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How to get ahead in advertising

I’d like to delve into what exactly an ad creative should do if he or she wants to ‘progress’, writes Ben Kay.

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have noticed that I’ve put inverted commas around the word ‘progress’. That’s because one person’s definition of that word might vary wildly from that of another person. I think the conventional attributes of progress for an advertising creative would include some kind of seniority within an agency, a larger salary and perhaps bigger briefs. Or you might start your own agency, become a director or leave the industry altogether and become a successful timber merchant.

Whatever your definition of progress, it requires moving forward from your current position. For most ad creatives it seems like the obvious way to do this is to produce famous and/or award-winning work. That’s really the only thing anyone has to measure your worth with even a little objectivity, so it’s the strongest factor that can set you on your path to somewhere else.

When I was a nipper I was very, very aware of this. It seemed like the only route not only to progress, but also to that incredibly valuable asset, ‘the respect of your peers’. I would argue that it is still the most reliable and measurable way to get ahead. Hollywood screenwriters say that it’s good to get something made, good or bad, because it means lots of people (director, producer, actor, money men etc.) believed you could create a script good enough to film, and that’s a big, wide endorsement. Even if a CD doesn’t love your ads by his own taste, he or she might concede that if they won awards, you must be doing something right.

But that’s only the first, basic stage. If that’s all you do, you’re going to become one of those career creatives, who either manages somehow to produce good work ’til they retire, or quietly drifts off to smaller agencies and more niche product sectors till they retire. If you want to avoid that situation you have to get into some form of management. Often this will be offered to you if you continue to produce good work (after all, if you can do it, you could probably help others do the same), but you can certainly give off a vibe that it’s not for you. Here are some of the best ways to do that:

Be rude in meetings, especially with the client.

Show a ridiculous degree of refusal to compromise, especially at the expense of something more important.

Be unable to recognise that anything might be more important than the exact Pantone shade of green in your full stop.

Have no patience for improving the work of your fellow creatives.

Have poor personal hygiene.

Be late with great regularity, especially to meetings with any of your bosses.

Be taciturn to a fault.

To progress, you can do the opposite of these suggestions, but you also need an element of getting people to root for you. This is because progress requires your ‘superiors’ to speak up in your favour and place you in positions of responsibility. If they think you’re going to do badly in those positions, they aren’t going to recommend you for them. It will make them look bad and they’ll hate you for that.

So, hopefully you’ll be able to make that happen by being friendly and intelligent in front of those who can steer your progress. It’s obviously a bad idea to say stupid things, but saying nothing in meeting after meeting will leave people with the impression that it’s not you who comes up with the goods, and even if it is, there’s no benefit in bringing you to a client meeting. You’re going to have to take a few risks and put your opinions out there. Sure, your boss might disagree with them, but if they’re smart and backed up with some facts or experience then you should be OK.

It also helps if you’re someone other people like to have around. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your snarky principles – well, actually, for many people it does. Realism is fine, but when it strays frequently into cynicism and negativity you’re simply going to turn people off. I recall an account man at AMV who was relentlessly positive, seeming to me and my fellow younger creatives like a dim puppy-dog with absolutely no critical faculties. Then I heard my boss explain that he loved having this guy around because he helped bring the energy to a 3am pitch or a five-hour train ride to see a client in Skegness. Now I entirely understand that.

Can you fake it? I imagine quite easily (I don’t fake my own positivity; it all stems right from my ever-thrilled heart), but maybe you could actually find something enjoyable in volunteering to look after the placement teams, or offering to call the cab when the train’s late. It’ll connect you to people, who will then like you and, as Bob Dylan said, you’ve got to serve someone; why not make it one of your colleagues?

Anyway, you’ll also find a natural curiosity in what you’re doing is very useful. What is your client’s competition up to? Is there a new exhibition you should tell the rest of the department about? Are Finland producing any good ads right now? The person who has that curiosity can often win the affection and respect of his or her peers – so long as he or she is not an arsehole about it.

Which brings me to the final and most important way to make progress: don’t be an arsehole. Yes, many apparent arseholes have succeeded, even remaining in quite prestigious jobs for considerable periods of time. But that is because they are definitely not being an arsehole to at least one person who matters. We’ve all seen idiots, dickheads, shitbags and arseholes make progress; we may not be privy to the way in which they please their bosses, but rest assured they do. Anyway, I’m trying to say it’ll be easier if you just avoid being an arsehole altogether. This should be obvious – I mean, who wants to hang around arseholes? But people can show a surprising tendency towards arseholism and it never helps.

Ben Kay is group creative director at TBWA Media Arts Lab in LA. This article originally appeared on his blog, If This Is A Blog, Then What’s Christmas?; Illustration by Jan Kallwejt

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