Close-up: The expert guide to getting ahead in advertising

Ignore most advice, be inquisitive and don't forget to say thank you. Four industry stalwarts give grads their top tips.


Advertising is a meritocracy peopled by despots. As such, it attracts the flotsam and jetsam of life: opportunists, dilettantes, deluded journeymen (and women) and the odd talent.

In among this motley lot are a handful of people who are genuinely interested in mass communication, the psychology of human behaviour and the delights of being able to create small films and pieces of communication.

Because it is a "people" business, the Facebook generation will, of course, be taken with who they will be able to add to their 300 closest new friends. (Facebook could have been invented by advertising people as word-of-mouth and gossip abounds in the industry. Indeed, there are whole magazines that are dedicated to tittle-tattle; amazing, but true.)

Also, a word of advice: graduates would do well not to use the word "advertising" - it is banned in the industry that bears its name as it signifies a lack of belief in new media, a hanging offence. You work in "comms".

Whatever you want to call it, to get ahead in our industry, diligence beyond common sense is a must. Come in earlier and leave later than the security guards. Be the most willing of helpers on any given project: the more you do, the more you will be given, and the more you will be noticed.

You will gradually learn that human beings are more complex than your immediate family and if you catch the bug about why people prefer Coke to Pepsi, then you will have passed another milestone. But beware. You are not in the social engineering business.

In simple terms, advertising is the daily pursuit of a diagnosis, a prognosis and the delivery of an executed solution, the latter being what clients pay for (although rarely as much as they should nowadays). On that point, do not go into advertising thinking that pots of gold are littered about the place waiting to be taken back to a huge house on the banks of the Thames somewhere near Marlow. Those pots were looted long ago and people more serious than I am about making money tell me that advertising is a ridiculous business where margins are laughable, the assets (its people) too mobile by far and the output patchy at best.

So, if you really must enter this business, work harder than you can imagine, take an interest in anthropology and delight in the difference one idea can make to the lives of the general population and you'll go far.


Evolution gave you one mouth and two ears and you should use them in that ratio. Learning to listen is a crucial and overlooked skill.

Pretending to listen while really just waiting to talk doesn't hack it.

Learn all the time. You'll know instinctively who the people with the Right Stuff are. Gravitate to them, ask for their time, get them to tell you what they're up to and why. You'll find that good people are always happy to share. It's the arseholes who won't.

Work with good people. Blag your way on to the award-winning pieces of business - the ones doing the interesting stuff, run by the next-managing- director-but-one, which prospective clients are interested in and attracted by.

And if you can't do that, work tirelessly and uncomplainingly to make the things you are doing noticed and admired.

Ignore most advice. It's well meaning, but usually offered by elderly people who made their way in the business when the demands were very different.

Do your own thing, make your own mistakes. Who knows? In 20 years' time, someone from Campaign might ask you for a few words of "wisdom".

Someone short, who now has his own agency, was once the most junior account guy on a pitch, due to happen outside the agency. The dapper deputy managing director, who also now has his own agency, was reviewing the cardboard. "Now," he mused. "Is there anything we don't have?" "Talent?" the junior account guy was heard to mutter. Funny. But Salford is a wet and miserable place to return to.


Here are five things to remember:

Generosity: Be a Buddha among thieves. Don't hoard ideas. Don't even attempt to own them. Just keep giving them away like Milky Bars at a fondue party. They will start to show up in the work, and people will start to know where they're coming from. Eventually, the phone will ring.

Integrity: This one is so easy, it's like stealing chocolate from a child. Or it would be, if it weren't about being a little more reliable than the next person. This isn't about virtue, it's about consistency. Pretend that you are a brand. Imagine every flaky or nasty thing you do is written on your forehead in ten-year ink.

Change: You will rise higher for transforming the fortunes of a brand than for joining a glamorous bandwagon. Don't spend your early career wishing you worked on Nike. Look at what you're working on and turn it into a Nike.

Fearlessness: As we all know from Star Wars, fear leads to all sorts of problems with the dark side. Pick up the phone list, go through it and identify the people you're intimidated by. There are never more than three. Challenge them to an arm-wrestle.

Gratitude: Always say thank you. It's not about manners, it's about humility. Never forget the people without whom you would be nowhere. (You know who you are.)


Twenty-two years ago this month, I sat on a park bench on Tottenham Court Road eating sandwiches with my fellow graduate trainee, Robert Senior, animated about a job in advertising.

We've come a long way since then - though Robert is still knocking around Charlotte Street (as the UK chief executive of the SSF Group).

At Burkitt Weinreich Bryant, then a spirited, independent agency, there was little in the way of graduate trainee schemes, mentoring or cosy introductory breakfasts with the chairman. You arrived, were given an account (mine was Baileys, which I loved) and got stuck in. I worked really hard, jumped on anything that looked like an opportunity and learnt the craft through trial and error.

The advice I would give grads today is that you need to be a sponge, a detective and a magician.

Sponge: listen, observe, soak it all up; detective: be curious, ask good questions, find out things that make a difference; magician: be resourceful enough to make the seemingly impossible happen, whatever the task.

Remember from the outset to develop a network of allies who can help you when things get tough.

It is amazing how quickly you can make a contribution. Do you bring anything into the room that will be useful? Do you leave taking out things to do that will be useful to the team and the project? You should. Every time.

Over time, you will transition from useful to vital and everyone will want to work with you. Or else, there's always a park bench for lunch.