Eric Phu | June 10, 2011
Working in advertising has been a wonderfully instructive experience over the years. Whilst there is undoubtedly the stress and pressure of numerous, simultaneously shrinking deadlines, it in many ways also results in the distillation of experience.
Whilst the giants of the advertising world – the Bernbachs and Ogilvys, the Burnetts and Thompsons – have given plenty of advice on what makes a certain piece of advertising better than another, there is much less said about what makes a particular advertising person better than another.
Is it the ability and willingness to work hard? Nope – effort, whilst important, doesn’t help you stand out from the crowd.
Is it great competence at your job? No, that should go without saying.
And it’s certainly not the way you dress, as the Mad Men uniform for creatives went out of fashion many seasons ago.
Distilling further from my own time in Adland, here are six things I’ve found that differentiates the good from the great.
1. Do things the hard way. Yes, we should strive for simplicity and elegance in our work. But to properly learn your craft and hone your skills, there is no substitute for having done things the hard way first.You could use Dreamweaver to spit out your website code, but the best designers I’ve worked with learnt how to handcraft their HTML, and therefore appreciated the nuances and subtleties of what could be achieved.
You could use the present PowerPoint templates to quickly and efficiently bash out a presentation – but the best presenters know how to create and craft their own templates from scratch.
Once you know the hard way, you not only better appreciate the easy way – but will know a better, easy way.
2. Be passionate. With ever-tighter margins, ours is not an industry that is for the love of money. Nor is it a 9-to-5 job with work/life balance. It is a job that involves putting your heart and soul into every piece of work, only to have many critics tear it apart and piece it back together. Advertising is definitely not for the fainthearted, but as Confucius advised 2,500 years ago, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”.
3. Be noticed. It amazes me that for people who work in advertising, there is so little desire to stand out. Conformity in our industry simply produces mediocrity, and work that doesn’t get noticed or remembered. That also applies to people – those who progress fastest and make the most impact are those that stand up and be counted – for good and bad.
Like brands, getting noticed is the first important battle to getting selected.
4. Make plenty of lemonade. Be prepared to be handed lots of lemons. It may be the product you need to push, or the timings, or the constraints you need to work with. The “perfect” brief is few and fair between.
So be prepared to make plenty of lemonade. The most awarded campaign in history – the best job in the world – I’m sure was a lemon of a brief to begin with. A tiny island that no one’s ever heard of, and little marketing budget to work with. Add some sugar and water though, and the rest is history.
5. It’s not what you do, but what you don’t. Advertising is partly a service industry, and the temptation or path of least resistance is often to just say “yes”. But arguably, what you say “no” to can have a lot more positive impact.
Should you be accepting this brief? Should you just do the latest round of changes requested that don’t seem to make sense? Should you accept the timeline?
A truly great ad would have had far more “no’s” in its process to ensure its simplicity and memorability, and a truly great ad person knows when to say “no”. It’s also why so many brands emulate Apple and fail – they lack Steve Jobs’ famous courage to say “no” to features that add little value and detract from the overall experience.
6. Embrace uncertainty. The world of advertising is undergoing immense change. It’s not just about the impact that digital and social media has wrought on the landscape, but also the complexity and the interplay of ever-increasing brands, products, markets, and consumers. The agency of today is not necessarily the agency for 2020. And half the agency jobs that exist today weren’t in the agency of 2000.
By understanding how to do things the hard way, by being passionate, by being noticed, and knowing when to say no – the truly great agency person is best prepared to thrive in an uncertain advertising world.
What other advice would you give to people in, or looking to start in, our industry?