How I Fell Into Email

So, here it is, my first blog about email. I want to start of by thanking you for reading and the continued support of my clients, collegues and peers. For this post I’ve decided to talk about email as a whole and how I got into email in the first place.

My first experience with design was an Iron Maiden CD cover when I was age 13 for an Computer Studies project. I remember using Paint Shop Pro and thinking it looked the shit! I still have that CD cover and let me tell you, it is awful. I didn’t know how to use colour, typography or any layout techniques. But here was something I made, from scratch using a piece of software I’d never come across before. It was awesome.

I soon got a hold of a pirate copy of photoshop 6 and my life changed. I started reading books, youtube wasn’t around so I used to buy a Photoshop Magazine that came with all the tutorials on a CD and started my craft.

Fast forward 7 years of College and University and thousands of hours of what I considered ‘fun’ playing around with Photoshop, I really started to get ‘good’ at design. I was ahead of my class mates and finished top of my class. However that was all print, and while it gave me a great working foundation of design principles, I didn’t know any code. I studied computer science in college but hated Visual Basic and the theory side so dropped out after the first term while continuing my passion for design.

When I left University, we were slap bang in the middle of a recession so I worked for free at a few advertising agencies; JWT, TBWA as well as IRIS Manchester as a Junior Art Director Intern for a year while my dad funded my train fare and I lived off a tenner borrowed here and twenties borrowed there. This was a frustrating period of my life, doing great work but not seeing a penny for it. I presented concepts to Nestlé and Wonderbra at my time in these agencies without ever seeing a quid.

That said I honestly don’t regret it, it gave me some serious things to talk about in interviews and helped me overcome my dislike and fear for talking to people I didn’t know. I left after a year as my dad wouldn’t fund it anymore and I got a job as a community carer for the next 2 years, all the while continuing to think what if? I had given up and was happy making £6 an hour washing peoples dentures and other bits I won’t mention.

This was my life until I met my wife who encouraged me to quit my job in care and spend all my time developing my portfolio after she stumbled across some old work in the loft. Over the next few weeks I began working hard and started setting up interviews. We lived on savings for a couple of months while I spent 8am-10pm every day Monday to Sunday in my studio creating designs for fictional clients.

My first and only interview was at an agency called The Hatch in Chorley, it was an amazing place, 5 guys who played music, had a dart board and talked about girls. I knew when I walked in the place, with wallpaper falling off the walls and stains on the carpet, that I wanted to work there. With these people. At the time they told me I'd be an Email Designer which daunted me because I hadn’t looked at code of any kind for years, but they liked me and I got a phone call a few days later to tell me I’d got the job!

That was it, I’d transformed my life and my fascination with email began. In that first week I’d researched everything I could and spent 100+ hours doing examples on W3Schools for HTML and CSS. I needed to learn it fast. My first email went out, it was a giant image, sliced in photoshop with minimal code and a responsive wrapper. I remember thinking ‘WOW, This is amazing’. I had the bug instantly. Now at the time, I thought this was email, this is what all the emails I get in my inbox are designed and coded like. I had no reason to believe otherwise as the only people I knew who coded for email did what I had learnt to do.

This didn’t last long, as I became more aware, and started inspecting every email in my inbox, I soon realised my code in email was primitive and unaccessible. So I decided to make suggestions like ‘why don’t we code up the text and save out banners as jpgs with alt tags’. It all fell on deaf ears. No disrespect to those guys, they were amazing and they made money doing it that way but it was the wrong way. I stayed for a couple of years as it paid the bills (just about) and I always reminded myself when I got fed up, hang on look where you were a year ago. That got me to focus more on my freelance and was born ( originally but thats a mouthful). If I freelanced I could do better work.

And I did, initially I freelanced in the evenings after work and eventually full time for the next 4 years. I freelanced for numerous clients including Chevron Gas, ElliQ and Ted Baker, not to mention a bunch of nightmare clients along the way. I gained most clients off sites like oDesk (now Upwork) and I remember one particular month while I was working full time at The Hatch and freelancing, I made enough to pay my rent in freelance earnings and I was overcome by this feeling of sheer accomplishment. It wasn’t a lot by any means but it was through hard work, I had found the clients, I had pitched ideas and they hired me for my expertise and it was paying my rent! Obviously I didn’t actually pay my rent with it, I went out and bought a new TV, naturally. I was so proud and thats when I really started to think about freelancing full time. If I could do this in a few evenings a week what could I do if this was what I did full time.

I got to give myself payrises! I started out at $13.50 per hour and that became $35 per hour within a year. Now I’m not chucking numbers out for the sake of it. My skills in that year working with a new client every day, 7 days a week and 14 hours a day developed beyond anything I could have done working an in house 9-5 job. I had no social life and probably an unhealthy relationship with work looking back. Saying that, when you work for yourself you don’t mind the long days quite so much. It’s different isn’t it? I didn’t need to get dressed, I was never late for work, I didn’t even need to get out of bed if I didn’t feel like it. I binged watched countless TV shows, all the while, never missing a single deadline. Why can’t real jobs be like that?

Fast forward 3 more years and I had a little girl. My life and my priorities changed (as well as the tone of this post). Freelance was great, but it had it’s dry months. Some months I’d be turning down work and others I’d be asking my nan if she needed me to design an email showcasing her holiday to her friends, no joke, it looked great in the end. I soon realised I’d feel better with a salary, so for no other reason than wanting security, I took my portfolio to JD Sports. No one likes interviews, let alone a guy who’s spent 4 years in boxers and a T-shirt, only talking to people over instant messenger and Skype as a last resort. It went better than expected and they offered me a job the same day.

Now I assumed they would have best practices in place for email but they didn’t. Huge images 2-3mb each, I remember saying on my first day ‘I take it you’re entire list use fibre optic broadband then?’, to which the designers and devs laughed along with, but it wasn’t that amusing to my superior. They send to entire lists. No segmentation. I was gob smacked how someone so huge could abuse email like this. So I started to offer my suggestions very early on. On deaf ears for a few months but eventually we got somewhere.

I got the go ahead to revamp their templates, making them HTML and Image based. I segmented the pots into engagement at first with the aim to further drum down into these lists. And I began working on a lot more Front End Development and learnt Javascript and PHP to dynamically build an application that would generate content and build the emails based on SKU numbers taking the development time of an email from a day to a few minutes. Wow that was a boring paragraph. But it’s good to blow one’s trumpet once in while.

Front End Dev led me to fall even further in love with email, I mean, web development has rules and you have to be compliant, but in email you can do whatever you want if it works. There are no standards, there are best practices but if you can code like its 1995 and create stunning, interactive emails like never before then why wouldn’t you? I became the lead email developer at JD with a team of 4 digital designers while still freelancing to my long term clients. I often came into work thinking who put me in charge of people? Like honestly, who?

I stayed for a year and I accomplished a lot, I learnt a lot and I made some great friends. I had no plans of leaving.

I was approached by (now for a position to own the email marketing design and development along with a great guy we’ll call Jim for the sake of this post. I really thought long and hard about it but it was the best decision of my career. I now work somewhere that email is treated with the respect it deserves. Jim is someone that is just as into email as me, and pushes me to be better at what I do and I feel it’s only the beginning.

Email is my entire profession, I don’t see myself doing anything else. I love it, I like to think I’m good at it and I know it. There’s always something new to learn and the email clients change things up enough to keep us on our toes.

Lastly the community is amazing, never have I ever come across a dedicated, knowledge sharing, no ego’s group of guys and girls as the email geeks slack channel. It’s my one stop shop for bugs and issues, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sense of community within the group and feel very privileged to be a part of it.

I’m not the greatest writer but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about how I fell into email. The blogs from here on out are likely to be focused more around user testing results, email hacks and anything I consider entertaining or interesting to you guys.

Thanks for reading.

Steve Mansfield (SteTheEmailGeek)

I'll add a comment section soon but haven't had the time to integrate the API yet. Hoping to get it up and running later this month (January 2018, in case your reading this in March 2020 and there's still no comments section).