Are you a work person or a career person?

Paul Burke has a theory that everyone with a job can be divided into one of two categories: 'work' people and 'career' people. Here, the award-winning copywriter expounds upon his philosophy and applies it to the world of advertising creatives.

Robert Newman (right) and David Baddiel were a famous creative team; one was a work person and the other a career person.
Robert Newman (right) and David Baddiel were a famous creative team; one was a work person and the other a career person.

Once upon a time…
Robert Newman and David Baddiel were a famous creative team. They didn’t work in advertising; they worked in entertainment and were fantastically successful. They were the first comedians to sell out Wembley Arena and the main reason for comedy becoming known as the "new rock ’n’ roll". Newman was generally regarded as the more talented of the two. Though, once they went their separate ways, it was Baddiel who enjoyed far greater success. The reason is quite simple: Newman is a "work" person; Baddiel is a "career" person – and we are all either one or the other. 

Account management
Let’s quickly deal with you first. As an account handler, you are almost certainly a career person. Your line of work offers a clearly defined career ladder. And in soulless business parks all over the country, your clients will have similar ladders with your opposite number standing on a corresponding rung. Very simple. But this piece isn’t about account handlers, it’s about all the Newmans and Baddiels in creative departments. And for them, life isn’t quite so straightforward.

Sweeping generalisation alert
Here’s the first one: creatives are all work people, aren’t they? Coming up with ideas and executing them brilliantly is all that matters to them. They take great pride in the craft of creation. For them, excellence is its own reward – but if their work also receives garlands from various awards juries, their careers are destined to flourish. 

But it doesn’t quite work like that, though, does it? We all know some brilliant creative people who have not been as successful as they should have been. And we certainly know some spectacularly useless ones who have somehow secured very senior positions. Second sweeping generalisation: they will be the career people.

‘Very good at playing the game’ 
I’m not talking about Bayern Munich or the New Zealand rugby team. I’m quoting the phrase most frequently used to explain the success of career people. But then, that is how they view their careers: as a game, albeit a deadly serious one. They work out the rules then play to win. Work people, on the other hand, don’t see those rules. They believe that creativity is about breaking rules or inventing new ones. So they are blissfully unaware of the career person’s most important rule of all.

Spend 25 per cent of your time on your job and 75 per cent on your career. If career people have a mantra, this is it. However, there is little point in trying to adopt it now. As a career person, you do it instinctively. And as a work person, you never will.

The doctor and the priest
Creative departments have always attracted people from working-class backgrounds. When I was growing up, Dr Curry and Father O’Leary were the only people I knew who had anything resembling a career. Everyone else had jobs. Usually manual, often menial, so they were obviously work people. Which is why creative people from humbler beginnings tend to be work people too. And while they are being judged purely on their work, that’s fine. But after a few years, other factors start creeping into play. 

In a meeting
As creatives become more senior, they are expected to attend more meetings and raw creative talent becomes less important. This is the moment the career people have been waiting for. If they have managed not to get fired – and they are very adept at this – they can now start to pull ahead. Often more (sweeping generalisation) middle-class, they are quite comfortable in meetings. And the more they can talk the talk, the less they will have to walk the walk.

Check your e-mails
Career people attach great importance to titles. So if your e-mail sign off contains the words "senior", "deputy" or "assistant", we can safely assume that you are a career person. Work people would never use such specious titles. But would they even be offered them in the first place?

Stay online
Have a peep at some creatives’ websites. According to a headhunter I know, they can be quite surprising. Work people’s websites often contain excellent work, but the sites themselves can be flat and uninspiring. Career people put far more effort into their online presence. The website of one displays a lot of ads that I know for a fact he didn’t do, but on which he was apparently a "creative director". He doesn’t actually claim to have done the work but, unless you look very carefully, you will be left with the impression that he did.

There is no right or wrong
To depict all work people as noble, talented artisans is a sweeping generalisation too far. They may be all about the work but, in some cases, that work isn’t very good. Likewise, not all career people are sly, scheming charlatans. Many have valuable skills beyond simple creativity. They may be excellent managers, brilliant at hiring and inspiring good teams. And you do sometimes encounter talented work people who develop into successful career people. Just like you sometimes encounter Manchester United fans who come from Manchester.

Surely there is room for both?
There is – to a point. And that point often comes when career people find themselves in charge of work people more talented and experienced than they are. This can make them feel awkward and insecure, so they set about preventing the work people from doing the very thing they are good at. The career person cannot see that the work people are no threat to them at all. If they had wanted the job, the title, the responsibilities and the anxieties, they too would have spent their careers desperately trying to acquire them.

So is it better to be a work person?
Of course it is. You retain your talent, your soul and the respect of your peers. People like who you are, they like what you do and they will always want to work with you. But, deep down, you do feel slightly embittered. It’s not fair. You didn’t really get to reap what you sowed. Was that because you wouldn’t accept that you needed more talents than just talent? Or because you didn’t play the game? Or, most likely, because you still haven’t realised that there was one? 

Or a career person?
Absolutely. You’ve done very nicely, shrewdly embedding yourself into that major piece of business. You’ve got the big corner office, the nice fat salary and the Club Class flights to that "Future of Creativity" conference in Miami. But, deep down, you know you’re not very good, so how long much longer can you fool people into thinking that you are? You also know you are just a number (actually, quite a lot of numbers) that your global paymasters could delete at any time. So now you use all your creative energy to devise ever-more political survival strategies. Is this really how you wanted to end up?

Back to Newman and Baddiel
Sorry, I almost forgot about them but, yes, let’s return to that analogy. So are you a work person or career person? Still don’t know? OK, well, you may not have worked out which one you are but, trust me, everyone else has.