Before I ever worked at an advertising agency, here’s what I thought it was going to be like: you’ll be surrounded by other young people that want to do creative work. You’ll get paid to come up with creative ways to talk about a product and in between you’ll talk about movies, books, and music. The rest of the time you’ll pat yourselves on the back as you see your work in magazines, on billboards, and on TV.
For me, advertising was a way to get paid to be a creative writer.
I knew there were downsides: it was a young person’s game (which is shorthand for really long hours) and a lot of times you’ll feel like you’ve sold your soul to make a product sound way better than it really is.
Nobody told me that you have to track every hour of your day to a specific client and project. Nobody mentioned that clients will want things in an unrealistic time frame.
That’s all my bad.
I still believe that working at an agency is a great experience for people looking to do something creative and make a career out of it. I’ve never been on the account side, so I can’t speak for them, but here’s why I think young people out there should give it a try.
Trying to sell more toilet paper may not sound creative, but what you’ll be doing is trying to solve problems, and that’s a skill you that you can take anywhere, to any job. You’ll have a whole bunch of limitations put on you (time, budget, client taste, etc.), and your job will be to come up with something you think is decent while still checking all those boxes.
Sometimes it’ll come easy. Sometimes it’ll suck. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated with the work you put out. Sometimes you’ll sit back and admire your work, proud as a parent of what you came up with despite all those pesky limitations.
Creativity is something most adults think they don’t have to “deal with” after we grow up. But working as a creative in an agency allows you to cultivate your creativity and keep building on it.
In other words, you get to act like a child and it’s totally OK.
The Doors are Open
A lot of jobs out there require certain credentials—or at least employers think they’re so necessary that you have to have them to even get considered.
Advertising is different. Your resume doesn’t really matter. What matters is your book: which is a collection of the work you’ve created that shows how you think and what you’ve contributed in the past.
People from all kinds of backgrounds eventually land at agencies because they’re creative and show that in their book. It doesn’t matter if your degree is in accounting or if you drove a cab for six years and don’t have a college degree.
If you’re good, you’ll get a job. And there’s something fair and good about a system like that.
I’m not sure why so many fun people are drawn to this field (it’s probably the creativity part of it), but you’ll run into a lot of very different types of people. Some are jerks, some are very nice, and some will hate their job with a passion every single day of their long careers.
But all of them like to have fun. And going to work in an environment where people are exercising their creative muscles AND having fun doing it is a singular experience. The less like work your job starts to feel, the more you should consider yourself lucky.
And oftentimes, there’s beer, lots of it.
You’ll Learn a Lot
Other than the creative part of the job (learning from more experienced designers and writers), there’s a whole bunch of other entrepreneurial skills that you’ll learn working at an agency. Now, maybe some of these are just as important at other jobs, but they’ve definitely stood out for me at my agency jobs.
Persuasion: You have what you think is a great idea so you strut into a room filled with people and you tell them about it. The room is “blah” about your idea, so you keep talking and moving your hands a lot, obviously irritated that they didn’t bow down and crown you king.
Welcome to Sales 101, where you’ll have to learn to sell your idea in order to get it made. Again, this is a skill you should have no matter what career you have, so pay attention to the people that are good at it and learn from the best.
Money: Agencies are basically an hourly proposition. You work for an hour, you get paid for an hour. Sure, you’ll get a salary every couple of weeks no matter what (until you don’t)—but without a client willing to buy into a project, you have a problem. That means everyone has to hustle. Hustle to sell new ideas to the client, hustle to get things done in or under budget, and hustle to keep the client happy so they’ll stick with you into the future. It’s like living on the razor’s edge (or freelancing), and it keeps people on their game.
People Skills: I talked about how fun people are at agencies, but that’s mostly on the creative side. Then you have the account side: different type of people (still a lot of fun, for the most part). You have finance, HR, and the executives. Then you have the clients. You’ll have to deal with a lot of different types of people at this job. And that’s a good thing. You’ll learn what language to use when talking to Finance (numbers) and what language to use when you need a developer to stay late and finish a project for a client (beer). Again, this is invaluable in life—regardless of your career.
Comradery: If you’ve been on a competitive sports team you know what I’m going to try to describe here. When you are on a “team” with another group of people and you go through something challenging or hard together, it creates a bond. Whether it’s a crazy client or a really tough project or you just had to stay at the office until midnight to finish a video that a client won’t even look at until next week because “I’m on vacation” but they still want it in their inbox—suffering through it with other people brings you closer together.
When I was in college, I used to joke that you can’t really become good friends with someone until you’ve gotten drunk with them. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ll revise that to: you don’t really know the person until you’ve gone through a nightmare project with them. The upside? You make a lot of really good friends.
Network Growth: Agency life is an ephemeral business. People are moving all the time. People quit all the time. People are fired all the time (to make budget!). That means the people you’re having so much fun with are going to go somewhere else, and now you’ll have friends at all these other places in all these different types of companies (some agencies, some not). This happens at every job, but agency life is worse (or is that better?). But this is great news (until you’re the one getting fired): now you have more contacts all over the country to open up doors to your next gig.
“The turnover rate—of one to two years in the industry—[is] abysmal. Thirty to forty percent of the people leave the industry” in that span, Koenisberg said. “There’s so much pressure in terms of delivery. You’re talking about kids working 28 hours a day.” From here.
The Cracks: I wasn’t sure what to call this, so let’s see if I can explain it. I’ve worked at non-agency jobs where things are very process-ized and organized. My three agency jobs? Not so much. Nobody is going to stop you from venturing into places where maybe you shouldn’t go. Want to download a utility to speed up someone’s work on a project? Go for it. You think you can shoot that video in the back hallway if you can just keep people from walking through for a few hours? Put up a sign and do it. There’s room in these cracks for people to take charge and make things happen without fear of being told “NO” from some faceless authority figure. Some call it taking initiative, I call it working in the cracks (please, no jokes).
Every job has it ups and downs, but if you’re looking for a job where you can flex your creative muscles and learn a bunch of other valuable skills while you’re at it, you could do a lot worse than working for an ad agency.
And if you want to read more about what it’s like at an agency, check out Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads
(fiction) and Then We Came to the End: A Novel (non fiction).
Image by Glen Wright