I'm about to say some things that are politically incorrect. Things that aren't normally said in a public forum because they can seem a little harsh. And the last thing I want to be is harsh. I bring them up because I've always believed that you can't win a game unless you're honest about the playing field. Here, let's start off with an example:
An average-looking guy can date a hot woman but an average-looking woman can rarely date a hot guy.
Now, I may not like that little nugget of wisdom but that doesn't make it any less true. Of course there are some outstanding exceptions to my observations below, and in the interest of avoiding caveats, feel free to consider yourself one of them.
Ready? Let's go.
Agencies do not 'turn themselves around'.
The quality of creative is part of a company's DNA. The culture, the work ethic, the day-to-day operations, even the physical office space, all of it defines the creative that the agency produces. A shiny new logo can't change it. So if a CD tries to hire you by saying "we're about to start doing award-winning work," I'm not saying you shouldn't accept the job. Just don't accept because they're about to start doing award-winning work.
An agency's standards aren't standards until it's lost money to uphold them.
Any agency can claim to do breakthrough work (and hold up a local ADDY to prove it). The difference between a stellar shop and an average one lies in who actually puts their money where their mouth is. Producing brilliant creative requires extraordinary focus and courage: resigning mediocre clients, attracting unprofitable-but-intelligent ones, paying for top talent, ponying up for reprints and award show fees, and so on. The agency partners must be willing to make some tough decisions, even taking pay cuts if necessary, for the goal of growing brands with killer work.
Guys make jokes about female odors, but men smell worse; we're just too polite to tell you.
Just wanted to make sure you're paying attention.
Aspire to be the dumbest person in the room.
Working with smart people is the mack daddy. The end-all and be-all. What to do if you're surrounded by myopic clients, apathetic employees, and wussy management? Find motivating people to partner with. Experiment with all kinds of styles. Read books by industry stars for insight. Get feedback on your work from people outside your office. Even send it to creatives whose work you respect. Constantly evolve your book. Then scram before you become a flabby midlevel drone.
Never let the size of your mortgage get bigger than the stature of your work.
It's dangerously short-sighted to drive your career decisions by your cost of living. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for people being rewarded for their work, but having a huge salary without commensurate worth makes you overpaid and vulnerable. Construct your career around doing great work, and the money will follow.
You only get to sell-out once.
Bide your time wisely. Do it in your 20s and you can make an extra ten grand. Do it in your 40s, and you can retire early.
Anyone who says they think out of the box, doesn't.
Strike the phrase from your vocabulary.
Starting your career at a crap agency is dangerous.
It's not that you can't go on to get a job somewhere fabulous, you absolutely can. But in your first job, you become sort of "programmed" with the agency's point-of-view and unwritten rules. More importantly?
If your agency sucks, your ads will probably suck.
This one's brutal and I say it in the interest of tough love. Even a creative who's enormously talented and hard-working is still only a tiny fraction of the overall team. Coming up with great ideas is easy compared to selling them. Doing outstanding work requires that everyone from the CFO to the client prioritizes the creative over everything, including in some cases the bottom line. If your agency doesn't push you to learn and produce great work, read on.
If your job doesn't push you to learn and produce great work, leave yesterday.
Creatives at Fallon aren't that much different than the ones at Grey. We all want to produce great work. The ones who actually do have the structure and opportunities around them to make it possible. If you don't get great opportunities in your job, create as many as you can outside your job. Do a bunch of spectacular pieces and try to get them produced for cheap. Show spec in your book as long as you're honest about it. Constantly add new pieces and take out the less great ones. Then as soon as possible, parlay that into your next job.
Beware the office Christmas party.
Photographs can last a long, long time.
You can always turn your career around.
It won't be easy, and it might require a pay cut, but I've seen it happen many times. Crank out 15 or 20 genius spec pieces and take a pay cut to work at a better shop. Sure it's hard, but the result can be incredibly inspiring. I once watched a book go from pathetic to meteoric in literally 3 months and the writer got hired immediately at Fallon.
My point? You have more control over your career than you might think. Even if you work in an unsatisfying job, you can still be advancing yourself and your career.
Good luck and godspeed.