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How To Get On

Advice on how to manage a strategist’s career in a creative business

October 2017 | Jim Carroll

Whenever I come across fellow Planners in conferences, seminars, pubs and coffee shops, I find I am consistently asked advice on career progression.

How do I move from a junior to a more senior role? How do I learn the things I don’t know? How do I get noticed when I don’t work on the Blue Riband accounts? How do I navigate office politics? How do I become Head of Planning? Should I stay or should I go?

In all areas of working life people worry about their careers. But I suspect Planners worry more than most. Maybe we’re a little less confident, a little less disposed to be competitive. Maybe we’re just socially awkward, fragile souls...

So when I was invited by the APG to perform the Guest Editor role, it seemed natural to consider the broad subject of ‘How To Get On.’

I’ve selected a number of my own pieces on this theme and come up with a few fresh observations. But, more importantly, I’ve invited a selection of friends, former-colleagues and people I admire to offer their own observations. Most are Strategists, but I thought I’d also solicit the opinions of a few outside the sector, just to keep things interesting. I’m hugely grateful to them all for finding the time to commit their thoughts to paper.

Over the next month we’ll be publishing something like three pieces a week.

I hope you find them interesting, amusing and helpful!

Leadership and the Amplified Self

Leadership and the Amplified Self

Jim Carroll | 27 October 2017

It is perhaps appropriate that we end this series on ‘How To Get On’ with a few thoughts on leadership. I should say that great strategists do not necessarily make great leaders. While we may all aspire to being in charge, it’s not a path that I would encourage everyone to take!

Alexander Rodchenko, Poster for Lengiz Publishing House

In the twilight of my Agency career I was asked to articulate my personal understanding of leadership. When I applied myself to the task I realized that, although I’d worked with many compelling CEOs, ECDs, Directors and so forth - and I had myself held some positions of responsibility - I didn’t really have a theory of leadership.


I determined to consider the characteristics of the leaders I’d worked with that I most admired. Surely if I gave due thought to their particular skills and personalities, some consistent themes and patterns would emerge.


First there was the Visionary. He was ardent, emotional and instinctive. He could see the future, and colleagues wanted to join him there. Then there was the Competitor. He was pugnacious, robust and strong. He created a culture of constant improvement and success. Then there was the Motivator, who made all her teams feel special and want to belong. Then there was the Puppet Master, who avoided the spotlight, and elegantly managed her critical relationships behind the scenes. There was the Problem Solver, who had an indifference to rhetoric and a passion for practicality. And finally the Philosopher King. He simply thought more profoundly about Clients, markets and brands than anyone else.

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The Third Pearl

The Third Pearl (Positive Presence)

Dej Mahoney | 25 October 2017

Dej is everything you’d imagine a leading Entertainment Lawyer/Producer ought to be, and more. He’s thoughtful, articulate and incisive, with an extensive cultural hinterland and a unique sense of style. But, critically, he lives up to his own professional creed: he is a ‘positive presence’ for all who know him. 

-Jim Carroll

Johannes Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring

A couple of years ago, I attended a session at the Soho Create Festival in London, where a successful actor – surely on his way to "National Treasure" status - was asked for the keys to success. His off-the-cuff pearls of wisdom were: i) turn up on time; ii) work hard; and iii) don't be a ****! (hereinafter, “the third pearl”). I was struck by this utterance, not only because the venue was a church, but also because of the heartfelt sincerity with which that pearl had been cast.


This is helpful advice for keeping established talent grounded, but what about those of us who have yet to unearth our natural gems? How best to maximise our current position and realise our full potential?


On subsequent reflection, I realised that my own interpretation of the third pearl would be something like: being a positive presence around the workplace and in the inboxes of others. This doesn’t mean that you have to be smarter or funnier than anyone else - just start feeling comfortable in your own skin, try generally to add value and stay open to ideas and possibilities. All basic stuff, but it can go a long way – and so much further than might be imagined by driven, young professionals. 


Being your best, original self is the only event in which the odds are stacked totally in your favour, and you've got to believe that there’s an ‘easy gold’ there for the taking. So, spend some time working out what makes you tick at your core, even if you haven't yet identified every one of your unique gifts. Self-awareness, self-confidence and self-determination have always been useful, but they’re at a huge premium for the selfie generation. Whilst I myself have never fully subscribed to the self-help industry mantras of “everything is possible" or “you can be whoever you want to be”, I do believe that dreams can be as important as a clear vision - and we should never forget that popular culture has always produced the most improbable stories - from the miracles of J.C. to the wizard output of J.K. (Rowling); and from the tweets of Trump to...well, you get the idea.

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Gen X Edition

How To Get On: Gen X Edition

Tom Morton | 23 October 2017

I’ve never actually met Tom, but I’ve long been an admirer of his writing. Here he looks at the ‘How To Get On’ theme from the perspective of the more mature Strategist. ‘Because even people who have a past get to have a future.'

-Jim Carroll

Diego Velazquez, Mars Resting

Career advice usually consists of gnarled industry veterans dispensing hindsight to starry-eyed millennials. But according to the IPA Census, the average agency staffer is 34 years old, and half of us expect to be in the creative industry at the age of 50. This suggests that people need just as much career advice in their second and third decade in the creative industry as when they’re apprentices and grads. I know I did. And do. I joined my first agency board at 27, was a CSO at 34, moved to America at 37, fell out of a failed agency startup at 39, discovered innovation consulting at 40, and never looked back. So here goes with How To Get On: The Gen X Edition. Because even people who have a past get to have a future.


If you’re at a point where you are senior and experienced, earning more in a week than your juniors earn in a month, you have to create value to match. Two great skills come from that seniority and experience: credibility with important people, and the ability to solve bigger problems faster. Even a scrappy startup culture will value a grown-up who can organize ideas in a way that the leaders of a company will understand. When vagueness makes you look like an expensive luxury, your structure is your strength.


Your own performance is one thing; your people’s performance is another. This isn’t a soft, secondary consideration. Organizations are more likely to promote you if you have successors under you, and more likely to question your ability if the team under you is cratering. Hire selfishly, hand over responsibility, direct clearly, and coach the people under you until they are doing your job. Happiness is other people doing good work without you. Continuing the theme of people, become an ally of diversity and inclusion. Bemoaning political correctness is for people who depend on their authority more than their talent. Letting the world hear new voices and perspectives is the essence of diversity and inclusion. It’s also the essence of planning.

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The AAA Approach to Career Progress

Achievements, Assets, Advocacy: The AAA Approach to Career Progress

Jim Carroll | 20 October 2017

I confess I wasn’t the most comfortable Head of Planning. I found people’s ambitions often ran ahead of their delivery, and my capacity to reward them. This is a guide I developed to give people some means of judging their progress.

Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ilya Repin

I didn’t really enjoy being Planning Department Head.

I’d call Planners’ Meetings to rally the troops and share experiences. A motley crew of the bashful, intense and sartorially challenged would file silently into the Indigo Room. They’d sit staring into their notes, unwilling to share their secrets, reluctant to make fools of themselves. I’d present my ‘Broad and Shallow Planning’ philosophy and they’d glare back at me as if I was a buffoon. I found it all a bit passive aggressive. And I longed for a few Account People to puncture the tension and jolly things along.

I walked out of those meetings speculating on the collective noun for Planners: a Confusion of Planners, an Awkwardness of Planners, a Circumspection?

And then there were those times when a member of my Department popped half an hour in the diary for a ‘catch-up.’ Blimey. I wonder what they could want? Please don’t let it be another resignation…Generally they were just unhappy; they didn’t feel valued; they wanted to know my long-term plan for their career. ‘Can I work on a more glamorous account? Can I have a pay rise? Can I have a new job title?’

The truth was I rarely had anything that could really be described as a long-term plan for any individual. I was mostly just trying to get people performing at their best within roles that served the commercial needs of the Agency. I was often too busy worrying about immediate job allocation to ponder enduring career development. And I rarely had spare accounts, budget, or titles to distribute. I felt a bit useless.

At length I realised that I could at least offer my colleagues some direction on how they could advance. I was conscious that the feedback you get from line managers is generally pretty nebulous. I wanted to give them something more consistent and tangible; something they could refer back to at appraisal time.

To my mind, if you are to progress as a Planner, you need to deliver on three fronts.

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A Suit's Perspective

A Suit’s Perspective

Gwyn Jones | 18 October 2017

For the best part of twenty-five years Gwyn was my work partner at BBH. He looked after me through good times and bad. Without him I wouldn’t have had a career. So I’d suggest his panoramic view of ‘how to get on’ is worthy of particular attention.

- Jim Carroll

Alex Katz, The Cocktail Party

My credentials for commenting on this topic are as follows: First - I know Jim. Second, I started at one company, BBH, as a graduate trainee and left that same company some time later as Global CEO.

This could lead one to conclude that a fairly passive approach to career management, perhaps best described as: ‘sit tight, don’t leave – they will promote you eventually,’ is what is required. I suspect this is not what Jim is looking for.  So, this being a planning forum, and me being an account man… I will make a list and divide it into three sections, a couple of tips for three stages of your career.


Stage 1. Getting Started


1. Deal in facts not opinions. Most meetings in agencies are an exchange of opinions, a succession of sentences starting with the phrase ‘What I think.” If you are the most junior person in the room, your opinion might not yet count for quite as much as everyone else’s in the judgement of those around you. So, deal in facts. And don’t dive in. Be circumspect, wait your turn (no one likes a smart arse). But bring real knowledge to the table and people will be seeking your opinion before you know it.


2. You’ve got three things to worry about: external relationships; internal relationships; and your work. That is also the right order of priority for dealing with them. Your work – the stuff you do at a desk on your own – comes last.  The good news is, if you manage your relationships well, other people do a surprising amount of work for you. Half an hour spent with a creative team talking about how great their work is (no, really) might not feel as valid as the questionnaire you have to go through. But do it, do the questionnaire later, and then, when there is a real crisis, that team will get you out of trouble.

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Why No Plan Is The Best Plan

Why No Plan Is the Best Plan

Kate Waters | 17 October 2017

Kate is super-smart and charming, and has a compelling expertise at the intersection of creativity and behavioural science. But she is also that rare creature: the Entrepreneur Strategist. Here she argues that having a career plan may not be the right plan at all.

- Jim Carroll

Spray (1940) by Harold Williamson

Throughout my career, one of the questions I have always dreaded is ‘where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?’ Early on, it used to make me feel slightly sweaty and nervous. Even though I knew it would be an inevitable topic of conversation in almost every interview and career chat, I still struggled to prepare an answer that felt credible and convincing. In more recent years, as I’ve grown in confidence and built a career for myself, I find I’m longer nervous, but annoyed.


Why? Because it seems to me that the default assumption of almost every careers advisor, interviewer or head hunter is that a clear goal, and plan to achieve it, is a critical component of career success.  Google ‘career goals’ and you can take your pick of careers websites listing the multiple benefits of career goal setting. Or explore #LikeABoss on and, if you’re so inclined, you can even learn how to upgrade your SMART goals for HARD ones. Frankly, it makes me want to weep.


And it’s more than just my personal reticence and contrariness. I’m just not convinced that a ‘career plan’ is the right plan.


But first, let me be clear about what I mean by ‘no plan’. I’m not advocating being uncommitted, unambitious, complacent or leaving your career to chance. But I am questioning the virtue of having such a clearly defined goal and strategy for achieving it, that you fail to spot all the opportunities open to you, or sacrifice your happiness because you’re chasing some distant ambition.  Let me expand.


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The Unchanging Appraisal

The Unchanging Appraisal: Learning to Accentuate the Positives and Disregard the Negatives

Jim Carroll | 16 October 2017

This is just a simple lesson in how to handle appraisals. It took me some years of frustration to arrive at this conclusion.

William Yeames, 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?’

Do you have the same appraisal every year? I did.


Do you get the same set of gently positive observations about your core strengths, skills and achievements; the same slightly irritating list of shortcomings, flaws and failings; the same sense of disappointment that another year has passed and seemingly little or no progress has been made? I did.


Do you mainly pass over the positives and obsess about the negatives? Do you resent the criticism, take it as a personal slight, endeavour to establish who exactly made those comments?... I did.


In the first ten years of my career I emerged from my annual appraisal worrying about my unchanging defects and deficiencies: a sluggishness with spreadsheets and Harvard Graphics, a lack of commercial rigour in my arguments, a failure to make eye contact in meetings. Like a diligent student, over the months that followed I would concentrate on addressing these weaknesses. I’d enlist on IT training courses, read dusty textbooks about data and behavioural science, make a special effort to be effervescent and outgoing.


But, however hard I tried, with every passing year my appraisal changed very little. And I never did win that IPA Effectiveness Award.


One day I decided that I would completely ignore the negative feedback; that it was a waste of my time and energy.

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When Can I Kneel?

When Can I Kneel?

Kweku Aggrey-Orleans |  11 October 2017

My friend Kweku is, as you’d expect from a barrister, hugely intelligent and articulate. But he’s also an arbiter of style, with a ready wit and a radiant presence. I asked Kweku to explain how one approaches ‘getting on’ in the arcane field of the law. Here he proposes that one adopts a ‘medium profile.’ It’s interesting to ask ourselves how similar or different our own world is to this? - Jim Carroll

“If you would rise above the throng
And seek the crown of fame,
You must do more than drift along
And merely play the game.
Whatever path your feet may tread,
Whatever be your quest,
The only way to get ahead
Is striving for the best.”


As the autumn leaves drift across the well-kept lawns of the Inner Temple, to many a pupil barrister entering the Dickensian sets that are the Inns of Court, the words of Edgar Albert Guest’s poem “Ambition” will yield to a strategy to simply “get on”: To “get on” with staff and members of chambers sufficiently during the 12-month pupillage (barrister’s mandatory training) to be “taken on” or offered a “tenancy”. A tenancy, offered to selected pupil barristers after the successful completion of pupillage, is the right to begin a career as a self-employed barrister in chambers.


For those 9 to 12 months between the start of pupillage and the “tenancy decision”, each pupil barrister will seek to ingratiate himself / herself with the hierarchy of chambers. Those pupil barristers with an ability to “get on” within this atypical environment are best placed to succeed.


What is this ability to “get on”? It is the ability to identify, understand, order and negotiate the informal and spontaneous rules that co-exist within chambers. To “get on” amidst 30 to 80 independent barristers, unburdened by years of unchecked idiosyncrasy and full of firm opinions, is as much about omission as it is about action.

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Lessons from the Jazz Age

Lessons from the Jazz Age

Patricia McDonald | 9 October 2017

I worked with Patricia many years ago. She commands fierce intelligence, Pre-Raphaelite looks and a maverick personality. She never wears trainers. Here she expresses what I think is a profound truth: that planners must learn to embrace duality. - Jim Carroll

Archibald Motley, The Octoroon Girl

The test of a first rate intelligence, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”


The best planners, I believe, not only have a first rate intelligence, they are also adept at reconciling opposing ideas. Great planners are as comfortable with art as they are with science, as interested in data as design. Often introverts by nature, they are eloquent before an audience. Innately curious, they must also be masters of reduction. The age of clickbait encourages binary thinking; resist it. Good planners contain multitudes.


Embrace the new but respect the “old”


To be a successful planner is to be curious, to read voraciously, to be intrigued by new ideas. Yet now more than ever it is critical that strategists have a fundamental understanding of how communications work, that we earn the credibility than comes with craft skills. Yes, it’s important to know your AI from your AR. But it is equally important to know your IPA Works, your regression analysis from your R-squared. Seek out the experts in your organisation and spend time delving under the skin of research and modeling techniques. It’s great to be the first to know about the latest virtual pop up sneaker store (you can pay with an instagram!), but a strategist is more than just a magpie.

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Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts

Jim Carroll | 6 October 2017

I wrote this piece a while ago. This broad approach to Client engagement has served me well over the years. Most Clients nowadays don’t want outsiders to march in and tell them all the answers to their problems. Rather they’re looking for people to help them articulate and express their vision and opinions. 

Narcissus/ Caravaggio

It is a melancholy truth that the more expert I have become, the less my expertise is valued. I recognise that this may be because my dusty tales of Levi’s watchpockets, strategic chords and yin yangs lose a little of their lustre with every passing year. And I suspect I’m not pronouncing SXSW with convincing emphasis. But it may also be because Clients no longer come to me for expertise. Or at least not the expertise I imagined I had to offer.

I had always thought that we Planners were akin to strategic doctors. We assessed the patients’ symptoms, we prescribed treatment, we arrived at prognoses. I imagined that sitting in four reviews a day, year after year, gave us a special authority on the anatomy of communication. I’m sure there was a time when my Clients nodded gratefully as we offered sage counsel. The blinding insight, the lyrical proposition, the Damascene conversion…There was, wasn’t there?…

But modern Clients are more strategically and creatively confident than ever before. They have their own strategy departments, they’re closer to their own data, they work across more channels than most of us. They go on creative role reversal courses…I’m really not sure they come to us primarily to listen to our opinion. And I have to say sometimes nowadays it’s difficult getting a word in edgeways.

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Game of Thrones Career Planning

Game of Thrones Career Planning

Sarah Pollard | 5 October 2017

Sarah was the much loved and admired PR guru at BBH. She elegantly nursed the leadership team through triumphs and disappointments, with a sympathetic ear, sage advice and a stream of sarcastic comments. As you’ll see from her piece, Sarah is an expert in navigating the personalities and power relationships within the modern Agency structure. - Jim Carroll

La Belle Dame Sans Merci/ Frank Dicksee

On my first day in an ad agency I remember one particularly stroppy Account Director imparted some advice to me along the lines of: “If you want to get on, arse lick at least one person in each department and you might not get completely shafted”. Nice. 


Looking back now, she was right, of course. What she was trying to point out, in a particularly inelegant way, was the importance of building the right connections in the key departments in the agency. A smart ad person should be able to foster strategic relationships and alliances with people who can a) further your career and b) get you out of the shit.


Essentially, advertising agencies are like Game of Thrones - without the violence or sex (that was the 80s, things have moved on since then). If you want to do well and survive, understand your environment, and make damn sure that you know how to deal with all the players. There are many fiefdoms in an ad agency, but these are the people that had the most impact on me in my career. 


The Creative Director

The number one. Always has been and always should be. If you’re in advertising for any other reason than love of creativity, then get your coat now. This is likely to be a challenging relationship - often similar to dealing with a small child. But one that when it’s good, is very, very good.

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From the Library to the Lobby

From the Library to the Lobby: Making the Switch from Academia to Agency

Sarah Watson | 3 October 2017

I used to work with Sarah years ago in BBH London. She’s now doing great things in New York. Sarah has a bold planning brain, an expressive presentational style and a luminous personality. What more could you want? This is an excellent piece for anyone embarking on a career in Planning and a perfect way to start the series. - Jim Carroll

The Magdalen Reading/ Rogier van der Weyden

Firstly, it gets better.


Or at least it did for me.


I was the almost certainly one of the worst graduate trainees ever.


And I was relieved to hear, many years later, of a colleague (who now runs a successful start up) being described as a ‘terrible account manager, but a fantastic CEO-in-waiting’.


I’ve definitely found my level more and more with each passing year.


It started badly because I came off the academic motorway at 90 miles an hour singularly unprepared for agency life.


I’d actually go as far as to say I was actively mis-prepared.


I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve coached many people through the same thing.


For planners, when there is an intellectual and research based aspect to our discipline, it can be very easy to slip back into academic habits. I’ve seen people do it time and again.


Here is my check list of watch-outs

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Jim Carroll is a long serving brand and communication strategist.

He worked as a planner at BBH in London for 25 years and was UK Chairman from 2004 to 2015.

Whilst a member of the UK leadership team at BBH, the agency was five times awarded Campaign Agency of the Year. In his role as Chairman Jim led BBH’s thinking and action on social responsibility, culture and values.

Jim now pursues a project-based existence. He is a Partner in the consultancy Carroll Jones and he writes extensively on creativity, culture and commerce. (

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