For the past 15 years, I've worked at the same agency. Recently, I moved into a new role, and before I took the gig, I asked a more experienced colleague of mine who'd held a similar post if he'd do it all over again. He said no, and added: "I told my kids to avoid advertising altogether."
It is easy to understand the sentiment. Madison Avenue's reputation isn't at an all-time high. Many in the business will complain about the lack of diversity or the obsession with awards that influence the creation of advertising that's not about brand-building or sales but about bringing home the hardware and padding already-too-large egos. Ask a stranger on the street, and he or she will probably describe how they've seen the industry reflected on "Mad Men" and other TV shows: as one in which heavy drinking is the norm and the mission is spreading lies, polluting their YouTube and persuading people to spend money on things they don't need.
The business gets a bad rap, I think. After giving it some thought, I would be happy if my teenager in a few years' time broke the news to me that she was considering a job in adland. And here's why. For all the bullshit ad people take for being used-car salesmen, there's real merit to the profession.
Here are the five reasons I'd want my kids to consider the field of advertising:
1. Method acting for business
One of the greatest strengths of advertising is the rapid pace of change. With new business and clients, we are almost always getting up to speed on a completely fresh industry, product, service or cause. From the initial backgrounder to primary or secondary research, I've had the privilege of getting all Daniel Day Lewis on categories ranging from bourbon to health care to sunglasses and pest control. And that was in just the last nine months!
It's nearly impossible to become "set in your ways" when you work in advertising because we're always trying on the next Halloween costume for the next challenge. We're able to avoid the morphine drip of similar seasonality, common cadences and been-there-done-that business cycles because we're always changing roles. We are always learning new things. And in a society where smartphones and tablets have turned A.D.D. into an epidemic, this constant change is pure ecstasy.
2. The mighty pen
I recently read a college entrance exam for a family friend and was shocked at how poor the writing was. At its core, the single most important skill in advertising is the lost art of the written word. Sure, there are lots of jobs in advertising, but most progress can be linked directly to the pen. From longhand RFPs to new-business-pitch theater, at our core we are all storytellers. So whether it's a punchy email to a client or a Pulitzer-caliber PowerPoint, advertising will teach you to tell stories and write. And those who don't have a mighty pen will eventually fall victim to the sword.
3. Crackin' it
You work long enough in this business and you'll eventually experience the sweet satisfaction of what we advertising folks lovingly refer to as "crackin' it." Whether it's the right strategy or the idea itself -- pure, straight from the barrel, Sharpie-on-blank-sheet-of-paper problem solving still resides at the heart of advertising. "Crackin' it" has more in common with a rock band jamming live than it does recording in the studio. It's what we call getting to the answer in real time, in the room with a group of people usually writing on a white board. When you "crack it," it is undeniable, everyone in the room knows we've got it.
So while the world may look down its nose at the lean forward, talk fast world of advertising -- when we're at our best, advertising can still train your sons or daughters to light up the light bulb and chicken scratch on cocktail napkins. Remember this the next time you find yourself stuck in an elevator, needing some life advice, or faced with an Apollo 13-level business problem "We've got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that." Trust me when I say there's no better person to have in the room than someone who works in advertising, because we live in this rarified air every day. We might leave the water running, and wake up in the middle of the night just to write something down -- but the steady whip of "crackin' it" makes the world go 'round.
4. Very few pleated khakis around here
Like many of us, I didn't plan to have a career in advertising. With an English major and film-studies minor, I wanted to be the next Affleck or Damon. I had worked a summer or two at the local neighborhood Mr. Movies, after all. But after nearly two decades in the business, I can say with confidence that advertising remains one of the most creative things you can do and still cash a paycheck every two weeks.
Importantly, advertising remains a rock 'n' roll field. While the martini lunches of the '60s have come and gone, advertising still has little in common with the LinkedIn, pleated-khaki business world. Be it a perfectly placed F-bomb in a meeting or heavily inked strategic planner, advertising remains fiercely protective of the freedom to be you. Advertising doesn't ask you to shave, tuck-in or blend-in, and I appreciate these freedoms every day.
5. Campers and camp counselors
Lastly, as I consider a career in advertising for my own son or daughter, I remember this is a young person's business. I recall early in my career thinking I should be out of the industry once I was out of the coveted 18-34 demo. Well, I'm 39 and still going. Yet every summer-intern class is a painful reminder that most of these kids could probably do our jobs. In fact, a healthy ad agency has more in common with a summer camp or university than it does a Fortune 500 company. The ideal mix of young people paired with a handful of inspiring camp counselors/professors will make you dangerous.
But the reason I'm still doing it and the reason I'd let my kids follow me into the advertising field can be traced to a recent conversation I had with a wise sage here at the agency. I was joking how I'd always said I'd be out of advertising by the 35, feeling I should "get out before I get old." He looked at me, smiled and said, "I used to think about it that way, too. But now I think if I get out of advertising, I will get old."
John King is CMO at Publicis Groupe's Fallon , Minneapolis.
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