionate about is what I would really attribute to my success and also flexibility, and being comfortable with the unknown. Because when I first started, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And that’s a really uncomfortable feeling. 


So being able to work with that, and lean into that to grow, I think are soft skills that have attributed to my success for sure. And I care a lot so caring what you do, and not just, you know, I care about the clients that I have, then the work that I do the social impact, the environmental impact, I care about that. 


But I also care about doing a good job and having you know, pride is the word that comes to mind and in what I do is important to you know, I don’t have a boss that’s telling me, you know, you need to do this, I could not work every day, you know, like, there’s no one making me do any of these things. So being able to keep up and on top of myself is important. And also project management skills. 


And I would say that’s, that’s some hard skills that are extremely important for being able to work for yourself, you need to be able to manage your own time and all of your projects, everything you have going on. And if you’re gone, you have to have everything together, there’s no one who’s going to fill in, no one who’s going to cover for you. So being able to deal with all of those things is crucial.


Kenny Soto 28:48  

Through these amazing conversations like the one, we’re having right now. And with past guests, I’ve learned that there are really three stages, maybe not just for marketers, but for professionals in general, as they grow through their career, the first stage is being able to execute a task and set up tasks that are given to you. 


So that way your team knows you’re reliable, and your customers know that you can actually deliver on whatever you’re promising. The second stage is being able, just like you mentioned, to manage your own time, take on new tasks and anticipate new tasks without anyone telling you that these tasks are going to be needed a week from now, a month from now, etc. 


And then the third stage, which is the stage I’m trying to get into, and I’m getting there slowly, is being able to coach others to do those tasks and to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. So that way you can scale and grow your own team. So that’s just something that I was thinking about as you were giving your answer. 


And I want to ask my last question, which is hypothetical because time machines don’t exist, but if they did And you can go back in time 10 years into the past, knowing everything you know, right now, how would you accelerate the speed of your career to get to where you are today? Just faster?


Mary Anderson 30:13  

This is a really good question. It would be interesting because I wouldn’t necessarily do anything different, I would do almost anything, and read more books about what I’m passionate about. 


Because I agree, I think the path that I went on I’m, I’m happy with, it’s interesting because they used to be like, I don’t know if I would do it this way. Again, because again, as I said before, this is a non-traditional way of becoming a freelancer and becoming independent to kind of start from the bottom like that. 


But now I’m so glad that I did that. So 10 years from now, if I could go back and do anything to accelerate my career, it would just be to learn even more about what I’m passionate about and just dive into more books, resources, content, podcasts, more of all of that of what I was passionate about, just that learning curve could have been faster and even, you know, being independent. 


I did some research beforehand, and I didn’t go in blind but maybe being more prepared for what that would be like and kind of not the rosy picture of what it is to be a freelancer but the dirty details as well.


Kenny Soto 31:38  

Amazing. Thank you, Mary, for your time today. And if anyone wants to say hello online, where can they find you?


Mary Anderson 31:45  

They can find me at vitality, creative I also have an Instagram, it’s a vitality, creative studio. And then Maria, who you actually had on a guest as well, she and I run a Facebook group together for ethical marketers, which is called digital marketing hype. So we hang out there a lot, that’s probably the best place to be able to really interact with me.


Kenny Soto 32:11  

And for any new listeners, I’ll actually put a link to Maria’s episode in the show notes. That way you can have a nice follow-up to this. Again, Mary, thank you for your time. And thank you to your listener for listening to another episode of the people of digital marketing with your host Kenny Soto. As always, I really really appreciate the fact that you enjoy this podcast and I hope everyone has a great week. 




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