Zoe Alexander writes: Dear Jeremy, I’ve dreamed of working in advertising since I was 20 years old. However, due to life circumstances and moving from Canada to London when I was 22, I haven’t been able to make my dream a reality. In just over a month, I will be turning 29 and don’t have any direct agency experience.
I’ve racked up plenty of content writing, journalist and digital/social marketing experience, but still yearn for agency life. I long to work until 3am on a pitch, learn from industry leaders and participate in team-building sports days. Oh, and of course work with leading brands that I admire. Currently, I’m working for a post-production studio and want to be on the other side. How do I enter the world of advertising if I am no longer 15 years old and work experience doesn’t really cut it? I have bills to pay.
Thanks, Zoe. You’ll be familiar with that cynical old saying: when it comes to getting on in life, it’s not what you know that matters but who you know. In fact, of course, in a great many cases, it’s not in the least bit cynical: it’s the obvious, practical truth.
There are certainly successful people in advertising agencies who are successful because of their clear, demonstrable talents; but whatever we might like to pretend about our trade, such people constitute a small minority. By far the greater number aresuccessful because of their singular personalities.
And, by that, I don’t mean that they’re empty, charming chancers tap-dancing their way up the corporate ladder. Yes, there are a few of those; but most fall off long before they get to the top.
I mean quick-witted, competitive people. People who like problems and solving them. People who are at least as good at listening (which they know is not the same as remaining silent) as they are at transmitting. People who are pretty good at understanding what it’s like to be other people, whether a single mother on benefits, a vulnerable marketing director or a copywriter with a creative block. People whose very presence in a group, irrespective of seniority, sparks optimism and speculation and delight.
People who can sniff out the beginnings of a good idea and help persuade it into life. People who have a knack of getting something done before other people even realised they needed it. People who just adore winning: on behalf of their clients, their agencies and themselves.
They’re not grandstanders, they don’t hog the limelight, but they’re excellent company. If you found yourself stuck in a fogbound foreign airport, these are the people you would pray to be stuck with.
Some of them may have a double first and some of them may have left school at 16. No application form, however conscientiously constructed and completed, will tell you with certainty whether an applicant is going to be any good or not. Even professional qualifications, evidence though they are of serious intent and diligence, are never enough in themselves to justify taking anyone on, sight unseen.
Not everyone in an agency needs to be like this, of course. But their presence makes it possible for talented others to survive and thrive: the sullen, the solipsistic and the congenitally disorganised.
So personality is precious; and personality becomes evident only through direct personal experience. And that’s why who you know is key: and so it should be.
You’ve probably done it all already. If so, do it all over again. Use every contact you’ve ever made, however brief, with anybody who works in an advertising agency, however lowly. You must have met a few through your post-production studio; make sure you meet more.
Pester them and flatter them. Buy them beer and birthday cards and ask to meet their friends. From the tone of your letter, you sound like a pretty good match for my personality profile. But no-one will ever know that until they come to know you.
Dear Jeremy, Given the well-documented shift from advertising using an interruption model to one of engagement, do you think this marks the end of the endline?
I’m afraid not.
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