What I Learned From 9 Years of Advertising

I never wanted to work in advertising. I grew up pressing the mute button during commercials. When the music stopped on the radio, I switched channels. And when the DVR came out, I was first in line to get one. I didn’t know much about advertising, or even care, it just annoyed me. That’s not to say I don’t believe it works. But inherently, I went out of my way to tune it out.

I went to college to learn how to be a good artist and designer, so that’s all I focused on. I deeply appreciate good design and I love to create things. The goal was to be a professional artist, although I had trouble nailing down an exact direction.

After working at a failing dot-com, I somehow landed at an advertising agency doing both design and development. I had a lot of ideas about design and what it meant, but I quickly found out how much I didn’t know about business and marketing, let alone advertising.

I taught myself how to write code, so I figured why not get some books on marketing and learn about this other world I was then a part of. All along, I was surrounded by smart people doing interesting work, so it was easy to absorb.

I kept learning by reading book after book. I wasn’t producing any traditional advertising, but the culture, the creative process, and my creative director made each day a lesson. I learned about branding, psychographics, and of course the big idea. To the initiated, the big idea is the guiding concept that becomes the hub of all strategies and tactical executions. Most importantly advertising teaches you how to create a story that people will listen to.

Any good communication is a story. It doesn’t matter if you are talking to friends, giving a presentation, or creating a 30 second spot on TV. It’s all about story telling. Dan Roam, the author of The Back of the Napkin, talks about how the best story wins. This means that when you are in a competitive situation, the person who can tell the better story will do more to engage and persuade an audience than the other guy. It’s not a new idea by any means, but it’s very well stated.

The old Coke commercial with Mean Joe Green, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lc0izCGKxP8, is a prefect example of advertising story telling at its best. It’s the story of opposites having something in common. Joe Green is a mean large black man. The kid is an innocent small white boy. Yet, these two have a common interest and they make a connection. Coke wants to appeal to everyone and that story delivers the message is a way a room full of marketing executives could never imagine. It’s genius.

The day to day business of advertising when it’s good is about having a creative dialog with intelligent people who will synergistically build an idea that creates deep meaning in the mind of a consumer. It’s rewarding when you have something that not only solves a business need, but is artistically brilliant. And it’s exhilarating when your work is nationally recognized. Showing up to work in shorts and sandals to talk about possibilities and ideas on top of getting paid a great salary is a dream job. But, there’s a dark side to it.

There are the prima donnas. These people are the worst. Everything in the world exists to do nothing more than reaffirm their greatness. Then you have the award grubbing creative directors. These people reject advertising work before clients can respond to it base on the fact that it won’t win an ADDY. Doesn’t matter if the work is what the client wanted, dead on target for the consumer, and solves a business problem. Bad management is rampant too. Temperamental and untrained, many people who run the show have no idea how to treat another human being let alone manage a team. The worst of it is the number of hours you work including weekends and holidays. They all lie to their employees about how a work life balance is important. 10PM Friday night meetings, 6:30AM calls to London on Sunday, and 60-75 hour work weeks were my reality.

I sometimes complain about advertising and the people who live in that world, but I really have learned so much from them. I understand what they do and I actually watch commercials if they are done well. Their culture of ideas is wrought with highs and lows. You have to be emotionally tough. I will always appreciate how difficult the job is. Hopefully, I have learned how to tell a good story.



  1. Great post! Last fall I took my first advertising course after studying marketing for 5 years prior. These creative industries seem so appealing and glamorous because you get new challenging assignments and sometimes those big name brands such as Coke and Nike. Thanks for shedding some light on the truth that advertising as a career is extremely demanding. Hopefully, managers and directors will realize winning awards is not in their agency’s mission statement. Learning how to effectively communicate messages through story telling and working to find solutions for clients is most important.

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