10 Lessons I learned from a career in advertising
So you don’t have to
I have a friend who’d been working in China for a long time. He said that after a week of being there you feel like you can write a book about China. After a year, you could manage an essay.
After ten years of living in China, you would probably end up with a postcard.
Advertising is a bit like China in that way. After almost 20 years of doing it, I feel I can barely squeeze out a few core themes that would fit on the back of a postcard. Maybe after another 10, I could write one on the back of a business card.
I got into advertising because it was my Plan B. When I was in high school, I read a novel which was set in an ad agency. I knew the author had actually worked in advertising before, so I presumed that some of it was based on real experience. In the story, I got the feeling, that advertising would be a place where you could earn a decent living, without any formal qualifications.
You’d only need your ability to think creatively.
From that point on, I parked a career as an advertising copywriter as an escape hatch - an industry to go to if my plan A bombed out.
Plan A did in fact flame-out in spectacular fashion. Towards the end of my 19th year in this world, I found myself trying to sell the most awful copy test (a set of lateral thinking problems agencies used to test a person’s ability to approach advertising briefs) to Johannesburg’s advertising industry. Of course I thought I was a genius and I couldn’t understand why nobody was clambering to hire me. That’s when I learned my first lesson:
1: You’re not as good as you sometimes think you are.
Imagine that. I was learning, and I hadn’t even got in yet.
A very kind headhunter took pity on me and tried to find me a gig. I held on to a belief deep inside me, that I did have what it takes, but I just needed the right environment to prove myself. Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was right. Talent is nothing without the right environment - the right coaching and the right inspiration. Because you know -
2: Success never happens in a vacuum.
Lesson 2, done and dusted and I haven’t even earned a single dime yet. I told the headhunter I would work in an agency - FREE! As long as I could get exposure to the right people and opportunities. Of course, I was too young and inexperienced to understand that I was asking for a full-time internship but when he called me to say that Saatchi & Saatchi would take me on - that is what I was offered.
I started working my first job in advertising in March of 1995. It wasn’t a perfect agency - by no means. But it did contain some amazing people. People of the kind I have never met before. And it contained amazing opportunities. Lucky for me, one of those opportunities did arrive on my desk and lucky for me I solved a problem that had been lingering in that agency for a long time. The client loved it, and so the agency felt compelled to put me on the payroll.
At the time, the agency had a horrible but rather profitable project - to advertise the 1995 local government elections. But two wonderful opportunities were hidden inside the darkness. Firstly, between me an one of the senior writers we produced close to 300 radio commercials. For a young copywriter with mere months of experience under the belt, to get this exposure to the production process, was incredible. It gave me a grounding in radio that stays with me today. And secondly, I wrote an ad for that project that gave me an in into the best agency in South Africa.
And so, I learned Lesson 3.
3: Never say no to an awful brief.
Part of my duties were to write the Afrikaans communication for the campaign. Because very few people on the project understood (or cared for) the language, I was able to be a little experimental. I had a lot of fun with some of the ads. There was one press ad I was particularly proud of, but of course you had to understand the language and its history to appreciate it. Lucky for me, one person in particular saw it and loved it.
Harry Kalmer, the playwright, novelist and famed Afrikaans copywriter at TBWA Hunt Lascaris saw it in the paper and when he decided that it was time for him to pursue his own interests, he suggested to John Hunt that they should hire me.
So, after two years in the business, I got hired into one of the best advertising agencies in the world - with a not great portfolio, but on the strength of one newspaper ad.
Being the Afrikaans copywriter wasn’t the perfect job, but - it was a job in the right agency. Hunt Lascaris was in full ascendence and it has created an amazing environment that allowed for charming, memorable and award-winning work to flourish. And I was fully exposed to it. To the people, the culture and the work.
I realised I could apply my mind to any brief there - not just the ones I had been assigned to. And I did. At some point, the agency realised I had useful ideas and they had paired me up with one of their most up and coming art directors. We stayed a team for a few months and then I was placed in a new team and did the best work of my life.
4: Your career is like a highway. Choose your on-ramps and lane changes carefully.
This is a very good analogy for a career in advertising. Probably also for a career in anything. If I didn’t get into the lane that got me into Hunt Lascaris I would never have come as far as I did.
Remember lesson 1: the environment is incredibly important. Great talent will wilt and suffer in the wrong environment. Don’t compromise on who you choose to shape your talent.
I made some bad lane changes after I left there, but lucky for me the momentum of my stay there helped me to get back in the fast lane. In fact, after two years I found myself back at Hunt Lascaris.
I noticed a shift in the culture of the agency. At that time, John Hunt, one of the the founders and the eventual world-wide creative director of TBWA, asked me if I had noticed a difference. I said: Sure. Two years ago, creative teams always had their doors open. People would drift in and out and look at your work and they would always comment, and help you make your work better.
In the new culture the doors were always closed. Teams worked in isolation. People protected their ideas.
John just nodded and I left to go home.
The next morning, when I arrived at work - every single door in the creative department had been removed overnight. Firstly, that was the type of decisive action that is the hallmark of a great leader, but secondly, it was opening up the agency again to the power of collaborative learning.
John understood that ideas are almost never a single individual’s “work”. They are the result of days, months, even years of influence. Half-formed thoughts bouncing around in the ether until one day, when the conditions are perfect, they snap together in a beautiful, full formed idea.
He even alluded to this with an analogy that I only fully grokked years later. He said, as creative people, we carry a bag of Lego with us. And every experience we have is a block of Lego that goes into the bag. And as we tread this earth, and as we live, the Lego pieces bounce around our bags and sometimes snaps together in new and wonderful combinations. The trick, if you follow his analogy, was to fill your bag with as many Lego pieces as you can to maximise the opportunity for as many new ideas to form in your head as possible. This brings us to the next lesson:
5: Live your creative job outside the agency.
Open yourself up to lots of different and new experiences. When people start out in advertising, there is a huge temptation to try and fit in with the other creatives. With the rest of the culture. But if you do that, your work will look and feel like everyone else’s. You know that joke about teenagers - “I want to be different - just like my friends”? Well, ad people are like that too. It is the truly innovative people in our business that manage to speak with their own voice. They don’t care about trends. They listen to that vibration deep inside their own hearts. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American poet and essayist had something to say about this in his great essay “Self-Reliance”:
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
What Emerson was trying to say to us is this: that weird way of looking at a problem, if you don’t act upon it, you will see that on next year’s Cannes reel. And you will hate yourself because somebody else will pick up your accolade.
This means you have to be brave. And you have to understand this about advertising. It is a business of opinions. There is no real right and wrong. What is true is this: the one with the best ability to convey her opinion wins. So. Learn to make your case. If you’re shy, and an introvert, it doesn’t matter. Just learn to make your ideas hear and learn to present them with the passion and theatre. Be true to yourself, believe in your ideas and respect them and give them a big opportunity to win. It is hard to boil down what I have just said in one lesson, but let me try:
6: Give your ideas maximum respect.
Use massive pieces of paper to let illustrate your thought. Be confident. Have balls. Present in a way that you are comfortable with, but by all means, present with passion.
In that time, when I was at Hunt Lascaris, I got given an assignment that was my first real creative leadership role. A perfect opportunity to give a young player a run on the park when the match result is a foregone conclusion. The project was sure to fail for many reasons, but it was a brilliant opportunity for them to try things out.
The opportunity was this: BMW was about to launch the newly redesigned MINI car. They asked us to pitch, because we were the agency of record for the BMW brand, but all signs pointed to the fact that they wanted a new agency to handle this launch.
But we had three months and I did nothing except work on this. Plus, I got to collaborate with amazing people.
What I learned from this was that if you can make everyone in your team believe that you can achieve the impossible - you will. Also, if you have an idea that really excites people. That really touches them, then you will win.
And we had such an idea. It was so simple. John Hunt kept saying to us during reviews: “This car is such a legend, it defies description. So … our idea was this: for the indescribable car, we invent its own language.
Minish - was a language we made up and presented as the launch idea. We developed about 200 words that described how you feel about your MINI, from the way your bum feels when the seats warm them, to the sound it made when you wire the battery terminals the wrong way round.
It was the kind of idea that lit a fire in people ran. Our activation guys came up with an amazing dealer strategy. They made CDs that people listened to on test-drives - that would be an instruction course on how to speak Minish.
We won that business. But in the end, they launched the car with an international campaign.
But, lesson learned:
7: Truly inspirational ideas can make the impossible happen.
This project lead to me being offered a job as Hunt Lascaris’ creative director in Cape Town.
I arrived at an agency that had the same name as the one I knew in Johannesburg, but that had a very different culture. I tried everything to do things the way I was thought but was too inexperienced to change the fundamentals that made the bigger sister agency tick. I also pushed work on clients who weren’t interested in that style of work. It was then that I learned that:
8: You can only do the work for your clients that they want you to do.
If you come up with awesome stuff for a client who does not think it is awesome it will fail in the long run. Spend time understanding a client’s business. Listen to them. Agency people like to believe their clients are idiots, but in most cases they know their brands. Work with them, not against them. Of course they want work that will make them famous, exactly what you want, but you have to tick their boxes. That is just the way advertising is. You can’t work around it. And you can’t blame the system. This is what you signed up for. So suck it up, love it, and make it work.
In the last few years, I have been lucky to have regional and global jobs in Asia and Europe. And I found this:
9: Before you change agencies, change yourself.
I am not saying don’t move if you’re unhappy. But I am saying give every job your best shot. Sometimes we are not honest with ourselves. We come up with reasons to leave - but actually those are just hiding our own insecurities. Give every position your best shot, and unless something really intolerable is going down, give it your best shot for at least 2 or 3 years.
Finally, I’d like to say a thing or two about your brain.
10: Your brain is your tool. Look after it.
You have chosen a job that 100% relies on the proper functioning of the matter between your ears. This means, if you take your job seriously, you should take proper care of your brain.
No drugs. I am being serious. I have seen amazingly talented people lose their careers and their lives because their addiction to drugs took control of their lives. So, yeah, like your mom I am saying - say no to drugs. She says it cause she loves you, I am saying so cause I want you to make an awesome contribution to our industry.
Respect the computer. Computers are amazing tools. They have automated many functions you kids take for granted. When I was your age, we walked 16 miles in the snow - barefoot - to the agency. And we used letraset. And typewriters. Well, almost. But the point is this: computers can make your brain lazy. Use them when you execute, but always do all your thinking in your brain.
There is a theory that writers write better on typewriters because you can’t just backspace backspace backspace backspace. They spend more time composing in their heads so when they commit to paper, the words are better. The same is true for film cameras. Because film is expensive, you think more about the composition of a shot. If you’re just going to shoot 2000 images and choose one, where is the fun in that?
Computers are incredible tools. But like any powerful tool, it can cause you to lose a thumb. Or a brain. So get to know how to use them.
Oh. One more thing. Be brief.
I really should have written this on a typewriter.
(Note: If you enjoyed this piece, please read the Your Life is Your Soil — a further reflection on truth and creativity based on this post)