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January 9, 2012
Career Advice for Creatives on Starting Out
I was sitting in Starbucks talking with my two favorite, underworking young professionals about our industry. And it hit me; the things we are talking about might be of interest to those looking to get into the industry. Please remember that these are my opinions; take what you can use and leave what you can’t.
Be selfish. This is your career, not your partner’s, not your CD’s, not the CEO’s, not the account team’s, not your teachers’ or even your parents’ or spouse’s. They may support you and believe in you but in reality, you are in this all by yourself.
I can’t believe I said that, but it is true. No one can help your career like you. You are going to have to figure out who you are, where you are going, and who you wish to become. You are going to have to be your number-one cheerleader when everyone else has doubts. You are going to have to be your harshest critic, never accepting the easy or the expected. Only you can hold you to the standards you believe in.
You will be able to lie to everyone else, but you can never lie to yourself. And you will constantly remind yourself of your dreams and goals — you never forget.
Know who you are and who you want to be. No, really. Know who you are and who you want to be. Time to have a “come-to-Jesus meeting” with yourself. Take an honest look at who you are right now and determine who you want to be when this is all said and done. You don’t have to have everything nailed down, but you do need to have an idea of what you want out of this career. And then you have to ask yourself if you’re willing to pay the price to become the person you want to become. Sometimes, that answer is “no.” Sometimes “yes.” This is something only you can decide.
How do you do this? Stop, look, and listen — look at the people in the industry and see if there is anyone you would like to be like. And then decide how far you are from reaching that level of professionalism. Seek training and guidance. This is not about becoming that person but developing those traits that you admire in them. 
Know your craft. Advertising is your craft, not print or broadcast or social or direct or anything else. Our craft is advertising. The other things are tools that we use to do our jobs. We produce creative solutions that help to address our clients’ needs.
Practice makes perfect. And you can’t always practice at work; your boss isn’t paying you to practice — he/she is paying you to deliver. Whatever your discipline, study what makes a person the best at it and get to work becoming the best.
Okay, time for my mini rant: If I hear one more advertising professional proudly say that they don’t watch TV or listen to the radio or read print or look at outdoor or visit the social realm, I’m going to lose it! How arrogant and foolish is it to not keep up with what you are paid to do? That is not something to brag about. Know your craft.
Your book is your life. “The workman is known by his work.” Repeat this to yourself until you can’t stop hearing it in your head. Write it in your diary or journal. Put it on a Post-it in your car and on your bathroom mirror. Maybe even tattoo it somewhere you can always see it (joking).
Networking and politicking may open doors for you, but poor work will get you tossed right on out of it. In this industry more than most, it is about the quality of your work. Defend the quality of the work that you place in your book like a mother Grizzly defends her cubs. I know you love everything you do, but (and this is the biggest freaking secret I’m going to share with you) not all of your work is worthy of your book. Nobody’s is. The sooner you learn to weed out the weak ones, the better off your book will be.
Your portfolio should contain your best work. VOLUME DOES NOT MAKE UP FOR QUALITY!
And to all of you folks outside of the creative department — I’m talking to you. You need a book also! Times are changing — you have to show work, too. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
Stop showing all your goodies. HR and recruiters are going to hate, this but we are in advertising, people!
Stop giving away everything without a face-to-face meeting. Show samples of your book, but hold back most of it for an in-person meeting. (Skype is not an in-person meeting!)
Humor me here for a second. If a person has your resume and all your work, they tend to “think” they know you, but that is the furthest thing from the truth! They know your work record and they can see your potential, but they don’t know you.
“Encourage” them to take the time to get to know you, how you think, and why you approach things the way you do.
Know your prey. Be selective. Know what type of agency is right for you, what they do, and how they approach things. You don’t want to be miserable at a “hot” shop. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like big cities and the pace that comes along with them, stay away from them.
Read the trade pubs, visit websites, connect on social media, study the annuals and award shows, and, most of all, reach out to people who know the places you are interested in. It will surprise you how many people are willing to help if you simply ask.
Not every great shop is great for you. Because of the nature of the industry, a lot of what will help you be successful is connected to finding the best match for your personality. You really do need to know yourself and who you want to be.
Talk less and listen more. Yes, the interview is about you, but if you listen a little bit more, you’ll learn a lot about the agency and whether or not it is right for you. Listening will also make you appear smarter and more attentive than you actually are. That never hurts.
Don’t sit in silence but encourage a conversation; answer their questions while asking your own. Try to get a feel for who they are and what they are looking for. As much as they are interviewing you, you are interviewing them to make sure this is where you want and need to be. Learn to read the audience and notice body cues and facial expressions. Non-verbal communication will tell you a lot. 
Here is a tidbit that will serve you well forever: the person talking isn’t always the real decision maker. If you are talking to a group, learn to find the real decision maker.
Be patient. Yes, you are smarter and more technologically savvy than us “old farts.” But we haven’t survived and prospered in this industry for as long as we have on luck. Many of us are good, very good, at what we do, and if you will listen and observe, you might be surprised what we can teach you.
You can’t have our jobs right away. Start at the bottom and work your way up, if that is your goal. If you want to be the best at a certain position but don’t want to run your own shop, then study and learn from those who have experience being what you want to be. Even learn from our mistakes.
Advertising is an industry of egos, so that’s why I know this has to be said: no matter how great you think you are, there is always someone better. I learned a lot about writing from other writers, but a couple of my art director partners did more to help make me better than any writer. Listen to what people are saying, and weigh it against where you are — use the advice that is helpful; move on if it isn’t.
Learn to wait, and be patient. Your time will come, and when it does, you will be so much more prepared and equipped for it. Put in your time.
I look forward to seeing your work out here!
I hope this helps. I know it helped me. I would like to thank Ken Bowes, Norm Grey, and Dick Briner (unfortunately Dick has left us) for sharing wisdom with me. It served me well. 

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Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker
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