January 31, 2013
An Outsider’s Perspective: 3 Characteristics That Make For Success In The Ad Industry

This past week, I was lucky enough to spend the week in NYC exploring different advertising and media agencies. It was thanks to the University of Tennessee’s annual Ad Club trip, which has for the past 20 years, allowed Tennessee’s students to visit the big apple and network with UT alumni in the ad industry while visiting different agencies and companies.  This year we visited BBDO, Mindshare, Y&R, Wieden+Kennedy and MCcann. We heard from various speakers in all of these agencies, spanning from HR staff and account managers, to creative directors and strategists. 

Compiling what I learned from the speakers along with my own experience working at an ad agency in NYC this past summer, I’ve come up with 3 main characteristics I believe make for a productive agency/individual. While some of these might seem obvious, remember that it is much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. One must practice what they preach.

Lets get started…

1.     Attention to Detail – Be Inquisitive

A chipmunk being inquisitive (image source)

What comes first in an agency? The work. The work the work the work. It’s the standard everything is measured by and the lifeblood of every agency. What most people don’t realize though, is the amount of speculation that goes into every single detail of a campaign. This goes far beyond making sure all your I’s are dotted and Ts crossed; it’s about making sure those I’s and T’s should even be there and whether they’re in the right spots. This specially applies to research. One has to be inquisitive at every stage of the process, always making sure you have the correct data and that someone plays devil’s advocate so every point of view is addressed. A good team realizes that it takes conscious and deliberate effort to develop a great idea, and that sometimes, letting go of your idea, no matter how much you love it, is the best decision you can make. A successful agency lives to keep digging; the team won’t be satisfied with finding a way to solve a problem, they’ll be satisfied with finding the best way to solve a problem. Being inquisitive means not getting your thrills from discovering a solution, but getting your thrills from discovering a bigger challenge than the previous one you faced, and then spear tackling it. It’s about finding an awesome insight, then following the trail of awesomeness to discover more and more. It’s about realizing that the more you learn, the more there is to learn, and facing that fact with a smile.

2.     Relationships – With whom? EVERYONE

Two cats having a good relationship (image source)

Advertising is a relationship industry. Whether it be the relationship with your client, your co-workers, the IT guy, or a random person you meet at a bar, every relationship matters. First, with your client, I heard a great story from one of the agencies we visited illustrating how they wanted their client to go all in on something that had never been done before. The agency had no past campaign results to measure against, no way of knowing if it would pan out, and won’t even know the results of the campaign until years from now, but the client went for it. Why? Because it was a great idea? Sure, but more so because the account team had invested the time to build trust with their client. The client didn’t need to see numbers, projections, or result comparisons (even if they wanted to, there were none) all they had to hear from their agency was “trust us, it’s going to work”. This example doesn’t mean that one should pray for clients that just go along with everything; I believe the best relationships are the ones with friction. It means that no matter what the client asks for or what an agency can provide, there is a common understanding on both sides that everything is being done to produce the best possible outcome. If that is clear for both parties, the only criteria left to evaluate the client-agency partnership will be the work, as it should be.

     When it comes to co-workers, I’ve learned that you never know who you’re going to work with in the future. The ad industry is extremely small, when I interned I met 28 year olds who had already been at 3 or 4 different agencies in their career (often to move up, you have to be willing to move sideways), and they highlighted to me how important it is to maintain connections and always put your best foot forward. Does that mean you have to get along with everyone? Of course not, but it means you are obliged to deliver on what you promise, and always be professional, genuine, and consistent. It takes effort to be kind to everyone, and to work with people you don’t particularly like, but that’s what makes good co-workers and eventually good leaders. Listen to what Abe Lincoln said: “I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better” - what a great attitude.

3.     A solid Culture – What’s culture? You tell me

My intern team this past summer

A huge buzzword that’s popped up in the last few years (I think Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness has a lot to do with it) is culture. What’s your corporate culture? Do you have one? Is it the right one? Is it helping or hurting you? etc. All of the agencies I visited had something to say about their culture, some talked about the work, others about people, some about always having fun, collaboration, all kinds of things. I don’t believe I’m in the position to judge what is the best kind of culture, but I can tell you my favorite. I want to be in a culture where people are willing to learn, but more so, are willing to teach. I believe a culture of learning is the best environment for constant growth and innovation. Two of the best quotes I heard from speakers this past week were:

“ You get to work somewhere where every person you talk to is smarter than you, and it’s awesome”

and

“If you don’t want your boss’s job, you should probably be working somewhere else”

These two quotes embody the kind of atmosphere I’d like to work in. A place where you are not intimidated by those better than you, but instead inspired to become as good as they are. A place where those same people are willing to help and mentor you to eventually surpass them.

Now that’s what works for me, but it might not be the same for everyone, which is why culture is such a tricky subject. What I learned from listening to so many different speakers from different agencies is that culture is important because you want to work with people you like and have similar values as you. Advertising is tough; it demands a lot of time spent with your team and other co workers. If you don’t like the overall atmosphere of your agency, you will be miserable. Advertising Agencies know maybe better than anyone, that you can’t be all things to all people. So while there is no formula for the perfect culture, the most important thing is to have a culture, and have it clearly defined. This means not every person will be compatible with every agency, but those that find their cultural matches will be able to truly thrive, both as a company and an individual.

I have a long career in advertising ahead of me ( I hope), many people have more experience than I and I’m sure I’ll discover more important things in the future. So if you agree or disagree with these characteristics, let me know, I like listening to others’ opinions.