06 March 2011

How to Get Ahead in Advertising

The marketing and advertising world is constantly changing, and so is the way you advance through it.

Recently my business partner and I met with some human resources folks to talk about how our people are faring on the job. Sure, we spent time on performance evaluation, but the real purpose is people development. Nothing enthuses me more than seeing everyone perform up to their full level of potential.

We used to develop people by making them into great specialists, i.e., great advertising people. This meant we taught them to know the client’s business, their competition, their consumer, and of course the ins and outs of how to develop great advertising.

These days the conversation is less about how to make people better specialists, and more about how to make them better generalists. You still have to know the client’s business, but also the ins and outs of advertising, retail and digital.

Put another way, advancement is not so much a straight line through one discipline, but tacking like a sailboat across various disciplines. We will always need specialists, but it’s the generalists who will advance the farthest in agencies of the future.

Some people embrace this approach naturally, teaching themselves about shopper marketing or social media; others purposely change jobs to gain experience. Sadly, some people put their heads in the sand and ignore or even criticize different channels.

My own perspective is that I’d be bored doing the same thing, the same way, for more than a couple of years. I’m grateful that my current job brings new challenges every day, and the chance to try a new way of marketing my clients’ products and services.

The course to growth and advancement

These are some of the buoys in the water that can mark your path to growth and advancement:

Advertising. Yes, advertising. Companies still spend billions of dollars on it. Television is still the fastest way to build awareness of a message, and it’s adapting to a digital world with time-shifting, pre-roll and on-demand programming. A good agency executive gets familiar with all of it.

Retail. Most agency people don’t take the time to understand Retail, whether it’s promotion or shopper marketing. You will perish for lack of knowledge because retailers are gaining so much of your clients’ marketing budgets and this discipline has become much more strategic in the past decade.

Digital. For all the industry trade press coverage of “digital”, the people with practical experience are still a narrow subculture. Your agency may have hired some brand-name experts but you only benefit if you’re working on a digital assignment. You can study Digital but there’s no substitute for experience.

Channel planning. You can only be a true generalist if you know how to combine everything in a way that will drive your client’s business. This seems obvious but it amazes me how seldom it actually gets done, and even then it is not usually done from a true consumer perspective. Just a few years ago, the easy, almost lazy thing to do was draw up a spider chart and “surround the consumer” with as many “touchpoints” as possible. That never really worked.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising

You’ve become a generalist. You understand Advertising, Retail, Digital and Channel Planning. In one of these you’re a specialist. This is how you get ahead in advertising.

Where you work is also part of the equation. Your agency or consultancy may be held back by a traditional view, antiquated organizational structure, lack of capability in specific disciplines, or the lack of a media department that years ago was spun off into a separate agency. The biggest restraint, however, is when an agency loses its ability to know the client’s business, their competition, their consumer, and how to provide business solutions.

The “agency” only loses its ability to the extent its employees lose it. You can control your own development. Familiarize yourself with other disciplines, be a great generalist, but never lose sight of the need to be able to solve a client’s business problems. The path onward and upward isn’t a straight line anymore. You’ll have to be patient and continually improve yourself.


  1. Steve -

    Great points. Especially about retail.

    And to call out a specific problem. I've become concerned by the large number of young ad folks coming into the business and gathering experience only in digital.

    I think in digital, almost more than any other medium, having a generalist experience of other media is critical. Otherwise, digital continues to live for itself and not as part of the total campaign. (Even when they share wording and imagery, digital is often anything but integrated.)


  2. Thanks, Doug. Many of us agree Retail gets overlooked. Your point about Digital is interesting. Do you think Digital-only ideas come from people or agencies who are Digital-only in their experience? I'm interested in everyone's ideas about this.

  3. Steve
    I'd add a bigger need: understand business. How does your client make money? How can you help them make more? Not just with advertising but understanding all aspects of their enterprise and understand marketing communications (not just advertising) role in driving that.

  4. Fred, thanks for underlining that point. In the post I mentioned it, kind of assumptively ("know the client's business, their competition, their consumer"). Sadly you don't always find that kind of curiosity and knowledge. Sounds like the basis for a post all by itself. Stay tuned! Thanks again for writing, Fred.

  5. Yes, become a generalist, but maintain your strength as a specialist. You're never going to be great at EVERYTHING, so make sure you're the best you can be in at least one thing.

  6. Steve you're working way too hard on the SCJ pitch. blog! blog!

  7. Dear Anonymous:

    You actually miss me! (Blush.) I never knew you cared. Yes, I'm working very hard. Don't worry, though, Ad Majorem will continue.

    Thanks for writing!

  8. Absolutely brilliant post! All around myself I see people making a lot of noise about the changing trends, but actually doing very little about it (I pin it down to sheer desperation). I'm not exactly into advertising but take a keen interest in it.
    It was via the comment posted on SearchEngineLand's "StumbleUpon Paid Discovery" article that I reached here. And I guess I'm going to come back. :)

  9. Namaste! Thank you, Ankush; I sincerely appreciate your kind words. If you were reading SearchEngineLand then I would say you are "into" advertising. This article may interest you: http://adage.com/article/digitalnext/stop-pretending-search-engine-marketing-advertising/227739/