This is one of 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
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. In my experience, people blessed with the creative gene are often slightly lacking in other areas (like emotional intelligence, or the ability to ever ask how you are). This can be annoying. However, I’d take the quirks for the creativity any day. Hopefully your CD will be very funny and a true craftsperson, and therefore someone to be admired. The way to approach this person is to be absolutely brilliant at your job and to love their work even more than they do. But don’t bullshit them. Honesty will garner respect. They need to feel that you are on their side. Likely to be scary for the first few meetings… unless it happens to be Sir John Hegarty, in which case it will be the most inspirational, fun meeting of your life.
Charm personified, most likely. The Headmistress/Master should be the driving force who pulls everyone along with them. They should be able to demonstrate how to run the perfect relationship with the creative department. They were once a snotty-nosed youngster like you, and hopefully they haven’t forgotten how ghastly it can be. So you need to go the extra mile like they did, work harder than they did, know your client even better than they did. Once they have established how great you are, they will be your champion and route to wherever you want to go. Oh, and never talk to the CEO at the agency party. You should view them as a walking appraisal and pay rise, and not someone to get drunk with.
The CEO’s PA
You would be a fool to underestimate the importance of this person to the agency. Basically, they run it.
Head of Strategy
Intellectual power houses. Distillers of essays into one-line briefs. Usually the unsung heroes of a Cannes Grand Prix winning ad. Often unusually dressed with eclectic musical tastes, but go with it. Widely read (I don't mean the guardian online) and probably just off to another cultural extravaganza on the South Bank. Planners should be your friend, as their intellectual superiority will no doubt make you look good at some point in your career. But they will also enrich your world with ideas and suggestions of cool stuff you should be buying/doing/watching. In my last office, the latest geopolitical drama would be pulled apart (and no doubt solved) over my first cup of tea with the two great planning brains I sat opposite. If you are a planner reading this, then you need to be all of the above. Then you are sorted.
If you are lucky enough to work in an agency where a Founder is still there, then make the most of this. Some might think they are from yesteryear, but what you forget is that yesteryear was so much better! Any time spent quizzing these Titans of the ad scene is time well spent. So muscle your way into as many meetings as you can. Be deferential, but confident. And write everything down.
The Finance Department
Yep I know. I used to fear treading into this place largely because I’d never confessed to anyone that I failed my Maths GCSE, and I just KNEW that they could tell. But finance are very useful people to have onside. Even if agency money issues are not your problem, we all have a tax return to decipher, right? The top finance lady at my last company is Godmother to my son. That’s how far into the circle of trust I got her.
The Post Room
It’s quite likely that things will get a bit rocky in your career. The Post Room is where you go for some instant therapy. Fun, cheesy music and doughnuts were the order of the day at my company. You’d leave feeling like you could face the world again. And they are handy people to know at 6am on the morning of a pitch when the air con’s gone wrong in the room, and the lightbulb is flickering, and you’ve printed out the wrong version of the deck as a leave behind. Things can start to feel like Westeros, so you will be grateful for this alliance.
Lastly, look after the next generation coming up the ranks. Adland is a dynastic business and if we want to keep it that way, it’s best to look after the kids.
Former Communications Director at BBH
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