Steph A. Romero’s advertising life kicked off with a 4,500-mile bike ride from Austin to Alaska. It was 2015, she had just graduated from the University of Texas (UT) in Austin with a degree in advertising and was embarking on the mammoth journey to raise money for cancer research.
“This journey taught me the value of storytelling and making human connections in order to generate action,” she says. “Two invaluable lessons I needed to succeed in this industry.”
Currently an art director at Dell Blue, the in-house agency for Dell Technologies, Steph’s decision to study advertising came after much toying between her eventual profession and a deep-rooted love of photography. Growing up in Mexico City, her grandpa one day gave her an old-school 35mm film camera that she went on to carry everywhere, getting really into urban photography.
“Mexico City is such a vibrant and colourful place,” she says. “It has so much energy. Even the houses are colourful. Red, orange, blue, all colours of the rainbow. And with so many people, the city was always booming - it was like this big orchestra happening around you all the time. How can you not be inspired by that? It was so cool to see different faces, facial expressions, and it led me to love taking pictures of people. I was drawn to people in urban environments, and to unique features of the city. Things like going to a market and taking pictures of vibrant produce. It was the perfect combination of beauty and grime that made for a really beautiful composition.”
She always knew she’d end up in a creative career but, like so many people that wind up in advertising, she had no idea it was a career option until her senior year in high school. She had to make the tough decision between art school in San Francisco (where she’d pursue photography) or advertising at UT. “I ended up choosing advertising at UT because my parents thought art school was too risky and advertising was a safer career path,” she says. She doesn’t regret the decision but does admit to sometimes wondering what life would be like had she chosen to venture to San Francisco. “Now that I work with a lot of photographers, it really makes me miss it,” she adds. “Someday, I hope to get back into film photography and have a dark room in my home.”
Steph wound up at Dell Blue after a stint as a graphic designer at a design agency in Austin called Zócalo Design, where she started out as an intern but quickly got hired full-time, working on local brands and getting to see her work in the flesh around town. “I have such a warm feeling about that job,” she says. “Co-founders Blake Trabulsi and Ben Serrato are some of the best people I’ve had a chance to work for.”
Then there was a “brutal” first taste of ad agency life, Steph admitting that “it was very hard to transition from being a designer into the world of advertising”. Eventually she started at Dell Blue in April 2018 and finally felt like the people cared and the company fostered her growth. “It’s such a good team to be able to learn from - learning to fail, get up, and build that resiliency you really need as a creative. My mentors at Dell help me to grow and be okay with not doing my best all the time, and celebrate my wins. So, Dell has probably helped me hone my abilities and mentality the most.”
Starting out at Dell, Steph had no experience of working on a set, aside from shadowing a senior art director in the August after the April that she started in. “They made it look easy, but I really didn’t know what it took to art-direct a photo or video shoot.” In October later that year, Steph was thrown in at the deep end. She had to step in for that same colleague on a photoshoot-heavy project because they had a family emergency. In a matter of days she was running a multi-location photoshoot for a whole week. “It was so intimidating and everyone was looking to me for answers,” she says. “This experience taught me so much about myself as a young creative. I had an amazing associate creative director supporting me and a producer who was nothing but great. I quickly realised that I was surrounded by very talented people and that I just had to trust that things would work out. After that project, I gained a lot of confidence as a young creative. It made me realise that I was capable of one day becoming a senior AD myself.”
Over the course of her time at Dell Blue, Steph’s turned a once love/hate relationship with concepting for new campaigns into the favourite part of her job. “The blank slate gave me a lot of anxiety when I first started in the industry. Now, it feels like a world of possibilities. It feels empowering.” However, being a creative isn’t always plain sailing and she is honest when discussing the downsides of coming up with ideas from scratch. “Sometimes, you feel like you have a great idea and other times, you feel like all your ideas are trash,” she says. “It’s a very tumultuous process for me. I am a pretty sensitive creative, like many, and can attach myself pretty quickly to my work. It’s something that I am still working on. I think that the last couple of months I’ve gotten a hold of this part of the process. I’ve learned new strategies to not get stuck in a single train of thought.”
Steph also offers honesty with regards to her biggest gripes of the industry that she’s made her own. “Super minor detail - but kinda major for me - is when people use the word ‘font’ instead of ‘typeface’ in the correct context,” she says. “Or when they use Photoshop instead of Illustrator to create a logo or graphic. To me, it really shows the relationship an art director in advertising has with the design. In my opinion, a great art director in advertising is not only great at coming up with ideas but is also great at coming up with amazing design, and being able to talk through things with designers in a way that respects their craft. I have a hard time respecting art directors in the industry who have never sat in the trenches with a designer.”
As a Latina, gay woman living in a foreign land (she moved to the US at the age of 18), conversations around diversity are also understandably important to and of annoyance to Steph. “I rarely see myself in advertising,” she says. “We need to make an effort to change that. Because the reality is that there are thousands of women like me out there who are not feeling represented and are not able to truly relate to a product. That is a big miss for the industry. At the end of the day, we are all consumers and the more I see myself in pop culture, the more I feel seen and the more interested I am in participating in the conversation.”
Outside of work, Steph is happiest outside, walking, hiking, biking or paddle boarding with her partner Kate and dog Ozark or hanging with her family, who live just outside Austin. She has also been a mentor to young design students and served as the chair for the design advisory committee at Austin Community College. She’s also paying particular attention to nurturing a healthy and positive work life balance, and is a self-confessed “sucker for self-development stuff”.
“In my work, a desire to improve and have some sense of growth [is what drives me],” she says. “In my life, I like to experiment with different approaches to see how I can develop. I try to actively work on being a better human being. I’m a sucker for self-development stuff. I read and consume all I can on it. I’m a strong advocate for mental health. Part of my self-development was going to therapy and really putting in the work to understand and improve myself. I see it like going to the doctor or dentist - it should be a staple of taking care of your health.”