How Creativity and Perseverance Led to the Success of this Canadian Entrepreneur

  • by Marie Lauren

Artist and musician turned entrepreneur sits down to discuss struggles with lack of family support, financial barriers and what the road to success looks like for him.

Association between mental health challenges and creative minds has long been speculated. Whether fact or fiction, arts and arts-based fields are proven to provide cognitive therapy to those who cope with mental health and Joe Hill, Founder of MI Marketing is a prime example of how one can overcome obstacles like stress, lack of support from family members and financial barriers leading to success—both personally and professionally.

Hill grew up in the small town of Tillsonburg, Ontario in the early ‘60s— a time where cell phones and computers weren’t around, and the only outlet for creativity was a sketchbook and a guitar. He was a middle child with a distinct personality—the kind of ‘class clown’ that easily draws in attention from others, something one could align to the likes of Matthew McConaughey—funny, but with razor-sharp wit—a trait he is still proud of today. And though his upbringing was an ordinary one, filled with happy times, it was also one which was filled with hard work—harder than the average teenager who operates a cash register at a retail store is attuned to today.

Illustration by Joe Hill, 1978  © Joe Hill 2021

Hill picked tobacco in the fields of Cortland as his summer job, sometimes for as long as 14-hours a day, earning whatever the minimum wage might have been at the time. Something he calls, “not enough,” for the intensity of the work. His parents chain-smoked inside their small home, which Hill later attributes to the persistent sinus headaches that he had growing up, not knowing the effects of cigarette smoke on one’s health and wellbeing at the time. His parents, although loving until the day they passed, didn’t understand that he had a purpose and his purpose was to create art. And, to that effect, they did not support him financially on his journey to finding success in his field.

After failing high-school computer science, Hill then faced a letter of rejection from Conestoga College—an institution who to this day, doesn’t recognize the impact of their decision, and the reason why Hill refuses to speak at their college to this day (though they have asked him many times over the years). However, with rejection comes perseverance, and persevere he did (sort of). Allow me to explain. He went on to study at Sheridan College for two consecutive years before dropping out to take an entertainment role on the SS Norway—a cruise ship that set sail out of Miami. He spent a few years onboard, with his lifelong best friend at his side, playing rockin’ roll and cult classic favourites. It was there when he met his wife, who would later go on to build MI Marketing with him from the ground up, but not before he left the ship to take another stab at post-secondary education.

Hill enrolled in a 4-year degree program in creative arts at OCA (now known as OCAD). He paid his own way through school, including his room and board, which he describes separately as a “shoebox” in downtown Toronto. He was given the opportunity to study abroad in Florence, but couldn’t afford to foot the bill (he mentioned it was roughly $350 at the time), and without his parents’ support, he turned it down and subsequently left OCA after two years of study.

Leaving without a degree from either institution and only a pocket full of dreams, Hill soon received his first job offer from Cuddy’s Fine Foods as a graphic designer. What he didn’t know was that this, albeit risky decision to drop out again, would later define his entire future as a successful entrepreneur later cutting the red ribbon on his own multi-million dollar-in-revenue marketing agency, which now services fortune 500 companies in Canada and the US.

You have faced rejection a lot in your life—failing courses, rejection letters from college, etc. How did you keep positive and did this rejection affect your mental health at all?

At the time, being rejected from a college further proved my parents right, in their own mind, that a career in arts was something of a fairy tale and not a stable or supportive career. That hurt. I was just a kid who had a natural talent to see things differently—through a creative lens—and being self-aware about that enabled me to not accept no for an answer. Self-awareness is key… some may call it slight narcissism [laughs], which is a skill that always needs improvement.

Did you always want to pursue a career in arts? You had a few talents growing up.

Music was my first passion. I would listen to records every day, teaching myself to play the guitar. After my position on the cruise ship, and some side gigs here and there, I released (I say that lightly) a 4-track solo album, which of course never went anywhere [laughs]. So not really. I think I weaved in and out of all areas of the creative world. It just so happened that I hit a few lucky streaks that led me to where I am today.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists, or in your case, designers/marketers that are struggling to find support from their parents and may feel a little lost on their journey to success?

Well, first would never tell them to drop out of two colleges and sail away on a cruise ship [laughs]. But in all seriousness, if you have a talent for something and it ignites you, you should pursue it at all costs. The years you spend working account for the majority of your life and certainly your young adult life and you need to like what you do to succeed in it, even if some people around you don’t share the same passion. As for getting through to your parents – it’s not always easy, but in my case, my daughter presented me with a Powerpoint presentation as to why she should pursue fashion communications, which came with the hefty price tag of helping her to pay for her summer abroad. That worked for me. It showed me she was willing to thoughtfully execute her own life’s plan and demonstrate the impact it would have on her if she could do it. Not saying it will work for everyone, and not saying that it will always be as easy, but the most you can do is ask for your loved ones to listen and learn what about your career path excites you.

Other than growing pains getting into your career, what types of struggles did you face once you were more successful?

I think precarity was a big part of the early stressors with starting a business. You never know what the future holds – one client may leave and all of the sudden you’re worrying about whether or not you can make payroll or whether you will be able to gain back what was lost. We’ve been lucky to retain a quality group of clients that have helped to build this company into what it is today. Have we lost a few along the way? Sure. It’s a part of business.

You are incredibly successful, do you find yourself still searching for something?

I think part of being a creative, or really just being human in general, is that you’re always looking to compete with yourself. How can I do better? What can I do next? Why didn’t I think of that before? Call it fear of complacency, but I ask these questions all of the time, and it has led me to new and exciting projects outside of marketing.

Some say that those who are “more creative” tend to have challenges with their mental health. What is your opinion on this and have you seen the intersection of mental health and art in your own life?

Some of the world’s greatest artists have faced mental health challenges—Van Gogh, Evard Munch, to name a couple, and while back then they called it something more menacing, the truth of the matter remains the same. Everyone struggles in some capacity – lack of support, too much time spent away with family embedding themselves into their work, inability to secure a full-time gig that aligns with their dreams… it happens to all of us and yes, all of the above factors into mental health and yes, I’ve been there too! The key is to remember that stress, anxiety, seasonal depression or anything that you may face isn’t a sign of weakness or a threat to your art, it’s an obstacle that you work through and seek support that helps you thrive in spite of what may challenge you.

The author and interviewee have used pseudonyms as they wish to remain anonymous.


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