Ten career secrets for young creatives

There may not be a formula to becoming a creative director but there are certain attitudes and behaviours that make it easier. Four top female creatives shared the secrets to their success at last week's SheSays event. Kate Magee sums up their most powerful advice.

The speakers comprised (l-r): Eloise Smith, the executive creative director of Lowe Profero; Vicki Maguire, a deputy ECD of Grey London; Caroline Pay, the deputy ECD at Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Chaka Sobhani, a creative director at Mother.
The speakers comprised (l-r): Eloise Smith, the executive creative director of Lowe Profero; Vicki Maguire, a deputy ECD of Grey London; Caroline Pay, the deputy ECD at Bartle Bogle Hegarty; and Chaka Sobhani, a creative director at Mother.

Fear is a good thing

All the speakers had a healthy attitude to risk and had left comfortable jobs to develop their skills elsewhere. For example, Sobhani was happy at ITV but left when she noticed she no longer felt stressed at being asked to contribute to big meetings. "I like feeling sick, feeling nervous about something. If you don’t have that, I think it’s a dangerous place to be," she said.

Work out your strengths and use them

It can be easy to overlook your strengths while you are focusing on where you fall short. You don’t have to be good at everything. Work out where you excel and stick to it. "I spent years trying to be an art director but I’m a copywriter," Smith said. "The more you know about what you’re good at, the more you can be of value. I always make sure I work with someone who is good at what I’m not."

Be honest with yourself

Smith said she gets a real buzz from being an executive creative director – "it’s creativity on speed" – but it’s not a job for everyone. It comes with conflict and management responsibilities. Assess whether you will actually enjoy being a creative director. Don’t chase the role just because it’s the next rung on a ladder. "We work in a pressured, adrenaline-filled world with constant threat of public failure and embarrassment. Work out if you want that," Smith said.

Have a plan but don’t ice it on cupcakes

Once you have worked out what you want, be strategic about getting there. Smith was embarrassed to reveal that when she was younger she made a five-year plan, iced it on to cupcakes and presented it to her boss. "That was pretty weird; you don’t need to do that. But you do have to make a plan, especially if you want to have a family," she said. Once you have your plan, everything you do should help you reach that goal.

Don’t make a plan B

You will be less driven if you have an alternative option. Maguire only had one plan: to be a fashion designer. She was sacked from Next, French Connection, Nicole Farhi and Paul Smith. She was finally fired by Vivienne Westwood when she tried to cut the thread out of a white dress with her teeth while wearing red lipstick. She then turned to advertising. "Have a plan A and spank it until you know it’s right for you or not. If not, find a new plan A," Maguire said.

Choose a good environment over a trendy agency

It might be exciting to work for a trendy agency but the most important thing is whether you enjoy your environment. "Some of the agencies I’ve enjoyed the most haven’t been the trendiest. They may not be the agencies that Campaign is writing about," Maguire said. "But if you’re happy and having a good time, then that’s more important than how cool they are." Smith agreed: "You cannot change people but you can change your place of work. Put yourself in an environment where you will succeed."

If not you, then who?

Someone has to do the high-profile job. Maguire said she originally turned down the offer to become a deputy ECD at Grey London. So her boss, the Grey chairman, Nils Leonard, asked her who he should bring in instead. That spurred her to take the role because she was worried about the alternatives. "I’ll never be a Kim [Papworth] or a Tony [Davidson], but I’ll also never be some of the arseholes I’ve worked with," she said. "That’s what has always driven me: whatever I do, there’s always someone doing it worse than me."

Mistakes don’t make you a failure

The more you fail, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the more you realise you cannot fail, Maguire argued. "You can fuck up. You can lose your job, but you can never fail because you’ll always come out of an experience with something else learned. The beauty of advertising is that there are lots of other people failing as well," she said. As Pay said: "Try, fail, and try again."

Make a family work for you

When Pay was pregnant, she "fantasised that the miracle of childbirth would instantly transform me into a baking-crafting-domestic-goddess-earth-mother. How wrong I was. I realised I needed the banter, buzz and chance to show off that working gives me." She went back to work, found a better balance and was much happier as a result. Whether you stay at home or come back to work, have the courage to do what is right for you.

You can learn a lot from arseholes

Bad managers can be the best teachers. "I’ve learned from every self-serving arsehole I’ve worked with – and there are a lot of them in the industry – but they have got a lot to teach you," Maguire said. "I’ll never be that creative who spends so much time on a plane the first time they see the work is on TV," she said. Pay added: "Half the job is the people part of the job – don’t underestimate this. Be friendly. Be generous. Be noticed."

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