Episode 224 — Controlling Your Brand


Episode 224 — Controlling Your Brand

Hi, everyone! This is Allan McKay.

Welcome to Episode 226! I want to talk about the topic of controlling your brand. I want to talk about my story, my background career and how I built my brand and which information I put out (and which I didn’t). I want to get more vulnerable with these stories.

This is an ongoing topic that I will be talking about in the future — which is building your personal brand. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I’m planning to release a course on How to Build a Brand from scratch:

  • How to figure out what your brand is;
  • How to figure out your messaging;
  • How to deal with the friction we have in the beginning (maybe not wanting to put attention on ourselves).

In the meantime, I want to address some of the key issues that we initially deal with when building a brand. I want to talk about how I stumbled across my own brand (that I didn’t know I had) and how that allowed me to get my dream job. I also want to talk about the things that people could see as my vulnerability. In other words, you are in control of the information you put out there. But if you aren’t putting the information out there, people make their own assumptions. The more active you are — the more in control you are.

This is the topic I want to think about. I want to know what your burning questions are. I’m relying on you to tell me what you want me to prioritize. So do email me: [email protected]. Also, please take this time to share this Episode with others.

Let’s dive in!



[01:01] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[33:05] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[05:07] Speaking of vulnerability, I want to speak about some stuff I’ve never talked about before. This is something that I want to talk about specifically because I want you to think about the things that are holding you back. Perhaps, you have an invisible script that tells you that you aren’t worthy or that you aren’t qualified.

[05:30] I grew up in a small town in Australia. We had a population of roughly 10,000 people. I didn’t know my dad. It was just me and my mom, and I grew up pretty poor. At one point, I lived in a house with 8 other people I barely knew; and some of these people didn’t even have their own rooms. There would be just a sheet that would serve as their wall. There was a lot of violence and even drugs, both in the house and on that street. We had a black-and-white tv, we didn’t have a fridge. Occasionally, my mom would bring in a bucket of water and that would keep the milk cool. Of course, I didn’t have video games; so whenever I wanted to play them, I’d hang out at my friends’ places. They had nice houses, games and all that stuff. I was never envious of them but it was very obvious to me that other people had stuff that we didn’t have.

[06:27] Although we never had much money, my mom always took care of me and we got by. I still remember when we got government food stamps. For me, that was the most food I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I’d looked at that, “Why don’t we do this more often?” but I could tell my mom was embarrassed. This was the next level. I remember her reassuring me at the time that it was a one-time thing. We also had a car that had a massive hole on the passenger seat. It didn’t drive in reverse either. If we wanted to go in reverse, we’d have to park on a hill and let the car roll backwards. The thing is: I was happy! There were some bad times, there was violence in the area. But for the most part, things were great. It’s only until recently that I started to realize that my life wasn’t like other people’s. One thing that my grandmother pointed out was that there were people [in our town] who were high school drop-outs: “Those people are losers and they will never amount to anything!” So when I dropped out of high school at 13 years old, what scared me the most — was that I wouldn’t amount to anything.

[08:23] Why am I telling you this stuff? It’s because it’s natural for many of us to think we aren’t worthy and that we won’t succeed. I literally came from nothing! My first computer I bought with my own money. I was 11 years old and I sold my own artwork to my friends, my friends’ parents, my mom’s friends, anyone I could. I could afford to buy a second-hand 286 computer which allowed me to move onto the next part of my journey. Then I could leverage that and move to the next level and buy my next computer. I had no internet, no support — but I had an obsession with art and wanting to do it for a living, and wanting to succeed.


[09:15] My big dream was to work in Hollywood. That was my big goal. For me, America was so far away at the time that it was almost an imaginary place. It was that removed from my world! When I told other people about my dream of working in Hollywood, doing feature films, they always told me to aim lower. “Art is not a career!” “You’ll never make it!” “Aim lower, get real!” The one thing I did that was right was not listen to them and prove them all wrong. Instead, I decided not to be vocal about my dreams (because I was so excited about what I wanted to do). What I did do — is I wrote down my goals. I wrote it down very descriptively, and then I wrote down where I was at that time. I was very honest with myself about what I had and what I didn’t have. I also wrote down what I needed to have, which at the time seemed like it was formal education. I thought I needed to go to the university, make connections, meet other people who did this for a living. I needed to have experience; but before I had experience, I needed to have a demo reel.

[10:51] Bit by bit, I pushed myself. I would do the late nights and wake up at [10:00] in the morning after my renders were done (after I’d gone to bed at [6:00] in the morning). No one really understood what the hell I was doing late at my computer. What I was doing was learning and pushing myself. At first, I was working on my reel. When I finally thought I was good enough, I started sending my reel out. I faced rejection after rejection. When I finally made it, I got into some games; and eventually, into feature films. By the time I was 21, I moved to LA. That was a massive moment for me! Everyone had told me I couldn’t do it, yet there I was! By the age of 22, I won an Emmy Award for a commercial that I worked on. Bit by bit, my career kept growing.

[11:49] It’s so critical to keep after your goals, to keep pushing yourself as you go through it. And no matter how much you think is unrealistic — or no matter how much others tell you it’s unrealistic — it’s a matter of ignoring that and putting the effort in where you can!


[12:04] I want to go back to that moment when I first got to LA. That was such a big moment for me. What frustrates me is when I see people get to the opportunity they’ve been chasing and they finally relax. That’s when they think they’ve finally made it. They’ve arrived and they can chill! I was always hustling. I was always looking for those opportunities. When I got to LA, I didn’t look at it as, “I’ve arrived!” Now was the time to put in the real work. That was the moment for me to just go to work where I was a Lead on a big project. Instead, every lunch I was going to studios and meeting their owners. I would be asking people out for drinks and looking for opportunities. Some of us look for those opportunities, while others just go through the motions. They miss all these opportunities or don’t see them when they show up.

[13:17] When I arrived in LA, I was expecting to be a small fish in a giant pond. I just came from a small studio in Australia, on the other side of the world, where the industry was at a small level. One of the things that shocked me was when I would go to a studio for a tour, they would turn around and ask, “You aren’t Allan McKay, are you?” Here is the thing: Coming from a small industry in Australia, I found myself in the heart of the industry. I was shocked when I found out someone had heard of me or knew who I was. At the same time, it made me realize how small the industry was and how important it was to stay active in the community. I was invited to go speak on SIGGRAPH that same year. To be speaking at SIGGRAPH wasn’t even on my radar of possibility! Again, rather than just showing up and doing that talk and walking away, I leveraged it as an opportunity to go meet other studios, software companies and talk and introduce myself.

[15:06] Here is the thing: Up until that point, all I’ve been doing is post my work online. I had been working in commercials. I had a 3D Gallery on an old site called 3D Lover. I would create tutorials because no one else wanted to share information. Instead, if I learned to do something, I wanted to share it with others so that they didn’t have to go through the same problems. I wanted to help others along the way. It was about me being active and being a part of the conversation. When I started to go around and introduce myself at SIGGRAPH, everyone knew who I was. The funny thing is that everyone expected me to be older. That was hilarious! I was starting to ask people what they expected me to look like and they expected me to look like Gandalf. I thought it was fascinating that they came up with their own idea. That was part of the brand that I was building: I had been positioning myself as the expert and as someone who was part of the conversation.


[16:46] I thought that being 21 would be a disadvantage. It’s because when I was 14 years old, I met someone who was in 3D and he told me that because he was 21, no one took him seriously and that it was a disadvantage to be this young. Now looking back, I realize it was all BS. It was just a huge excuse as to why he wasn’t succeeding. At that time, that stuck in my head, however. So I never communicated my age or posted pictures of myself online. I would answer questions and help out, but I left my age out, so others could fill in the blanks and imagine me as a 1,000 year old wizard. This was fascinating to me. I could pick and choose what information to put out there. I could pick and choose what I saw as being relevant or a disadvantage. And this is relevant because many of us think, “No one is going to hire me because I’m from this country.” Or, “No one is going to hire me because I’m this gender”; “No one is going to hire me because of this or that!”

[17:47] You’re in control of this narrative. Your brand is how you allow others to perceive you as. You may meet people who are sexist, racist, agist or whatever else. But in general, you communicate what you want others to think. You’re the one putting the information out there. Sometimes, leaving information off the table can work in your favor as well. I remember being 17 years old and lecturing at a University. Rather than expecting my age to be a disadvantage, I did it anyway. People took me seriously and saw what I knew. Sometimes, it’s a matter of getting out of your head and realizing that some of this disadvantages aren’t actually factual. They are our own narrative that we’re giving ourselves.

[18:55] Having built my brand unintentionally — but being careful with what information I put out there — it definitely had a major impact on my career. I can’t stress how important it is when you’re reaching out to studios that they already know who you are. Part of it was that my big dream job was to work at ILM. To this day, I don’t know how they got my information. I never applied but I got a call from them asking if I wanted to go work there. At the time, it wasn’t a good fit. I was busy on other jobs. Eventually, I moved to San Francisco and started working for ILM. I can’t put into words how amazing the talent that works there is! Some of the Supervisors invented this industry! For me, this was a moment that I would be starting from scratch, that I wouldn’t have any clout. What surprised me on my first day was that people came up to my desk and said, “Hey, I love your work! I’ve been following you for years!” It blew my mind that any of those people would know who I was. After talking to them, I would realize who they were and that I had been a fan of their work! What also blew me away was when I got asked to go teach some classes on all the experience that I had. Of course, I built a lot of great friendships from that experience.

[21:03] This is what I’m getting at: It’s very easy for us to put in our time into our work and our brand — and control that narrative as we go. I’ve continued to invest in myself and build my personal brand. This has helped me grow and build even better opportunities, as well as more frequently.


[21:23] Some of us are going to look at what I’ve just shared as the braggiest story ever. “Oh, my God! The ego on that guy, to talk like that!” This is me, sharing my experience of where I’ve come from and the insecurities that may have been true or not (but which I was trying to control). I was the youngest kid for the longest time. But hopefully, you can also read between the lines and see the narrative of what I did: whenever I got an opportunity, instead of saying, “Great!” — I treated it as an opportunity to do more and to level up. All the while, I kept certain things to myself that I thought were my disadvantages: I didn’t come from a flashy background. When I started, I had to earn my own way every step of the way. It would’ve been easy to say, “I’ve got nothing. I’ve got no money. I wish I could have all these opportunities!” It was frustrating being a kid in Australia and seeing that anyone in the U.S. could work in the industry just by deciding to do it (as long as they had a resume). For me, I had to earn my way. I had to have a company sponsor me. All of these things were earned along the way. So to say I wanted to work in another country, I had to build a roadmap and do it bit by bit. As I did get closer, more roadblocks came up. This is worth it in the long run.

[23:43] The more we put focus on our brand, especially now that it’s so easy with social media, it’s easier to get that visibility. These days, having put that intention and effort into building a brand, I would get these dream opportunities I would’ve never imagined I would have. I want you to think about other creatives in the industry who’ve had success. What has their situation been like? You think about Ash Thorpe (www.allanmckay.com/70) or Andrew Kramer, or many other artists who’ve built a name for themselves. Do you think that having built their brand, they would ever have to look for work for themselves? Or do you think they’re pretty much set? In other words, they don’t need to send in a resume. This is the benefit of building a brand! I haven’t looked for a job since 2005, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not out there building relationships.

[25:05] Part of the benefit of building a strong personal brand is being able to choose the projects that you want to work on. You can also choose when you want to work and when you want to work on your own things. How much of an impact do you think having a brand and that visibility come into negotiating money — when studios would reach out to you? Or even when they create a position specifically for you? This the power of building a personal brand. I remember when I went to work on Call of Duty. I was told that I pretty much could work on anything I wanted. That position became really fun because I got to decide what would be the most interesting to work on, or where I could contribute the most. There are situations like that because they’re aware of your work, instead of trying to convince them. Early in my career, I remember job interviews in which I would be a mess and being so worried. After a while, once people know you, it becomes about friends hanging out and it becomes a light hearted conversation. I don’t say any of this to impress you — but to leave an impression on you: It is critical that we build a personal brand. Or, that we have one — and we decide to get control over it.

[27:10] The ultimate goal for us is to have job security and to have the freedom to pick projects. And if there are no opportunities today, you can know that very likely, there will opportunities landing in your Inbox tomorrow and the next day, and the next day. The most comforting thing is to know that we never have to worry about finding another job again.

[27:30] One of the common things that comes up quite a lot is [the excuse] of, “Well, this won’t work for me! This won’t work for my industry!” Yes, it will! But it’s easy for us to make that excuse not to try. A lot of us get scared about visibility; and by having that spotlight on us, we’re afraid we’ll be criticized. I originally built this Podcast for a branding talk I did this year: [28:04] You have no excuse! Looking back at how I started, it’s not about saying, “I have nothing”. It’s about looking at the opportunities ahead of you and what the work that you need to put in to get ahead. There will always be a couple of vocal people who will put forward their excuses. That’s natural! But I hope there is a lot of us with whom this resonates. You’re the ones who are going to step up and invest in yourselves — and reap the rewards of putting in the hard work. For the ones not making the excusing and putting in the time, it will be worth it in the long run.

[28:59] For a lot of us, there will be questions about this. Please leave a comment and tell me what your burning questions are.

If the questions are great, I will build a whole Podcast on it. Please take the time to share this Episode and please continue to follow me. Please hit the “Subscribe” button at the bottom. But also, share your story! A lot of us are still dealing with that inner critic — all these things that I chose to ignore. I’m a believer in “Ready! Aim! Fire!” Be the hustler who starts from scratch, builds a roadmap and start crushing it. I hope this resonates with you. Whatever your excuse is, go against it!

[31:39] An artist whom I follow on Instagram — whose work I love — had a moment of vulnerability and posted a picture of himself. Just like my thing was with my age, his was his weight. So instead of being social, he invested that time in his artwork. There was a moment of vulnerability to share how he felt about his weight — and it made me like him even more! It’s about leaning into those pains and overcoming them. The fears are never legitimate in the first place, but they hold us back in our heads. I hope you overcome them and see them for what they are!


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. Like I said, I want your feedback or burning questions. Part of building your brand is making sure your message is heard. Social media is part of that.

I did another Episode on Instagram earlier this year. Check it out: www.allanmckay.com/206

Please share this Podcast. Until next week —

Rock on!


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