So You Want to Work in Advertising…

What the classroom isn’t telling you about brand-building.

Jon Schultz
Jun 2, 2014 · 10 min read

“ You make it to the mountaintop and then find out that you clawed your way to the top of the wrong peak.”

That’s how Ryan Holiday, director of marketing for a brand whose work is “instantly recognizable by twenty-somethings all over the world,” describes his career. But more on him later.

Anyone who’s been through a university advertising program has been heavily inundated with “the process.”

Your agency picks up some new business, figures out what the goal is, talks to some consumers, boils it down to a strategy, comes up with some ideas to bring it to life, and sends them down the media shoot to see what happens.

The problem? A whole new class of marketers just outside of “business as usual” are shaking up the way things are supposed to be done, and challenging many of the fundamental frameworks we’re taught in our classes about how to approach business problems with advertising.

The Change Makers

At the intersection of responsive business strategy, start ups’ growth hacking, technological innovation, and social entrepreneurship, a new paradigm of brand-building is emerging, one that’s making the “old school” way of thinking feel a lot like the telegraph.

Let’s look at this a little deeper.

Technology is destroying the barriers to entry. (1)

The brands doing the most progressive work can’t afford an agency of record, and so their scrappiness breeds creativity. Startups are skipping “the process” altogether and building coveted marketing functions like referrals and social sharing right into their products. This bottom-up approach is being undertaken by change-makers like Facebook, Spotify, and Dropbox, not just companies operating on the fringes.

“Every tactic, every strategy, every model, to say nothing of the books, television shows and movies that glamorized it all, has to be reconsidered in light of the stunning success of these brands.” — Ryan Holiday, Director of Marketing, American Apparel

It’s easier than ever for aspiring marketers to learn how to build something, be that learning JavaScript on Codeacademy, picking up the coveted “data analysis and management” skills on Coursera, or getting right into product testing by fooling around with Make magazine.

What this means for you: Get technical — even if you’re not an engineer, being able to talk about it makes your voice stronger in the conversation, helps you collaborate with your fellow specialists in the office, and gives you a better chance at “connecting the dots” between innovative ideas.

Now, what you do has to be deeper than marketing. (2)

More and more, clients aren't looking for ad campaigns, media plans, and other neatly wrapped solutions to marketing problems, but instead dynamic, flexible solutions to real, business problems.

Brands like those mentioned above have inspired the entire marketing industry to go beyond layering marketing on top of what companies are already doing, and instead change the way they approach their entire business. They understand that in the modern world, the “four Ps” aren’t silo-ed, but inexorably linked, and solutions have to work on every level.

Hot-shot agency and perpetual AdAge A-Lister R/GA is moving away from just marketing campaigns and delivering long-term strategic ideas and operational consulting to their clients. Public relations firm FleishmanHillard has partnered with consulting firm Contagious to hunt for the future of not just marketing, but technology and culture. Organizations focused on creating measurable social change are shifting their focus from showing off their work to attaining the organizational excellence necessary to do big things. Business consulting firms are looking for people who can “think by doing” and actually make things, not just talk about it on a PowerPoint.

What this means for you: Get your head out of just ad work. Try some temp work with a startup. Go learn how a small company with a niche audience makes their business tick.

But, it’s not enough to create. You have to test it. (3)

To do something really effective, you have to plug it into the real world. With all of the speculative projects, we’re taught in the classroom to apply an exhausting amount of preparation into our advertising work before it ever sees the light of day. This doesn’t fit the reality of the market anymore.

“Digital is collapsing production costs, so now it is frequently faster and cheaper to put content out there, then to figure out if it will be successful through pre-testing.” — John Kenny, Head of Planning, FCB Chicago

Brian Barthelt, a technologist at Leo Burnett, challenges the traditional model of making work in an ad agency (observe, ideate, analyze & present, decide, design, build, launch & market, involve users & learn), and instead suggests a more entrepreneurial, shoot-from-the-hip approach: Have an idea, make a leap of faith assumption, prototype and experiment, involve your users and learn. Then repeat. An iterative approach that stays connected with the real world.

“The entrepreneurial way: Fail fast and fail often, adjust and try again.”- Brian Barthelt, Leo Burnett Interactive

What this means for you: This mindset can be applied to other areas of “the process,” as members of Undercurrent have done with strategic planning. Try to put yourself in opportunities in which you have the chance to experiment with and pervert the way you we’re taught to do things, and take chances.

That includes treating people like users, not just potential consumers. (4)

As Barthelt mentions, you should be doing everything in your power to get the people that you want to listen, buy, or be moved by what you do, and bring them into the fold as early as possible. Make them participants in what you’re building as brand, not just buyers.

You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you've created until it’s out there. — Matt Mullenweg, Wordpress

As Holiday put it, digital companies are less concerned with marketers asking “how do we get attention” and instead ask, “how do we get users” — and the answer to that question often isn't what we call “advertising.”

Noah Isserman, a serial social entrepreneur and professor at the University of Illinois, constantly challenges young ventures to ask, “Who might care about this? How can we get them involved?” Initiatives that embed themselves into the lives of those they’re affecting, instead of merely servicing them, become contagious. Your people become better advocates for your brand than a million-dollar media buy ever could. The age of the “prosumer” is no joke — they nest your brand right at the top of the hierarchy of effects.

What this means for you: Bounce strategies off of the people they’ll be aimed at. Develop ideas with the people that’ll be using them, not try to have them neatly packaged and delivered in a complete form. Think about partnerships that match your idea with someone who already has a dog in the race.

That bottom-up, scalable approach extends beyond just building the brand, to the process that creates it. (5)

Small teams of highly talented people working on the fringes of business-as-usual are changing the way their categories (ex: Airbnb), companies (ex: Google X), and worlds operate. That’s because “big teams suffocate ideas.”

Social entrepreneurs offer many lessons to businesses stuck in a crowded category with no clear winners. They’re often tasked with solving big, nasty problems with no clear entry point and very few resources to work with (human or otherwise). The way they create change is looking past the symptoms of a problem that everyone else is focused on and instead attack the underlying problems that create them in the first place. Social entrepreneurs seek to “act locally, while stimulating global improvements.”

This type of below-the-threshold change-making can happen inside the place you already work. The Skoll World Forum has made note of the fast-growing role of the social intrapreneur, workers who are “creatively finding ways to turn their own organizations into change agents.” Whether it’s working on a project in secret or seeding it to trusted peers incrementally within an organization, you don’t necessarily have to quit your day job to start something amazing.

“Pretend you’re in the Black Ops division. You have more control to define ANY job in your career than you realize.” — Barthelt

What this means for you: Think less about what your rubric or job description asks of you, and more about what you could contribute to a project, piece of business, or the public that would actually matter. A lot of the time, that won’t be what everyone else is doing.

The real players of the future are responsive to disruption, not afraid of it. (6)

Under the thumb of Moore’s law, chances are that a brand’s products, the categories they’re within, and the media they use to promote it will be completely different with each passing decade (assuming they even survive). Instead of trying to entrench themselves in a safe, low-hanging brand position, organizations have to think like entrepreneurs: seeking out the next, ownable competitive advantage.

As the most progressive companies further their chase of black swans, the pressure is on everyone, including us marketing folk, to help find the next big thing. Some ad agencies have gone as far as to start their own product innovation centers.

“CMOs face it as their responsibility has expanded from communications, promotion, and brand management to market innovation. CMOs are increasingly expecting their teams to turn customer insights into sources of new value in their own right, beyond ‘engagement’ or ‘perception’.” — Mike Arauz, Undercurrent

In an age of technologically eradicated barriers, the challenge for brand-builders inside or outside a company is to challenge the market not by playing inside of it, but by reinventing it entirely. Nearly everyone in business is learning from the disruptive habits of social entrepreneurs that are recombining existing resources within a social structure to alter the very nature of that structure.

Gareth Kay, strategist at Zeus Jones SF, says ad agencies have largely missed the memo.

“I really believe successful companies going forward have to be nimble, flexible and open to change. It’s not about layering new production lines on top of old production lines. It’s about placing small bets and experiments and working out how ideas might be valuable to people as they, and the world around them, changes.” — Kay

Market life cycles are on fast-forward. Find a way to position your brand that’s bigger than your category.

What this means for you: Don’t be afraid to take chances on work experiences on the fringes. Be surrounded by people who challenge the frameworks of your craft. Your career path more than likely won’t be linear, nor should it be.

The real winners are creating real, social change. (7)

Maybe most importantly, what you do has to matter. In a massive study conducted by Havas Media Labs, their team found that the most financially successful brands on the planet are those that are changing consumers’ lives — for the better.

“The real story of the global economy is this: institutions aren't delivering the level of well-being that people want, need, and expect. The next global economy isn't just about stuff, it’s about human lives.” — Umair Haque, Director of the Havas Media Labs

This is becoming bigger than just running a corporate social responsibility campaign or a PR event. Social entrepreneurship is becoming more and more the poster child of entrepreneurship everyday. Management consulting firms are approaching companies from the Jobsian perspective of finding ways to make a “dent in the universe.” If you want to really mean something to people, what you do has to be bigger than marketing.

“That requires rethinking organization, strategy, and especially marketing. It means crafting a human strategy, to deliver higher levels of well-being across a company’s constituencies… And it means investing in marketing which doesn't merely promise shinier stuff to people—but ignites higher levels of human potential in them.” — Haque

What this means for you: You’re in a field that has the power to change the way people think, feel, and act. Find work that gives you the opportunity to direct that energy toward something that improves people’s lives. With the one career you have, you can fatten bottom lines, but you can also change the world.

Meditations on the Future

There’s certainly a place for the big classroom experience. Making connections, being exposed to a large breadth of perspectives, a wider network of opportunities. But its approach is inherently rigid. It’s fundamentally challenged at keeping up with arguably the most dynamic industry on the planet. It very effectively carves out what it believes to be the most sensible, albeit beaten path for students, and that has the effect of sending a lot of students to the same places — without a lot of time to ask if they’re the right ones.

“Our traditional education model has many virtues, but it is front-loaded and not designed to accommodate the volatility of individual career aspirations or that of the market.” — Julia Stiglitz, Coursera

The greatest thing that my college career gave me wasn't all of the things it taught me, but instead showing me the space between them that I hadn't known existed. It’s that space between that gives you the potential to grow, if you have the audacity to go into the unknown and find it. For future brand-builders, the future of our industry depends on it.

My name is Jon Schultz. I’m a recent alumnus of the University of Illinois, and a strategic planner & consultant for brands. My work can be found at Follow on Twitter at @jsschultz88.

Special thanks to Jinwoo Kim and Porsha Swim for editing this piece.

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