Rising Star Q&A: Michael Smiy

2012 advertising alumnus Michael Smiy was honored with the ComartSci Alumni Board’s Rising Star award in 2021. As a creative director, photographer and general filmmaker, Smiy works in marketing with new emerging content platforms as a freelancer. Notably, Smiy has enjoyed success working with brands such as Amazon, Netflix, HBO, TNT, FX, TNT, ABC and many more. Smiy resides in Los Angeles.

What was your favorite class at ComArtSci?
I forget the course number, but my advertising capstone class with Dave Regan was my absolute favorite. Dave was my favorite professor. Working with teachers or professors that don't give you the curriculum but actually break it apart, have a conversation, and immerse you in the world that you're studying- those are the teachers and classes that stuck out to me.

What was your favorite study spot on campus?

I lived in Shaw for the majority of my time on campus. So, I would just go straight across the street to the law library. It's like this unwritten rule that only the law students or business students are studying there and everyone else is at the main library, but that was my jam. 

What was your favorite thing to do around East Lansing?
My favorite thing to do was go to the Peanut Barrel, get a burger, sit out on the patio on Grand River, just watch people walk by, and maybe grab a beer with a friend. Or simply just walking through the campus in the fall. I don't think there's anything better than that.

What’s your favorite MSU Memory?
The one memory that pops in my head over and over again is when we played Notre Dame in football. It was the fake field goal. That was the most glorious moment of all time in the student section. I can’t tell you what the energy level was like. It was something to be experienced and not described by me. Like when you go to those games, everyone is your brother in your sister in that moment. It’s the closest thing to like a war cry. It was a Braveheart kind of moment.

So, you earned your degree in advertising at ComArtSci, can you speak about how things have evolved in your industry since you graduated and where you foresee things going from here?

When I was in school, social media was the big new thing. So, the big question was how will advertisers utilize these tools, specifically with two-way communication with prospective buyers. How can we utilize that and wrap campaigns around these new platforms? So, a lot of time I spent in school was thinking ahead on that very subject. Now with the last ten years I have spent in the industry working, I’ve seen an immense maturity and growth on these platforms. To the point where now there is an extreme savvy with marketers when they come to the table. It’s truly breathtaking to see. It’s birthed all of these new avenues for creative expression. The third part of this change that I’ve identified is a shift from a more bureaucratized method of making content through an agency to more of a gig-based economy. 

Now there's even less of a barrier to entry because everyone has a phone with one of the best cameras that they make. I'm super inspired by this notion that all of these creative people out there didn't have a platform in the past to express themselves but now have the means to do so. Now someone who is an impressive dancer gets this big following, and suddenly Oreo is reaching out wanting to do some TikTok engagement for them. It's really cool.

I see [the industry] going into these new creative avenues such as virtual reality and augmented reality, doing things such as overlaying digital elements into our physical world or immersing people in a fully digital world. I have my own ideas about how that will work and which technology will take off, but it's anyone's guess right now. Right now, I'm just trying to keep an open mind and not be too prescriptive about the future.

What was your biggest lesson learned during your time at ComArtSci? And what was your biggest lesson after ComArtSci?

In school, the biggest lesson I learned is that the value of education comes from your willingness to dig deep with the people that you know and the people around you. The experience of going to college in and of itself is already fantastic. You're exposed to so many different people, new ideas, ways of looking at the world, and a plethora of academic information. But it's a missed opportunity if you don't take advantage of all of the professors, TA's, peers and get to know that community. In those moments, I learned more potency than in some classroom settings.

The biggest thing that I learned [after school] took some time. There are no rules. This is just a big game we are playing. You must understand that. If you do, it will really give you a leg up and change the way you view the world for the better. What I mean by that is that it is very easy to hear someone set up a barrier to your goals or dreams because that is what the rules say. Or you can't progress up the ladder in this way because that's not how it works. You don't have to listen to any of that. Now I'm not saying be a jerk. You still have to be respectful and play ball, but know that all of the rules are put into place because of what we have all seen before. But nobody knows what's coming next, and rules are re-written every day. Don’t be limited by anything other than what’s in your head.
Fast forward to the end of your career. It's your retirement party, and everyone is there celebrating your achievements. What do you hope people say about you?
When I was at Michigan State, I knew I wanted to share stories and share images. Any kind of art that would conjure an emotion in someone or make them feel something. I knew that was what I wanted to do, but I didn't know why. It's been a long journey. I think in my youth, the drive was I just wanted to be successful and validated, now I just want to affect someone's life in a meaningful way. If it can be more than a couple of people? Great. If it can be on a mass scale? Even better. So, if there is some kind of get-together and people came up to me to say, "That thing you made really changed me." That would make my life.

To those students who are confused, overwhelmed, not sure what they want to do, unsure about what a degree from ComArtSci can do for them, what would your message be to them?

I’m just going to pass along a great piece of advice that I got my final year at Michigan State from an MSU alum, Sasha Verhage from Google, who came in to teach a class. He said: "Companies are looking for painkillers before they are looking for vitamins." It's a super pragmatic outlook on the job market and what I mean by that is it's easy to have this notion coming out of school like, "Hey, I have myself together! Who wants me?" It doesn't work like that. As somebody who is just entering the workforce, you're an investment. Somebody has to take the time to show you the ropes and train you and take a chance on you. So, the best way to strategize and look at your next steps is simply to say, "What are the pain points out there?" and "How can I solve those?" I guarantee you that you'll experience way more success in that way. 

By Joe Strother