Is an Ad Career For You?

by | March 10, 2009

Do you think a career in advertising is right for you? Consider these facts before making the leap.

1.     Advertising is a service business. The dictionary defines "service" as the "occupation or duties of a servant." Many advertising people bristle at the notion of their profession as a form of servitude. They much prefer the term "marketing partner" to describe the relationship between advertiser and client. It implies a utopian equality that is something to strive for but really doesn't exist. From the chairman to the mailroom sorters, advertising agency employees serve the interests of their clients, the interests of their agency and the interests of their stockholders (if public). "The client puts food on my table and clothes on my back. If it wasn't for the client I wouldn't have a job," says an account director. "And everyone who works for me better understand that." At the end of the day it's the client's money, and money equals control.

 

2.     Advertising agencies are pressure cookers. Deadlines are the bane of the business. Every work product in every department is subject to deadlines. "Client needs it first thing in the morning!" insists the account executive, or "The art and mechanicals have to go to the printer tonight!" yells the traffic manager. Media calls, "Unless you want to run 'Compliments of a Friend' instead of the new four color spread, you had better get that ad released to Sports Illustrated now!" Even with the best intentions and the best planning, things inevitably go wrong and tempers flare. "Things can get pretty hot around here sometimes," says a copywriter. "Ads are due, and people are running in and out of your office asking where they are, and there's nothing you can do about it. It's the nature of the beast!"

 

3.     There's no place to hide. Advertising is not for the faint of heart. Every person on the account is visible, warts and all, to the client and other members of the agency team. Everyone has to pull his or her weight. An advertising agency is very much like a small town, and an account is roughly equivalent to a family. Word travels fast, good and bad. The stars, the achievers and the poor performers are quickly identified. "At one agency I worked at, there was a separate dining room for senior vice presidents and above," says one experienced ad professional. "It was a very nice place with china and tablecloths. Every now and again, someone at the table would mention the name of an employee he was considering hiring into his group. Usually, most people would have positive comments. But on the rare occasion, the comment would be 'Jim Smith? Yeah, I worked with him. I guess he's all right. It was the kiss of death, and Jim's career would be over, at this agency at least. He never knew where the arrow came from." It is not uncommon for clients to ask that an individual be removed from their account or insist that certain individuals be retained or promoted on their businesses. To insure the quality of its staff, agencies perform rigorous, regular evaluations to grade staff. That grade determines raises, bonuses and in some cases, continued employment.

 

4.     Advertising is a team sport. The word "team" is used so often today that it's become almost meaningless. But not in advertising. Accounts couldn't operate without smoothly functioning, hardworking teams. Teamwork is fostered in a variety of ways. Some agencies maintain softball teams and participate in inter-agency leagues, others have outings, an afternoon or an evening away from work. Still others offer cash bonuses to award winning campaigns. "Ogilvy had all sorts of activities for its employees to participate in," says Robin Abrutyn, formerly of Ogilvy & Mather's media department. "It helped me get to know other people at the agency, and make friends." Whatever the technique, the goal is to strengthen the bonds that tie the teams together. Advertising agencies are not friendly places for slackers. Everyone is accountable.

 

5.     Job security can be iffy. Account movement is an industry fact of life and the average life of an agency account is roughly four years. Clients move their accounts for a variety of reasons - the creative product has gone stale, key agency staff members have left, sales are slipping, new client management has a relationship with other agencies - but whatever the reason, the human toll can be great. "I've been through one agency-wide layoff and it wasn't pretty," says an account executive. "After 15 years with the agency, the client called for a review and invited other agencies to pitch for its business. We made the finals, but that's it. Fifty people were laid off. It took four months to get another job." Although agencies often do their best to retain staff after an account loss, especially if they're good, it only works if there's new business to replace lost business.

 

6.     Your life is often not your own. See point number one. If you're expecting to work nine to five, you're in for a shock. People are usually at their desks between 8 and 8:30 in the morning - earlier if an early morning meeting is scheduled, and you're part of it (or responsible for setting up the conference room). The business day ends when it ends. Ten-hour days are common and weekends are often used to catch up. When you're sitting in meetings all day the work piles up. Agencies are rife with stories about cancelled dates, missed birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and just about anything else you might plan, including vacations. "I missed too many important events in my family's life," says a management supervisor. "Luckily, I have an understanding husband, and kids who accept the career that I've chosen. What helps to make up for it is the high that I get from the work."

7.     Only "people people" need apply. Becoming a skilled advertising practitioner isn't as hard as, say, astrophysics. You learn the rules and apply them. But there's another side to the equation, and that's learning the fine art of persuasion. The agency is filled with people who don't report to you, yet they're essential to your job. Some are cranky, some live in a fantasy land, some are difficult, some treat schedules with disdain and some will make you totally crazy. Assume for a moment that you're an account executive. At best, you'll have an assistant as a direct report. How do you get everyone else - media, creative, production, research, your bosses and clients - to share your vision? "In a way, life in an agency is a popularity contest. First, they better like you," says an account director at a Los Angeles agency. "And that only happens when you support, encourage, demonstrate a clear appreciation of their problems and stick your neck out for them. Do all of that and you've got them. Saying "thank you," and meaning it, every chance you get, is a good first step."

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