Be nice, be professional — but be prepared for anything
Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke at a women’s technology conference. When asked what advice he’d have for women who feel uncomfortable asking for a raise, he said, “It’s not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along…Because that’s good karma. It’ll come back.”
Of course, his statement was complete crapola and everyone knew it. He quickly apologized. But in politics, there’s a saying that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth." And Nadella inadvertently revealed some larger truths about the approach many people and corporations take to work, business, and life.
Despite what Satya Nadella might want people to believe, faith in the system won’t get you more money, respect, or promotions. It’s worth noting that Microsoft’s own employee evaluation system requires bosses to sit in a room and rank their subordinates. Some employees always come out on top while others end up at the bottom. It’s a system that relies on perception and politics more than performance or karma.
So what does this have to do with the advertising business? It’s very simple. Our industry has its own systems — and they don’t operate on faith, either.
Regardless of our genitalia, all of us have skills, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses that affect how we fit in the advertising industry. One would hope that if you worked hard and did well you’d be rewarded by the system. Not so much. You could help your agency win new business one month and be out of a job the next. You could help produce an award-winning campaign for a client and then get axed if that client’s new CMO doesn’t like your personality.
This isn’t new. Talk to anyone who has been in advertising for more than 25 years, and you’ll hear that even the good old days weren’t all that good for many of them. The system doesn’t change all that much.
So what can you do to prepare and protect yourself? Stay mindful of where you are, and where you want to be. Like Microsoft and its tin-eared CEO, all organizations reflect the peccadillos of those who run it. If you work for a faceless holding company, you’re working for a labyrinthine operation that values profits more than people. If you’re working for a firm run by one person or small partnership, you’re working under the personal whims of those people. Work for yourself and you’re more in control of your destiny but at the mercy of clients. There’s no one ideal path.
Keep in mind that many agency lifers and longtime CEOs don't know any other system beyond the one they're myopically wrapped up in. I once worked for a CEO who, in an all-agency meeting, imitated the voice of whiny little children to represent what he thought his employees (read: everyone in the room) would say upon seeing some office renovation blueprints. A perfect example of a system one couldn’t have much faith in for eventual rewards.
Don’t fall for an employer’s feel-good internal manifesto without a reality check. You’re not part of a “family,” you’re part of an institution. If you don’t, or can’t, play an active role in your own future at that institution, it’s likely you won’t have a future there.
The system will work you over if you don’t work it. You may be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, or the nail sticking out that eventually gets hammered down. Don’t look to the system to decide which one you’ll eventually be. In an industry where many people consider themselves lucky just to have a job, lots of employers look for workers who are merely happy to toe the company line without asking for much in return.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that in advertising and marketing, people job-hop with amazing frequency. Or that the number of freelancers and contractors in marketing and advertising has boomed. People are simply deciding to work the system on their own terms.
In the end, what you have is yourself. Your work, your word, and your ethics. In some systems, yes, that gets rewarded. In others, it won’t be. But it’s up to you to figure out how to get the rewards you seek — more money, better assignments, a nicer sounding title, a balanced life, or professional advancement of some kind. Unlike concepting, writing, or coding skills, negotiation skills aren’t easily taught and certainly aren’t encouraged in some systems.
Karma may indeed be a nice thing to believe in, and I do think that treating others with kindness and respect does come back around. But ultimately, if you’re not behind the wheel of your own life and career, karma can’t save you from getting thrown under the bus.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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