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

This is the first in a series of posts selected by Jim Carroll, our APG Guest Editor during October 2017, surrounding the theme of

'How To Get On: Advice on how to manage a strategist’s career in a creative business'

Read more posts here

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:

1. At university, you must do it all by yourself. You lock yourself away, speaking to no-one concentrating and immersing yourself. You emerge alone, triumphant with an essay that is for your supervisor only.

In an agency you absolutely have to get lots of inputs and builds. Your strategy is for everyone to action, and everyone must feel ownership or at least comfort with what you are recommending. To emerge alone and triumphant will lose you lots of friends very quickly.

2. At university it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you meet the deadline. You can leave it all until the night before and sit up popping the stimulant of your choice as long as you deliver your essay/project at the agreed moment.

In an agency this tactic will fail you miserably, as it did me. When your boss asks to see how you’re getting on three days before and you have nothing, you will be in big trouble. You need to get something down as quickly as possible to be as shareable as possible. (see #1)

3. At university, you mustn’t copy, it has to be all your own work. Stealing is the greatest crime and is carefully policed.

In an agency we are working against the clock. The more intelligently applied short-cuts we can use that get us more quickly to a strong solution, the more efficient we are. In fact, our reluctance to replicate is one of the great time sucks of our industry. The big consultancies deal purely in replication. And look at their margins.

4. At university, the most sophisticated, intellectually layered and lengthily argued essay will win big. You are speaking to people who have spent their lives immersed in your subject and you have to enter into their vernacular.

In an agency you have a broad ranging audience, many of whom only have a fleeting moment to engage with your work and a scant knowledge of the subject matter. Some of whom are visual thinkers averse to words, or business thinkers only persuaded by numbers. You must communicate in the simplest, punchiest most inclusive manner. Or it won’t stick.

5. At university, you must do exactly as you are told. Follow the question, follow the deadline, follow the course.

In an agency the most valued people are those who are constantly over-delivering, looking for ways to solve problems that haven’t been articulated, helping those on their team and beyond. Doing what is asked of you is a great starting point. But going beyond it is where the money is.

6. At university, you’ve only got one (or a couple of) shot(s). You’ve exam season or coursework deadlines. You are primarily evaluated on what you hand in.

In an agency this is an on-going story of how you can constantly contribute in a million different ways. Even if something has not gone according to plan, tomorrow you can come in and help move things on in a different way.

These are just my parallels, you will have your own.

Don’t get me wrong. An academic education that requires you to think intensely and critically about big ideas is one of the best groundings you can have as a planner. It’s just that some of its habits and routines need resetting for those entering the agency world.

It might be that I seem like a Victorian to those graduating today. It might be that education has moved on so much that the generation coming through now are fully enlightened with professional self-awareness and a polished work ethic.

Maybe that would be a shame.

Sarah Watson

Chairman, BBH New York; Chief Strategy Officer, BBH Global and New York


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


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