Ad Agency 101
June 30, 2011 7:29 AM   Subscribe

Help this advertising agency newb to survive and prosper.

I've managed to get myself hired by a major ad agency, despite having no agency experience (I'm very good at the thing I was hired to do). But I have no idea how this whole agency thing works. Departments don't speak to each other, things that seem like obvious common knowledge are completely ignored, people are loud and brash and never seem to do any actual short, it's kinda nuts. But the work is interesting, I seem to be doing well at it, and I think if I can learn how to play the game, I could do pretty dang well here.

I've got some friends at the agency who have offered to mentor me and I plan to take them up on it, but I'm not sure they're equipped for the type of hand holding I need as I'm getting acclimated. I'm not kidding when I say I'm starting from zero, I only learned what a deck was on the second or third day. But the lingo, I'll pick up. It's the rest of it that's perplexing.

So, how do I navigate this place? What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out? How do I play this whole game? So far it seems to be about making connections and knowing exactly who to keep in which loop and general office joviality?

(I should mention here that I'm a Guess culture person who has out of necessity learned to function as an Ask, even though it makes me miserable at times. I also tend toward introversion and I'm finding it stressful to have such long days around so many people, so any kinds of hacks for dealing with other humans as well as recuperating are welcome.)

Thanks in advance.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out?

No one knows you're awesome unless you tell other people. This is where the introversion can kill ya. Let others, especially higher ups, know who you are and that you're awesome.

Not everyone is there to do a good job. Many are there to protect their project/department/job etc.

It's a shark tank and some people need their daily nutritional value of drama or chewing on the newb. It's not personal, so don't take it as such.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:37 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was in your position about a year ago. Everything is going to seem confusing at first but you'll pick up on the process of the different accounts in a few months, where you'll get to the point that you're speaking all of the lingo and fully understanding what's going on as far as new business pitching to strategy/planning to media buying and eventually creative development and trafficking.

I have no clue what discipline of the large agency you work in so I can't offer much help, but as far as "playing the game": All I can really tell you is if someone offers you a drink, take it. Don't get intimidated by account people or creative people cliquey-ness if that exists where you work, just try to socialize with everyone.

Oh, and don't talk shit or get too engaged in office drama, it's pure poison. People move around a lot in this industry and the more you establish yourself as "A Nice Guy/Girl" (hard to come by in a sea of cynicism) the better chances you have of making horizontal-upward moves to other agencies since there will be ex coworkers there that genuinely liked you.
posted by windbox at 7:59 AM on June 30, 2011

Have you been reading Ad Age? Lots of columns and advice.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:32 AM on June 30, 2011

Look like you're super busy even if you aren't. If you have nothing to do, either ask someone if they need help, find a place to hide out of sight, take a quick walk (if you aren't expected to answer a phone or go to a meeting) or pull up Word and busily type a letter or new novel as though it's actual office work. Smile and laugh a lot. Make a circuit of the office at least 2x a day (once in the morning and once in the afternoon), preferably with papers or something in hand, stopping momentarily to pull a few friendly "I was just on my way back to my desk, so how's *your* goin'???" kinda conversations en route. Make people feel important and as though your presence in the office is a positive wisp of fresh air, but don't meander or stay at anyone's desk long enough for people to think you aren't en route somewhere. 'Cuz remember... you're bizzy bizzy bizzy.

Every office has a culture and priorities. Find out what your office's culture is. When I was at Disney Toys, people decorated their cubicles with Disney crap. Everybody's office had a decorated theme. People with blank desks were either newbies or outcasts. Within four days, I had Winnie the Pooh crap all over the place (the only property I didn't see anyone else do... and also one I actually DID love as a kid). I even brought in the Eyeore stuffed animal I got at Disneyland when I was 7... people were so impressed by my ancient Disney artifact that they would stop to introduce themselves and talk to me about it. Mission accomplished.

you will probably start getting invited to after work events. your attitude about these events will vary depending upon our goals. People who aiming for promotions are often less social, they aren't there to make friends so much but will gauge each gathering based upon how it will affect their office cache ("if I miss this will my superiors notice and think I don't care" "If I am the center of attention at this, it will make me look like a team player" etc.). But really, you *should* be social enough to keep yourself considered part of the group to an extent. If you go, I totally agree that if someone offers you a drink you should take it, BUT try not to drink *too* much, laugh *too* loud or confide *too* personally in anybody... *especially* when you're new. Just be friendly and benign as you get your bearings, just be someone people enjoy without calling attention to yourself or getting too involved. Overcompensating and trying too hard to get people to like you socially can lead to mistakes in business. And when it comes down to it, it may feel like high school but you are in an office that's running a business.

It's easy to let go and think "I'm letting them get to know me!!!" or "I'm just hangin' with my new frieeeends!" but remember these are *coworkers* and office politics *suck*. So be friendly, do your job better than anyone else would, and play your cards very very close to the vest at ALL times. you just don't know... some of your coworkers might actually have agendas you don't know about. OR you might step right in the middle of pre-existing office politics you aren't even aware of. you don't know what's happened in that office or with those people before you got there... it might take years for you to be told (or perhaps you might never). So just observe and be a fly on the wall for a while as you get your bearings. Main goal: if there is going to be office gossip, DON'T let it be about you. Be teflon and don't let stuff stick to you.

Agreed on windbox's last paragraph, too. At 44 I still run into people I worked with at 29. Because they have good memories of me, it's opened doors and been a positive experience over the years. We're like former soldiers who fought a war together, and many of our memories involve stories about people in the office who were awful to us. If you're rude to people, trust me... they *will* remember and if they ever have a chance to be in power over you, payback over bad memories can be a serious bitch. (I'll admit I've had opportunities fall into my lap which allowed me to dish out a few subtle servings of payback many years later... and it felt kinda awesome.)

Lastly, this is a book I *really* wish I'd read when I was younger.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:58 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

CORRECTION... I forgot the word DAY (see below):
"Smile and laugh a lot. Make a circuit of the office at least 2x a day (once in the morning and once in the afternoon), preferably with papers or something in hand, stopping momentarily to pull a few friendly "I was just on my way back to my desk, so how's *your* DAY goin'???" kinda conversations en route."
posted by miss lynnster at 9:01 AM on June 30, 2011

When I was 23 I was hired straight out of university into a boutique ad agency in a major city. I was an account executive with no prior experience, and I loved it. Sadly, the dot-com bust broke many companies at the time, and mine wasn't spared.

Apologies if you're already far enough into the working world to have picked up this concept, but the biggest lesson I learned (beyond the "creatives vs. suits" dynamic and the challenges of the boys' club atmosphere), was the concept of CYA (Cover Your Ass). I was very glad to have learned it (even if it was the hard way) at such an early point in my career. It's about making sure that when things go wrong, you are able to show your part in it when necessary to ensure that you're safe from the blame which tends to fly around wildly when something goes downhill. Now, this isn't at all limited to the agency environment, but I've never needed to use it (over the course of my career in the years since) in the same manner and to the same degree as in the advertising world.

Get in the habit of documenting everything. Put everything you can in writing, preferably email. When you get off the phone with a client or finish meeting with someone internally, send a quick email reiterating what you just discussed. You can do this casually, you can even do this in such a way that you appear to be just making sure you're all on the same page, but do this regularly. This doesn't have to be a cynical thing-- it's just smart to get in the habit of doing something that can only ever help you.

Lots more to say on other aspects of agency life but no time. MeMail me if you want to discuss more.
posted by mireille at 9:07 AM on June 30, 2011

Introduce yourself around. Make sure people know who you are and what you do. I agree with Brandon Blatcher that you need to learn to toot your own horn, even if (especially if) you're the humble type. Just don't be obnoxious about it. Have smart opinions about the work that you do and advertising/communication in general. Make friends with your Project Manager or equivalent, if you have one. That way they'll think of you first when there's work to be done. Also, they are often—though not always—pretty sane and levelheaded.

Start a feed in your Google Reader that links to sites like:

Agency Spy
Ad Age
Cool Hunting

If you told us what you do, we might be able to give you more specific advice.
posted by Lieber Frau at 12:55 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

- Just because someone sucks, but not fired, doesn't mean their not working or bad mouthing is actually being tolerated. Firing takes longer than you'd expect.
- However, it's totally possible that they do suck but they are friends with their manager, have a serious client relationship or just coast. Don't count on anyone getting fired.
- Your most important job while you're there is to get ready for your next job. Sorry. It's true. Account people need wins, clients relations, metrics and client names to throw on the resume -- and fast. Creatives need to develop their portfolios, find good creative partners and win awards. Everyone needs to learn the right buzzwords. If people are f-ing around, they either don't get that or they're just sinkhole agency people. Agency life is a prove-and-move culture.
- Dressing "cool" is sadly more important than dressing "nice" (this varies based on coast, clients and culture)
- Don't bad mouth anyone (too much) to anyone else unless the listener is a super close friend -- it all can used against you
- Working hard and accomplishing stuff pisses off lazy people but will impress the folks that actually get stuff done. It will also get you the kind of experience you need
- The agency principles are always right. Even if there are three of them and they don't talk to each other and often contradict each other. It's their shop.
- Unless of course it's Omnicom's shop or WPP's shop. If you're in a big agency network, read the annual reports and look at the corporate goals. You'd be amazed what sounds like accomplishments for stakeholders (increase profitability every single quarter for the last 48 quarters) turns into company mandates (we have to cut costs and increase profits every single quarters, so if you don't pull in X amount of profit, welcome some layoffs).

In general, the worst of agency life is like being dropped into a close-knit cocktail where everyone knows each other. It takes a while to get brought into things, find your own folks, etc. Just roll with it.

Good luck. I've been out of agency life for almost 4 years and while I miss a lot of it, I don't think my liver could take it anymore. (It's so much easier being the client.)
posted by Gucky at 1:14 PM on June 30, 2011

- You're there to make everyone around you look good.

- Build your portfolio as you go.

- Learn how to evaluate and speak intelligently about the creative disciplines you're not in, as well as mastering your own craft.

- If you're not in a creative discipline, accept the fact that you'll never be the most valuable person in the room.

- Competence can make you a superhero, or a martyr. Be aware of your own tolerance for the trials of your environment: the long hours, the constant demands for creative innovation. Set yourself up to succeed by not biting off too much, and being vocal about when you need breaks.

- Don't say bad things about anyone. You can be Switzerland.

- Give credit to the people you work with whenever you can. (Hopefully they'll reciprocate when you've earned it, but it never hurts to be magnanimous)

- If people are taking credit for your work, add your initials to your filenames.

- Resist the temptation to say something in meetings unless you have something meaningful to say. So many people trying to sound brilliant, it's devastating.

- You *will* disappoint someone at some point. Either your ideas aren't fresh enough or you can't pull off the impossible. Don't take it personally, and don't let it effect your self-image; it's happened to everyone in the industry.

- Take your risks creatively, not politically.

- Find out who plays important social roles. Who knows what's going on all over the agency -- what clients have the happiest people working on them, which project leads have access to the principal creatives, etc. Form relationships with those people if you can, and let them know what your goals and motivations are.

- In my experience there are two types of solid creative talents: the kind who have crazy breakthrough moments of inspired productivity (like the guys who came up with the Old Spice campaign - they leave you wondering how the hell they came up with that) and those who count on smarts and sweat equity. The best agencies know how to build teams to mix these talents and apply them to the most appropriate clients and challenges. Figure out which camp you fall in, and look for successful examples/mentors in your agency. You want to work with them and learn from them.

- Be relentless when you find someone who you're excited to learn from. Don't worry about bothering them when they're busy; they inevitably get pressure from their bosses to mentor people just like you.

- Have fun. It's contagious, you know.
posted by nadise at 6:44 PM on June 30, 2011

Oh good point, re: the portfolio. Make sure you're documenting your successes and saving your files to YOUR OWN external hard drive so you can show them to potential employers.
posted by Lieber Frau at 9:04 AM on July 1, 2011

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