Despite the drunken, licentious and generally loutish behavior regularly on display in AMC’s Mad Men (back after a 17-month hiatus), the advertising agency business continues to attract the young and idealistic in droves. The ability to make a living being “creative” is, to be sure, a powerful lure, particularly for those invested in a classically liberal education like that offered by Washington & Lee. After all, most of us didn’t attend W&L for vocational training, and many of us didn’t discover our true career calling until years after graduating.
Fictional portrayals of advertising’s 1960s heyday aside, a career in advertising really can fulfill your loftiest notions about getting paid to be creative (and to have fun). It can also be a relentless, high-pressure environment with long hours, unreasonable clients and conniving co-workers who will delight in eviscerating your best ideas. But if you’re by nature optimistic enough or tough enough to endure the industry’s tendency to turn it’s practitioners into jaded cynics, you will discover the particular delight of being part of a team that brings bold, fresh ideas to life. It can be exhilarating.
So if you’re that special breed of optimist bent on making your living in the agency world, you have to figure out how to break in. (Make no mistake, breaking in is not easy). I lucked in to my first job in the business with a small, local shop by leveraging a couple of years of client-side marketing communications experience into an account management position. After eight years as that owner’s understudy, I became the third partner in another small, struggling agency and we embarked on a journey that saw us grow to more than 150 staffers in three offices, culminating in the sale of our firm to a private equity firm and eventual merger with a London-based agency. As our agency’s Chief Creative Officer, I was responsible for attracting and retaining creative talent. I interviewed scores of aspiring agency “creatives”, many of them fresh out of college. Based on nearly 30 years in the business, I think I can offer some very practical advice to agency wannabes and help you avoid some of the common pitfalls in your efforts to break in.
The first mistake agency aspirants typically make is not doing their homework on the various career paths and job functions that exist within advertising agencies. Too many times I interviewed people who just thought it would be “cool” to make ads, but had no fundamental understanding of the various disciplines that are required to do so. The first thing you’ll need to understand is that not everybody in the agency gets to “make ads” (or any of the countless forms of media available in this digital/social age). That is the exclusive province of the art directors, copywriters and their creative directors (the “creatives” as it were). And no one has a chance to break in to those positions, even in small firms, without a portfolio of work that proves your creativity to the creative director/curmudgeon who will decide your fate. Unfortunately, an undergraduate degree from W&L is not going to prepare you for a career on the creative side of the business. Fortunately, there are a number of graduate programs that will prepare you and equip you with the portfolio you need (assuming you have the native talent in the first place) to land the interviews with the nation’s most creative agencies. One of the best programs happens to be the VCU Brand Center in Richmond, VA, run by former Ogilvy & Mather creative director, Rick Boyko.
If you have a strategic mind and a servant’s heart, your undergraduate degree (particularly if it’s from the C-school) will prepare you for a career in agency account management. And if you’re analytical by nature, a career in media planning and buying is also a possibility. Certainly one of the most coveted and fascinating careers in the contemporary agency is the account planner. The account planning discipline emerged in England more than a decade ago and at its core it seeks to unlock deep insight into the consumer’s mind to drive creative work that will truly resonate with that consumer. Today, the discipline is so advanced that a graduate degree is an almost certain necessity to break in.
All to say, the contemporary agency presents a number of interesting and fulfilling career opportunities, and in the best agencies all of the disciplines collaborate in a seamless, integrated fashion. But don’t go to an interview unless you understand exactly what value you could bring to the agency and in which role.
Tom spent most of the last 20 years building and ultimately selling one of the nation's most decorated and successful advertising agencies focused on business-to-business clients. HSR Business to Business, now GyroHSR, specializes in the unique discipline of building b-to-b brands by leveraging deep strategic insight and exceptional creativity. He built a world-class b-to-b creative discipline that garnered every major award in the industry, including the American Marketing Association Effie Award, BtoB Magazine Agency of the Year multiple times, BtoB Best Awards Best of Show, Business Marketing Association Agency of the Year multiple times, Grand CEBA Award, numerous local, regional and national Addy Awards, and publication in Communication Arts and the Graphis Advertising Annual multiple times.
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