• My basket
  • Your Shopping Basket is empty.

Total — £ (ex. VAT)

How this New Blood Black Pencil-winner’s strategy landed the top award

A mid-weight art director on working abroad, winning awards and the importance of networking

Image from the New Blood Black Pencil-winning Lit on Beat by Selina Smyllie

Selina Smyllie won a Black Pencil for her 2021 New Blood project Lit on Beat, that aimed to bridge the gap between poetry and rap, to demonstrate to dyslexic Black teens that literature is in the music they listen to. Smyllie’s career has gone from strength to strength since, and she’s worked at advertising agencies including McCann in Leeds and Hero in Melbourne. Here, Smyllie tells us what it takes to work abroad, how she won her Black Pencil and how the benefit to working for a big multi national company is the networking and learning you can do within it.

Tell us about your Black Pencil win?

My brief was from Penguin the book publisher and the problem established in the brief was that only one out of 65 books are written by a Black author in the English Literature curriculum, which understandably leaves these underrepresented teens less engaged or interested in reading, so our challenge was to ‘reimagine reading’ for this audience.

I believe I took the Black pencil because of my strategy when tackling the problem, I took my own spin on the brief and added another layer to the problem. Dyslexia. My strategic positioning was tackling this underrepresented group who may also struggle with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, creating another barrier between them and the written world. My response to the brief, tackled more than just one problem and was executed with a bulk of real research and science to back up my idea. I found that reading poetry can help auditory processing, language skills and reading flow in dyslexics due to the rhythm and rhyming, there’s a reason we all learn our ABC’s to a song. So my idea ‘Lit On Beat’ was about bridging the gap between poetry and rap, putting culture and rhythm into the curriculum. 
It was a covid lockdown when I was working on this at University, so I had nothing else to do but stay in my room and work on it. I spent 10 hours a day sometimes, learning video editing skills from scratch from YouTube tutorials, to create the two minute video submission. I had no prior editing knowledge, it was all self taught, so time played a huge role in the works success, as I had the time to invest it.
Image from Selina Smyllie's project Not Another Creative

What was your route into the creative industry?

I studied creative advertising at Leeds Arts University, and afterwards I was applying to Art Direction roles, but out of luck I was headhunted for the strategy role. The Strategy Director at McCann saw my website and contacted me out of the blue about a strategy role, which I couldn’t turn down. I was curious if I was a strategist as I believed I won my Black pencil for my strategy. After about a year of doing that, I realised that I was really missing the more creative aspects of art direction and having more control over the execution of projects. I decided I wanted to go back to art direction, and that’s what I do now.

What advice do you have for people wanting to work abroad?

I had told everyone at work (McCann at the time) that I wanted to move abroad, because working in a different country was a long-standing dream since I was five. It wasn’t a random thing, where I just woke up one day and decided. I told my manager eleven months before the actual move, that this was something I wanted to do. They were all really supportive, and really wanted me to find this job in Australia. I reached out to as many people as I could and I'd have call after call after call just selling myself, and finally one of them landed. I had a lot of help from the people at McCann, and the CCO (Chief Creative Offer) at McCann was the one who put me in contact with Hero, the agency in Melbourne I then worked at. It was risky because nothing was confirmed till the last minute. I could have turned up to Australia with no job, but it worked out.

Image from the New Blood Black Pencil-winning Lit on Beat by Selina Smyllie

What is something you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?

My favourite project I’ve done has been the proactive work I’ve been doing outside of client work. I created my own platform called Not Another Creative which is aimed at teens and young people, to make them aware of creative careers, and also re-educate them on what ‘creativity’ means.

I believe the way schools often combine creativity with arts subjects has created this inaccurate impression that creativity and art are the same thing. They certainly can go hand in hand, but they’re not the same skill. This leaves loads of kids who can’t paint or draw believing they’re not creative and they close the door on that world, when in reality, creativity is just thinking and doesn’t require you to have artistic skill. I’m now working with schools and conducting workshops on this.


What advice do you have for someone new to the creative industry?

When you’re junior, it’s so important to build your network and connect with people who inspire you, so it’s something that I do a lot. I just message people on LinkedIn. I've done this a couple times when their job role has interested me and I've never heard of it before. When I was at McCann, I messaged somebody who had the title Innovation Strategist. I was a strategist, and I was like, “This is cool. What does that mean?” I just asked him, “What's your job title? And can you tell me about it.” He was more than happy to do so and we got onto calls. He was also at McCann in New York, and he ended up getting me involved in loads of calls with their innovation team there. If you don't reach out to people, if you're not curious, if you don't make these connections, you won't find the doors that could be out there for you. 

Get in touch with Selina Smyllie on LinkedIn

The New Blood Awards 2024 briefs are here. Kick start your career in advertising and design with an award for students, graduates, and aspiring creatives. 

Meet more rising creative talent including photographers, motion designers, illustrators and visual artists.